The problem with Mikel Arteta, thanks to his long association with Arsenal, his excellence as an Arsenal player, his unflappable cool, amazing hair and piercing stare, is that we all either quite like him, or like him a lot. The static nature of the Arteta Out ‘movement’ is too obvious a point to labour. Nobody really wants him out and certainly nobody wants him to fail. Yet.
Whilst some think he is failing, others point to the sign saying ‘trust the process’. As yet, (and possibly due to prevailing social conditions) there have been few concourse fights called over the matter, and as of today, being pro- or anti-Arteta is not yet a resigning matter from any board of friends or fan collective. Nor is it yet a source of malignant material for social media figures, or grist to the ghastly ‘fan’ tv groups’ mill in the way that the polarisation of Arsene Wenger once provided such valuable service. People are not yet ready to fall out over the red flags waving over Mikel Arteta. And there is as yet no meaningful market for the nascent ‘Arteta Out‘ clickbait industry.
But when Arteta does go, it’ll be a pretty big moment in the history of Arsenal.
By some weird quirk, he remains the only significant link with the Wenger years, and, by extension, ‘Wenger’s Arsenal’. (This, of course, excludes Hector Bellerin, who, some say, may well be gone from the club before the summer is out). When Arteta departs, it will be no exaggeration to claim that the attempted metamorphosis that had been under way at Arsenal since Arsene Wenger joined the club in 1996, will effectively be over. This circle of the club’s life will have been completed, but not in ways any of us hoped for, or expected.
The Grand Plan that emerged from the early Wenger years would see us, theoretically, transformed from being one of the biggest clubs in London to one of the biggest clubs in the world. Truth be told, we were probably already one of the biggest clubs in the world thanks to a lengthy, albeit inconsistent history of periodic success, and an unbroken stint in the game’s oldest league. And Highbury was hardly a backwater. But, you know, we were all set to join the absolute top, topper-most table of Planet Football – supping luxuriantly alongside the Barcas and the Bayerns of the world. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, what actually went wrong was a new source of funds and matching tolerance of unlimited spending was discovered, welcomed in with open arms by a salivating, pumped up, leg’s apart league. One that was very comfortable with selling it’s very soul. And in return, that league duly became the richest home of the sport on Earth. At this precise moment, football went from being the Beautiful Game to the wealthiest one. Outrageous spending blinded most of us to the eventual costs, for which we continue to pay, and pay heavily.
Chelsea’s vulgar arrival on the stage in 2004 was simply the start (if you ignore Sky’s and the Premier League’s more muted arrival some years earlier). Worst was to come in the form of the slightly less provocative – but even wealthier – Manchester City. Freshly minted, they wasted no time in becoming the noisiest of neighbours, supercharged on oil and with a spending brashness encouraged by still more tolerance of unlimited club funding of what was, after all, only supposed to be a bloody game.
In fairness, none of this can be put at the door of Arteta and he could hardly have chosen a more challenging time to join the club. But the journey the former player has taken, from delighting the fans with the excellence of his own on-field performances has morphed to a so-far less inspiring stint as a manager. Despite winning two cups, his insipid, at times dismal, team displays can be characterised as a feast of initial promise which all too rapidly morphed into an unpopular plate of frustrated disappointment. With a side dish of fear-for-the-future, served cold.
So exactly where are we today, with Arsenal FC?
At the very least, we all know we are in for a ‘busy summer’ – Mikel has all but said as much and the writing on the ball is clear for all to see, as a number of players are set to move on.
But this is where it gets interesting – which players?
Are we talking Ainsley Maitland-Niles, by any chance. Eddie Nkitieh? Or Aubamayang and Willian? The mood music appears to be swirling around the former pair as it doesn’t appear to matter how nonchalantly the latter two complete their laboured, generally disinterested shifts on the pitch, Arteta, you feel, will seemingly never call the pair of them out by rewarding them with an extended run in the reserves.
