Last season was one of change in North London. There was only a month between Arsenal’s hiring of Mikel Arteta as their new manager in December, four days before Christmas, and Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Tottenham Hotspur in November. But while change has indeed occurred at one club, the other is facing familiar questions.
Both Arsenal’s appointment of Arteta and Spurs’ of Mourinho came with significant risk attached. While Arteta had never held a senior management role before, pitching up at the Emirates Stadium having served as Pep Guardiola’s right-hand man at Manchester City, Mourinho was seen as yesterday’s man, left behind by the modern game.
There was, however, logic behind the recruitment process that led the two North London rivals to hire the coaches they did late last year. Arsenal wanted Arteta to be Guardiola-lite, using what he’d learned during his time at City to turn the Gunners into a force again, with Spurs targeting Mourinho to deliver tangible success in the way of silverware.
One year on and the difference in both managers’ trajectory is stark. While Tottenham have been widely tipped as genuine title challengers, currently sitting top of the Premier League table after 10 fixtures, Arsenal are slumped in 14th, as close to the relegation zone as Spurs in first place.
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Arsenal are currently on a three-game losing run in the league, while Tottenham haven’t lost a league game since the opening weekend defeat to Everton. Mourinho’s players are fighting for him in the way he likes. Spurs have the look of a Mourinho team. Arsenal, on the other hand, are lacking an identity and overarching vision of what an Arteta team should look like.
The signs towards the back end of last season were positive for the Gunners. An eighth-place Premier League finish was not befitting of Arsenal’s stature as a club, but the FA Cup victories over Chelsea and Manchester City appeared to signify progress. Arteta had a trophy to prove Arsenal were heading in the right direction.
Even as recently as November 1, when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s second half penalty kick gave the Gunners an away win over Manchester United, Arteta was seen to be making progress. But a series of difficult fixtures to start the season gave a false impression of where Arsenal were in their development.
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It soon became clear the conservative, stodgy performances against Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester City and Manchester United weren’t designed for the task at hand, but the default setting for an Arsenal side desperately lacking in any sort of creativity or cutting edge. Fulham have scored more Premier League goals than Arsenal this season.
Arteta’s side played the same way away to Liverpool as they did at home to Sheffield United because they are incapable of any tactical or philosophical shift. This weekend’s North London derby could expose Arsenal’s lack of direction in the most brutal way imaginable, with Mourinho’s Tottenham side well-placed to humiliate their fiercest rivals.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta against Wolves
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In terms of their sporting outlook and individual character, Arteta and Mourinho are very different people, but there were similarities to the situations they were thrown into last season. Now, their respective landscapes differ greatly. Not wedded to one particular way of doing things, Spurs have afforded Mourinho freedom to reshape the club in his own image. Meanwhile, even if he has been promoted to manager and seen upheaval in the boardroom, Arteta has essentially been forced to work within the same parameters that restricted Unai Emery, and even Arsene Wenger in his latter years at Arsenal, so critically.
Daniel Levy has delivered the players Mourinho needed - flying full backs in Matt Doherty and Sergio Reguilon, a midfield pass-master in Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and a supplementary centre forward in Carlos Vinicius. Arteta, however, had to choose between two players he desperately needed - Houssem Aouar and Thomas Partey - and has suffered for the half-heartedness of the approach.
There has been a clarity to Mourinho’s actions since taking charge at Spurs, quickly settling on a group of players he trusts and knows what he will get from. Despite having been in the job for almost the same period of time, Arteta still doesn’t have this clarity, shifting between a back three and a 4-2-3-1, experimenting with Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Eddie Nketiah and even Willian as the centre-forward in his system.
Almost a year on from his appointment, nobody really knows if Arteta is any good, but this is largely down to the circumstances he has had to work in. This is not his team and in their current structure, with their current outlook, Arsenal might never be an Arteta team. Tottenham Hotspur, however, are very much a Mourinho team. They have allowed themselves to be that.