After the 0-3 home defeat to Aston Villa, there has been a lot of talk regarding Mikel Arteta – his team selections and the need for him to change things up. This is a school of thought I agree with – criticism should be balanced and constructive.
There is also a smaller segment of fans who always believed Arsenal should have gone with a more experienced appointment and are now making their displeasure be known after this poor run of results.
Arsenal have lost 3 of their 4 league games since the October international break which is definitely cause for concern. But one needs to exercise some perspective and trust the process. Let’s have a closer look at what this ‘process’ would entail.
To give you a little background, Arteta inherited a team which finished outside the top 4 for 3 seasons in a row. Last season, he took over a side that had 1 league win in over 2 and a half months – there was even talk about us getting into a potential relegation battle.
Top four was completely out of the question and Mikel did extremely well to salvage the season by helping us find some sort of balance, win an FA Cup and get us European qualification in the process.
There have been some fantastic victories in Arteta’s first 11 months against the bigger teams which we haven’t seen in years:
1. Arsenal beat Liverpool in the league for the first time in over 5 years and then went on to beat them couple more times.
2. Arsenal beat Manchester City for the first time in over 3 years.
3. Arsenal won at Old Trafford for the first time since 2006 and registered their first AWAY league victory against a big six side in well over 5 and a half years.
4. Mikel Arteta has beaten ‘big 6’ teams 7 times in his first 11 months in management, Emery managed only 3 in his 18 months at Arsenal.
The improvement against the bigger sides tells you one thing – we are a more difficult team to beat and this in large, is due to our defensive improvement. The recent defeat against Aston Villa is an anomaly under Mikel. But we’re not just a counter attacking side, we are a team that likes building out from the back and it has brought us success against the best sides.
If you look at how Arsenal are building this current squad, you will notice a pattern emerging. Cedric Soares and Pablo Mari were signed in January as squad additions at the back. Next, look at our summer signings – Gabriel and Partey give the team a solid spine. Willian was the only offensive signing we made under Mikel and that too, he was a free agent.
Looking at it objectively, you notice that we’re trying to build a team from the back. The ‘non negotiables’, first and foremost, then the right type of defensive structure filled with the right players. Arsenal were a side that conceded 32 shots away to Watford around a year back. Conceding 20+ shots in a game wasn’t rare in the Unai Emery era. We were just very fortunate none of those scorelines turned ugly.
Mikel Arteta is completely justified to first sort out the spine and then build from there. Arsenal’s biggest issue right now is arguably breaking teams down and creating chances on a consistent basis.
The way I look at it is like this – Pre-Arteta, we were poor in both attack and defence. Under Arteta, we still remain poor going forward, but are good defensively. Now that is progress.
For Arsenal and Arteta, the next step is to improve going forward. For us to go fully Gung Ho and attack, attack, attack won’t happen overnight. When we did play like that, we got picked off in transitions. People will point to Arteta’s attacking structure as ‘rigid’, but what they need to understand is that it is also linked closely to how we are set-up off the ball when we lose it. You cannot have the best of both worlds with this current squad.
Having said that, there are still internal solutions for Arteta to explore. This would also entail a reliance on some players who are U-21 to give us a better balance going forward. Whether Arteta wants to do this remains to be seen. The underlying issue is that it is far from ideal.
Arteta has recognized the need for a creative player. Speaking to Sky Sports, he said:
“Look at the players that we had in the past at this club in those positions. You go back to (Santi) Cazorla, to (Tomas) Rosicky, to (Andrey) Arshavin when he played there, to (Aaron) Ramsey when he played there, to (Henrikh) Mkhitaryan when he came in. Even Jack Wilshere used to play in those pockets all the time. That is a lot of players who are now not here. We have to renew that cycle, because if not, those kind of players won’t be there for us anymore.”
Arteta understands the need for having that type of player. There is a reason he wanted Aouar, but we couldn’t get it done. Under Unai Emery, we became a team filled with what I’d term ‘build-up’ players. Too many of the same profile and it was by design. Arteta has inherited all of this and like I said before, we haven’t spent a single pound in transfer fees on signing any attacking player under Arteta. The coming windows is about getting those type of players in.
Everybody knows there is going to be plenty of ups and downs, but when we experience the ‘downs’, people start flinching and doubting. Arteta commands great respect from our squad, the technical director and even the owners who opened up their pockets for the first time to help us sign Thomas Partey, as reported by The Athletic.
I did a poll the other day on twitter where close to 12000 Arsenal fans voted. About 73.5% believed the level of our squad is to finish between 5th and 8th place. The general consensus is we’re not a top 4 squad at all, but are hoping for a miracle. Arteta is a great tactician, but he isn’t a magician who can make reality disappear.
The process is about doing better over a period of time and showing consistency. As Arteta continues developing as a coach and our squad improves over time with the right additions, it would trickle down into the results. The question is, do you believe these things will align? If you do, it means you trust the process like myself. Squad building takes time. Changing the culture of a team which has been a failure for almost 5 years takes time. Time, which Arteta needs and has earned.