Arsenal remain the Premier League’s, or perhaps football’s, most baffling and unpredictable team.
Mikel Arteta can boast of wins over Manchester United, Leicester, Chelsea and rivals Tottenham so far this season as well as a Europa League quarter final to contest, and yet at one point, there was a real possibility of his side being dragged into a relegation dogfight.
They may have managed to drag themselves away from the strugglers but are no less steady or secure with inconsistency taking a swing at any ambition they may have.
The Gunners’ last nine league games have seen them win three, draw three and lose three in a perfect microcosm of where the team is at.
Not helping their cause is the fact they have not kept a clean sheet in their last twelve in all competitions, with glaring defensive errors seemingly as frequent as the rising sun.
Add to that a misfiring captain who also found himself dropped for turning up late recently and we can confidently say that this kind of chaos is not what Mikel Arteta signed up for.
Arsenal went into the international break off the back of a 3-3 draw in which they were 3-0 down after half an hour before battling back to steal a point.
A result and performance that almost embodied what Arsenal are in 2021, but one that may well spur Arteta into addressing the heavy questions he needs to find answers to, fast:
1. How can he get Aubameyang firing again?
It’s impossible to ignore the fact the Gunners’ hitman is currently out of sorts.
When the club handed him that juicy new contract in the summer, it was expected he would continue the goalscoring form that had made him virtually undroppable.
Instead, Arteta has had to contend with a player struggling for form as well as dealing with off the pitch issues which are impacting his performances.
It’s even becoming clear that the Gunners boss is coming up with ways of playing without the Gabonese hitman, leading to the strange decision to try to crowbar him into an unfamiliar right wing position against West Ham before hauling him off.
Arteta will surely concede however that the player is still very much a major threat and still arguably Arsenal’s best option up front.
A run of nine goals in 11 matches between January and the start of March is what Arteta needs to try and get going again in the final few months of the season.
1. How to cut out all the errors?
There’s an old episode of the Simpsons in which Homer’s co-workers gather quietly behind him unknowingly sitting at his workstation his colleague Lenny whispers: “Get ready everybody, he’s about to do something stupid.”
As Arsenal have evolved into football’s most ‘meme-able’ team, it’s an all-too-regular source of enjoyment for rival fans tuning in just to watch the Gunners use the cannon that adorns their crest to shoot themselves in the foot.
The last few weeks have seen this ramp up to almost befuddling levels of incompetence where ridiculous goal-costing errors are happening in every single game.
At full time, Arteta is constantly left to explain away the latest absurdity and going forward, the Gunners boss needs to find a way of solving the self-sabotage that is close to completely undermining the job he is trying to do at the Emirates.
3. What is going on with the defence?
Arteta is not totally blameless when it comes to these mistakes however, with the manager far from certain as to what his best defensive set up is.
Having experimented with both three and four at the back since taking over at the end of 2019, he seems to have settled on the latter formation but not the personnel.
It’s impossible to know who his preferred centre back pairing is with Rob Holding, David Luiz, Gabriel and Pablo Mari all seeing notable game time without actually being ‘first choice’.
With Luiz also likely to leave in the summer, and both William Saliba and Konstantinos Mavropanos due back from their respective loans, it’s fair to question whether the manager even has a long term plan for a settled back line at any stage.
Until he does and you finally get a settled pairing playing together most of the time, one fears the errors will continue.
4. What is the priority for the rest of the season?
Hear me out here. Yes, on paper it looks pretty clear that the top four is out of reach, however, Arsenal’s remaining league fixtures see them face Liverpool, Sheffield United, Fulham, Everton, Newcastle, West Brom, Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Brighton.
Of course, there’s absolutely no predicticting what this erratic side will do from one game to the next but on paper, given that six of those nine games come against teams in the bottom half, it’s certainly an opportunity for Arteta to finish the season strongly.
Win most of those and who knows? Perhaps the impossible becomes possible.
However, with the club still in the Europa League, and that being the most likely route back in the Champions League next season, it’s likely to be the priority.
But should the club get even the slightest glimpse of a top four finish going into the final weeks of the season, it will be on Arteta to decide how to adjust his team to maybe, just maybe, challenge on two fronts.
5. How do you fit two into one?
Salvaging anything from this season is more than likely going to be aided by the current jewel in Arteta’s team – the on-loan playmaker Martin Odegaard.
The Real Madrid man’s future is up in the air but for now, he is an Arsenal player and Arteta must continue to both get the best out of him, as well as those around him.
Having shown his undoubted talent since his temporary switch in January, his output would undoubtedly be far greater but for his misfiring teammates.
One partnership that Arteta might want to develop is between the Norweigian and breakthrough star Emile Smith Rowe.
Although nominally, the two play the same number 10 position, the England youngster can also operate on the left and the two showed an understanding in the recent north London derby victory over Spurs.
To get these two to dovetail on a more regular basis could be the creative force Arteta desires and, to go full circle, would surely help unlock Aubameyang once more.