Arteta’s stock, hard-earned after months of promising performances and manicured PR, has been napalmed in two fell swoops. It’s made worse by how hard it is to find ways in which he hasn’t been the architect of his own downfall; bringing on a player in consecutive games who’s out of contract and is refusing to resign, last season’s top contributor in front of goal has been sat languishing on the bench for however long and he’s performed a complete U-turn on meritocracy. It’s also hard to remember a time where there hasn’t been a player indefinitely sidelined for no clear reason, made all the more difficult to understand when certain players are seemingly untouchable.
Yesterday at least saw the first deviation in trying “something different” on the Aubameyang front, but why stop there? If you’re serious about clamping down on mediocrity and rewarding those that deserve a chance, why has Ainsley Maitland-Niles been sidelined after a Man of The Match performance when, by his own admission, Thomas Partey has been a 4/10 for most of the season? It doesn’t take a beautiful mind to work out that Arsenal’s midfield is just as big a problem, if not greater than whoever leads the line.
Before Thursday’s kickoff against United, Arsenal were on the cusp of breaking into the Top Four. I think the fact that this was even possible is more indicative of the gulf in quality between the Top Three and the obese median than any real progress – as much as it would have been nice. Arsenal’s momentum up until that point was propped up by some convincing wins and many results that were closer than they should have been. You only need to look at Arsenal’s current goal difference when stacked up against last year’s to get an idea of how stark the problem is.
The losses to Liverpool, City and Chelsea may have left their mark, but it’s simply not an excuse to say that they’re write-offs when teams like Brentford and Brighton go and take points from the big boys. West Ham aren’t even in the same discussion, because they’ve gone toe-to-toe with the Big Three this season and are a long way from plucky underdogs these days. Arsenal fans will soon come to rue the hope that West Ham will “fall off” with the burden of Europe, because as we ourselves are finding out, a lack of fixture congestion doesn’t necessarily equate to results. With the Big Three caveat aside, it is still fair to say that Arsenal’s defense has improved but that is the bare minimum expectation when you spend the best part of £100m on new defenders and a goalkeeper. What we’re now realising is that spending this amount at the back doesn’t make up for gross dysfunction further up the pitch.
After that damning midweek self-diagnosis, part of me was quietly hopeful for something different from Thomas Partey. He probably wasn’t overjoyed about being reunited with Granit Xhaka so soon, because even if he’s ostensibly fit enough to play, it’s more than a stretch to say he’s “match ready”. With two viable alternatives that should be ahead on the pecking order, it didn’t do Thomas Partey any favours but that still doesn’t excuse another incredibly lacklustre and worrying performance. Something has to change quickly for him because the position is simply too important to accommodate passengers.
Something has to be said about Mike Dean and VAR, as tired as I am from mentioning the egotistical prick’s name. I struggled to see how a foul and a red card could be more obvious than Lascelles’ clothesline or McArthur’s rake but Ben Godfrey gave us just that with the most telegraphed assault I’ve seen in a while. While it’s plausible Dean didn’t see it in real time, you only need one look on a monitor to realise what he’s done with the most unsubtle “check-look away-boot to the face”. It’s even more laughable that it won’t be retroactively punished because they were “aware” of it in real time. It’s worse than ever and there’s no end in sight as long as people like Mike Riley are running the show.
Bukayo Saka was also kicked from start to finish and he received about as much protection from Mike Dean as he did from his own teammates. After recently watching Arsène Wenger: Invincible, you’re quickly reminded of how night and day these players’ mentalities were. I was crying out for someone like Lauren to come out of retirement frothing at the mouth, with a Keown coming in from the other side like a deranged ape. I don’t think there’s an age factor to defend Arsenal’s apathy either, because we’ve seen as recently with someone like Matteo Guendouzi who, for all his faults, was fearless. These profiles exist and though they may come with baggage, it continues to be a facet of our recruitment which is being overlooked. Tierney and Holding definitely have “it”, and I think Ramsdale does but there needs to be more (I hope it goes without saying that Xhaka thinks he has it but most certainly does not). Thugs like Lascelles, McArthur, Godfrey, Burnley’s startling XI with the exception of Cornet and the rest need to realise that if they’re going to try and kick our talent off the park, they’re going to come off black and blue themselves. Something has to change quickly here or we’re going to end up seeing a Hale Ender end up like Ramsey or Eduardo.
As for how Arsenal have handled gamestates recently, while the last two fixtures have been the most obvious and by far the most painful, it’s not like this hasn’t been on the cards. Arsenal lost to United with Michael Carrick in charge, amidst an awful run in form for them. One non-incident sparked United’s revival and Arsenal went into their shell. It was the first match in a long time where I didn’t know what to write because I didn’t know how to hinge what I saw on the day on the wider context. Everton are another deal entirely with managerial changes already being mooted and their last Premier League win before yesterday was against Norwich. In September. They even better our scoreline.
When it’s all laid bare, it’s not pretty. And this is with Arsenal playing once a week, after spending more than anyone else in the transfer window. And the new signings are actually good (or at least are an improvement). Arsenal’s output is well below the sum of its parts and yet, this is par for the course for a manager who is still learning on the fly. Learning on the fly isn’t the kind of descriptor that you’d want to hear when you’ve undertaken coaching badges and understudied one of the best managers of the modern game, but it’s the feeling I get from Arteta. Smith Rowe’s introduction last year against Chelsea was like winning the lottery, and Arsenal have been markedly better since. Without him, Arteta may well have already lost his job because Arsenal sadly don’t have anyone else like him lying around. Arteta has flip-flopped between back 3s and 4s depending on opposition and who he’s been able to sign. Now that he has his players, he’s playing to his system… but it’s still not working.
I’ll be beating a dead horse in saying what doesn’t work but it has to be said because it doesn’t change. Arsenal are without a functional centre forward, but I’m far from convinced that signing a new one would change a great deal. They’re largely dependent on individual brilliance and goals from set pieces; without their contributions, I’d be very interested to see Arsenal’s true position in the table. There’s still an unerring rigidity that hinders any kind of creativity in the final third, which not only makes Arsenal painfully boring to watch but entirely predictable to play against. Scoring goals has the bizarre effect of turning the side into a hermit crab, and they don’t seem capable to resist the inevitable pressure.
After all the hard work and allure of progress, it’s been eviscerated in an instant and even grinding out some results again will leave an uneasy feeling that it’s still temporary. It’s startling how quickly things can look grim when only 180 minutes of football ago, Arsenal were fighting to cement their place in the Top Four but this may just be Arteta’s chickens finally coming home to roost.