Defeat to Tottenham reinforces the message that Arsenal are simply too far behind to challenge for the Champions League places unless there is fundamental change.
Mikel Arteta is doubtless an intelligent football manager. Not only does he use the universal signifier of modern braininess in football management - tight slacks and smart sneakers - but he is also an erudite man in press conferences. Having served under the world leader in slim fits in Pep Guardiola, much can be expected of him in the coming years.
Arteta, after all, was a player who made his way based not on physical attributes but on the perceptiveness of his play. While he finished his career at Arsenal and spent years before at Everton, he can be slightly aggrieved that he never got to be a minor part of a major team. Management is his chance to fix that experience, and doubtless he sees Arsenal more as an opportunity than a millstone. Having seen Arsene Wenger’s ability to spot innate talent and to develop it, and Guardiola’s relentless quest to maximise it, suggest that all it needs is added ruthlessness to become one of the greatest managers of all time.
Jose Mourinho has long had the beating of Arsenal
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It is not yet clear how Arteta will take his influences, plus that of the David Moyes years, and turn it into his own strategy. Less than a season at Arsenal has done little more than raise morale, no small achievement, and make it plain that he wants to remove any clownish tendencies. Matteo Guendouzi has been told he can grow up or jog on, and is as such jogging by himself until he finds employment elsewhere. Mesut Ozil has probably simply been asked to just actually jog, but instead is on the sidelines. Both are very talented players, but so were Lee Sharpe and Nicklas Bendtner. For one reason or another, neither of them had the success they probably should have had.
Arteta needs to imbue a winning and brutal streak into the Arsenal side. He can follow early Wenger and make a team full of players with bronca allied to supernatural fitness and technique never seen before in the Premier League, and do so on a budget. Or he can go the Guardiola route and ask for unconscionable funds to create a masterpiece. Let’s not get it twisted: for the latter, Stan Kroenke has no interest in making that happen, nor does he have the ability to do it anyway.
Which means that Arteta’s task is to turn a tight budget into something magical. Leicester City managed it for a season, once, when other sides struggled unusually. He would have to do it despite the increased reach of scouting in every country in the world, and at a time when statistical analysis can highlight gems before the first highlights reel is even uploaded to YouTube. He also has to do that at a time when the world’s and his club’s finances are hamstrung by the coronavirus pandemic.
Look at the squad, the one that lost to a middling Tottenham Hotspur managed and consumed by self-loathing. They have their own problems, and yet Jose Mourinho was able yet again able to go for the juggler.
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David Luiz is not a reliable presence on a football pitch, but has been kept on because of his experience. Sead Kolasinac is impressively girthy, but he can’t do much with a football. Shkodran Mustafi is simply the third name on a random list of Arsenal players, and he’s even worse than the first two. The list goes on, and there is neither the money nor coaching talent to fix this unless the world gifts them a rare chance. In 2020, it is hard to see anything going right for anybody, let alone anything going that right for a whole football club.
The last time Arsenal found themselves in such a desperate position, they were flitting between Bruce Rioch and Stewart Houston, not yet out of George Graham’s shadow. The shame and implosion of a side had not yet been fully expunged. It feels like Arteta realises that the last three or four years also need to be flushed out, but there is no obvious answer about how to unblock the pan.