Mikel Arteta was entitled to breathe a sigh of relief after Arsenal’s 3-1 victory against Chelsea on Saturday ended a seven-game winless streak in the Premier League and took the edge off what was beginning to look like a defining, and potentially decisive, week for the Gunners’ manager.
Just imagine how intense the pressure on the Spaniard would have become had Arsenal once again failed to pick up three points ahead of trips to relegation rivals Brighton & Hove Albion and West Bromwich Albion over the next five days.
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Relegation rivals? It seems an unusual description for any Arsenal opponent when you consider the club’s status as one of the Premier League’s “Big Six,” but as the Daily Telegraph reported last week, the hierarchy at the Emirates Stadium have drawn up plans to deal with the nightmare scenario of relegation to the Championship. So if such an outcome is already being discussed within the Arsenal boardroom, it is perhaps a sign of the times that fixtures at the Amex Stadium and The Hawthorns now carry the significance that trips to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge used to have for the club.
Arsenal were last relegated from the top division in 1912-13, but since returning to the top flight in 1919-20, they have enjoyed more than a century of unbroken status among English football’s elite. It is a remarkable record of consistency and success and, even though Arteta’s team has made Arsenal’s worst start to a season for 46 years, nobody truly believes that the third-most successful club in England — behind Liverpool and Manchester United — will be relegated from the Premier League this season. But while relegation would clearly be an unmitigated disaster for Arsenal, finishing in the bottom half of the Premier League, outside the European qualification places, is a scenario that will also hurt and embarrass the club and leave Arteta struggling to hold on to his job.
The reality for Arteta and Arsenal is that Saturday’s morale-boosting win against Chelsea will mean nothing unless the team is able to back it up with positive results against Brighton and West Brom. Beating Chelsea may actually have been the easy part. Frank Lampard’s side had endured their own miserable recent run of results before travelling to the Emirates, with players low on confidence, so it was perhaps the perfect game for Arsenal to get back on track.
Anyone thinking that Arsenal are now through the storm, however, would be fooling themselves because it could get pretty bumpy again this week. And Arteta has a dilemma which has no easy solution when it comes to selecting his team for the two games. Does he stick with the young side, including Bukayo Saka (19), Gabriel Martinelli (19) and Emile Smith Rowe (20), which beat Chelsea with energy, enthusiasm and the boldness of youth, or would he be wise to restore the more experienced players who have let him down in recent weeks, but who possess the know-how to navigate tough Premier League away games?
History has shown, at every club, that young players tend to blow hot and cold and the likes of Saka, Martinelli and Smith Rowe will find it difficult to sustain three top-level performances in the space of seven days. But their contribution against Chelsea was huge and Arteta will want to play them again, despite knowing that experience is vital in such crucial games. The manager’s biggest problem is that he simply cannot trust many of the more established players to perform, but he still needs them, if only to help bridge the gap between now and the time in perhaps 6-12 months when the youngsters are able to shoulder the burden more consistently.
Arteta has been let down this season, either with bad performances or ill-discipline (or both), by Granit Xhaka, David Luiz, Nicolas Pepe, Gabriel Magalhaes, Alexandre Lacazette, Willian, Dani Ceballos and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. And then there is the situation with Mesut Ozil, who has not kicked a ball for the club since football restarted in June. Reports have suggested that Arteta’s treatment of the German midfielder has upset some senior players, so that is another issue that the manager must address if he is to get the best from his sensitive stars.
In an ideal world, Arteta would clear out those players who question his judgement or repeatedly fail to deliver, but he doesn’t have the squad to do that, so he must rely on that same group of players to get the results Arsenal need to pull away from their lowly position in the table. Which is why he will be anxious about the week ahead. He cannot afford any half-hearted or under-performing players at Brighton and West Brom, but he might have to pick some of them simply to get a team on the pitch.
So while beating Chelsea was a rare moment of joy and positivity for Arteta, the situation can change very quickly again this week.