It’s Now European Qualification or Bust for Mikel Arteta

Mikel Arteta
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And then there was one. Because Arsenal failed to qualify for Europe last season, they were only ever going to compete in a maximum of three competitions this season and after the recent cup calamities, including the Carabao Cup semi-final second-leg defeat to Liverpool, they now only have European qualification through the league to aim for. The key, perhaps career-defining, question for Mikel Arteta is: can they do it?

It’s Now European Qualification or Bust for Mikel Arteta

A Month to Forget for Mikel Arteta

Even by the rollercoaster standards of his two years in charge at The Emirates, January 2022 has been a particularly bad month for Mikel Arteta and his Arsenal side. They began the new year optimistically, having ended the old one by winning five games in a row to advance into the top four in the Premier League and the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup. However, things soon dramatically changed for the worse.

First, there was the devastating last-second defeat by Manchester City on New Year’s Day. Having produced probably the best all-round performance of Arteta’s entire tenure to take the lead against the Champions (and Champions-elect), Arsenal eventually capitulated to set the utterly unwanted record of losing to the same team in the league 10 times in succession for the first time in the club’s history. And for all that Arsenal fans blamed the referee and VAR for seemingly favouring City with some of their decisions, they would be far better advised to blame the folly of their own players than the supposed incompetence of the officials. Granit Xhaka foolishly gave away a penalty, Gabriel almost immediately got two yellow cards in quick succession, and Arsenal’s lead turned into a losing position faster than most new year resolutions are abandoned.

Unfortunately, that depressing League defeat set the tone for the cup games that followed. Arsenal proved that lightning could indeed strike twice by deservedly losing to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round for the second time in four years, when a side kitted out all in white (for the laudable reason of promoting the ‘No More Red’ anti-knife crime campaign) not only looked like Spurs but played like Spurs, at their pre-Conte worst.

There was brief and unexpected respite in the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final at Anfield last week, when Xhaka proved that he is really just an up-market Gus Caesar (younger Arsenal fans should go and read Fever Pitch if they don’t get the reference) by getting sent off yet again, but the remaining 10 men rallied brilliantly to hold out for a 0-0 draw. However, as admirable as that performance was, playing at home in the second leg (after the two legs had been controversially switched because of Liverpool’s Covid situation) was always going to demand far more than just a rearguard action. And ultimately Arsenal were unable to provide that.

Midfield is Not So Much Arteta’s Achilles Heel as an Entire Achilles Leg

As has so often proved to be the case ever since Arteta took over at Arsenal, it was central midfield, or rather the almost complete lack of it, that proved Arsenal’s undoing against Liverpool. Arsenal have not had a dominant central midfielder since Patrick Vieira left the club nearly 20 years ago, and they have not had a central midfielder of any real quality since Santi Cazorla began (in late 2015) to suffer the succession of injuries that eventually ended his Arsenal career. And yet more than two seasons into his time at Arsenal, Arteta has still not addressed that major and utterly glaring problem.

Xhaka must now be the most universally loathed Arsenal player – that is, universally loathed by his own fans – since Emmanuel Eboue was virtually hounded out of the club in the late noughties.

In his absence through suspension, and Thomas Partey’s continuing absence because of his involvement with Ghana at the African Cup of Nations, the only central midfielder that Arteta had available to him against Liverpool was the young and inexperienced Albert Sambi Lokonga. With no other actual midfielder available to play alongside him, not even the generally unloved Mohamed Elneny, who is also away at AFCON, Arteta remarkably resorted to trying again with the tactic that has continually failed over the last year or so, namely attempting to make central midfielders out of Martin Ødegaard and Emile Smith Rowe. And as before, for example against Villarreal in the Europa League last season and against Manchester City at The Etihad this season, the experiment ultimately failed spectacularly. After Arsenal’s early attacking flourish at the start of both halves, Liverpool’s infinitely more experienced central midfield pairing of Jordan Henderson and Fabinho took control of the centre of the park and provided the platform for what eventually proved to be Liverpool’s comfortable 2-0 win.

Midfield Indiscipline isCompounding the Lack of Actual Midfielders

Of course, Thomas Partey did eventually make it onto the pitch at The Emirates, after Ghana’s surprise elimination in Cameroon and his breakneck return to London, arriving back only at noon on the day of the game. Consequently, he was only on the bench to start the match. However, when he did make it on to the pitch late in the second half, he did a Xhaka or a Gabriel (as it is surely now officially called) and almost immediately got himself sent off, after receiving two yellow cards in quick succession for what would charitably be called late tackles, which was hardly surprising as he was probably still suffering from jet lag.

This type of rampant indiscipline by Arteta’s supposed senior midfielders only compounds the lack of actual midfielders in the squad, such that he will probably have to resort to again playing at least one of  Ødegaard or Emile Smith Rowe in midfield against Burnley in the Premier League this weekend. That is despite the fact that both of them are undoubtedly attacking midfielders, or Number 10s, whose best work is always done offensively and not defensively.

All of which makes Arteta’s decision to allow Ainsley Maitland-Niles to join Roma on loan this month all the more mystifying. Although he excelled in Arteta’s FA Cup-winning team of 2020, albeit at right-back, Maitland-Niles has barely been given a chance in his favoured central midfield position since then. But Arteta knew that Partey would be away in Africa for most of January, if not all of it, and he must know by now that Xhaka is completely untrustworthy, so to allow Maitland-Niles to go out on loan was borderline irresponsible if not downright ludicrous.

It’s as if Arteta Forgets That He Himself Once Played in Midfield

It really is as if Mikel Arteta forgets that he himself once played in central midfield, with distinction for PSG, Rangers and Everton and then, with ever-diminishing results because of his injury problems, with Arsenal. Although he has made genuine progress in improving the defence and attack with signings such as Ramsdale, White, Tomiyasu and Ødegaard, Arsenal’s midfield is probably worse now than it was when he first took charge at the club, not least because Dani Ceballos, who also excelled in the FA Cup triumph two years ago, has long since left the club.

In what remains of the January transfer window, the priority for Arsenal and Arteta should be to try and sign an experienced, unflappable central midfielder rather than the striker that there has been so much publicity about. Without such a signing, Xhaka’s in-built indiscipline and Partey’s continuing failure to really adapt to the rigours of the Premier League, more than 18 months after first playing in it, could mean that all the promise that has been generated this season will eventually be dissipated.

Now that they are out of both domestic cups, Arsenal only have European qualification through the league to focus on. The dream for Arsenal fans is to reach the Champions League by making it into the top four; an unsatisfactory but ultimately acceptable alternative would be to reach the Europa League; but qualification for the Europa Conference, by finishing seventh, would be unacceptable. After two successive eighth-placed finishes in the league in the last two years, Mikel Arteta has to ensure that his team at least finish in the top six this season, if not the top four. If he does not do so, then for all the strides forward that he has made, particularly in the transfer market, he could yet be forced out of the club this summer or early next season.

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