The Season So Far
Arsenal are once again experiencing a frustrating, depressing season hindered by the profound malaise that has enveloped the whole club for years, arguably beginning with the move from Highbury to the Emirates in 2006, but possibly with its origins coming even before that. The drift, the aimlessness and the embrace of mediocrity — or the specialisation in failure, if you will — were all features of Arsène Wenger’s latter years and ultimately led to his downfall, but as yet nothing has been fixed and the Gunners remain a staggeringly irrelevant big budget circus act.
At least they’ve done something about it now, dispensing with the services of Unai Emery, a man so easily caricatured as a jobsworth middle manager at a second-rate law firm that it’s a wonder he’s ever had productive social interactions with beasts as selfish, unforgiving and disrespectful of authority as modern footballers. Emery was so obviously out of his depth at Arsenal, just as he was at Paris Saint-Germain previously, that it’s a wonder he lasted as long as he did — which wasn’t actually that long at all.
In typical Arsenal fashion, the Gunners binned Emery without having considered a succession plan with any real seriousness, and a good portion of the potential of their season was squandered under caretaker boss Freddie Ljungberg, who in fairness was left without much of a coaching staff to support him during his three weeks in charge. By the time a new boss was secured, many of the squad were horrendously off-form, tired and fed up.
The new man in charge, the familiar and magnificently coiffed Mikel Arteta, was apparently despised by his Gunners teammates during his spell as Arsenal captain, seen as arrogant, inflexible and impossibly demanding. He has softened his stance somewhat under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage, however, which means Arteta really must have been unbelievably arrogant, inflexible and demanding beforehand.
In any case, Arteta has made a positive impact in terms of performances if not results so far, and the clarity and conviction of his communication has been refreshing for all concerned. In the long-term, he seems a far more palatable prospect than Emery, who is now presumably interviewing for an associate’s position at Arsehole & Arsehole LLP.
The Season Ahead
Somehow, Arsenal still have hope of salvaging their league campaign. The Gunners are only ten points behind the Champions League spots (and, it must be said, only seven above the relegation zone) and with consistency absolutely lacking across the board right now, they’re in with a shout of snatching fourth if they can sort their act out. The talent is most certainly there.
Top scorer, captain, friend of Arsenal Fan TV and box-office entertainer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will be key to Arteta’s hopes, and Chelsea are fortunate that the Gabonese is still suspended after his senseless and typically Arsenal red card away to Crystal Palace recently. Besides Aubameyang, the Gunners have the undoubted ability of Alex Lacazette, Mesut Özil and Nicolas Pépé to call on, plus the wildcard that is the Brazilian goalscoring phenomenon Gabriel Martinelli.
On paper, at least, that’s a frightening attack, and if Arteta can get them playing consistently again, and sort out his side’s defensive issues, there’s no reason Arsenal can’t ghost in to the top four at the last minute. If Champions League qualification via their league finish proves out of reach, there’s always the Europa League option, though Ajax, Internazionale and Sevilla might yet have plenty to say about that.
Much has been made of Mikel Arteta’s spell as Assistant Manager to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, and while it’s unfair to expect Arteta to turn out to be Guardiola 2.0, it’s fair to say he will have learned everything there is to know about how to set up a team to become the best in the world. If Arsenal give him the right players, he should give them the right instructions.
So far, Arteta has almost exclusively used a 4-2-3-1 formation which sometimes becomes a rather too gung-ho 4-2-4 in possession. With and without the ball, he has demanded more aggression, intensity and commitment of the players than any Arsenal manager since George Graham, and performances have undoubtedly been a lot more gutsy and fan-friendly than the cowardly, miserable fare served up by Emery, even if they’ve only resulted in a single win so far.
That defeat of Manchester United showed us where Arteta wants Arsenal to be in a few years, and the simplicity and constancy of his demands, coupled with his Guardiolian brand of coaching, should see them get there. The return of Mesut Özil to action has brought greater fluidity and cohesion to the Gunners’ play, and the slick passing move that led to Aubameyang’s opener against Crystal Palace provided the best example of the kind of football Arteta’s Arsenal will look to play as the project develops.
Even with Aubameyang out, the Gunners boast an embarrassment of attacking riches, which at some point has to add up to the sum of its parts. Under Arteta’s coaching, which aside from being more productive has also been described by the players as more fun, Lacazette, Özil, Pépé and company will surely explode into form.
Aside from the attack, Arsenal have a competent shot-stopper in Bernd Leno, one of the most exciting full-backs in the Premier League in Héctor Bellerín and a tough-tackling no-nonsense midfield duo of Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka that should be capable of stamping authority on almost any game. Youngsters like Matteo Guendouzi, Gabriel Martinelli and Reiss Nelson are set for big things too.
This might not be an omelette, yet, to borrow José Mourinho’s analogy, but right now they’ve got some mighty fine eggs to cook with.
Shkrodan Mustafi. David Luiz. Sokratis Papastathopoulos. Granit Xhaka’s tackling. Their own fans. Everything.
Arsenal’s biggest issue is that they’re still imbued with everything bad that has run through Arsenal for the last few years. Despite being hugely talented players, no-one bar Aubameyang has had a good season, or even more than a few good games. Despite being capable of playing almost any team off the park, this side has never done so, or even gotten close. Even when they do establish a lead it’s never a safe one, as a typically Arsenal individual error will happen somewhere along the way and torch all their good work – as Chelsea fans who were at the Emirates a few weeks ago will know all too well.
Both managers will be even more fired up after disappointing results at the weekend. While we shouldn’t be surprised if Frank Lampard rings the changes, Arteta’s hands are rather more tied right now and he has little option but to send the same team out again.
Tammy Abraham to make up for spurning all those chances at the weekend with a hat-trick. 3-1 Chelsea.