Hot Take Sunday: Arse
Somewhere along the line, this has all gone very, very wrong. Arsenal are breaking records all around them, but there’s no glory to be found here. Against Manchester City, they could muster just 19% of possession. They had one shot, all match. Both records. This is their worst start to a league season in 67 years (and at least the Arsenal supporters of 1954 had seen their team win the league the previous season), and things have to improve, or the club could even find itself in a relegation fight for which they are singularly unprepared.
Against Brentford, in the opening fixture of this Premier League season, Arsenal laid down a marker. They seem, however, to have completely misunderstood that this marker was a “do not cross” line, in terms of the quality of their performance. Literally nothing that Mikel Arteta did against Manchester City yesterday afternoon worked. He switched to a three-man defence, a formation which gives a team greater defensive stability, if nothing else, only to find air pockets in front of them in which Manchester City’s players could thrive.
They were two down in twelve minutes, Ilkay Gündogan and Ferran Torres taking ultimate advantage of the all-you-can-eat buffet of space forty yards from the Arsenal goal, and with ten minutes left of the half, Granit Xhaka… well, he Granit Xhakaed it. It’s been four weeks since his proposed transfer to Roma fell through, and last week it was confirmed that he had signed a contract extension with Arsenal instead. Yesterday afternoon, his feet flew through the air with the greatest of ease in the general direction of Joao Cancelo, taking the Manchester City player out and himself out from the game with an utterly needless red card.
From here on, the match was no more than a matter of how many goals Manchester City. If Arsenal can take anything from this match, it should be how much worse things might have been had City acquired any of their summer attacking transfer targets. Gabriel Jesus added a third at the end of the first half, Rodri added a fourth midway through the second, and even though Manchester City visibly seemed to ease off a little with the fourth goal, there was still time for Torres to add a fifth, with six minutes to play.
So, for Arsenal, the only way is up. The margin of defeat was heavy enough to drop Arsenal to the very bottom of the Premier League, below Norwich City on (a lack of) goals scored, and it’s difficult to argue that they’re not there on merit. There’s an international break next week, but the week after Arsenal play Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium in a match which both teams may well be relieved will not be shown live on the television. Indeed, on the basis of yesterday’s performance, Arsenal supporters might be forgiven lobbying for expanding the Saturday 3pm blackout, at least for their own team.
Apart from his lovely, thick, lustrous hair, it’s difficult to think of anything much that can be said in Mikel Arteta’s defence at the moment. Arteta is a great idea, in theory, a popular former Arsenal player who, it had been presumed, had been learning the from the best, in the form of Pep Guardiola, as his assistant at Manchester City. Taking on an inexperienced manager was, from Arsenal’s perspective, not without risk, but they knew him from his previous time with the club, and a lot of people within the game had a lot of positive things to say about him. There were few who openly predicted that things would end up going this wrong.
He was forgiven an 8th placed finished in his first season, for winning the FA Cup and the fact that he ad only been in the job since the previous December, but a second successive 8th placed finish last season was more difficult to excuse, especially as these were Arsenal’s joint-lowest Premier League finishes since the mid-1990s. Transfer policy has been muddled, to say the least. Nicolas Pépé, the club’s record signing, was probably the Premier League’s most underwhelming player of last season, while, with times tough for all bar a tiny number of clubs, their big summer signings have been a central defender and a second-choice (for now) goalkeeper.
It would be, though, more than a little unfair to blame all of Arsenal’s ills on Arteta. This is a club which has been in a peculiar state, somewhere between stasis and decline, for a decade and a half, now. In May 2006, Arsenal had Jens Lehman sent off in the Champions League final against Paris in Barcelona. Despite that, they took the lead and held it for forty minutes before two Barcelona goals in five minutes took the trophy to Catalunya. That summer, the club moved into The Emirates Stadium, a 60,000 capacity stadium for a club with the most expensive season tickets in the land. That combination of potential increased revenues and seemingly perpetual Champions League money made it look as though the future would belong to Arsenal. How wrong that particular prediction turned out to be.
The first signs of Arsenal’s mis-calculation had come a year earlier, with Chelsea’s first league title win in 50 years. Roman Abramovich had changed the rules of engagement, financially. Three years later, Sheikh Mansour distorted the financial picture even more when he started pumping money into Manchester City like a foie gras goose. The clubs with the huge global fanbases – Liverpool and Manchester United – could stay in touch with this, but Arsenal started to fade. Arsene Wenger maintained a mirage by continuing the club’s outstanding record of qualifying for the Champions League, but the benefit of hindsight offers us a clearer view of the decline. The rules of the game had already silently changed.
In around 2005, Arsenal were usually first or second in the Premier League. By 2010, they were usually third or fourth. By 2018, it was fifth or sixth. There were occasional better seasons – hands up who else had forgotten that they ended up as runners-up to to Leicester City in 2016 – but on the whole they’ve glided rather than collapsed, under the not particularly watchful eye of owners who seem reasonably content to do little more than sit back and count the annual dividend money. They’ve spent money – Arsenal have spent more than any other club in Europe over the course of this transfer window – but there’s little sign of much co-ordination beyond Mikel Arteta’s “process”, which evidently isn’t working.
The inevitable question which follows all of this is… what happens next? It’s not that Arsenal’s problems are completely intractable. They remain a very wealthy football club, even if the current pandemic will have impacted their finances, just as they have for almost everyone else. The problem is that three games into the season and three days from the end of the summer transfer window would be just about the most difficult time of the year to make a managerial change.
The new manager would have little choice but to play at least the first half of his first season, not only with somebody else’s squad, but with somebody else’s malfunctioning squad. Arsenal’s players might be good enough to transform themselves under a different system, but the games would be coming thick and fast and against teams which weren’t in the throes of the sort of changes that Arsenal could have made during the summer. Even taking the most positive viewpoint of how this might play out, it’s not ideal. The most negative viewpoint suggests that the ship has sailed in terms of what European football’s ‘elite’ now looks like, and that Arsenal have missed that boat.
To suggest that the international break is ‘welcome’ for Arsenal is to imply that there is a quick fix to all of this, when there probably isn’t one. Replacing Mikel Arteta would certainly be the cathartic thing to do and it may be the right thing to do, but it’s clear that Arsenal’s slide pre-dates him, and it might well be that the club can only lifted out of its current funk if Stan Kroenke decides to cash out and sell up. And even under those circumstances, there are no guarantees that selling up will even be to anybody better. After all, this was a conversation that was held prior to his arrival at the club in the first place. Whether Arteta is in charge against Norwich City or not, this is a match that has taken on a significance that few anticipated, and that fewer still will be relishing.