After an hour in Athens against Olympiakos in their Europa League last 16 first leg, Arsenal looked as if they might achieve exactly the wrong result to take into the North London derby against Tottenham Hotspur this weekend. Drawing 1-1 against the Greek side, after yet another defensive mistake allowed an opposing side to equalise, would almost certainly have prompted Mikel Arteta to rest key starters, and particularly Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, against Spurs. Fortunately, the two late goals from Gabriel and Mohamed Elneny that eventually gave Arsenal a 3-1 away win mean that Arteta can start his first-choice line-up against Spurs and still have some wiggle room against Olympiakos in the second leg.
However, the real problem for Arteta at the moment is that Arsenal still look like only half a team, and specifically only half the team that Arteta ultimately wants to create. Less than 18 months into his reign at The Emirates, and with most of that period spent under the Coronavirus cloud, it is entirely understandable that Arteta’s side are still in transition. However, if he is to achieve his avowed aim of getting Arsenal to challenge for the Premier League and eventually the Champions League again, the sooner that he can add the other half of his ideal side, the better.
Arsenal Still Look Like Half a Team Under Mikel Arteta
Improvements in Defence But Midfield Still a Mess
In goal, Bernd Leno is a good number one goalkeeper, although doubts persist about Mat Ryan’s suitability to be Arsenal’s second-choice stopper after he lost his first-team place at Brighton & Hove Albion. And in defence, three members of a possible long-term back four – Kieran Tierney, Gabriel and Rob Holding – are already in place, although Hector Bellerin at least needs to be challenged, if not replaced, at right-back.
It is in midfield that Arteta is still having the greatest difficulty in rebuilding Arsenal. Thomas Partey continues to look as if he could potentially be the big, tall, dominant central midfielder that Arsenal have lacked ever since Patrick Vieira’s sale to Juventus in 2005. But he is also still to prove that he is over the nagging injury problems that have plagued his first few months at The Emirates, which appeared to necessitate his removal from the action, once again, in Athens.
However, assuming that Partey can finally regain full fitness after the pre-season break that so many players need following the Coronavirus-caused compression of the past two seasons, the problem remains of who to play alongside him. None of the three main challengers appear convincing choices. Granit Xhaka’s own goal in all but name at Burnley reminded everyone of the most damning statistic about him, namely that in his five years at Arsenal no other Premier League midfielder has made as many mistakes that have led directly to goals. Equally, although Elneny scored a fine goal against Olympiakos, he is really just a squad player – a modern-day Gilles Grimandi, for those Arsenal fans old enough to remember the third central midfielder that Wenger signed alongside Vieira and Petit. And finally, Dani Ceballos is only on loan from Real Madrid, so until his permanent status, or otherwise, is secured, there is absolutely no point in Arteta building his central midfield around him.
The Attack is Firing Again
Fortunately for Mikel Arteta, after Arsenal’s attack misfired for so much of the season, particularly in the wretched autumn run when the Gunners lost four successive home games, they have finally begun to score again, and even score heavily. Aubameyang did not find the net against Olympiakos, but he has nevertheless put his goal-scoring drought firmly behind him. And in Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and (if he stays at Arsenal long enough) Martin Ødegaard, not to mention Gabriel Martinelli, Arsenal have an abundance of young attacking talent, in addition to the old stager, Alexandre Lacazette.
But Arsenal Remain a Team of Two Halves
The real problem for Arteta, and it was evident again against Olympiakos, is that the other half of the team – the half that desperately needs strengthening, if not replacing – once more underperformed. Willian, on from the start, and Nicolas Pepe, who came on as a sub, continue to look, at best, as if they are only squad players to replace Saka and Smith Rowe when they need a rest. In midfield, Xhaka still looks like a player who cannot believe that he is in the Arsenal midfield after nearly half a decade there. And David Luiz, having made another error against Olympiakos that nearly led to a goal, is surely no-one’s idea of the long-term solution at centre-back.
However, despite the obvious need to strengthen both his first team and his squad, will Arteta get the bucks he will need to generate the ‘bang’ that he says Arsenal are capable of once the pandemic finally ends? Given the £100 million that has effectively been wasted in the last two seasons on Pepe and William Saliba, the young French centre-half who Arteta has seemingly ruled out of contention for a first-team place, that has to be doubtful, and that is without even considering the devastating effects of the pandemic on Arsenal’s finances.
So, the likelihood is that Mikel Arteta will have to continue a process of evolution rather than revolution, acquiring relatively cheap acquisitions, to bolster the team and the squad. Clearly, it will take at least a couple more transfer windows before Arteta can finally begin to have the full-strength Arsenal team that he and all Arsenal fans crave.