Arsenal’s ultimately very easy victory over Dundalk in the Europa League continued a remarkable run in all cup competitions under Mikel Arteta, both domestic and European. He has now lost only one of the 13 cup games that he has presided over, in the FA Cup, EFL Cup and Europa League, which, regardless of its title, is essentially a cup competition, and that was back in February when Arsenal lost 2-1 at home to Olympiakos to crash out of last season’s Europa League. The challenge now for Arteta is to translate that impressive cup pedigree into sustained improvement in the league, starting with this weekend’s match away at Manchester United.
Mikel Arteta Needs to Improve Arsenal’s League Form
The contrast between Arteta’s achievements in cup competitions and his relative under-achievement in the Premier League is considerable. He instantly established himself as an Arsenal managerial legend by guiding the team to a record-extending 14th FA Cup win last season, which included semi-final and final triumphs over Manchester City and Chelsea respectively. Even this season, his Arsenal side secured an away win at Liverpool in the EFL Cup, their win on penalties at Anfield last month following relatively hot on the heels of another shoot-out success against the reigning champions at Wembley in the Community Shield.
Unfortunately, Arteta is yet to see such a significant upturn in results in the league, either last season or this. Last season, after football restarted following the original lockdown (the invariably awful sequel is surely coming soon), Arsenal lost away at two sides fighting relegation, Brighton & Hove Albion and Aston Villa, the latter loss coming just a few days after the inspirational victory against Arteta’s old club, Manchester City, in the FA Cup. And this season, although progress has been made in both the EFL Cup and the Europa League, there have already been away defeats at Liverpool and Manchester City (hardly surprising, given that those two teams will almost certainly contest the title again) and a home loss to Leicester City (which was much more damaging). Six games in, Arsenal have won three and lost three in the league, and this weekend they face the traditionally difficult visit to Manchester United.
In the 1970s, when the then-mighty Leeds United faced the then-tiny Wimbledon in the FA Cup, the minnows were praised for their exceptional performances by everyone except Leeds themselves. The ultra-professional Leeds players and staff, schooled in hard knocks (and, some would say, dirty tricks) by Don Revie, claimed that the fact that the Wimbledon players could only raise their game so substantially for a big, glamorous cup game only proved how unprofessional they really were. As the old saying goes, professionals do it even when they don’t want to do it.
In essence, Leeds were damning Wimbledon as a ‘cup team’, and at the moment the same accusation could be levelled against Arsenal. Having proven how well they can perform against big teams in the cups, including away from home against first Leicester and then Liverpool in the EFL Cup, they have consistently failed to achieve a similar level in league games, against big or small teams, home or away.
Are Arsenal a Cup Team Under Mikel Arteta?
Of course, it must be acknowledged that this problem predates Arteta’s appointment by a number of years. Indeed, the same accusation – that he could only raise his team for the really big, one-off matches – was levelled against Arsène Wenger during his last few years in charge, when he won the FA Cup three times in four seasons between 2014 and 2017, but at the same time oversaw Arsenal sliding out of the Champions League places. Worse still for Arsenal fans, it could even be alleged that modern-day Arsenal have become what Tottenham Hotspur traditionally used to be (back when Spurs still won things) – a good cup team that just cannot cut it in the league.
If Mikel Arteta is to do more than just continuing to do well in cup competitions, nice as that is for Arsenal fans after the silverware drought between 2005 and 2014, he must start changing Arsenal from a good cup team, which they undoubtedly are, into a consistently good league team, which they certainly are not right now. And in a funny way, there is no better place to start than away to Manchester United.
As was the case last year when Unai Emery was about to take his Arsenal side to Leicester, there comes a time in every top manager’s career when they have to abandon their attacking instincts and principles and just concentrate on doing whatever is necessary to get the bare minimum result of a draw. Emery, of course, failed to do that at Leicester, or indeed anywhere else last season, which ultimately led to his dismissal. However, that only proves the point – that Emery was not a top manager, capable of organising his side sufficiently to grind out a goalless draw. Even Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, who has struggled for over a year to organise a defence in order to allow his attacking talents free rein, was capable of that feat last weekend against Manchester United. Now Arteta must adopt a similar approach for Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford.
Issues at the Back
Of course, adopting such an approach will not be made any easier by Arsenal’s current defensive problems, which are now so grave that even Granit Xhaka was trialled as an auxiliary centre-half against Dundalk. Hopefully, that is not an experiment that will be repeated against Manchester United, or Xhaka’s relative lack of pace and complete lack of experience at centre-back could prove fatal against Antony Martial, Bruno Fernandes and, above all, Marcus Rashford, the man who has already achieved the seemingly impossible this season by becoming a Manchester United player who is almost universally adored.
It would surely make much more sense at Old Trafford to have a back three of Gabriel, Shkodran Mustafi and Kieran Tierney, with wing-backs Hector Bellerin and Ainsley Maitland-Niles sitting deep, and Xhaka restored to central midfield alongside Thomas Partey to offer an injury-depleted defence some much-needed protection. And regardless of the result against Manchester United, Mikel Arteta must find a way long-term to improve Arsenal’s defensive performances away from home in the Premier League, in order to end Arsenal’s truly awful away record against other members of the so-called ‘Big Six’, whereby they have not won away against one of them for nearly six years.
However, defensive improvements alone will not be enough to improve Arsenal’s league form, especially away from home. It is already clear that they must improve their midfield creativity, to create more chances for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, who remain two of the best strikers in England. Partey may have hit the ground running – literally – especially in his debut against Rapid Vienna in the Europa League, but it may yet prove a cause of regret that Arteta was unable to secure his other midfield target this summer, Houssem Aouar of Lyon. Aouar could well have provided the flair and invention in midfield that at the moment is only really provided by Dani Ceballos, and of course, he remains on loan to Arsenal from Real Madrid, making it impossible to plan for his position in the team long-term.
Nevertheless, even more important than defensive improvements and a welcome addition of midfield creativity, what Arteta and Arsenal really need is a change of mindset, such that they start approaching every league game as it were a cup game – a one-off game that just must be won somehow, and if it cannot be won then it must not be lost. Effecting such a transformation is likely to take a long time and yet more changes in personnel over the next few transfer windows. However, it is what Mikel Arteta will need to do if he is to fulfil his own avowed ambition for Arsenal and have them challenging for leagues – the Premier League and ultimately the Champions League – once again.