Two terrible results and two even worse performances in less than a week have significantly damaged Arsenal’s chances of reaching the Champions League. Prior to the international break, they had their destiny in their own hands; now, after losing limply to Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion, they will be reliant on Tottenham Hotspur slipping up, at the precise point that they look like pulling away. So what’s gone wrong? Here are the top four reasons why Arsenal will probably miss the top four.
Four Reasons Why Arsenal Will Probably Miss the Top Four
Not Just Losing Aubameyang, but Failing to Replace Him
On Saturday 11 December, when Mikel Arteta left Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was then Arsenal’s captain and main striker, out of the squad for the home game against Southampton, allegedly because he was late back returning from a trip to France, Arsenal and their manager had nearly two months to find a replacement if, as now seems certain, Arteta had decided by then that he would be getting rid of the Gabonese. The fact that he failed to do so after mistakenly targeting only one potential replacement in Fiorentina’s Dušan Vlahović, who always seemed likely to join Juventus and duly did so, has left Arsenal with only two recognised central strikers, Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah (aka ‘Lackofthreat’ and ‘Notyetiah’ as fans have nicknamed them’), who have barely scored a Premier League goal between them since Aubameyang’s departure. As written in January, the decision to let Aubameyang go and not even seriously attempt to replace him was “at best borderline reckless and at worst almost criminally irresponsible”.
Unfortunately for Arteta and Arsenal fans, that has proven to be the case, as the team is effectively operating without a striker of any description. Although it is undeniable that Aubameyang’s goals had largely dried up ever since his FA Cup heroics in 2020 led to his huge new contract, Arteta still had to compensate for his complete absence from the squad, either by moving Gabriel Martinelli into a central striking position or even by just deciding not to let Folarin Balogun go out on loan to Middlesbrough. The fact that he did not make such plans and foolishly relied on two non-scoring strikers to get him the goals he needed was a ridiculous gamble that has predictably backfired.
Arteta’s Lack Of Experience as a Manager
Increasingly, Arteta looks like a novice operating against the elite and consequently he is out of his depth as a manager. All the managers of the four clubs that are now above Arsenal in the Premier League can legitimately be said to have genuinely elite managers, who have won either major domestic titles or Champions League titles or both: Pep Guardiola (two Champions League titles with Barcelona and umpteen domestic titles with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City); Jurgen Klopp (a Champions League winner with Liverpool and domestic title winner in both Germany and England); Thomas Tuchel (a Champions League winner with Chelsea and a French champion with PSG); and Antonio Conte (winner of domestic titles in both Italy and England). Against such battle-hardened, multiple-trophy-winning managers, Arteta cannot but look callow and inexperienced.
To demonstrate the importance of having an elite manager, one need only consider the impact of Antonio Conte on Spurs. It is arguable that both Arsenal and Manchester United have better teams and better squads than Spurs, but Spurs now look likely to beat both of them to Champions League qualification, and the single most important reason for that is the presence of Conte. After experiencing almost a kind of culture shock at joining Spurs, the first major club he has managed that has not been a guaranteed trophy-contender, he has settled down and settled the team down, making shrewd additions such as loan signings Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur from Juventus (elite managers tend to have elite contact books) to complement the already potent striking power of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. The result has been six wins in seven at precisely the right time. Consequently, it is impossible not to conclude that if Conte had been appointed by either Arsenal or Man United, they and not Spurs would be in the box-seat for the Champions League.
Arteta’s Tactical Insanity: One-Man Midfields Don’t Work at Arsenal
Inevitably, because of his complete lack of experience as a manager, Arteta is making mistakes on the job. That is understandable and perhaps even to an extent forgivable. However, what is neither understandable nor forgivable is the fact that he keeps on making the same mistakes again and again. In particular, his insistence on trying to play either Martin Ødegaard or Emile Smith Rowe as central midfielders, when both are clearly attack-minded No.10s, which effectively leaves Arsenal with just one orthodox central midfielder alongside them, is pure tactical insanity.
Arteta has tried it three times now in vital matches and each time it has failed spectacularly: against Villareal in the second (home) leg of the Europa League semi-final last season, when Thomas Partey was left alone in the middle of the park; against Manchester City at the start of this season, when the problem was compounded further by the fact that Arsenal’s only orthodox central midfielder, Granit Xhaka, foolishly got himself sent off; and then again versus Brighton this weekend. And the fact that Arteta effectively entrusted the one-man midfield role to Albert Sambi Lokonga, a youngster who had barely played in months, because Partey was injured and Xhaka was being deployed at left-back in the absence of Kieran Tierney, only accentuated the error. Lokonga was completely outplayed by the Brighton central midfielders, especially Enock Mwepu, who capped his fine display with a superb goal. Fernandinho, at Manchester City (Arteta’s previous club), or Patrick Vieira at his imperious best might just be able to play alone in midfield, but the likes of Partey, Xhaka and Lokonga simply cannot, with the result that the whole team is completely knocked off balance.
The Kronkes’ Continuing Lack of Leadership From The Top
Arsenal fans’ opinion of the Kroenkes, the owners of Arsenal, has probably softened a little in recent months, with the realisation that, for all their obvious faults, the Americans at least prevented Arsenal from falling into the hands of Alisher Usmanov, another Putin-affiliated oligarch who is now the subject of Western sanctions, with all the uncertainty that that would have caused.
Nevertheless, the Kronekes can still be attacked for all their other failings, in particular their almost entirely absentee ownership of the club. A direct comparison can be made between Stan Kroenke’s treatment of his own personal pet sporting project, the LA Rams American Football team, and his and his family’s hands-off management of Arsenal. At the turn of the year, when the Rams had a chance of reaching the NFL play-offs and then competing for the Super Bowl, Stan Kroenke in particular and the Kroenkes in general went all in to support them, trading future draft picks for established stars, such as Vonn Miller and Odell Beckham Junior, who duly saw the Rams over the line to win only their second ever Super Bowl and their first in LA.
By complete contrast, Mikel Arteta and Edu, Arsenal’s technical director, received absolutely no help from the Kroenkes in January, during the crucial month of the transfer window. Far from signing established stars to try and support Arteta as he made an unlikely and almost completely unforeseen challenge for Champions League qualification, the Kroenkes remained in America, lending no practical or even symbolic support to their inexperienced manager and equally inexperienced technical director, with the result that Arsenal did not even make the kind of loan signings that have completely galvanised Spurs.
There are many other reasons why Arsenal will probably end up missing out on the top four and Champions League qualification, but these are the main four. The absence of a reliable, goal-scoring striker, the inexperience and tactical weakness of the manager, and the continuing absentee ownership of the Kroenke family have created a situation whereby Arsenal will probably miss out on their best chance in years of returning to Europe’s premier club tournament. And although it is laudable that many Arsenal fans are still keeping faith in Arteta, if he cannot capitalise on the complete absence of European football this season to reach the Champions League, how much harder will it be next season if they are in the Europa League? And if the team’s current slide continues and they do not even qualify for the Europa League, then Arteta’s position will come under threat yet again.
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