Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Out of the blue and into the black

Now the transfer deadline has passed and a forgettable August is behind Arsenal in terms of league results, there is little hiding place for Mikel Arteta. The coach and the team have to put the travails of the last month behind them and kickstart their campaign. There remain big question marks over Mikel Arteta’s suitability to the manager role; I have picked out three questions that will define whether or not he holds onto his job beyond 2021.

Has Arteta’s talent identification improved?

Ben White, Thomas Partey, Gabriel, Martin Odegaard, Cedric Soares, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Nuno Tavares, Pablo Mari, Albert Sambi Lokonga and Aaron Ramsdale are all Arteta’s signings. So were Willian and Alex Runarsson (or at least, they were transfers that he signed off on). Six of those arrived this summer, there are still question marks over a few of the others.

In addition to that, Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Rob Holding, Granit Xhaka and Gabriel Martinelli have all been awarded new contracts. Arteta has signed them too, in a sense. These are players he has backed to be part of his project. Arsenal are giving Arteta a fair chance with his own players before he is sacked but his fate will entirely rest on both the quality of these players and the extent to which they execute his vision.

Arsenal’s difficulty in selling players this summer is multi-layered. It is partly because the market is very difficult. It is also linked to their issues with buying- nobody wants average players on high wages, nobody ever has, covid market or no covid market. In 2011, Denilson had three years remaining on his Arsenal contract. He spent two of them on loan at São Paulo before the club paid him to leave for the final year of his deal.

Nicklas Bendtner left on a free transfer in 2014. Even young players don’t necessarily attract suitors if their salaries are sky high. I think Arsenal’s drive towards recruiting young players is as much about salary recalibration as it is resale value and long-term thinking. Younger players tend to fetch cheaper wages- in the case of Denilson, Diaby, Bendtner et al, the issue was their second Arsenal contracts, not their first. The live issue for Arteta is that his talent identification has been questionable to this point, to say the least.

The consistent dithering in assessment of squad members like Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Eddie Nketiah and even senior players like Granit Xhaka, Hector Bellerin, Aubameyang (and David Luiz last summer to an extent) has created a series of distressed assets. I would argue that Calum Chambers is falling into this spin cycle too. The continual retention of players just in case they observe an upward curve- or failing to construct a strategic plan for how to accommodate players he has decided to keep- demonstrates a lack of decisiveness.

Arsenal have well and truly thrown their lot in with Arteta this summer, spending heavily on players he has identified. There are a few who, let’s be honest, have caused people to squint a little. Arsenal are not just betting on potential, they are betting on Arteta’s assessment of potential. Buying younger players is the easy part, spotting and developing potential is where the coach makes his money. So far, his talent identification has been two parts iffy and indecisive. The players he has bought need to be good now, at the very least, and brilliant eventually.

Can he manage under-utilised players?

The failure to shift players like Nketiah, Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac (at time of writing) does not just create a fiscal issue for a self-sustaining club like Arsenal, it creates a football one for the coach too. Ainsley Maitland-Niles already “took to Instagram” (a phrase to chill the blood of many a football coach) to express his frustration and isolation.

He shouldn’t have done so, of course, but it does suggest the prevalence of bad air at London Colney. Arteta’s strongman approach won many admirers in his early days at Arsenal but the results of this approach have been poor. Mikel spoke in earnest last season about the palpable change in atmosphere when a quadrant of unhappy players finally moved on in January, lightening the mood.

Arteta still has a bloated squad and without European football, there are even fewer opportunities for minutes (unless you’re Sead Kolasinac and Arsenal have an absolute gimme like Manchester City away, of course). Maitland-Niles and Nketiah are young players who will want to play and both are likely to be disappointed. The question is whether Arteta can manage that situation more effectively.

The “you’re either on the boat or you are not” approach only works when you haven’t got guys clinging onto the rudder. Arteta again has a collection of players who are only half on board. Add to that Elneny and Lacazette, whose contracts expire next summer and Bernd Leno, who is very visibly serving his notice period.

The atmosphere among the exiled has been so sour that players have more or less paid money to leave the club this summer. If an Arsenal man like Hector Bellerin is begging to be released, you have an issue. Arteta has to improve in this respect, he cannot just keep discarding players who are not playing or making them feel like outcasts. Otherwise, there will simply be more heavy weather to negotiate.

Can he get the attackers scoring?

It has been noted by many that Arsenal scored a measly 55 Premier League goals last season and their answer has been to buy a right-back, a centre-half, a goalkeeper, a back-up left-back, a back-up central-midfielder and a number 10. It’s a pithy observation, of course, but it’s not inaccurate. However, Arsenal do have proven goal scorers in their team.

Aubameyang is one of the best penalty box strikers at the top level, Lacazette and Pepe have solid records in front of goal, while Martinelli, Smith Rowe and Saka all have the potential to add more in the final third. The biggest issue was, in my view, getting the ball into dangerous areas last season. It seems like Arteta has arrived at a similar conclusion. Fortunately for me, arriving at a conclusion is the easy part because I don’t have to go and show my working in the dugout every week.

Arsenal simply cannot enjoy anything approaching a stellar season unless they seriously up their firepower. Arteta already had guns, this summer he has been buying bullets but now they need to fire. Upping the chance creating potential is the number one priority for this team. Where do you think Arsenal will finish in the table if Aubameyang endures another season of moodily watching the team try to move the boulder up the hill 40 yards away from him?

The idea of the captain scoring infrequently and Arsenal improving their league position is impossible to entertain. The platform that Arteta wanted is now there, it has to provide for the attack and the attack has to deliver. If that marriage is not consummated, and quickly, Arteta will lose his job and it really is that simple.

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