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Mikel Arteta: Why Arsenal have ‘no doubts’ despite worst start in decades

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Guillem Balague

When Arsenal appointed Mikel Arteta as head coach a year ago on Sunday, they were 10th in the Premier League and seven points adrift of the Champions League places.

That, it was felt, was just not good enough.

So for the Gunners now to be 15th in the table, 10 points off fourth and significantly closer to the bottom three than the European places has inevitably raised questions.

The absence of supporters at Emirates Stadium means taking the temperature of the fan base can be tricky. Social media is rarely a place to find measured, nuanced debate, so perhaps it is not surprising #ArtetaOut trends when the team is losing. Nothing new there, but those who want change one year after the Arsenal manager’s arrival should know it will make no difference.

The vote of confidence issued to Arteta by Arsenal technical director Edu seems to me more than empty rhetoric. It bodes well for the manager that the message is very clearly that he will be given time. The reality is he is certainly going to need it.

How bad is the current situation?

Arsenal players look dejected
Arsenal slipped to a fourth straight home defeat with a 1-0 loss to Burnley at Emirates Stadium at the weekend before drawing with Southampton on Wednesday

The optimists would tell you things aren’t anything like as bad as they might seem and that Arteta’s Arsenal have already won a trophy (last season’s FA Cup) and, despite everything, are within a few victories of the European places.

The other way of looking at it, of course, is that they are sixth from bottom, have won once in nine games and are enduring their worst start to a season in 39 years.

But context is important. He arrived in mid-December, a notoriously bad time to join any club. Then the pandemic hit. So to be reflecting 12 months on with the FA Cup in the trophy cabinet is far from a disastrous place to be. The unusual nature of this season also means coming to definitive conclusions is difficult.

Perhaps the FA Cup win raised expectations too high. It was a victory by a side that need root and branch changes if they are ever to return to their former glories, not just on the pitch.

Arsenal know it and so does Arteta.

Why is Arteta struggling to resolve the problems?

It isn’t rocket science. In its simplest sense Arteta is struggling because he hasn’t got good enough players and I think he would also admit that changes around him that are required to win consistently do not come quickly.

Perhaps most worryingly, there is a lack of character and hierarchy within the team and that is very difficult to buy or replace. How do you make leaders in a matter of months? The persistence on Granit Xhaka, both by Arteta and his predecessor Unai Emery, is because he is one of the top personalities in the group.

And of course there is the persistent question of what to do with Mesut Ozil.

The notion that the uncomfortable situation that exists between Arteta and the German is in some way linked to the Spaniard’s intransigence is way off the mark.

Bearing in mind the colossal financial burden of having a player like Ozil twiddling his thumbs at the club, the idea that Ozil would not have been given his chance to show Arteta that he has a vital part to play in the Arsenal renaissance is frankly preposterous.

My feeling is Arteta will have given him ample opportunity to prove himself, not just for financial reasons but primarily because everyone, including Arteta, knows what a fantastic asset he could be. To suggest he is being deliberately sidelined because of some imaginary political stand is, in my opinion, judging not knowing the full story.

I sense Edu cannot speak as freely as he might wish to because of the contract situation the player has, and I imagine there are probably things that are best left unsaid.

The Ozil issue is reflective of the wider problem – Arteta simply does not have enough consistent seven-out-of-10 performers who can provide the vital base that is needed to bring stability to the side. Not yet anyway.

To do that he will need to re-instil the winning mentality that was prevalent in so many of the great Arsenal sides of yesteryear, not just on the pitch but throughout the whole structure of the club. Arteta wants to create a culture where everyone is challenged, everywhere, as that is still missing.

It is also not lost on him, nor the club, that while he is a talented and very promising coach, he still has a lot to learn. When, at his arrival, he told Arsenal employees that his door is always open to anyone, he was not only offering his support but also asking to grow together.

Passionate, obsessed and perhaps too concerned with trying to cover too many bases – I can’t imagine whom he learned that from – the message, according to sources close to players, sometimes becomes overloaded.

It would not be the first time a rookie coach has tried to explain everything at once and players have found it difficult to assimilate it all. It is an aspect of his coaching approach that he knows he has to work on. And he will because, over and above everything, Arteta has a very clear idea of what he wants to do with the team and is aware he has to learn ways to mould it to his image.

His magic appears in the regular one-on-one conversations he has with all the first-team players, who have never been briefed so often by a manager. The youth players who have made their debuts in the first team have been impressed by the emphasis on detail in training (Arteta takes the most important parts of it, while his coaching staff, who are also adapting to working at a top Premier League club, add their part) and have loved the empowering that comes from hearing the manager say, just before coming on for the first time, “you know what to do, I trust you”.

There have been flashes of brilliance on the pitch that indicate things are going in the right direction as well as moments of doubt and mediocrity. But one thing is very clear: the squad believe in what is being proposed and now, if Arteta decided to dramatically change his tactics, his players would not let him do it.

Aubameyang and Arteta with the FA Cup
Arteta secured his first major trophy as a manager when Arsenal beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final in August

The club, perhaps thinking of magical quick fixes, have considered the presence of a senior figure as a calming, guiding influence and Arsene Wenger’s name has cropped up. But that idea comes with a warning. Sir Alex Ferguson, and before him Bill Shankly, also tried to get close to decision-makers after their retirement and neither ended particularly well.

Tactically, some consider Arteta a bit too cautious, and he certainly has had to forget for now some of his principles to use what is at his disposal. This Arsenal side are improving in their ability to move the ball from box to box, plus they are one of the top teams in Europe when it comes to recovering the ball in the opposition half, but they are clearly not showing enough creativity in the middle of the pitch, and that same lack of quality and confidence explains their difficulties in the final third.

In a nutshell, Arteta needs to improve what he has while working with Edu to find ways to buy in the quality he needs.

Will Arteta get time and what will he do next?

There are some positives for the future. Players like Gabriel Magalhaes, Thomas Partey, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Gabriel Martinelli and Xhaka are vital in the short term but the squad he has is unbalanced. While the free signing of Willian could have gone better, there are enough quality players in the squad to challenge for European places.

But there is much more to be done.

Arteta has not been helped by the unfortunate injury to Partey, who does not have a replacement and whose job was not only to add quality and calm to the midfield, but also to lead and make the team more robust and competitive.

Off the pitch Arteta’s relationship with Edu is very good – they speak every day. Arteta is your typical first to arrive, last to leave type of coach, completely immersed in the profession.

Their conversations will have included the conclusion that the squad is not good enough but also too big, and I fully expect a number of players to go out on loan this winter so they can gain experience and polish their skills – players like Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe, the kind who will almost certainly go on to become Arsenal staples, but not yet.

Crunch time will then come in the summer when five players come to the end of their contracts. That represents a big opportunity, now that the decision-makers are on the same wavelength, to make more strides in the direction they want to form a team that is proactive, dominant, offensive, dynamic, fast and physical.

There is not a single doubt anywhere in the club that Arteta can become a top coach and manager, but he will need to be helped by those around him. Edu will constantly monitor that the relationship between his manager, coaching staff and squad is working well and so far he has seen nothing to suggest everyone is not on board with the coach and his long-term plans.

And “long term” is the key. If Arteta is to succeed at the Emirates then the Arsenal fans must accept it is going to take time.

About Frank Rideout