Arsenal Players Aren’t the Only Ones Learning

Arsenal, Mikel Arteta (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Arsenal, Mikel Arteta (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images) /

Criticism has been directed Mikel Arteta’s way. Much of it justified.

When Arteta took the Arsenal job back in December, there were two things that sprung to mind: he’s either absolutely insane, or, he’s one brave man.

The shambles he inherited didn’t put him in an unenviable position. And not just regarding matters on the pitch.

He’s had to contend with a forlorn and confidence stricken squad, fan revolt, question marks over his qualifications, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s contract situation, Granit Xhaka’s controversial reintegration, contracting COVID-19, COVID-19 bringing football to an unprecedented standstill, boardroom alterations, financial cuts, a bloated squad, an inedequate squad, an inflated wage bill, dealing with a petulant Matteo Guendouzi and the dramatically publicised Mesut Ozil saga.

Miss anything? Probably. All of this, and more, in his first ever senior coaching role. A first dabble at football management.

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It’s been ten months.

And after the disappointment of Sunday evening, a match in which Arsenal had started so well, having actual, genuine, pops at goal. 11 in one half. A distinct improvement having averaged under nine across 90 minutes so far this season.

But we lost. A Jamie Vardy sucker-punch that was so predictable did the damage, and a weak, limp second half performance was worthy of it.

Which brings us to the hours that followed where Unai Emery begins trending on social media.

Question marks over whether he is fit to do the job arose from some sections; damnations over the style of play he’s implementing and an apparent unwillingness to stray away from Plan A.

Justifed? Justified, to a degree.

There are obvious holes to poke from the display against the Foxes: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is not a right-winger, the usage – or lack thereof – of Thomas Partey was contentious, the timing of the substitutions… indeed, more than one angle of critique.

Would the outrage have been quite as vociferous if the game had finished 0-0? If Arsenal had held on then the talk would have centred around a vastly improved first half in which the Gunners looked repeatedly threatening. Goals change games, and had Alexandre Lacazette’s header not been wrongly disallowed, the resulting 86 minutes would have played out differently.

No such narrative transpired, however, and now Arteta facing the brunt of some disgruntled fans.

When he took on the job, he initially set out to play a 4-2-3-1 with Mesut Ozil in the hole. Some results were forthcoming, but the overall balance of the team was off and he knew in order to steady the ship a considerable smattering of pragmatism would be required.

Transforming a side with no steel in their spine, if they even had one, three central defenders were called upon. While not the same exact system, it became a counter attacking ploy one would see from the likes of Crystal Palace on the road: suffocation in central areas that would open up into swift motions on the break.

Arteta guided Arsenal to an FA Cup title playing that way.

Summer transfer window over and key areas addressed – albeit not all of them – slowly but surely he’s began moulding the side back into a more offensive-minded unit. Just as he’s undertaken a transition into a compact, well-drilled outfit, that is now uncoiling back into the manner he has wanted to employ from the off.

Not having the personnel to play that way, Arteta is now sounding out how to do so with just a few of his ideal squad members. A manager should be adaptable to what he’s given, of course, – as he had done initially – but as of yet he’s yet to find that groove in a 4-3-3. We all know the squad isn’t where it needs to be, but inroads have been made.

On Sunday, it was the best 11 players available to him that took to the pitch. Not everyone was in the right place, nor was everyone bestowed with a job role that suited them. A feeble case could have been made pre-match for any one player starting ahead of another.

It just wasn’t right.

Before the Leicester match, Arteta will have been possibly the giddiest he’s been since taking the job. Far from complete, that was the closest he’d come to what he wants Arsenal to be. This is the same Arsenal that fans have backed him up staunchly to up until this point.

Fears over his managerial credentials have emerged from the rubble of that second half performance. Premature fears.

When you hire a manager who’d never been in charge of a club before, let alone one of this stature, it can’t be realistically presumed he won’t be fallible at some point? Arteta will have learned more in the last ten months than he will have in his entire career prior.

As soon as he had that first press conference, no Arsenal fan could believably have sat there and expected all our troubles to be washed away. Bumps in the road were to come. Plenty of them, we can assume. And even more still.

Yet with each and every one, the players learn. Arteta learns.

If there is no scope to grant the man time to transform the outlook of this team through after the period he’s been through, the financial hardships and the enormity of the task at hand, then Lord so help me I dare not imagine what would happen if an experienced coach took the role.

Next. Lacazette's Struggles. dark

Oh, wait, I do. His name was Unai, and it was awful.