After the sacking of former Arsenal manger Unai Emery on November 29th 2019 and a brief managerial stint from former invincible Freddie Ljungberg, Mikel Arteta was bought in to revolutionise The Gunners. To take them back to their glory days. The Spaniard enjoyed a very successful time at Manchester City as assistant to fellow countryman Pep Guardiola, winning back-to-back Premier League titles, two FA Cups along with an EFL trophy. Arteta, who was linked with the Arsenal job before the arrival of Unai Emery back in 2018 felt this time round was the right moment for him to take the next step in his coaching career, but taking the leap at a club the size of Arsenal was never going to be easy, with the Premier League year on year becoming more competitive it was always going to be an uphill battle without its down moments.
Mikel Arteta and Arsenal finished the 19/20 season in eighth, three points behind Wolves and their North London rivals Tottenham. Meaning that Europa League qualification from the Premier League was out of the question, yet another disappointing campaign for The Gunners. However, Arsenal had one last chance to make it into Europe via the FA Cup. A trophy that Arsenal had won a joint record 13 times. A semi-final victory against his former club Manchester City, Arteta and Arsenal were into the FA Cup final. A match that could turn their extremely underwhelming season into something remarkable, considering Mikel had only taken his first steps into management six months prior, it would certainly set the tone and give a sense of excitement to Arsenal fans of perhaps things on the horizon.
On a warm August day, Arsenal and Chelsea met once again at Wembley. Similarly, to the 2017 final Arsenal were going into the match as underdogs. A goal in the 5th minute from the superb Christian Pulisic saw Chelsea in front, only for Arsenal’s star man Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang to equalize in the 28th through a calmly placed penalty. It took until the 68th minute for another Arsenal goal, yet again from Aubameyang. That was it, that was enough for Arsenal to win their 14th FA Cup trophy and for Mikel Arteta to win his first piece of silverware as a manager, all within his first six months of taking the job and without a chance to really flex his muscles in the transfer market, it was nothing short of impressive. Nevertheless, this was much more than just another trophy to the cabinet, it was Arsenal’s way into Europe.
Less than a month later, Arsenal had the chance to win another trophy, if you want to call it that. The Community Shield versus Liverpool was yet another hard task for Arteta. The Premier League champions would be looking to continue their form and pick up another piece of silverware on the way. Once again, The Gunners prevailed. A penalty shootout was what it took to secure the win after a 1-1 draw in regular time. Mikel Arteta rose to the occasion, an impressive young coach beating some of England’s best teams, but the dream couldn’t last forever, could it?
Let’s fast forward to 9th December 2020, Arsenal are sitting 15th in the Premier League, have already lost six matches, Aubameyang has only netted twice in eleven games and Mikel’s side have created the joint least number of chances in the league, it’s a completely different side that collected the FA Cup trophy back in August. The tactics seem non-existent, the high intensity pressing, the fluid transitions between defence and attack, but what has changed?
Arsenal had a rather strange transfer window, COVID-19 certainly played its part on the financial side, and many teams across Europe may not have had the funds to strengthen in certain areas that they would have liked to. It was well known that The Gunners had plans to get a large chunk of players off their books due to a couple of reasons. Underperforming players on high wages who weren’t proving their worth, or players that were running down their contract and that Arsenal did not want to lose on a free transfer. Due to the coronavirus crisis, there was a handful of interest but due to teams not being able to generate funds, Arsenal struggled to sell. Outgoings for the summer were as followed;
- Emiliano Martinez to Aston Villa for 15.7m
- Henrikh Mkhitaryan to Roma was a free transfer as Arsenal terminated his contract
- Matteo Guendouzi to Hertha Berlin on a season long loan
- Kostas Mavropanos to Stuttgart on a season long loan
- Lucas Torreira to Atletico Madrid on a season long with an option to buy
- Dejan Illiev to Shrewsbury on a season long
This was hardly the clear out that fans were expecting. In terms of incomings, Arsenal fans were unsure on a few signings and they had more than a reason to be;
- Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid for 45m
- Gabriel from Lille for 23.4m
- Pablo Mari from Flamengo for 7.2m
- Alex Runarsson from Dijon for 1.8m
- Cedric from Southampton on a free transfer
- Willian from Chelsea on a free transfer
Gabriel and Thomas Partey are absolutely brilliant signings for Arsenal, top quality players in important positions that they have needed for years. However, Willian and Cedric were questionable, and what makes the situation even more interesting is that they both share the same agent, Kia Joorabchian. Kia, also happens to be the agent of Arsenal technical director, Edu. Are these signings that Arteta wanted? Willian who has recently turned 32, is the exact opposite signing that Arsenal were expected to make, an ageing player on the decline, on high wages. Similarly, The Gunners signed Brazilian and former Chelsea man David Luiz a year prior to Willian, whose agent is funnily enough, Kia Joorabchian. Former Crystal Palace chairman Simon Jordan famously once said;
‘’Agents are nasty scum. They’re evil and divisive and pointless. They only survive because the rest of the sport is so corrupt and because leading football club people employ their sons in the job’’.
