Financially and personally the Arsenal hierarchy have invested a great deal in Mikel Arteta. They want it to work. It isn’t working.
Ten years to the day after the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United that is still a scar on Arsenal’s heart, everything has changed. The manager, the players, the financial landscape. And nothing has changed. Arsenal are brittle, a cadre of good young players guided by inconsistent veterans who have never shown they can lead by example and a manager whose selections don’t display the self confidence of old.
The only reason this did not feel like it was going to be a repeat of a decade ago was you couldn’t believe Arsenal would score twice. Even the good passages of passing amount to little. Their only chance of note in the first half coming when Ederson directed his blase clearance straight at a pressing Emile Smith Rowe. The young No.10 and Bukayo Saka offered glimpses of creativity but they could hardly do it all themselves. Instead early interplay between those two resulted in the ball coming back to Cedric Soares, who took half a dozen touches, looked around and passed it sideways.
That was how Arsenal attacked in the brief period when they did so and brief it was. A bright flurry early on but between the seventh minute and Granit Xhaka’s red card they touched the ball in the City third on just seven occasions.
It was 5-0 but it could have been so much worse. The gulf was as great as it has ever been for an Arsenal side. Only desperate late defending and some rather profligate build up work kept City from turning this into an American football score. This was a result years in the making, a period where the Gunners have spent poorly, committed to players who lack the consistency and not built around a coherent plan.
Arteta likes to allude to the long term nature of the structural problems that were on firm display this afternoon — eight of this starting XI were still at the club when Arsene Wenger was manager — but he is not immune to responsibility for them. Cedric, at best a backup right back, was handed a four year contract on the manager’s watch having never played a competitive game during his loan from Southampton. Pablo Mari was so utterly tyrannized by Romelu Lukaku last week that he was replaced by Sead Kolasinac, a player Arsenal have been trying to shift since the summer after they gave him a six figure weekly wage on a free transfer to Schalke.
Even this week they have been talking about ripping up the final year of that contract, paying him to go away, and now he was lining up in a back three alongside Rob Holding and Calum Chambers. All three of those have played more than 110 games for Arsenal. In each case the sample of them playing to the level required for a top four side is 20 percent or less.
Basic errors from them abounded. Chambers, whose return to the Arsenal side was based on his aerial ability, allowed himself to lose an aerial duel to 5ft 8in Ilkay Gundogan for the first goal. A short free kick was pinged around by three City players under no pressure before it was somehow rolled into an undefended space for Ferran Torres to tap in. Arsenal had five defenders and a midfield anchorman on the pitch (the latter at least for a while) and yet Gabriel Jesus and Torres found no pressure on them for their goals.
Rodri’s might have been the pick of the punch, rolling the ball into Bernd Leno’s bottom corner with his in step, but the pressure on the ball was nonexistent. Arteta is not the first manager who has been left exasperated by these basic errors. On occasion he has looked like he might be able to limit them (last season Arsenal had the third best defense in the league) but this was the familiar sort of woeful.
The absence of Gabriel Magalhaes and Ben White are mitigating factors but in such circumstances it is on Arteta to mitigate the risks his cobbled together defense face. Instead he built a midfield screen that was effectively Xhaka on his own. He is another on which the jury has long since delivered its verdict.
When the going gets tough, Granit Xhaka’s head gets going. When the burden of captaincy proved to be too much for him in trying times he invited the Emirates Stadium faithful to “f*** off”. A post match mixed zone with the Swiss international following a defeat often felt like an invitation for aggro. It was a matter of time before he lost his cool in the Etihad sun. There are those who would debate whether a two footed tackle that does not catch Joao Cancelo is worthy of a dismissal but the senior midfielder gave Martin Atkinson a decision to make.
“I am angry because of the consequences that it had for the team,” Arteta said, stopping just short of directly criticizing Xhaka and instead turning his ire towards officials after what he felt was a “clear punch” by Aymeric Laporte on Chambers away from the ball as City scored their second. “I must say the line that we’re being judged with is really, really thin because we have suffered actions like that already in the last two Premier League games and nothing happened. I’m very disappointed with the second goal, the way they allowed that goal.”
It felt like an ill omen that his most trusted lieutenant would let him down on a day when pressure mounted on Arteta like never before. When he arrived in December 2019 one of the rookie head coach’s first acts was to convince Xhaka not to leave Arsenal. This summer after failing to secure the price they wanted for what would have been a reluctant sale to Roma they instead activated a clause to extend the 28-year-old’s contract. What did the club get for that show of faith? The latest in a long line of occasions where he made a game harder for his teammates.
Eventually it will be Arteta who pays the price. Pre match there was no indication from club sources that his job was under serious threat even as frustration mounted over the standard of performances. It is less than a year since chief executive Vinai Venkatesham promoted the Spaniard from head coach to manager after half a season in charge, stating that “I find it a bit difficult to talk about him not being here”. They have backed him by securing at significant cost the players he wanted — disregarding any other creative option to secure for him Martin Odegaard — even if the youthful bent of their new additions has always suggested that they could outlast their new manager.
The pre-international break results may have just been a loss to Brentford in unique circumstances and two games that they deep down knew would almost certainly end in defeat. Still the nature of the performances is so meek, so reflective of muddled thinking from Arteta that it means that questions from supporters will be deafening. It was that which ultimately cost Unai Emery, a manager Arsenal hung on too long beyond the point where they should have made a change.
So far there is no sign that Arsenal have reached that point with their current manager, a man who is extremely popular with those above him. Yet the clock is firmly ticking for Arteta, each fixture taking on monumental importance as he fights for time and patience. His bosses will want to give him it but marooned at the bottom of the table without a league goal to their name, the scenarios in which this does not go down as the beginning of the end are vanishing ever more swiftly.