The Sword of Damocles that has been hanging over the head of the Mikel Arteta Arsenal tenure and certainly for the majority of this season has now surely frayed to a single thread. After letting in a 93rd-minute equaliser to Slavia Prague in the first leg of the Europa League quarter-final tie last night, which not only cancelled out Nicolas Pepe’s 86th-minute opener but gave Slavia Prague a potentially vital away goal, Arteta’s Arsenal must either win the away leg in Prague next Thursday or secure a high-scoring draw (2-2 or more).
Otherwise, given everything else that has gone wrong for Arsenal this season, Arteta will surely be ‘Outeta’ before too long.
Mikel Arteta Arsenal Reign Could Come at Risk
An Argument for Arteta Staying
There are a few counter-arguments against the theory that Arteta would deserve to lose his job if Arsenal go out of Europe next week. The most convincing is that a season without European competition, which would surely be inevitable if Arsenal do not win the Europa League given their current position of 10th in the Premier League, need not be completely disastrous.
Indeed, this counter-argument goes, Chelsea’s last Premier League-winning campaign in 2016-17 under Antonio Conte was made infinitely easier by not having to travel and compete mid-week in European competition, allowing Conte to focus on the team preparation and organisation- two hallmarks of that title-winning side.
But Many More Arguments for Arteta Going
However, that is to ignore the large and continually growing number of arguments against Arteta keeping his job if, as is now entirely possible, Arsenal go out of the Europa League in the Czech capital next week. The most damning of those arguments is that, quite simply, Arsenal have got even worse under Arteta than they were under Unai Emery during his last few months in charge, which inevitably led to his sacking.
Certainly, the comparison between the first 50 Premier League games under both Spaniards is not flattering for Arteta. But putting statistical analysis aside for a moment, perhaps the even more withering assessment of Arteta’s Arsenal is that not one part of the team, from goalkeeper to attack, is working well and arguably has not worked well, at least for any sustained period of time, since he took over in December 2019.
Arteta Arsenal Reign: Whole Team, From Goalkeeper to Attack, is Not Working
Given his remarkable contribution to both Arsenal’s FA Cup-winning run last season and Aston Villa’s huge improvement in the Premier League this season, Arteta’s decision to sell Emiliano Martinez last summer increasingly looks like a poor one.
At the very least, he should surely have given Martinez the chance to prove that he could be Arsenal’s No.1 for the long run. Instead, it seems that Arteta was always adamant that Bernd Leno would be his first-choice keeper, whatever happened, leaving Martinez no choice but to leave The Emirates for the regular first-team football that he deserved.
As the late, late, late horror show against Slavia Prague proved, Arsenal’s defence remains as rickety as it seems to have been ever since Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole left the club in quick succession 15 years ago. Obviously, Arteta has been badly hampered by the ongoing injury problems of Kieran Tierney, who is not only Arsenal’s most consistent performer but the team’s captain in all but name.
However, Arteta’s failure to address the glaring problems in central defence cannot be put down to injury problems. The fact that the Arsenal defence should so badly miss David Luiz, who is probably the most inconsistent central defender in world football says it all about the lack of leadership at the base of the team. In Luiz’s continuing absence, not one of Rob Holding, Gabriel, Pablo Mari or Calum Chambers has shown that they should be the first choice in Arsenal’s back four, let alone two of them.
Ironically, given that it was where Arteta himself spent his entire playing career, Arsenal’s midfield may be the biggest problem area of all. The problem with Luiz, namely that he appears to be the best of a bad bunch of central defenders, applies doubly to Granit Xhaka.
For a team to be so reliant on two such inconsistent if not downright reckless performers really is the most appalling indictment of Arteta’s Arsenal. And although Thomas Partey has shown enough to suggest that he could yet evolve into an effective Premier League central defensive midfielder, he has done nothing so far to suggest that he can ever be the long-sought-after replacement for Patrick Vieira, who left Arsenal a year before Campbell and Cole did.
