Arsenal’s far from perfect start to the season is turning into a nightmare with Mikel Arteta’s side languishing in 15th place with no win in their last seven games. Heading into Christmas, Arsenal find themselves in unfamiliar territory, starring down the barrel of a relegation dog fight rather than a run at the European places. The pressure is mounting on Arteta to find solutions to address the poor results and kick start the Gunners season yet all the signs appear to indicate that it’s an impossible task.
Despite a positive end to last season beating Chelsea in the FA Cup final and a strong showing in this season’s Community Shield, winning over Liverpool thanks to a penalty shoot out, Arsenal have failed to find first gear in the opening quarter of the season. The stats tell half the story – 14 games, 14 points, 12 goals scored, 18 conceded, only 3 clean sheets. But the other half of the story is written across the face of Arteta who stands on the sidelines in disbelief of what he is seeing. Despite his own promise to change the energy and the culture at the club, this recent run shows that neither have been changed which undermines anything that Arteta is looking to achieve.
“If you don’t have the right culture, in the difficult moments, the tree is going to shake, so my job is to convince everybody that this is how we are going to live, and if you are going to be part of this organisation it has to be in these terms and in this way. And after that, we can talk about other things.”Mikel Arteta’s first Arsenal press conference as head coach, Dec 2019.
Part of the strategy to change the energy and the culture was to bring in players who aligned to Arteta’s thinking and embraced change whilst jettisoning those in the current squad that didn’t. This summer, Arsenal spent heavily in the market with mixed results. Defenders Cedric Soares and Pablo Mari had their loan moves made permanent, whilst Runar Alex Runarsson arrived as goalkeeper cover following the sale of the impressive Emilio Martinez to Aston Villa. Of the three, only Soares has made an appearance this season and even then that has been limited to a single occasion. Brazilian centre back Gabriel came in from Lille for €26m, as did fellow Brazilian Willian from Chelsea (albeit on a free) and both have played frequently but not to the same levels that attracted Arsenal to them in the first place. Finally the biggest outlay was for midfielder Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid for a whopping €50m but injuries have limited his time on the field to a handful of times.
All six are not bad acquisitions, far from it nor should they be judged fully this early on in their time at the club. But they all fail to really inspire the type of change needed at Arsenal to move the club to the next level. Gabriel is a tough defender with superb close control and passing range but his inability to command the defence like a Virgil Van Dijk or bark orders like a Tony Adams of old, is telling. Willian demonstrates skill and mastery which entertains the fans but he doesn’ t lead by grabbing the game by its throat and pushing it Arsenal’s way. Partey may be more of the type of character Arteta needs on the field but he needs to get on it regularly for Arsenal fans to see if he is. The club lacks leaders like a Kevin De Bruyne or a Jordan Henderson who show up each week and make their presence felt, albeit in different ways. Established first team players David Luiz, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Granit Xhaka should be driving the team forward yet so far no ones has stepped up this season to do so on a regular basis.
Added into this, the energy on the field is dramatically lacking with key players often caught walking or not looking to make the lung bursting runs needed to get into goal scoring opportunities. Pepe, who arrived to much hype last season for a mouth watering €80m looks like a passenger in most games, whilst Dani Ceballos who came in from Real Madrid runs without purpose or vision. That lack of energy in the midfield is having a knock on affect upfront with the usually prolific duo of Aubameyang and Lacazette feeding off lose balls and scraps resulting in only 6 goals between them and a 1 goal in every 4 games ratio. The energy in games is not there with only a few players, notably young Kieran Tierney showing desire and drive both in possession and without it.
Building a squad around your own vision takes time, something that Arteta simply hasn’t had enough off having only just celebrated his 1st full year in charge. But the club isn’t helping itself by failing to offload players who are upsetting the apple cart. Both Mezut Ozil and Sokratis Papastathopoulos have been excluded from Arteta’s 25 man EPL squad yet remain the club on a combined £442,000 per week. Over the past 14 weeks since the start of the season, that amounts to just under £7m in wages for players that aren’t being used nor moved along. Other problems have been pushed out on loan or resolved by handing them bumper new contracts but yet the culture remains the same. Despite Arteta’s efforts to pull the team together and push it towards a common goal, they remain divided and individualistic. January’s transfer window offers an opportunity to Arteta to once again address the culture at the club and make the changes needed to be successful under his vision. Whether he gets the time to do so, is a different story.