Arsenal have never been a club to use high profile agents when signings players, especially when Arsene Wenger was in charge who had a rather similar view to Simon Jordan, with the Frenchmen taking a rather less aggressive view as Simon.
What added to a rather frustrating window was then the complete ejection of Mesut Ozil. The German playmaker was not even registered in the Arsenal 20/21 Premier League squad so was completely ineligible to play. The situation caused a stir between fans and the board, something Arteta really didn’t want going into the season. In truth, Ozil hasn’t been at the heights that he hit for Real Madrid or at the start of his Arsenal career for some years, but there is no denying the talent he has, and to completely leave him out of the squad seemed like a ludicrous decision. Arteta was quoted saying;
‘’Honestly, I take full responsibility. I have to be the one getting the best out of the players. It’s my responsibility. It’s nothing relating to any behaviour or, like I read, the pay cuts. It’s not true. It’s my decision. If someone has to blame me – and it will happen when we lose football matches – my responsibility. I have to make the decisions to get the best possible squad in order to win football matches and competitions as often as we can’’.
To this day, fans think this decision has caused a huge amount of unnecessary frustration inside of the Arsenal camp. Has it caused players to turn against Arteta amounting in a drop of form? It certainly doesn’t look brilliant when you’re bottom of the league for chances created and your best creative player is ineligible to play any matches. To add further frustration, the young French centre back William Saliba who had just finished a season long loan at AS Saint-Étienne was expected to make his step into the Arsenal first team. Saliba was purchased in the summer of 2019 for a fee of 27m and spent a season on loan to carry on his progression, however, things haven’t quite worked out that way. Saliba was left unregistered from Arsenal’s Europa League team for the season so is unable to feature, although as he is under the age of 21, he is eligible to play in the Premier League, but is yet to take part in a single match day squad. The Frenchman’s former coach Fabio Frasconi who taught him at under-12 & under-13 level said;
‘’William Saliba will go far, very far. He reminds me of Raphaël Varane. As a kid, he was already above the rest, technically clean, comfortable with the ball. I have never seen a kid have such a desire to succeed.’’
Who is making these strange decisions behind the scenes? Is it Mikel Arteta, or someone further up the ladder?
Taking a look at the more positive areas of the season, Arsenal are now the only club to have not lost a game in the Europa League, they are top of Group B and through to the knockout stages with flying colours. Granted, the quality of opposition is drastically less than in the Premier League, but the difference of football that is played in Europe to the Premier League is incomparable. Expansive, beautiful football, exactly what Arsenal are known for. Academy graduate Folarin Balogun was the next youngster from the famous Hale End to take his chance in Europe this season, netting a goal in his second game in the Arsenal first team. It will certainly put a smile on all Arsenal fans seeing one of their own score his first goal for the club, even if that is all there is to smile about.
What football boils down to at the end of the day is results. It’s a result driven business. With the Christmas period approaching and the football schedule heating up, it’s going to be a tough time for Mikel Arteta. Sitting 15th in December is never a good look, especially for a club the size of Arsenal. However, he has time to turn things around. Can the Spaniard make a signing or two in the winter transfer window? Hopefully, without the influence of high-profile agents. Perhaps a creative player? As Mikel clearly isn’t in favour of the five-time German player of the year winner he has sitting on his sofa at home every weekend.