Few first-time managers have ever had it harder than Mikel Arteta. Taking on your first job at a big club that many commentators and fans think is too big for a novice to manage would have been hard enough in any circumstances, but taking it on just before the famously tough Christmas period in England made it even harder. Nevertheless, with the last two results in particular – home victories against Manchester United and Leeds United in the League and FA Cup respectively – Arteta has made an extremely encouraging start to his tenure as Arsenal manager. However, as hard as the Christmas period was for him, things are about to get even harder, starting with the Gunners’ visit to Crystal Palace this weekend.
Crystal Palace Can Expose Arsenal’s Lack of Full-Backs
Appreciative of the Task
Fortunately, in another sign that Arteta understands Arsenal and their predicament in a way that Unai Emery sadly never did, he has already signalled that he fully appreciates how difficult a visit to Crystal Palace will be. In the build-up to the game, he said: “Every time I played at Selhurst Park, I suffered.” This time around, there is every chance that he will “suffer” at Selhurst even more as a manager than he did as a player, because of Arsenal’s current full-back crisis.
‘Crisis’ is not too strong a word to use, given that Sokratis had to deputise at right-back against Leeds on Monday night. Although Arteta was presumably saving his first-choice replacement right-back, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, for the Palace game, it was still alarming to see the Greek centre-back’s lack of pace being regularly exposed out wide by Leeds. And even if Maitland-Niles does play against Crystal Palace, because he is a central midfielder only filling in at full-back, there is every chance that he will struggle against Andros Townsend, Palace’s skilful and hard-working left-winger.
Even worse, Sead Kolasinac, who is really a wing-back masquerading as a full-back (as Arsene Wenger effectively admitted within a few months of the Bosnian joining Arsenal), the side must be wary of coming up against Wilfried Zaha, Palace’s right-winger and star man. That is particularly true now that the January transfer window has opened and Zaha will be even more determined than ever to earn the transfer to a Champions League club that he is so openly seeking.
First Choices Are Unavailable
Of course, neither Maitland-Niles nor Kolasinac are first-choice full-backs for Arsenal. Those are Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney, who are not only currently injured but who have been injured so often this season that they have barely played at all, let alone together. Neither are likely to return in the short term, so it is probable that Arsenal will have to struggle on with Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac (but hopefully not Sokratis) in the full-back positions, at least for the foreseeable future.
In the press conference before the Palace match, Arteta was specifically asked about any possible transfer plans that he had for January. However, although most Arsenal fans have been looking forward to the start of the New Year as their new manager’s first opportunity to reinforce the squad, particularly in defence, the Spaniard himself appeared to downplay any possibility of significant transfer spending this month. “I’m not expecting big things in the market this month. I’m just expecting big things from the players that I have.”
Arteta may be alone in expecting “big things” from his current players and in particular his current defenders. Arsenal fans are so used to bemoaning the problems in central defence, where the club have not boasted a top-rate pairing since the Invincibles partnership of Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure, that the problems at full-back may have escaped their attention. However, if Zaha and Townsend can play to their full potential tomorrow, there is every chance that the full-back crisis will demand everyone’s attention, including that of Arteta.
There are probably two big reasons why Arteta is not yet actively demanding new players and especially new defenders. The first is his own self-belief as a coach, which will convince him that he can get far more out of Maitland-Niles, Kolasinac, Sokratis and even David Luiz than Unai Emery was ever able to. And it has to be acknowledged that on the basis of Arteta’s four games in charge of Arsenal so far, he is right to have such self-belief, as David Luiz, in particular, has looked like a completely different player to the walking liability that he has been for much of the season.
The second reason, of course, is the notorious difficulty of acquiring top-quality transfer targets in the January transfer window. The kind of defenders that Arsenal need – Champions League-class defenders – are largely unavailable at this time of year, precisely because they are still competing in this season’s Champions League. It is certainly far easier to target and then acquire new players in the summer than it is in January, so Arteta may want to keep his transfer powder dry until later in the year.
Nevertheless, sooner or later Arteta will have to admit that even the greatest coach – a combination, perhaps, of Rinus Michels, FIFA’s Coach of the Century, and his own erstwhile boss, Pep Guardiola – would struggle to create a team at Arsenal that is genuinely capable of competing for the Champion League places, let alone competing for the Premier League and the Champions League themselves, from the current squad alone. Significant reinforcements will be required if he is truly to make Arsenal competitive at the top level again.
A Lack of Dominance at the Back
As already mentioned, for more than a decade now the priority for Arsenal has been to buy at least one truly dominant centre-back, if not two. However, close behind that is the need for a genuinely creative passing midfielder, of the kind the Gunners have lacked ever since Santi Cazorla’s injury problems and subsequent exit from the club. Of course, that man could have been Dani Ceballos, if only Arsenal had negotiated a right to buy him as part of his season-long loan from Real Madrid. Unfortunately, neither Unai Emery nor anyone else at the club thought that such a clause in the loan deal was necessary. As a result, Ceballos, after showing some early-season promise, has largely played like a man who has known all along that, come what may, he will be going back to his parent club.
Finally, Arteta might end up needing to buy a new striker, or two, if either Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Alexandre Lacazette, or indeed both of them, demand a transfer this summer if, as is still likely, Arsenal do not return to the Champions League next season. Fortunately, in this department at least Arteta looks as if he has at least one ready-made replacement, in the shape of the exciting young Brazilian Gabriel Martinelli, should one or both of his top strikers demand a move.
So, despite the obvious rigours of the Christmas period, which he largely negotiated successfully, Arteta is facing an even tougher time ahead, starting at Crystal Palace tomorrow. The most encouraging thing about him so far is that, judging by everything that he has said publicly since taking over (including his specific comment about the challenge at Selhurst Park), he is under absolutely no illusion about the scale of the task ahead.