Perhaps it is because the midfield is malfunctioning so badly that Arsenal’s attack seems to have completely gummed up again. This is the part of the team that, on paper at least, looks the strongest, with two proven Premier League strikers in Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, not to mention a clutch of young attacking midfielders and strikers – Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli – who compare favourably with the young attacking talent at any other Premier League club.
In reality, however, Aubameyang’s goal-scoring problems this season have been mirrored by all the other forwards in the squad, such that only the Gabonese has reached double figures this season, and only just.
The FA Cup Win Was the Exception That Proved the Rule
18 months into the Arteta reign at Arsenal, last season’s FA Cup win increasingly looks like the exception that proves the rule – the only time in that year and a half when Arteta’s Arsenal have put together a couple of really good performances, notably in the semi-final and final against Manchester City and Chelsea respectively.
And even then, those performances were essentially backs-to-the-wall exercises, with a five-man defence (three centre-backs and two wingbacks) and the team looked almost entirely reliant on Aubameyang’s devastating goal-scoring form up front, as he scored twice in both those games.
Plenty of Arsenal fans would argue that the difference between Aubameyang at the end of last season and Aubameyang for the whole of this season is that, having secured the final bumper payday of his career, he has slacked off (if only unconsciously) and has subsequently been unable to rediscover the fantastic form that merited that bumper new contract in the first place.
Even more depressingly for Gooners, Arteta seems unable to correct long-term problems in the side, to the extent that they keep occurring again and again. The most spectacular example of that is the way that the team’s form has collapsed again in recent weeks after the pre-Christmas uplift provided by the belated introduction of both Saka and Smith Rowe in attacking roles.
However, even the late equaliser conceded against Slavia Prague was a horrible reminder of the late goal that Olympiacos scored against Arsenal last season to knock the Gunners out of the Europa League. It seems that Arteta is unable to fix things permanently, so much so that the same awful mistakes keep happening again and again.
Of course, Arteta is learning on the job at Arsenal, never having been a manager anywhere else before, and what would have been a difficult job anyway has been made almost impossible by the unique conditions of pandemic football.
The absence of fans at the grounds has all but destroyed any idea of “home advantage”, to the extent that Arsenal, like Liverpool and several other Premier League teams, have had their worst season of home performances in decades. Equally, however, as many fans have powerfully argued, if crowds had been allowed at The Emirates, their vocal expressions of dismay at the team’s numerous and ongoing problems might already have led to Arteta’s departure.
Crunch Time For Arteta and Arsenal
Now it really is crunch time for Arteta and, given the consistent inconsistency of his Arsenal side, he and all Arsenal fans can have nothing more than hope that the team will get the win or high-scoring draw that they need in Prague.
Arsenal may well have won “away” against both Benfica and Olympiacos, but Slavia Prague, having beaten both Leicester and Rangers in the Europa League already this season, are clearly a cut above those sides. So, there is every chance that Arsenal will go out of Europe next week and after failing so badly for so long in the Premier League there is every chance that Arteta will soon afterwards be out of The Emirates.
If that does happen, then the only good thing about it for Arsenal fans is that finally all of their ire can be directed at the real villain of the piece, Stan Kroenke and his entirely absentee ownership. In the decade that The Silent American has owned the club, Arsenal have slipped further and further down the Premier League table, to the extent that their current mid-table mediocrity is not so much a surprise as the inevitable consequence of his failure to run the club properly.
He has overseen the last miserable decade of Arsène Wenger’s long and initially brilliant reign; he authorised the appointment of Unai Emery, a Europa League specialist for a club that at least claimed it wanted to challenge for the Champions League; and he will also have appointed, or at the very least OK-ed the appointment of, Arteta, a complete managerial novice who increasingly looks out of his depth at a big club with even bigger problems.
Consequently, if Arteta does ultimately follow Wenger and Emery out of the door, the only man left for Kroenke to sack will be himself. Hopefully, he will do that as soon as possible.
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