Sometimes it seems as if Mikel Arteta thinks he is still at Manchester City. After conceding so many goals all season because of his insistence on Arsenal playing out from the back, à la City, he went one step further last night against Villarreal in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final by fielding a team, for the first time ever since he became Arsenal manager, with a false nine, i.e. no recognised striker.
It was an extraordinarily risky gamble and the fact that Arsenal are still in the tie, after only losing 2-1, is more down to luck than Arteta’s judgement, or lack of it.
Arteta Should Leave the Crazy Experiments to Pep Guardiola
Guardiola’s Side Built to Adapt
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City can just about get away with such experiments because of the generally outstanding quality of their players. Individually, Arteta’s Arsenal players do not compare with their City counterparts, with the possible exceptions of Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, if the Gabonese can overcome his recent bout of malaria and finally get back to something like his best form.
Other than those two, it is almost impossible to think of any Arsenal player who would get into the City squad, let alone team, so it is increasingly mystifying why Arteta should be adopting City-type tactics or templates for his Gunners side.
Xhaka is No Left-Back, Mikel Arteta Should Know That
Arsenal already had one fish out of water (although goldfish in an ocean might be a better analogy) with Granit Xhaka at left-back. At best, Xhaka is barely competent in his best position of central midfield, but as a full-back, deputising for the tragically injury-prone Kieran Tierney, he is virtually incompetent, often diving in recklessly and allowing wingers to skip past him, with no chance of catching them up because of his lack of pace.
He was at fault for Everton’s winner in the Premier League last week and he was again culpable for Villarreal opening goal last night. In fact, ever since he first appeared at left-back nearly three years ago under Unai Emery, in a game against Crystal Palace in which he conceded a late penalty, it is almost impossible to think of one good performance by him in that role.
So, given that Arsenal were already defensively imbalanced by the selection of Xhaka at left-back, it was all the more remarkable that Arteta decided to unbalance his attack by selecting Nicolas Pepe as a “sort-of striker”.
It was unfortunate that both of Arsenal’s main strikers, Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, were injured. However, Arteta should surely still have used a real striker like Eddie Nketiah, whose hold-up play had generally been good against Everton, or Gabriel Martinelli.
The Brazilian may be returning from a long-term injury, but he is a born striker, and it would have made far more sense for Arteta to use either him or Nketiah for the first hour of the match and then bring Pepe on to replace them, when his obvious pace might have been more effective against tiring defenders.
Mikel Arteta May Have Been Saved By Emery
Arguably, Arteta was saved not by his own managerial acumen but by the misjudgement of his opposite number, Unai Emery, his predecessor as Arsenal manager. After Villarreal had dominated the first half and taken a two-goal lead, Emery mystifyingly replaced one of his forwards with a defensive midfielder, Francis Coquelin (another ghost of Arsenal past) and effectively conceded the initiative to the Gunners.
He may have hoped that his team would sit back and pick Arsenal off on the break, but instead they appeared completely neutralised by their own manager’s misjudgement, just as Arsenal had in the first half.
Essentially, Arteta got lucky, especially after Dani Ceballos was sent off when he received a fairly harsh second yellow. The Arsenal manager may claim that he was justified in keeping Bukayo Saka in attack, rather than dropping him back to replace Xhaka at left-back, because it was Saka who won the penalty that gave Arsenal a lifeline in the tie. However, it was a very soft penalty, one that Arsenal would have objected to if it had been given against them.
And even though Pepe scored it to halve Villarreal’s first-leg lead, it did little to assuage the feeling that Arsenal had got something out of the game despite their manager and not because of him.
The fact is that so far all of Arteta’s managerial career has been an exercise in genuine crisis management. First of all, he inherited an obviously failing team from Unai Emery. Then, when he was only a few months into the job, the pandemic struck, meaning that he is the first ever manager of a major club, or at least one with a large home crowd, not to benefit from the home advantage that such a large crowd provides (something that has been definitively proved this season, in the absence of any fans anywhere in the Premier League).
And finally, of course, he is managing against the backdrop of the most unpopular owners in the history of Arsenal, the Shonky Kroenkes, whose decade in charge has overseen the worst period of consistent decline in the club’s league performance in nearly a hundred years.
Given all those difficulties, even the great Guardiola himself, or any other comparable manager from the past, would have struggled. However, Arteta has not helped himself by continually making baffling, if not plain bad, decisions that only undermine his Arsenal team rather than strengthening it.
Ødegaard Signing Has Affected Smith Rowe
There was a reminder last night of one particularly bad decision that Arteta has made this season, when he tried to shoehorn both Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Ødegaard into the same attack.
It failed spectacularly, as it has largely failed spectacularly since the young Norwegian arrived at the club on loan from Real Madrid in the January transfer window. The only period all season when Arsenal have played consistently well for more than a game or two followed the belated introduction of Smith Rowe and Saka into the team’s forward line just before Christmas.
Then, having finally added some youthful impetus to what had looked like a completely geriatric attack, Mikel Arteta undid a lot of that good work by bringing in Ødegaard to challenge Smith Rowe for his place. The result has been that neither of these obviously talented young No.10s have played consistently well since.
That is just one example of Arteta’s seemingly incessant tinkering with his side, which Pep Guardiola can do far more easily at Manchester City with his far better players. Indeed, it is the lack of an overall plan by Mikel Arteta, or some idea about how to develop a coherent style for his team, that has been his biggest failure as a manager so far.
Of course, if Mikel Arteta can survive this season of crisis, there is every chance that he will be a vastly improved manager as a result, having come through a footballing test of fire. And it is also true that the Shonky Kroenkes appear to have little appetite for sacking yet another manager, having dismissed two already in the last couple of years.
However, if Mikel Arteta does not do the obvious thing and start with a recognised striker against Villarreal in the second leg, as well as perhaps considering whether to belatedly play Saka at left-back rather than Xhaka, then he will be courting disaster. And despite the sympathy he deserves for having to contend with such major problems in his first full season in charge, there will be renewed calls by Arsenal fans for him to follow the Shonky Kroenkes and exit Arsenal.
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