One of the most annoying things about modern football is that the manager is often the last guy to cop the blame during a difficult run.
We see it every time Manchester United lose a game and the consensus emerges that ‘these players just can’t defend’ – ignoring the fact that it’s a certain somebody’s job to organise them into a defensive unit in training.
More annoyingly, however, it is actually justified on a few rare occasions, and, even worse, if there is very little that the manager can do to improve the team you support, it’s probably time to worry – you’ve got a dysfunctional club on your hands.
All of this isn’t to suggest that this is the exact situation at Arsenal right now, who after a giddy dream of a first season under Mikel Arteta find themselves 14th in the Premier League after a chastening loss to Wolves, but at the same time it’s becoming an increasingly easier conclusion to make.
For the sake of balance, it’s necessary to point out that the Spaniard, in his first managerial job, has been far from blameless. Despite scooping up two trophies (one and a half trophies, maybe) in a remarkably short space of time, there have been errors of judgment during his tenure.
It would be impossible not to mention his clashes with various players, from Mesut Ozil to Matteo Guendouzi – as a manager just starting out in the game, Arteta might reflect that squaring up to these polarising players with enormous personalities just wasn’t worth the trouble, especially given that the two of them have stuck around and provided critics with ammunition after every drab defeat.
Tactically, Arteta was slow to think beyond using Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as a left-winger, despite the evidence that unless the Gabon international was banging in every shot it simply stifled any movement within the forward line.
These are two things that you can chalk down to inexperience, but they should not be as damning as they ultimately have been. The reason that Aubameyang and Ozil have been the two spectres which have haunted match after match for Arsenal is because of the lack of any structure which would support or validate Arteta’s decisions at the club.
Even without the big injury layoffs at the club right now – and boy, would Arsenal find life a lot easier if just one of Thomas Partey or Gabriel Martinelli were available – the club’s failing infrastructure has made things so difficult that it feels like the most that any manager can do there is effectively what Arteta has done and stabilise them
Though there is an absence of style in the Arsenal side, short of a compact(-ish) defensive structure, and creativity is becoming increasingly nonexistent, Arteta made the most logical use of his resources possible against Wolves – Aubameyang was central, Bukayo Saka, the closest approximation of a left winger available, played as a winger and Joe Willock, the closest approximation of a number ten, was their most advanced playmaker.
However, on account of Arteta’s squad being made up of approximations rather than players who can fulfil specific tactical roles, Arsenal lost and looked awful. Willock wasn’t a ten, Saka wasn’t a left winger, and the likes of Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos in midfield were unable to play a line-breaking pass.
Short of maybe sticking Nicolas Pepe in this lineup, how do you solve it? We’re very close to seeing Arsenal’s best eleven, and yet it is full of square pegs in round holes – the supposedly game changing experienced players in Willian and Aubameyang, who might provide the quality which would override these contradictions, are both in their 30s.
What must be most galling for Arteta is that Arsenal criminally missed an opportunity to add a creator in midfield in Houssem Aouar, a ball-progression machine who was the fifth-most succesful dribbler in Ligue 1 last season, after the Gunners baulked at Lyon’s asking price.
They never even looked particularly close, additionally, to adding a bustling, physical forward who could replace the lacklustre Alexandre Lacazette, culminating in the bleak scenario where Spurs signed a Harry Kane backup (Carlos Vinicius), who would most likely start in the red half of North London.
But most importantly, the powers that be at Arsenal have failed to validate any of the big calls that Arteta has made – there’s no way that Ozil would be trending on Twitter after every defeat if the club had made a move for a Jack Grealish-style creator who can operate wide. But instead what might have been some savvy man-management from Arteta has been fashioned into another cudgel to attack him with, as he unsuccessfully tries to coax Rui Costa out of tidy box-to-box midfielders.
If just a few changes were made to Arsenal’s lineup, you’d be surprised how quickly the outlook at the Emirates would change – the former City assistant’s greatest success has been to give Arsenal a robust base to win football matches and go toe-to-toe with other top teams. He now needs better players to move beyond this base.
The alternative to giving Arteta these players is to tempt a manager like Julian Nagelsmann or (dare I say it) Mauricio Pochettino to the club, and, to put it plainly, would either be bothered? With the backing that Arteta has received, is there much evidence that they could take Arsenal further than they took Leipzig or Spurs respectively?
Arteta has undoubtedly made some rookie mistakes and struggled to impose his will, but the mess at Arsenal is thoroughly of the club’s own making, and they have to own it.