Now that the Arsenal honeymoon phase is over, Mikel Arteta’s naysayers are unloading their criticisms.
Some might have a case. After the loss to Tottenham, Arsenal are off to a 4-1-6 start to the 2020/21 Premier League season. Sitting in 15th place in the Premier League table, that is the worst start to an Arsenal campaign in 39 years.
It wasn’t always supposed to be like this. It feels like just recently that Arsenal were hoisting their 14th FA Cup, squad members were not only trusting but doubling down on Mikel Arteta’s vision, and supporters were ready to trust the process.
Three months is a long time, though. Since the FA Cup victory, what felt like just a glimpse of all that the Arteta era had in store has melted the club down into its previous form – a historic club chasing the high of its former glory. Arsenal are watching its rivals evolve and construct new identities while struggling to create their own.
Arteta has been labeled many things as both a player and a coach. On the positive side, the Spaniard has been dubbed a driven, brilliant football-mind that can motivate and unlock true potential. Conversely, he has been identified as a hard headed, obsessive control freak.
At Arsenal, Arteta won over the players by the end of a bizarre 2019/20 season. Although he earned the squad’s favor, he was and still is working with a team made up of players signed before his hiring.
His area of expertise, where he played – central midfield – is Arsenal’s ongoing question mark. So many problems swirl above the midfield like a stormcloud, and they have yet to be answered. Where is the creativity? Where is the defensive bite? How can the gap between attack and defense be filled?
Right now, Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka are the pair available for game-to-game selection. Arteta’s marquee signing in Thomas Partey looks like he has a few of the answers Arsenal are looking for, but he has been injury prone since arriving and doesn’t look to be fully fit any time soon. Mohamed Elneny had a short stint in the starting lineup, however, he has slowly fallen back down the ladder.
So, Ceballos and Xhaka it is.
Although the two have their strengths, their weaknesses are prominent in an Arsenal team which lacks craftiness.
Ceballos works solely as a lateral structure in the midfield. Working towards the ball and opening up passages with through balls are where he is the most effective, but he doesn’t often progress play by making runs or driving at players. Xhaka is not progressive at all. He is a pivot, and primarily uses long balls and switches to move the ball.
Both players are one-footed, resilient to turn onto their weak foot. Many times, they don’t release the ball quickly enough and are dispossessed or forced into a rushed pass.
Paired with an attacking midfielder that makes clever runs, produces creative passes into channels, and threatens with shots from the top of the box, both Xhaka and Ceballos could be complementary assets. Without that No. 10 role player (a void that Arsenal desperately need to fill), the effectiveness of both current Arsenal midfielders vanishes. He said in his first press conference:
"“I want the football to be expressive, entertaining. I cannot have a concept of football where everything is based on the opposition.“If you keep the ball then the opposition will get tense and want to get aggressive. This will force them to break out of their positions and this is when you expose the space.”"
This idea works in theory with the current team, but as we have seen, its effectiveness has yet to be seen this season. A lot of this may be due to the cards he has been dealt. But, without a competent attacking midfielder, there is a hollow pit in Arsenal’s attacking play. The lack of creativity forges a huge barrier in Arsenal’s search for goals.
Even the different formations that we have seen Arteta implement (4-2-3-1, 3-4-3, and most recently 4-3-3) are all dependent on player personnel and form. The shaky form of first team players has forced him to use an ever-changing lineup, meaning team formation is constantly modified.
Right now, play is too predictable, too cookie-cutter. What the Premier League is seeing from its top teams are new, fresh, and innovative tactics. Arsenal’s astonishing lack of goals this season are proof of an absence of midfield inspiration. Players no longer look confident like they did at the start of Arteta’s takeover.
Arsenal will sacrifice first team players before they part ways with Arteta. There is potential for some big name signings at the January transfer window. No longer should Arsenal on the lookout for complimentary pieces for Arteta to fit into the team. Instead, the club should be on the lookout for a player to begin the mold of Arsenal’s new identity around.