MIKEL Arteta comes across as an earnest, decent sort of fellow, one that may not, ultimately, be successful but will get the benefit of the doubt longer than some less popular characters in the management game. After Arsenal were beaten by neighbouring Tottenham 2-0, their sixth Premier League defeat in 11 games, the fans had still not turned on their coach. Better to blame owner Stan Kroenke and the players themselves.
When players are getting blamed, it is often because the mood is wrong in the camp. When that happens, more ruthless clubs than Arsenal would sack the manager – it is after all, easier to let players remain and dispose of one individual. In this era of necessary, but seldom exercised, belt-tightening, Arteta could find that if he’s “lost the dressing room” – arguably the next cliché to come out of the club – then a taxi will be pulling up outside the Emirates Stadium or London Colney. Arsenal are not at that stage yet, but just look at the league table and doubtless, zoom will be doing good business between the US and north London.
Arsenal didn’t play badly against Spurs, far from it, in fact they just happened to come face-to-face with a team starting to believe it has a very good chance of winning the title. As one pundit said, “it reminds me of Chelsea 2004-05 when José Mourinho took over and got a batch of young players believing in themselves.” By contrast, Arsenal don’t look to have much confidence, they are not well organised and their goal tally is abysmal – 10 in 11 games.
A few years back, Arsenal invested heavily in strikers, around £ 100 million worth of talent in the form of Lacazette and Aubameyang. It looked promising and certainly in the case of the latter, they have had their money’s worth – 56 goals in 96 Premier League games. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has signed a new contract but he’s lost the habit – he has netted just twice in the Premier this season and one of those was a penalty. He’s 31 now and that three-year contract may now look very generous in the corridors of power at the Emirates. He’s a quality striker, so they need him to start scoring again – quickly, or Arsenal may have to buy a proven goalscorer in the next transfer window.
Not for the first time, Arsenal’s transfer policy is being questioned. Each season a new signing brings hope that they have pulled off a coup in grabbing a game-changer. Last season it was Ivory Coast international Nicolas Pépé, who was signed from Lille for £ 72 million, this year it happens to be Ghana’s Thomas Partey, who joined from Atlético Madrid for £ 45 million. These are both players in their prime, so basically, you get what you see. Both have looked good at times, but Partey’s progress has been hampered by injury and Pépé blotted his copybook with a headbutting incident against Leeds which earned him a red card.
More positively, Arsenal have started to see some benefits from their younger players, such as new England cap Bukayo Saka (19) and 21 year-olds Eddie Nketieh and Joe Willock.
They have spent significantly sums on transfers over the past five years, although their expenditure of £ 592 million is way behind Manchester City (£ 942m), Chelsea (£ 894m) and Manchester United (£ 776m). The club’s net spend of £ 343 million is higher than Chelsea (£292m), Tottenham (£ 226m) and Liverpool (£ 120m).
How many of Arsenal’s big -money deals have truly been successful and what does the signing of the Chelsea trio, Cech, Luiz and Willian say about their medium-term outlook? Arsenal are certainly not the only club that fails to get full benefit from their financial outlay, but their transfer market activity has arguably cost them plenty in terms of status. For the time being, Arsenal are really a Europa League club and they are in danger of losing their place among the regular European qualifiers. They must be careful they don’t become indelibly linked to the past, rather than the future, of the game.
This is the price being paid for the stagnation of the club in the latter Wenger years. Most clubs that allow a manager to shape a club in his own image and think little about succession suffer in the aftermath of the dynasty. Every iconic coach that comes to the end of his reign leaves a legacy that proves to be an anvil around the neck of those that follow: Don Revie, Brian Clough, Sir Matt Busby, Bobby Robson, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arséne Wenger – in their own way and without malice, they made it impossible for the next guy. It is no coincidence that Arsenal and Manchester United have both struggled with their identity after saying farewell to two of the game’s longest-serving managers.
But fear not, Arsenal fans. The size of the club, its heritage, financial potential and the huge support base means that decline will not be permanent. If Arteta is to be successful, he needs time to build a team and patience from the club’s owner, directors and fans. They surely did not expect, in their owner’s language, a rookie to produce instant success, did they? The question is whether he will be given time in modern football’s culture of instant gratification.
Arteta is approaching the first anniversary in charge at Arsenal and he’s won the FA Cup and has a win rate of 55.32%, which is actually the second best in the club’s history. Yes, better than Bertie Mee (44.71%), Terry Neill (44.95%), George Graham (49.64%) and Unai Emery (55.13%) and even Herbert Chapman, whose total record was barely 50%. Admittedly, Arteta’s record this season is a lot lower than that figure, but isn’t the Premier League a marathon not a sprint, to use football jargon? While he continues the project in making Arsenal a contender once more, he needs some rope – the Gunners are very unlikely to drop into the danger zone.
They should look closely at the players they buy and ask themselves if they are doing right by their head coaches. Although they would hate to admit it, they are one of the big spenders, it is no longer a case of competing with the likes of City, Chelsea and United, their current status suggests they are effectively battling for supremacy against mid-table teams. At the very least, they should be fighting for sixth or seventh, and in those circumstances, Arsenal would be the biggest fish in the second tier of the Premier League. Arteta did not take over a Champions League club, he took over a club in [temporary] decline and therefore should be judged on how he performs the turnaround, not the way he goes head-to-head with established coaches who are at the peak of their careers. Does football, its professionals, culture and politics have the attention span for that?