Mikel Arteta is the very model of a modern manager: trendily dressed with not a hair out of place, a man with a plan for every Arsenal occasion. For all the world he looks like the new Pep Guardiola, his mentor at Manchester City. Same intensity, same search for perfection. But after winning both the FA Cup and the Community Shield in his first nine months with the Gunners, doubts are beginning to creep in that the Arteta medicine may not, after all, provide the instant cure Arsenal’s fans envisaged. In short, the honeymoon may be over.
So far this season, Arsenal have won four and lost four in the Premier League, leaving them three points worse off than when Unai Emery was in charge at this last season. This is not the start Arteta had in mind as he takes aim at the top four and qualifying for the Champions League next season. Arteta himself admitted that the Gunners “have a long way to go”.
It seemed as if the team was really starting to click, especially after a tactically smart display in a 1-0 win at Manchester United on Nov. 1 ended a five-year wait for an away win against a Big Six club. Yet just a week later, Arteta’s players looked jaded and clueless in the face of an enthralling display by Aston Villa, who coasted to a 3-0 win at the Emirates Stadium.
Indeed, the limp display was a near carbon copy of the previous home game, when Leicester City sat back against a largely toothless attack and won all three points with a Jamie Vardy breakaway goal near the end.
In both games, it often seemed that you could read a chapter of a book in the time it took Arsenal to build an attack. So many passes, so few incisive ones. The team is averaging under nine shots per match, one of the worst outputs in the Premier League.
At times the team has looked over coached as if the players are trying to remember all the lines in the tactical plot hatched by a manager who may need to allow his players more freedom. An X factor is missing for the moment.
In particular, the form of the captain and star striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, is cause for concern ever since he signed a lucrative new three-year deal worth about £55 million. Last year he scored 22 goals, placing him second behind Jamie Vardy for the Premier League Golden Boot. This season? Aubameyang has two in the league, with one of them coming from the penalty spot. To make matters worse, he hasn’t scored at home yet, either.
There is no doubting Aubamayang’s quality. He has exceeded 25 goals in all competitions for the last six seasons, but for the moment he is cutting the figure of a lost soul out on the left of the attack. Might a move to a more central role pay dividends?
Aubameyang has not been helped by a weak supply line, with new signing Willian struggling to make an impact and Alexandre Lacazette looking off the pace, too, without a goal in his last six appearances. The Gabon international, whose five goals helped defeat Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool in the summer, did so with the team sitting deep and countering quickly. But in games when Arsenal have had to play on the front foot this season, he has been unable to prosper.
The midfield has a new look with £45m Thomas Partey and a resurgent Mohamed Elneny preferred to the cup-winning duo of Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos in the last two league games. But of those four, the pressure is on Ceballos to be the pass picker who can unlock a defence, and he is another one who has not really fired so far.
Of course, Arsenal do have a World Cup-winning creator on their books in Mesut Ozil, who has basically been sent to a footballing version of Siberia by Arteta for reasons that have not been fully explained. Ozil has not kicked a ball for the club since March, despite his £350,000-a-week wages.
But the thought occurred more than once watching the struggles in the last two home games: Would Ozil’s craft and ability to find a killer final ball have made a difference? Certainly, his inactivity is making it almost impossible to offload him. Who will pay top wages for a player with 10 months of rust to shed come the January transfer window?
One attacking midfield man who has starred and scored in the last two Europa games is Joe Willock, but he cannot even make the bench in the Premier League. Arteta might have a rethink on that one if his attack continues to misfire. Striker Eddie Nketiah and the recent teenage England debutant Bukayo Saka are other reasons to believe Arsenal’s form can pick up.
But there is another issue here: Were Arsenal right to sell their cup-winning keeper Emiliano Martinez to Aston Villa for a modest fee of around £20m? Martinez has looked little short of sensational after stepping in for the injured Bernd Leno after the June restart. He played brilliantly in both Arsenal’s summer trophy triumphs and was picked ahead of a fit-again Leno to play against Liverpool in the Community Shield. That was his last game for the Gunners. All quite strange.
Next up for Arsenal is a trip to Leeds, whose gung-ho attacking style might play into their hands, allowing them to flourish on the break. It is an ideal opportunity to win and change the uncertain mood about which way the season is heading. Arteta’s popularity rating was off the charts with Gunners fans at the start of the campaign. He will know only too well how quickly the stardust can be blown away if this big club continues to languish in mid-table.