When Arsenal appointed Mikel Arteta as manager, one of the reasons was because of the belief that his very personality would restore spark and spike to a drifting club. These were the qualities that were most missing from Thursday’s Europa League elimination, and his worst moment yet.
It is difficult to think of a more passive display from a side urgently needing a goal in a big continental tie than what Arsenal put out in the first half.
This drab reality remains the biggest problem from this defeat, even more than the elimination, and the likelihood that the club will not compete in European football for the first time in 25 years.
That is because it was in keeping with so much of the season, and doesn’t suggest much will change for next term or the future.
Pretty much any result in football is forgivable if there is a sense of excitement, or at least the feeling there might be more to come.
Arsenal and Arteta have occasionally had that, but the flashes have been fleeting and frustratingly elusive. Such is the prescription of how the manager works that it has sometimes been as if he has coached his side out of effective systems or solutions.
The first-half approach didn’t work against Villarreal, and Arteta too belatedly addressed it.
He has so much to figure out, as the club considers the future.
That is another issue, though, and remains the problem when you appoint a novice. As with Frank Lampard at Chelsea, it is a great advertisement for why a young coach should never go to too big a job too soon. The key difference is that, if you go to a job lower down, there is much more space to make mistakes and learn on the job. If something doesn’t work, they can try and figure it out without a media storm around them and constant pressure to immediately get it right.
That simply isn’t the case at a big club, but it also has a double effect. If young coaches have that prior experience, it also proves to the players – and everyone around the club – that they have worked through it before. There’s a precedence.
There’s none of that with Arteta. There is just more uncertainty. It is another element that can foster doubt in the minds of players when things go wrong.
There are no previous assurances that the manager can fix it. The extra pressure of the situation can also force them into decisions they wouldn’t necessarily take if they had more space. That was made painfully clear in the last two games. The way Arteta tried two different formations was the clearest possible evidence of a coach literally learning on the job. It just wouldn’t matter so much if it wasn’t a European semi-final with huge pressure, and the weight of a club’s recent history and short-term future on it.
This is another danger for Arteta now. It is the first time in his tenure there is a real aimlessness to Arsenal. His first season had the constant promise of the FA Cup, which only ended with victory. This season was riding on the Europa League. Another trophy, and a return to the Champions League, would have been the electric charge Arsenal and Arteta required. It would have been a success.
They are instead facing up to a season without European football, and four games of nothingness – much like the football.
The threat here is that sense of aimlessness really takes hold, and the season ends particularly badly. That could really foster the “negative cycle” that does finish managers, and did for Unai Emery.
Arsenal want to give Arteta time. They realise there have been bigger issues at the club that have made his job harder. Among them are the finances. They were another reason why they went for Arteta in the first place. They didn’t have too many exciting options on their budget. Arteta’s history, and his personality, gave them that initial excitement even if it was at the expense of experience.
There was more to it than that. It is not just a case of talking a good game. Arteta has a good tactical mind, and his coaching is still praised. Everyone raves about his ideas.
But that is the issue with going to a big job too soon. There is a difference between knowing what you want as a manager, and knowing how to get what you want.
The pressure of a big job makes it all much more difficult. Arteta needs to find some solutions and, just as gallingly, find some spark.
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