What are Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal? ‘Negative spiral’ has Spaniard facing serious questions

A string of poor results has sparked talk of player disgruntlement and open questions of decisions, man-management as well as the manager’s own future

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Monday 14 December 2020 09:20
Behind the scenes: Pepe and Ceballos help Arsenal beat Burnley

Up to now, there hasn’t been a single indication that Arsenal are having any doubts about Mikel Arteta. The thinking has been to persist with him, come what may. Part of that is because they have invested so much in his appointment, emotionally as much as financially. Arteta has been given authority to make huge decisions, such as that with Mesut Ozil, and enjoyed an effective promotion in the summer.

It is a sign of how bad things are that it would be hugely questionable if the club aren’t at least considering what next.

This isn’t to say Arteta should be sacked, but Arsenal have now descended into the kind of crisis where they require more than classic “clear the air” talks. Results are giving way to typical player disgruntlement, and open questions of some decisions and man-management. They badly need to arrest this.

Arteta was appointed in part because of principles that adhere to the traditions of the club, but the only throwbacks of late have been in unwanted records.

The 1-0 defeat to Burnley made it only the third time in history that Arsenal have lost four consecutive home games, and the first since December 1959 under George Swindin. They finished 13th that season, which is still two better than right now. There are already concerns that this campaign could be worse - something that would be utterly remarkable in the ‘Big Six’ era.

The fact Arsenal are in genuine danger of squandering all the advantages of their financial status - something that is very close to insulated in the modern game - illustrates there are bigger problems here than the manager.

It is usually impossible for such clubs to sink below a certain level. Here, it was almost impossible to not have at least some sympathy for Arteta.

Just when they were finally going through a good spell of football, and looking like they were finally going to score a goal in open play - a statement that is remarkable in itself - Granit Xhaka went and did that.

It’s the type of “negative spiral” people in football talk about sometimes, when every possible bounce seems to go against you.

At the same time, Arteta can’t completely escape censure there, either. Xhaka is a player he has picked, and put his faith in. This was also Arsenal’s sixth red card in a mere 12 months under Arteta.

That raises questions about discipline, and bigger questions about the response the Basque is getting.

This is one of two areas where there are real concerns about Arteta so far.

Even if it’s fair to say this Arsenal squad is well short of top-six standard, and to be immensely frustrated with some of the players' basic decisions, you would expect a greater intensity given the way Arteta has been lauded for his "sense of purpose". Right now, he doesn’t seem to be having any emotional effect on his squad. They don’t seem to be responding to him. Some players aren't that interested, and the treatment of Ozil and Sokratis has become an increasing point of contention. Ozil in particular is described as "a hero" to the younger players. One source says it is an "unwinnable fight" - unless you happen to be winning every game.

As with much else in football, it is one of those hardline decisions that is actually entirely dependent on results - rather than necessarily contributing to results.

There’s then the football itself - and those dismal scoring stats. It's just two goals in eight games, the worst run since 1986-87, when they scored a mere two in 10 over a miserable January to April. That was George Graham's first full season, and they still ended up fourth.

There will be no repeat this time.

Sunday marked another low point for Arteta

Arsenal may not have the profile of squad to play the passing-pressing football Arteta is supposed to idealise, but there is currently no evidence of its principles either. We are just seeing stale one-dimensional stasis. That is what is most galling of all.

Marcelo Bielsa is supposed to be one of Arteta’s ideological influences, but the Argentine gets much more out of a much lesser squad at Leeds United in that regard. Bielsa didn’t have the ideal players he wanted, either, especially not when he took over. He has still displayed all of his ideals in the job. They are very visibly a Bielsa team, maybe the most Bielsa team we’ve seen since Newell’s Old Boys.

What are Arteta’s Arsenal?

That in itself illustrates the Basque’s total lack of background or experience, which also makes him somewhat harder to judge. There’s is no precedence or fall-back, no example of the manager thinking his way through such problems from the past. Arsenal really are in uncharted territory in that way, which makes it all feel even more daunting.

That in turn raises the question of why exactly it is that such huge clubs entrust immensely important positions to figures with no experience of the role, purely because of a previous emotional connection in a totally different job. Why do they keep giving the job to recently retired ex-players?

The example will always be Pep Guardiola, but he only emphasises that you pretty much have to hit the ground running. If such managers encounter problems, they don’t have the grounding from previous jobs in less pressurised roles. They didn't learn their trade in more forgiving environments.

Arsenal were admittedly in a different situation to both Manchester United and Chelsea when it came to this decision. They are far more financially stretched than both. This was one big reason why they have gone for Arteta, and it shouldn’t be forgotten the Basque absolutely wowed people in his initial interviews. There were also undeniable signs of progress until September of this year, including that superb FA Cup run.

But former technical director Sven Mislintat was one figure who cautioned against giving him the job. The German just didn't think he had the experience.

Arteta now badly needs to arrest this to prevent some current Arsenal figures starting to think the same.

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