Who knows, maybe Eddie – England’s U21 record goal scorer – just is not Arsenal material. Yet, Maitland-Niles has gone from winning the Man of the Match award for our win in the Community Shield last August, to playing a critical role in West Brom’s slaying of Chelsea, at Chelsea, 2-5, just a couple of days ago. Somehow or other, 2nd from bottom of the Premier League West Bromwich Albion, have managed to find a starring role for Ainsley in a team battling for league survival. One that Mikel simply could not locate. A problem that just does not apply to his first choice forward line, it seems.
For Arsenal, this season is perilously close to being characterised as the dreaded ‘season of two halves’.
The less said about the first half is still too much said, although covid conditions have proved challenging for everyone. Arsenal were about one game away, at one point, from an unenviable berth at the scene of this year’s relegation battle, but were saved from such ignominy by a revelatory – if not thrillingly inspired – switch to the ‘kids’, in the shape of Emile Smith Rowe, Saka and others.
Gradually though, and thanks in part to injury, the first team has regretfully morphed back to it’s unwelcome pre-Xmas shape, with results to match. But it’s hugely concerning that it took until Xmas for Arteta to realise who his best team is. It’s just one of a number of red flags over Arteta that cause me the greatest concern regarding his future prospects as the Arsenal Manager.
Warning signs were already evident over the still hard to explain plight of Ozil, Guenduzi and one or two others. And whilst I was willing to assume Arteta had reasons for his outcasting of those two named, his treatment of a third player was, and remains, unforgivable, in my view.
When Leno dropped out of the first team due to injury last June, 27 years old Emiliano Martinez (birthday 2nd September, so still 27, not yet 28 – have I got this bit right, George?) stepped up to the plate – and how! Coming off the bench to replace freshly injured Leno against Brighton on the 20th June, he saw out the entire remainder of the season, was commended for a string of commanding, stellar performances, and made crucial saves against Chelsea to help win Arsenal’s 14th FA Cup. Incredibly, the ever-ready, always-prepared Martinez played just 15 games for Arsenal in 8 years, but was nonetheless visibly emotional and reduced to tears at the conclusion of the FA Cup. He then went on to do it all again, this time against the mighty Liverpool in the Community Shield with Arsenal again winning, this time on penalties, against literally ALL expectations.
Exactly the kind of player Arsenal have always needed.
But, despite being arguably the better ‘keeper, with a greater command of his box and generating superior confidence in the minds of his own defenders, this Arsenal stalwart, who joined the club back in 2012 and was in possession of the goalie’s jumper at the start of this current season, was somehow relieved of said jumper and sold for a bargain price of ‘up to’ £20 million to Aston Villa, currently ahead of us in the league, sitting pretty in 9th.
These funds are said to have gone towards the purchase of the excellent Thomas Partey – but also Martinez’ rather odd replacement, the Wenger-hating Runar Runarsson.
There are times when Arteta’s Arsenal play very well, but I never really know when that is likely to be.
And Arteta’s red flags – the one’s that fly over his treatment of Ozil and Guendouzi, his sale of Martinez, his persistence with the sluggish PER and the reluctant Willian, as well as alongside his perpetual sidelining of available talents in the form of Martinelli, Nketiah and others, continue to fly strongly in the breeze.
We all want Mikel to succeed – because we all still like him – but his decision-making is the primary source of concern for the future.
Sure, some will trust the process while others, at some point, may start to protest. Either way, despite his perfect hair and steely demeanour, the jury is still very much out on Arteta. He has, by my reckoning, two transfer windows left. Will his decision-making yet step up to the mark in the way at least 3 of his disappointing ‘stars’ currently refuse to, by and large? The coming weeks will give us several clues. And the return of fans to the stadiums will likely force one or two hands, one suspects.
In the meantime, will his capacity to stubbornly stand by those under-performers, at the expense of better, albeit less experienced and younger alternatives, be finally tested to breaking point?
Or will those red flags continue to flutter?
And what of Arsenal, after he goes?
Will we finally return, once and for all, to our more modest, traditional mid-table position, eventually with players of similar quality to match and only the occasional ‘break-out’ season to look forward to? Will our still lofty expectations, lifted outrageously high for so long by one lone, stubborn but brilliant Frenchman, experience the ultimate re-set?
Will we ultimately come to regret that tumultuous, hasty and unplanned clean-break with Arsene Wenger after all?
Have the red flags already been flying for longer than most realise?