Mikel Arteta is the model of a modern coach: dressed in fashion without a hair out of place, a man with a plan for every Arsenal occasion. To everyone he looks like the new Pep Guardiola, his mentor at Manchester City. Same intensity, same search for perfection. But after winning both the FA Cup and the Community Shield in his first nine months with the Gunners, doubts are beginning to emerge that Arteta’s medicine, after all, doesn’t provide the instant cure that Arsenal fans have hoped for. In short, the honeymoon may be over.
So far this season, Arsenal have won four and lost four in the Premier League, leaving them three points worse than when Unai Emery was in command this past season. This is not the start Arteta had in mind as he is aiming for the top four and qualifying for the Champions League next season. Arteta himself admitted that the Gunners “have a long way to go.”
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It seemed like the team was really starting to click, especially after a tactically clever display in a 1-0 win at Manchester United on November 1 that ended a five-year wait for an away win against a club from the Big Six. However, just a week later, the Arteta players looked tired and disoriented at the fascinating display of Aston Villa, who managed a 3-0 victory at the Emirates Stadium.
In fact, the loose display was almost a carbon copy of the previous home game, as Leicester City leaned back against a largely toothless attack and won all three points with a breakout goal from Jamie Vardy near the end.
In both games, it often seemed like you could read a chapter in a book in the time it took Arsenal to build an attack. So many passes, so few incisors. The team averages fewer than nine shots per game, one of the worst outings in the Premier League.
At times, the team has looked over the coach as if the players were trying to remember all the lines of the tactical plot drawn by a coach who may need to give his players more freedom. An X factor is missing at the moment.
In particular, the form of the star captain and forward, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, has been a cause for concern since he signed a lucrative new three-year deal worth approximately £ 55 million. Last year he scored 22 goals, placing him second behind Jamie Vardy for the Premier League Golden Boot. This season? Aubameyang has two in the league, one of them from the penalty spot. To make matters worse, he hasn’t scored at home yet either.
There is no question about the quality of Aubamayang. He has surpassed 25 goals in all competitions during the last six seasons, but for now he is cutting out the figure of a lost soul to the left of attack. Could a switch to a more central role pay dividends?
Aubameyang hasn’t been helped by a weak supply line, with new signing Willian struggling to make an impact and Alexandre Lacazette also looking off the beat, without a goal in his last six appearances. The Gabon international, whose five goals helped defeat Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool in the summer, did so with the team in good stead and fast counterattacking. But in games where Arsenal have had to play up front this season, they haven’t been able to prosper.
The midfield has a new look with £ 45m Thomas Partey and a resurgent Mohamed Elneny favored by the cup-winning duo of Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos in the last two league games. But of those four, the pressure is on Ceballos to be the pass selector who can unlock a defense, and he’s another one who hasn’t really shot so far.
Of course, Arsenal have a World Cup winning creator in their books in Mesut Ozil, who has basically been sent to a soccer version of Siberia by Arteta for reasons that have not been fully explained. Ozil hasn’t kicked a ball for the club since March, despite his £ 350,000 weekly salary.
But the idea occurred to him more than once when watching the matches in the last two home games: Would Ozil’s art and ability to find a killer final ball have made a difference? Certainly its inactivity is making it almost impossible to download. Who will pay the highest salaries for a player with 10 months of rust to lose in the January transfer window?
An attacking midfielder who has starred in and scored in the last two games in Europe is Joe Willock, but he can’t even break into the Premier League bench. Arteta might have a rethink on that if his attack continues to miss. Forward Eddie Nketiah and recent England teenage rookie Bukayo Saka are other reasons to believe that Arsenal’s form can improve.
The defense had looked solid enough, with athletic new signing Gabriel performing well, until Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley parted ways with Arsenal.
But there’s another problem here: Was Arsenal right to sell their cup-winning goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez to Aston Villa for a modest fee of around £ 20 million? Martinez has looked nothing short of sensational after replacing the injured Bernd Leno after the June restart. He played brilliantly in both Arsenal summer trophies and was picked ahead of a fit Leno to play Liverpool on the Community Shield. That was his last game for the Gunners. All quite strange.
The next step for Arsenal is a trip to Leeds, whose enthusiastic attacking style could play into their hands, allowing them to flourish at the break. It is an ideal opportunity to win and change the uncertainty about the course of the season. Arteta’s popularity rating was off the charts with Gunners fans at the start of the campaign. He will know very well how quickly stardust can disappear if this great club continues to languish in the middle of the table.