Arsenal have moulded the club’s off-field structure around Mikel Arteta. Now it is time to do the same with the playing staff.
It’s been 95 days since the Gunners effectively promoted a 38-year-old with no previous experience of leading a club from “head coach” to “manager.” While that decision slipped under the radar somewhat, feeling like semantics to those with only a passing interest, it in fact represented a hugely significant moment in Arsenal’s evolution.
Former chief executive Ivan Gazidis had spent roughly two years quietly stripping back Arsene Wenger’s managerial autonomy, appointing nine new department heads and trebling the number of football operations staff to create a framework designed to steer the club forward along a consistent plan, within which a head coach would operate rather than define. Unai Emery’s appointment to succeed Wenger in the summer of 2018 heralded the final piece in the jigsaw yet, in less than two and a half seasons, Arsenal have reverted back to placing their faith predominantly in the hands of one man.
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Gazidis’ sudden departure for AC Milan, announced in September 2018, was preceded by several of his key appointments following him out the door, including contract negotiator Huss Fahmy, head of recruitment Sven Mislintat and head of football Raul Sanllehi. Many of the football operations staff Gazidis appointed were let go as part of the 55 non-playing redundancies the club announced in August, in addition to a dramatic reduction in Arsenal’s overseas scouting network.
Technical director Edu now leads recruitment with Arteta, working underneath chief executive Vinai Venkatesham after a September reshuffle, which the latter described as “recognition of what he’s [Arteta] been doing from the day he walked in the door, but also where we see his capabilities.”
Results hit a fresh low on Sunday with a 1-0 defeat to Burnley, condemning the Gunners to their worst start to a season since 1974. But internally, Arteta is viewed as the man who convinced Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bukayo Saka to sign new contracts, who won the FA Cup in his first season and talked the squad into taking a pay cut when their Premier League rivals agreed wage deferrals during lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There’s also a recognition of the sheer magnitude of the task at hand. Arteta is attempting to instigate a cultural overhaul at a club where standards have been allowed to slide over several years, where mediocrity found acquiescent acceptance rather than defiance. The crux of the issue is this: the first-team squad has proved time and again it is both not good enough and, more alarmingly, will not work hard enough to overcome their weaknesses.
This is at the heart of the culture shift Arteta is attempting, effectively altering the collective mindset of two dozen highly paid and under-motivated players who more or less stopped working for Emery; according to sources, players would openly mock his poor English around the London Colney training base and rejected his ever-shifting tactical approach.
The players have to realise Arteta is here to stay, and that those not on board cannot simply wait him out. Arteta is a much better communicator and his game plan, while questionable in terms of the goal threat it carries and the short-term results it is currently yielding, is at least clearly defined.
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Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho may have been damning with faint praise, but after Spurs won the North London derby earlier this month, he made a point of highlighting the innovation in Arteta’s coaching and the challenges that posed. Similarly, Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa is viewed as master tactician by many of the game’s greats — while also being far less prone to hyperbole or verbal manipulation than Mourinho — yet even he felt compelled to suggest that “from a tactic point of view, if you watch Arsenal closely they show things that I have never seen in any other team.”
That high praise from his contemporaries hints that Arsenal may well be on to something with Arteta who, it must be remembered, is yet to complete a year in management.
The Gunners took a bold step in appointing a rookie to a job drenched in difficulty and then doubled down on that decision by making the “head coach” a “manager” after an initial flurry of promise. Sacking Arteta may become necessary if results continue to slide — the next four games against Southampton, Everton, an EFL Cup quarterfinal against Manchester City and then Chelsea on Boxing Day offer little hope of an immediate uptick. But it should be a last resort because any new manager would face the same initial problem: shifting players who have either become a corrosive influence, failed to work hard enough or have simply not proved good enough. Or in some cases, all three.
Arteta needs backing in the transfer market. The strength of will from the Kroenke family to finance such an overhaul is debatable, but funds can be raised by clearing the decks with more ruthlessness than has been shown at the club in recent years.
Players to keep
It bodes well for Arteta that his two major signings, Gabriel Magalhaes and Thomas Partey, look like hugely promising acquisitions. They can form the nucleus of a squad for the future alongside Kieran Tierney (a possible captain in the making), Bukayo Saka, Bernd Leno and Gabriel Martinelli. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Hector Bellerin, Pablo Mari, Cedric Soares and Rob Holding are all useful squad members. Youngsters Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson have shown enough potential to persevere with, although they need more experienced players around them to thrive at the highest level.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is in the midst of a goal drought, scoring just once in the league from open play this season, but he remains Arsenal’s biggest attacking threat. The Gunners really have to persevere with Nicolas Pepe and Willian given the club-record £72million transfer fee for the former and the three-year contract handed to the latter, while they should also seek to tie exciting teenage striker Folarin Balogun to a new deal.
Players to sell
Granit Xhaka perhaps best encapsulates the conundrum posed by many Arsenal players: the team is probably worse off without him, yet he clearly isn’t good enough to get the Gunners where they want to be. The 28-year-old’s early revival under Arteta has evaporated, and while the midfielder has tried to prove himself after telling his own fans to “f— off,” all parties have to accept it isn’t working and cut their losses. Enough is enough.
Alexandre Lacazette will have a year left on his contract next summer, and Arsenal should cash in. The Frenchman was another to enjoy signs of a promising renaissance following Arteta’s revival, only to regress, and there’s little point persevering given he turns 30 next May and would command a reasonable transfer fee that could be reinvested.
Dani Ceballos will return to Real Madrid on loan while Mohamed Elneny is also not good enough to be anything more than a squad player and should be sold if a buyer can be found.
Arsenal tried to find clubs for Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Sead Kolasinac and Mesut Ozil in the summer. Sokratis and Kolasinac should be moved on in January for whatever fee can be agreed, while Ozil is unlikely to depart until next summer. There’s a compelling case for registering the 32-year-old for the second half of the season to at least get some value from his £350,000-a-week wage before his contract expires.
Matteo Guendouzi was farmed out to Hertha Berlin after falling out with Arteta, and it’s difficult to see how that situation can be resolved in anything other than a permanent transfer away if Arteta continues to enjoy unequivocal backing inside the club. Lucas Torreira was not without promise as an Arsenal player, but a move back to Atletico Madrid looks logical for all parties, although there is no option to buy within the language of his existing loan deal.
The Gunners have a raft of centre-backs on the books, but it remains questionable whether any of them aside from Gabriel are actually good enough to solve their longstanding defensive problems. Shkodran Mustafi should be allowed to leave once his contract expires in 2021, if not before, while Calum Chambers could be sold to raise revenue. David Luiz will be 34 in April, and although he has been part of some of Arsenal’s best performances, a new contract for 2021-22 feels like a stretch too far.
Players to loan
William Saliba needs games in a professional environment. Many supporters want their £27 million signing to get them in the first team but the widely held view internally remains that Saliba is not ready for Premier League football. A loan spell may also benefit Emile Smith Rowe.