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Mikel Arteta Looks Like a Dead Manager Walking

Mikel Arteta

For Arsenal fans, it must feel like déjà vu all over again. And again. And again. And so on, ad infinitum. Indeed, it is arguably now more than 15 years since the club last had a manager worthy of the title, when Arsène Wenger was just the brilliant manager who focused exclusively on what happened on the field, with his right-hand man, David Dein, taking care of business off the field. After Dein left the club in 2007, having fallen out with the rest of the Arsenal board, Wenger, rather than demanding that the club replace Dein with a similarly experienced CEO, made his own power grab and effectively became both a manager and a quasi-CEO. The result was that he lost sight of his primary responsibility of managing the team and oversaw a decade-long decline before he finally left (in reality was forced out) in 2017.

Since then, his two Spanish successors, Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta, have both failed miserably to get anywhere near the achievements of Wenger in his first decade in charge at Arsenal when he and Dein formed arguably the finest double act in English football since Brian Clough and Peter Taylor (another pairing that sadly eventually soured and finally split apart). And now it looks increasingly likely that Arteta will follow the lead of his compatriot and get the sack long after he should have been dismissed.

Mikel Arteta: A Dead Manager Walking

Mikel Arteta is Following in Emery’s Footsteps

At the end of the 2018/19 season, Emery should have been fired after failing twice in his stated objective of getting Arsenal back to the Champions League, which they had last qualified for three years earlier under Wenger. First, he failed to secure qualification through Premier League placing, overseeing a miserable set of late-season results that culminated in an ignominious home defeat to Crystal Palace. Then, he oversaw the worst ever defeat in a major cup final in Arsenal’s history, when he led the Gunners to the annihilation in Azerbaijan, or the bashing in Baku, otherwise known as the 4-1 loss to Chelsea in the Europa League final.

The infamous 1969 League Cup final defeat to Swindon Town may have been to a Third Division team, but the scale of the three-goal deficit to Chelsea was only matched by that of Wenger’s last cup final defeat, 3-0 against Manchester City in the 2018 League Cup final. And the craven nature of the defeat in Baku, especially in the second half, was arguably even worse than that of the two Wembley debacles.

However, in their utterly finite footballing wisdom, the Kroenke family, the owners of Arsenal, decided to back Emery rather than sack him. They supported him in the transfer market that summer, in particular spending a club-record £72 million on Nicolas Pepe from Lens, rather than spending a similar amount on Wilfried Zaha, the prime instigator of Crystal Palace’s victory at The Emirates only a few months earlier, who was actively seeking a transfer to a Champions League club – or Arsenal, if he could not secure one.

Within months, the full folly of the Kroenkes’ decision was exposed, as Arsenal limped into the 2019/20 season under Emery and then suffered a historically bad autumn, before a final humiliation in the Europa League group stage against Eintracht Frankfurt eventually led to his long-overdue departure.

Arteta’s Double Failure in The Europa League – Against Emery

Now, less than two years on, the same kind of Spanish footballing tragedy is unfolding. At the end of last season, just like Emery two years previously, Arteta spectacularly failed twice – and against the same opposition, a Villareal team managed by his predecessor, Emery. In the first leg, he selected, for the very first time, an Arsenal side without a recognised striker, instead playing Emile Smith Rowe as a false nine. The result was a truly dreadful performance and Arsenal were incredibly lucky to escape with only a 2-1 defeat after being awarded a highly dubious penalty near the end of the game.

However, Arteta completely failed to learn from that extraordinary mistake and instead seemed to double down on his extraordinary managerial audacity, like the ‘Pound Shop Pep’ or ‘Vanarama Guardiola’ that he is often caricatured as. Effectively, he selected a one-man midfield against Villareal – a typically smooth-passing Spanish side – for the second leg at The Emirates, with Thomas Partey the only recognised central midfielder and two number tens, in Smith Rowe and the recently acquired Real Madrid loanee Martin Odegaard (whose loan was astonishingly made permanent this summer, apparently on the basis of just one good second-half performance against West Ham United last season). The result was an even more disjointed performance, with Arsenal never looking like they would score even the one goal they needed to progress to the final, and the Gunners subsequently lost the semi-final on aggregate.

Incidentally, that same one-man midfield was effectively used once again by Arteta against Manchester City two weeks ago, with Granit Xhaka as the only recognised central midfielder and the same two number tens, Smith Rowe and Odegaard, completely outplayed and outfought by a Manchester City midfield that is arguably the best in the world.

Some Managerial Mistakes are Indefensible

The point is that although every manager, even greats like early-tenure Wenger, Clough and Guardiola, make mistakes, there are some mistakes that are so dreadful, indeed so utterly indefensible, that they effectively mean that there is no way back for that manager. Emery made them at the end of the 2018/19 season, Arteta made them at the end of the 2020/21 season, and both men should have been sacked immediately afterwards, or at least very soon afterwards. Instead, they were both allowed to limp on, despite being, in footballing terms, fatally holed below the waterline.

And of course, the reason why they were not sacked when they should have been was that they are not the only people at Arsenal who, at best, are inexperienced and, at worst, are outright amateurs. As a blogger from The Arsenal Opinion Podcast put it recently on BBC Radio Five Live, Arsenal are the only club in the Premier League, if not the entire football world, who are run by people who have no idea, or at the very least no experience, of what they are doing: Mikel Arteta, a first-time manager who should never have been appointed as the manager of Arsenal, because he had never been a manager anywhere else beforehand; Edu, the Director of Football/Technical Director/Whatever His Actual Title Is, who may have nominally performed a similar role in Brazil with both Corinthians and the Brazilian national team but has precisely no experience in that role in European club football; and of course, right at the top of the pyramid, the Kroenkes, Stan and Josh.

The Kroenkes are the Worst Ever Owners of Arsenal

The Kroenkes have now been in control at Arsenal for over a decade and it is at the very least arguable, if not absolutely irrefutable, that they have presided over the longest period of decline in the club’s history in the last century since Arsenal first came to the fore in the 1920s under Herbert Chapman, and certainly in the modern era of the club, the last half-century since the 1971 league and cup Double. In effect, with their complete lack of knowledge of football (global football as opposed to American football), they have turned what was once a truly elite club into a truly mediocre ‘franchise’.

That is the real footballing tragedy at Arsenal. It is not just that they now have, in Mikel Arteta, a manager who is effectively a dead manager walking, one who, just like his predecessor, is surely doomed to be sacked long after he actually should have been sacked. It is that, under the Kroenkes’ utterly inadequate, utterly absentee and utterly uncaring ownership (why on earth own a football club if you never even bother to watch them? Oh yeah, because you just want to make money out of them), Arsenal has become a dead club walking.


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