We have entered desperate times, and I did not think we would be saying this only a year into Mikel Arteta’s tenure. But here we are. I genuinely did not foresee him disappointing the optimism I had this quickly, but here we are. Let’s talk about what have been the key let-downs.
Just to get it out of the way, I thought the complete freezing out of Ozil was seriously ill-advised at the time. After playing almost every minute pre-lockdown, it was strange that he did not play when things restarted, and a little bewildering that he was simply not even deemed worthy of registration in any of our main competitions in this season. This decision was so heavy that it probably will go on to define, to some extent, Arteta’s first full season for the club. Keep winning without Ozil and you can happily justify that big call. Struggle without him and you look like a clown for not at least giving yourself the option.
Amid the speculation on whether the decision was forced on him by the club, Arteta certainly came out to take full responsibility, not only for the decision itself but also for whatever the consequences on the pitch may be. And, as the team continues to struggle to create (of which our manager is in full denial mode), leaving out the club’s most creative player is increasingly looking like a silly move. It seems extreme that our German playmaker, who was a main chess piece, cannot even make pawn status. What changed so drastically that prompted the drastic move? Despite Mikel’s words, speculation will continue.
This leads me to the point of the famed non-negotiables. “There are some non-negotiables. The demands we put on the team, the commitment, the energy we put in, that dominance. We are the biggest football club in England…” [we’ll put this comment down to euphoria at the time]. These were Arteta’s words, and we as fans lapped them up. But I am now realising we may have wrongly assumed their meaning.
I think most of us understood Mikel’s words to imply the implementation of a meritocracy, where there would be no favourites, no one playing on the fumes of reputation. There would be inflexible standards on discipline and performance. At least that’s what we were led to believe were the reasons for Ozil’s exclusion (apparently AMN also got frozen out for being late), for instance, but it’s confusing to see a player like Willian continue to be selected despite failing to meet performance and discipline expectations. Or is he?
For me, that first half against Everton was enough to give him unpaid leave for the rest of 2020 – he has registered one shot on target all season. That aside, the unauthorised trip to Dubai was the best opportunity to display how the violation of Mikel’s non-negotiables will be treated. Yet, reward, not punishment, was the consequence as Willian started 3 days later against Leeds. It smacks of double standards, an inconsistency in the way Arteta is dealing with the squad, which we did not anticipate. The players will not be blind to this, and it will diminish the respect they have for the manager.
Willian must have compromising Arteta’s nudes. Either that, or our manager’s stubbornness is being revealed to us more and more. Willian was the player who was going to justify the exclusion of Ozil, so I guess this is the hill Arteta is willing to die on.
Just to go back on why I think we misunderstood Arteta. When you read the rest of his non-negotiables comments, to me it sounds less about meritocracy and more about his expectations on every player to follow instructions and buy into the plan regardless of results.
“If people are starting to doubt the process, because of one result, two results, or we made a little mistake here, you have to be ruthless. Believe it, and go, put your foot on the gas and go and go and go. People must understand that there is this way, and no other way. There are some things non-negotiable. That is the organisation and structure. Within that organisation you have freedom. But if somebody does not know how to live within these parameters, at this level, it won’t work.”
What he did not bank on is that “the process” might produce worse results than the “one result, two results” he anticipated. He generally got buy-in from the players at first, even convincing our star player to sign and fulfil his desire to be an Arsenal legend. But a plan is as good as its outcomes. Players will not “believe it and go and go and go” when the plan yields 1 win in 10 games. Your star striker starts growing weary from the toiling when he has scored only 3 goals after 14 matches, 2 of which are penalties, when he is having to feed off measly crumbs. Red cards start piling up as players start venting their frustrations on the pitch.
Next, Mikel has recently used stats to show how Arsenal’s problem is not a deficiency in the tactics. First was the relationship between crossing and mathematics: “I think it’s the first time in the Premier League that we put 33 crosses. I’m telling you that if we do that more consistently, we are going to score more goals. If we put the bodies we had in certain moments in the box, it’s maths, pure maths & it will happen.”
Then, just this Monday, he rattled off some win/loss probabilities to show how we have just been unlucky. I am not sure how these percentages were calculated (some say it’s based on xG, which still feels like a misuse of the stat), but it all sounded really strange. Either way, it is never a good look once a manager comes to press conferences armed with such specific numbers and stats – think of the “fact sheets” moments of Benitez or classic third season Mourinho. It implies that he doesn’t accept that his methods might not be working, but rather he believes there is some other unexplained or irrational force working against him.
I would like to believe Mikel is an intelligent man – people who think as deeply about the game as he was doing already in his playing days are usually quite brainy. So, when I see these comments, I want to believe that it’s a decoy, a distraction tactic aimed at making us pay attention to inconsequential things while he works on the actual problems. But, after the 33 crosses against Wolves, we really did go to Spurs to make 44 crosses, then another 39 versus Burnley (a well-known aerially adept team, mind). All of this when our main striker has scored only 3 headed goals out of 57 in his whole Premier League career (Lacazette is 4 out of 40). So, he clearly believed what he was saying, and on that basis one can assume he genuinely believes those weird win probability stats too. This should seriously worry any Arsenal fan.
Arteta’s lack of experience is starting to show, and really, this adversity was going to be the true test of whether he is ready for a job as big as Arsenal. I am glad it arrived early so that we can quickly settle on the answer sooner rather than later. So far, it feels like he is already grasping at straws, looking for any reason outside of his own tactics that might prove that he is making the right decisions. It sounds like luck, stats, maths, and the players’ inefficiency in front of goal are to blame for our dire start to the season. If he’s a manager worth his salt and is as intelligent as he’s perceived to be, he’d sit down with his team and do some serious reflection, allow his team to point out the errors of his ways, and deal with the problems in a realistic and sustainable way.
I first encountered Arsenal when I got exposed to English football around 2004 (that champagne football sold it for me), but only learnt of the Invincible season much later on. I used to think the club is named after Arsene – a bit silly in retrospect. Appreciate the perspective and stories of older Gooners who’ve supported the club longer than I’ve been alive. Market researcher with a keen interest in photography (David Price and Stuart McFarlane have the best job in the world).
Oh, almost bought a Man United shirt as a youngster because I saw a friend of mine, who was the cool kid, wearing one. So glad I didn’t go down that road!