Boxing Day 2020, one of the highlights of last season.
You certainly remember that day, the gloomy atmosphere and the awkward feeling that another manager would get the sack after the final whistle.
Mikel Arteta arrived to that crucial game on the back of a terrible spell of zero wins in seven Premier League games and only four in fourteen games, with no sign of imminent improvements and some of the worst football we played in recent years. For him to be relieved of his duties seemed inevitable and many fans already made peace with the idea that we would go on in our endless search for the right man to take the helm after Arsène Wenger.
Mikel Arteta really looked out of his depth and definitely too young and inexperienced for such a gargantuan task, even if we leave aside the mess in the boardroom and all the external factors; I was sad to see him go, I really wanted Mikel to be our own Pep Guardiola, instead of our David Moyes.
Then, the magic kicked in: Emile Smith Rowe put a masterclass for his first start in the Premier League, Granit Xhaka finally hit the target with a free-kick, Bernd Leno saved a penalty and Bukayo Saka lobbed Mendy from a very tight angle. A true sliding doors moment.
Mikel Arteta kept his job after that win and Frank Lampard lost his, in favour of Thomas Tuchel, who was himself sacked by PSG the day before the game.
Seven months later, Chelsea are the favorites to win the Premier League after winning the Champion’s League and the European Super Cup, while we finished eight and lost to Villarreal in the Europa League semifinals. Was it a good or bad sliding door moment, in hindsight?
I still want Mikel Arteta to succeed but I’m less optimistic with every day. He arrived with plenty of bold and futuristic ideas but we’re still watching the same football every week, with the same mistakes and same shortages so I struggle to remain optimistic. I understand that the rebuilding process takes time and that he is not responsible for every decision that is made but there have been so many poor choices since he took over that I start questioning whether there is some substance behind his words.
From the way he handled the goalkeepers situation to the extensive use of Willian instead of any other wide player; from the refusal to give William Saliba a chance while keeping faith in Shkodran Mustafi to the crazy outburst about the insane number of crosses we were putting into the box while having zero aerial threat, I started to think that Mikel Arteta might not be the right man or, at least, might not be the right man in this specific moment in time.
Something was broken when we played Villarreal away and let them run riot and then it got worse in the reverse fixture, at home, when we played with very little desire to overcome the one-goal deficit and zero ideas to unsettle a team whose tactical plan was painfully obvious, given how frequently we’ve seen it when Unai Emery was our manager.
I appreciated how we changed our approach in the market, going from the likes of Willian, Cédric or Pablo Marí to some young, exciting prospects like Albert Sambi Lokonga or Nuno Tavares but I struggle to understand why we extended Granit Xhaka’s contract until 2024, given how vocal he has been about his desire to leave, throughout the summer, or why we are still playing Alexandre Lacazette or Mohamed Elneny, whose contracts expire at the end of the season and are unlikely to be renewed.
There’s this element of chaos that transpires from any technical decision that is being made and that includes the tactical choices that Mikel Arteta is making week in, week out: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is still coming deep into our defensive third to close down his opponent while it should be the other way around, really, and Nicolas Pépé is still on his own on the right flank, against two or three defenders, with no-one showing for the ball. The former has been handed a very lucrative three-years deal last summer without any clear strategy to get some return on the investment, while the latter is our most-expensive signing and is yet to find his place in the flow of play, living off some flashes of brilliance every now and then.
Where is Mikel Arteta’s hand in all of this? What is the destination of this long journey?
I’m more incline to accept a defeat if I can see a team trying to put some ideas on the field and I am willing to give lots of time to any manager who comes in and try to implement his ideas but I don’t see any of that. As much as I didn’t like Unai Emery’s reactive football, I respected his ideas and the way he tried to make the team his own; the moment he threw everything away in search of the immediate result, no matter how, I lost any sympathy I had for him.
I start to feel disenchanted by Mikel Arteta because I see very little alignment between what he says and what the team does: he uses bold words and strong statements, yet his team is shy and afraid; he wants us to play a certain type of football, yet he fields players that are completely inadequate to that type of football.
The transfers window closes in one week, hopefully everything will be much clearer by then.
Thirty-something Italian, currently in Switzerland. Gooner since mid-ninties, when the Gunners defeated my hometown team, in Copenhagen. Twelve years ago I started my own blog (www.clockenditalia.com) after after some experiences with Italian websites and football magazines. Debate, don’t insult or you’re out.