The best aspect of Mikel Arteta’s appointment is fast becoming the worst one. He arrived at Arsenal in a time of malaise, where the mediocrity and disappointment of the late-Wenger and Unai Emery tenures weighed heavily upon the club.
In the backdrop of that bleakness, Arteta stood out as someone rid of that baggage. He was new and untested, a canvas for pundits and supporters to project aspirations onto. There were no questionable performances at other clubs. No tense history with the press. Just the honor of being the assistant coach of one of football’s most innovative and successful managers. Arteta was poised to be the young, modern, charismatic figure to propel Arsenal in a new direction.
Yet twenty months into his managerial reign, it’s hard to identify what that direction is. Tactically, Arsenal construct attacks slowly, tepidly, and predictably; always giving their opponents time to close down space and always laboring to fashion goal-scoring opportunities.
They scored the joint-ninth most goals last campaign, taking just the 11th most shots and the 13th most shots on target in the Premier League. They made the fifth most passes into the final third, the eight most passes into the penalty area, and the 12th most passes that lead to a shot.
All of these metrics reveal that Arsenal are reasonably effective at moving the ball into dangerous attacking areas but poor at creating shooting opportunities from those positions. In the decisive moments, the Gunners flounder.
That’s true of their defense as well. Arsenal conceded the third fewest goals in the league last season, which nominally reflects well upon their defense. In actuality, though, it’s hard to argue Arteta has made the team better at defending. When they try to press high, they often leave gaps between their attacking and midfield lines that the opposition can exploit. When they sit deeper, they lack the compactness and profile of defender to resist sustained attacks.
What Arteta has done is make Arsenal capable of hoarding possession, following the principle that if you have the ball, the other team can’t score. While obviously true to an extent, it cannot mask over a team’s defensive frailties.
When they lose the ball, Arsenal’s defense can crumble under even the slightest scrutiny. It happened against Burnley last December, against Aston Villa last February, against Brentford and Chelsea in the opening two games this season, and it’s sure to happen again.
Without having definable, dependable strengths in either defense or attack, it’s hard to make the case that Arteta’s coaching is living up to expectation. His lack of baggage at the club or in management has lost anything virtuous about it, instead replaced with the harsh reality of being led by a coach with no prior experience.
It’s tempting to assume that replacing him with another coach could revitalize the team or at least give them a clearer sense of direction. But in doing so, it assumes that the club’s lack of identity stems from the manager.
Arsenal’s club hierarchy has been a site of constant churn in recent years, a chaos that reverberates across the club. Since 2009, Ivan Gazidis had been the Gunner’s chief executive, and following the departure of Arsene Wenger he attempted to modernize the club structure by reducing the head coach’s influence recruitment and long-term strategic planning.
He delegated these roles to the likes of Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi, the former of which was renowned for making astute transfers through using stats and the latter who would lead transfer negotiations and also boasted extensive connections to land new signings.
After Gazidis left in 2018, Sanhllehi assumed the new role of head of football and was given more power at the club. It also consolidated his contacts-based approach to transfers, forcing out Mislintat and his data-driven approach.
Such power struggles within a new club hierarchy are cause for concern in and of themselves, but subsequent changes entirely contradicted Arsenal’s original intent. Edu was appointed as technical director to run the day-to-day footballing operations at the club and work alongside Sanhelli.
In 2020, though, Sanhelli left the club. Rather than maintaining the structure and looking for a replacement, Arsenal changed Arteta’s title from first team coach to manager and gave more power to Edu, concentrating power in the hands of a few individuals. It was the exact scenario Gazidis and Arsenal wanted to avoid.
So now, the North London club are back to having an outdated system where a couple individuals lead an entire footballing operation. That’s problematic in and of itself: the best clubs in Europe all function with a sporting director or some equivalent and have a much more refined, detailed recruitment structure.
But what’s more damaging to the club is the process that brought them to that structure. The way a club is run informs every aspect of what they do and sets the achievable parameters of what they can become. In many ways, it shapes their identity. With constant chopping and changing of individuals and roles in Arsenal’s setup, it’s no wonder why they find themselves lost at sea with no vision for how to steer back on course.
The playing squad is the most obvious manifestation of that confusion. It’s unbalanced, with a coterie of aging players on exorbitant wages and promising youngsters who lack experience.
Gabriel is their only aerially imposing center half, right back remains a weak spot, and both Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang seem past their best. It’s hard to see any coach creating a cohesive, effective tactical system with such an oddly put together group of players.
Which brings us back to Arteta. His deficiencies as a coach are clear, but the process that is meant to support him at Arsenal is instead keeping him and the club pinned in a position of underachievement.
Removing the Spaniard would do little to improve the club’s standing. If anything, it could make it worse. For Arteta’s reign hasn’t been without its positives — he led them to an FA cup triumph in 2020 and has seemingly developed real buy-in from the club’s exciting group of young players.
He’s also learning on the job, and it’s reasonable to assume that he can improve overtime. His reputation before he came to the club was rooted in something, so perhaps we are simply yet to see it.
None of those positives is enough to vindicate of his methods as a coach or suggest that he can return Arsenal to something resembling an upwardly mobile club. But it’s something, and in their current state, Arsenal can’t look beyond it.
Because if they do, their outdated and chaotic club hierarchy will continue to cycle through coach after coach, squad after squad, era after era, all the while drifting further away from prospects of success.