When Arsenal beat Manchester United last month for their first league win at Old Trafford in 14 years, the north London club seemed to have turned a corner after two straight domestic defeats. Mikel Arteta’s side had lost to Manchester City and Leicester before the win over United. Those three points seemed the springboard Arsenal needed to improve their league form. Having won the FA Cup over a pandemic-hit summer, things seemed to fall into place for the former Premier League champions.
Yet, here we are seven weeks later with Arsenal in a full-blown crisis, having managed just two points from their last seven league games. The Gunners—4 wins and 8 losses in 14 games—have managed five points out of a possible 30 from their last 10 Premier League games. How abysmal Arsenal have been in the league can be gauged from their scoring statistics—three goals in the last seven and four from the last 10 games, two of those coming from the penalty spot. A year into his term, there are already calls for Arteta to go.
As a Sky Sports graphic during Saturday evening’s 2-1 loss at Everton showed, Arsenal have been the worst team in the league after the October international break in terms of goals scored, shooting accuracy and shot conversion; the second worst in terms of shots on target.
Summer signing Willian perhaps sums up Arsenal’s form. Having started off with three assists against Fulham, the winger has contributed little to the attacks, managing one shot on target in the league; he has also been heavily criticised for often failing to provide defensive cover to the full-back behind him.
“Normally when a team is in this position it is battered every week, and it’s not the case. We’ve been better than the opponent every single week but we are not winning football matches, so we have to realise that,” a defiant Arteta said after Saturday’s loss.
“When we generated the chances, a lot of situations at the end ended up in chances. At the end, it’s the last pass, the last dribble, the last shot, and what we need is a bit of luck. We hit the bar.”
While Arteta’s claims about dominating games “every single week” is not entirely factual there is no arguing his admission about the underwhelming finishing. Individual errors haven’t helped either. When Arsenal were on the ascendancy against Southampton at home, a needless second yellow card for Gabriel forced Arteta to go defensive and salvage a point. In the previous game against Burnley, a moment of madness from Granit Xhaka—he grabbed a rival player by the throat—that resulted in a red card cost Arsenal the game.
Defensively too, Arsenal have continued to struggle. They have managed just three clean sheets, all away from home. As of Saturday, seven teams in the league had conceded fewer goals than the Gunners this campaign. A lot of Arsenal’s current troubles though are down to their attack.
THE AUBA SAGA
After last season, Arsenal prioritised the contract extension of star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang over a new signing. The most prominent attacking signing was that of Willian, 32, on a free transfer from London rivals Chelsea. Arsenal acquired a key midfielder in Thomas Partey and a crucial defensive signing was Gabriel, but some notable positions were ignored.
Since the sidelining of Mesut Ozil, the club has missed a creative midfielder in a similar mould. The club’s technical director Edu recently admitted that at a supporters’ forum. “It’s quite clear that we need a player with creativity in the middle; we don’t have that in the squad right now.”
Arsenal have a good mix of attacking players—some experienced, a few young guns and players who offer the manager options to employ different combinations. However, it is clear Arteta has struggled to accommodate all the best ones on the pitch. Aubameyang, for instance, found himself moved wide to accommodate Alexandre Lacazette over the last few months. Lacazette though has been inconsistent while Aubameyang’s form has dipped alarmingly.
PEPE FLOP SHOW
Nicolas Pepe, Arsenal’s most expensive signing, too has struggled for a regular starting place. Youngster Matteo Guendouzi being frozen out over his attitude and subsequently sent to Hertha Berlin on loan doesn’t make for a good reading on Arteta either. The French midfielder has earned praise in Germany for his revival this season and could have been a handy option for Arsenal at this time.
So, is it time for Arteta to go? The 38-year-old Catalan tactician in his first major coaching role has made his fair share of mistakes but it is no secret Arsenal’s problems transcend a few managerial errors. For starters, the club’s transfer strategy over the last few years has been more spontaneous than planned. Arsenal have signed expensive attackers without knowing how to fit them all in the squad and have failed to prioritise problem areas.
Signing ageing players on substantial wages and without much resale value too has been a theme for a while. A slew of boardroom changes in recent times haven’t helped Arsene Wenger’s successors—Unai Emery and Arteta—in terms of continuity.
The instability and decline seen at Arsenal is an indictment of the Stan Kroenke ownership. While fears of Arsenal going the Leeds United way—the latter is back in Premier League after 16 years—may be exaggerated, it may find itself further adrift of its biggest domestic rivals if there isn’t better direction, stability and ambition at the highest echelons of the club.