Arsenal’s problems are mounting and Mikel Arteta needs answers

The head coach has more problems than solutions and too many fires to fight as Arsenal battle high expectations with their messy reality

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Correspondent
Wednesday 18 August 2021 07:27
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<p>Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta during a training session at London Colney</p>

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta during a training session at London Colney

The Amazon cameras are rolling, and the wonder is just how this show is going to go on – or more accurately, how spectacularly it could all fall apart.

Hello and welcome to Arsenal Football Club, a series of perpetual crises framed by self-created issues. Strap in for episodes showcasing a fight against the mistakes of the past and present while offering new ones for the future – with a lack of actual battle on the pitch.

If this seems harsh, if this seems too soon, and if this seems like an extreme version of the reality, let’s recap.

Brentford, away from top-flight football for 74 years, went into the Premier League opener with Arsenal not just prepared for victory, but expecting it.

Thomas Frank, who superbly got his team to maximise the weaknesses of the north Londoners from set-piece situations and aerial duels, admitted that his feeling prior to the fixture was “I would be really disappointed if we didn’t beat them.”

Brentford knew exactly where to hit Arsenal and hurt them because their softness and proclivity to be bullied has become a hallmark.

Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe offered resistance, but it often appears that the players willing to do everything necessary to advance the club aren’t just battling the opponents, but some of their teammates too.

Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang and Alexandre Lacazette missed the match through the vague “illness” reason. There has been silence over whether the pair’s absence is Covid-related or when they will return to training with taxing tests against Chelsea and Manchester City on the horizon.

The reports that a debt-drowned Barcelona are interested in Aubemeyang, swiftly denied by Mess Un Club, actually spoke to the fact that either the forward or Arsenal are quite open to offers.

The Catalan side – in the red to the tune of – can’t afford to pay their current squad, with cuts being taken to fall in line with La Liga rules and certainly can’t afford the Gunners’ highest earner.

The contract given to Aubemeyang last September was a neat juxtaposition of where Arsenal are at: trying to save face by not ceding a star, throwing whatever at a depreciating asset aged 32, while supposedly building towards and solidifying the long-term future of the club.

While letting Aubemeyang leave would have weakened Arsenal and invited widespread criticism, two sources have told The Independent they fear another contract pay-off situation.

Mesut Ozil, Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi have already had their deals mutually terminated this year, which was described as “unprecedented.”

But having envisaged a proper clear-out this summer, Arsenal are stuck with players on meaty salaries that they either don’t want or who don’t want to be at the Emirates.

Hector Bellerin is so desperate to depart that he is happy to take a pay cut elsewhere. Willian has given the same utterances to Brazilian media.

Lucas Torreira was tweeting from the Parque Warner theme park in Madrid during the defeat to Brentford.

Sead Kolasinac has been frozen out and Ainsley Maitland-Niles has requested clarity on his future. He was an unused substitute for the opener along with Bellerin and Cedric Soares, with Arteta plumping for new signing Nuno Tavares – a left-back – to replace Calum Chambers on the right flank.

There is uncertainty around Eddie Nketiah, whose potential outgoing has been complicated by an ankle injury.

Granit Xhaka went from having one foot in the exit door to getting a new contract.

There is significant doubt around Bernd Leno’s ability to be a concrete No 1, so a move of around £24m is being pursued for Sheffield United goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale.

Arsenal’s major incoming, Ben White, was aerially targeting by Brentford on Friday night in a theme that is expected to continue throughout the season.

His use of the ball, excellent in a back-three, was negated in a more traditional set-up and Arteta needs to find a solution to minimise the £50m acquisition’s weaknesses while accentuating his strengths.

Thomas Partey’s presence could help with that, but he is only expected back in training towards the end of August.

Everywhere you turn at Arsenal – with the exception of Bukayo Saka, Tierney, Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli – there are fires to fight.

One former colleague of Arteta’s had warned him against taking the job, saying it was “a club with very big expectations, but too many disasters.”

He’d encouraged the 39-year-old to manage in a “more stable environment,” where the focus would be on his work on the training pitches, in-game tactical tweaks and improvement of young players.

The reality is Arteta is trying to steer a club that believes it should be in the Champions League, when opponents like Brentford feel they are a route to three points.

They cannot defend a long throw, let alone look at the likes of City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United with any credence that they can challenge them.

Those who have worked with Arteta, both staff and players, believe he has the capabilities to be a top manager – Arsenal’s strong second-half of last season perhaps speaks to this – but he inherited a mess that shows little sign of getting tidier.

It’s only one game in, and already, the “c” word – crisis – is scrawled on the walls and hangs heavy in the air.

If this seems harsh, if this seems too soon, and if this seems like an extreme version of the reality, you haven’t been watching.

“I’m gradually losing interest in Arsenal,” said their former midfielder Emmanuel Petit. “They don’t give me any emotion.”

Many, including Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, will feel he is one of the lucky ones. On Friday night, the head of state and “big fan” tweeted: “We just must NOT excuse or accept mediocrity.

“A team has to be built with purpose to win win win.”

Strap in, president. It’s going to be a long season.

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