Can Mikel Arteta Stop Arsenal From Entering Another Tailspin?

Mikel Arteta During Arsenal's defeat to Manchester City

Before this season, probably the biggest criticism that could be made against Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta was that he didn’t know how to pull a plane out of a tailspin. Once his team started losing, it seemed that he didn’t know how to stop them from losing, such that they would quickly and almost inexplicably lose a succession of games. After the Gunners’ superb first half of this season, their fans had thought that those days were finally over. However, after the comprehensive home defeat to Manchester City, the fear is that Arsenal are in yet another nosedive and that Arteta cannot arrest their descent.

Arsenal’s Tailspins Under Arteta

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An old footballing adage is that a good team does not lose three games in a row. Strictly speaking, Arsenal have not lost three games in a row. However, they have lost four out of their last five matches (including the FA Cup defeat to Manchester City at the end of January) and the one match in that run that they did not lose, against Brentford,  still felt like a defeat. Even if Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), the referees’ body, subsequently admitted that Brentford’s late equaliser should not have stood, that does not give Arsenal back the two crucial points they lost, as the manager has bitterly acknowledged. Consequently, they remain mired in a winless run.

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Last season (2021/22), Arsenal twice lost three games in a row, which is the kind of “double hat-trick” that no team ever wants to achieve. The first of them, of course, came at the start of the season, when they lost to Brentford, Chelsea and City, to leave them bottom of the table. However, the even more damaging run of three losses in a row came much later in the season, when they lost to three midtable teams in succession: Crystal Palace; Brighton; and Southampton. Ultimately, it was that run of three games without even a single point, let alone a win, that cost the team a chance of Champions League qualification, even if their top-four challenge was only formally ended by two late away defeats in succession to Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United.

The season before (2020/21), which was Arteta’s first full season in charge at Arsenal, also featured an utterly unwanted hat-trick of losses, as his side lost three games in a row in November and December 2020 to Wolverhampton Wanderers, Spurs and Burnley, with only the middle one of those games being away from home. Even allowing for the absence of fans from the grounds at that time due to Covid restrictions, it was still a thoroughly dispiriting run of results that extinguished all the initial enthusiasm that the Spaniard had generated with his surprise – nay, astonishing – FA Cup win in the summer of 2020.

Is It Down to Inexperience, or an Inability to Change Games?

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Losing three games in a row or, as in the current run, four out of five games in a row appears to be Arteta’s Achilles heel as a manager. It is a reminder that despite now being in his third full season at Arsenal (having had half a season before that in the Covid-decimated 2019/20 season), he remains relatively inexperienced, especially in comparison with such successful veterans as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp (notwithstanding Liverpool’s travails this season).

Quite simply, the most experienced and most successful managers soon learn early on in their career that they have to arrest slides or wobbles (roughly speaking, a run of two games without winning) before they become something more serious, even terminal. Such managers realise that if they cannot win a match, they absolutely must not lose it and if that necessitates betraying any attacking principles to reinforce their defence, so be it. They realise the damage that three successive losses can cause and they do something – indeed, anything – to stop it from happening.

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It would seem that Arteta is still to learn that lesson, or, if he has learned it, that he remains powerless to stop successive losses from happening. That was painfully evident against the Citizens, especially in the second half when his side appeared to have left their lungs in the dressing room at half-time. Having drawn level with City at the end of the first half, they appeared set fair for the second half, but instead City seemed to up their game to a level that Arsenal just could not cope with.

While Arsenal Burned Out, Arteta Did Not Fiddle

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There are many obvious reasons why the Gunners performed so poorly in the second half against Guardiola’s side: City’s own excellence; fatigue affecting Arsenal’s relatively small squad, which Arteta has arguably not rotated as sufficiently as he should; and, above all, the absence of Thomas Partey, who missed the game through a thigh injury. The Ghanaian midfielder remains the one absolute irreplaceable for Arteta and Arsenal, and that was once more evident against City. Jorginho, signed late in the transfer window from Chelsea, may be able to replace Xhaka (who again disappointed without Partey alongside him, as he had done at Old Trafford earlier in the season), but he cannot replace the 29-year-old.

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However, perhaps the most worrying cause of defeat was Arteta’s own inactivity. It was painfully obvious within 10 minutes of the second half that Arsenal were literally being pushed back by City and that a second goal for the visitors appeared increasingly inevitable. However, rather than change personnel and possibly the momentum of the game by bringing on Trossard for Martinelli (who has not been the same player since he signed his new contract), White for Tomiyasu (who was at fault for City’s first goal) and Fabio Vieira for either of the misfiring Xhaka or Odegaard, the manager did nothing. Or, more precisely, he only made those changes after the opposition had scored their crucial second goal and by then it was too late for the substitutes to effect a comeback.

As was the case against Everton, another one of his former clubs, Arteta seemed almost paralysed on the touchline, unable to halt the one-way flow of traffic towards Arsenal’s goal. Consequently, the team itself seemed paralysed, to the extent that they could not resist City scoring a third goal through Erling Haaland and might have conceded more.

Now Aston Villa – and Unai Emery – Await

Even after this damaging run of one point from a possible nine in the League, all is not lost for the title contenders. Despite playing (and managing) so poorly against the league leaders, somehow they could still have drawn the game, or at least challenged for a draw at the end of it, if Eddie Nketiah had scored even one of the two golden-headed chances that he had when he was left completely alone in the City box. The fact that he didn’t score either of them, or even get either header on target, will only strengthen the suspicion that he will soon lose the position of second-choice striker to Trossard and will be further relegated down the pecking order by the return of Folarin Balogun from Reims. And, of course, even after losing to their title rivals, the North London side are second only on goal difference and with a game in hand.

The problem is that increasingly the Gunners look exhausted and their coach looks as if he doesn’t know how to refresh them. He will have to find a way, and fast, perhaps starting by making the three changes to the starting eleven that he made too late against City. However, even that may not be enough against Aston Villa in the lunchtime kick-off on Saturday that starts the next round of Premier League games. With Unai Emery supremely motivated to gain revenge against the club that sacked him, as well as being a tactically savvy manager who will surely set up his Villa side, even at home, to counter-attack a tired opponent facing a team who have not played for a week, all the ingredients are there for another Arsenal defeat. If Arteta cannot find a way to prevent that, not only will his team’s title bid be over but even their chances of Champions League qualification, which was the initial target at the start of the season, will be imperilled.