Mikel Arteta's Explanations Don't Cover Up Arsenal's Foundational Cracks

The manager brought out the stats to show things aren't as bad as they seem, but, contrary to his beliefs, they are.
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“Last year we won the game against Everton with a 25% chance of winning, you win 3-2. Last weekend, it was a 67% chance of winning, any Premier League game in history, and a 9% chance of losing, and you lose — 3% against Burnley and you lose, 7% against Spurs and you lose.

“There is something else apart from that. It is not just the performance on the pitch, it is something else that needs to go our way and at the moment it doesn’t. Saying that, it doesn't care because you lose and the only thing that cares is that you lose a football match and this is what we hear.” 

There are times when football managers probably should just stick to the clichés. Mikel Arteta may believe what he said on Monday, trying to explain a defeat at Everton that has seen his Arsenal side slump to 15th, four points off the relegation zone after a run of 10 games in the league that has brought just one win and only five points (1-7-2). 

The decline in form and morale has been extraordinary. When Arsenal beat Liverpool on penalties in the fourth round of the League Cup in October, it felt like part of a wider improvement. Arteta was, it was clear, working with an imbalanced squad littered with bad apples, but it seemed equally evident that the path was upward and that he was slowly putting his plan into effect. Yet Arsenal faces Manchester City in the League Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday desperate for a win to keep a mounting sense of panic at bay. 

Man City is a reminder of how well things seemed to be going toward the end of last season. Arsenal’s win over City in the FA Cup semifinals was probably its best performance under Arteta. It was defensively solid, had a clear game plan and had the nerve to stick to it, passing through the City press before springing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the break. 

Aubameyang’s loss of form this season has been a major factor in the Arsenal slump. He’s managed just three league goals this season, one of them a penalty. Willian hasn’t settled since his move from Chelsea. Nicolas Pepe still plays only in brief flickers, while Alexandre Lacazette continues to struggle playing against instincts as a forward who drops deep. Granit Xhaka has reverted to his dismal form of a year ago, Thomas Partey has been beset by injuries since his arrival from Atletico Madrid, and Dani Ceballos remains inconsistent. At least Gabriel, the summer signing from Lille, has played well at the heart of the defense. 

Mesut Ozil, meanwhile, remains sidelined. What looked like admirable decisiveness from Arteta in the spring, though, appears increasingly odd given both Arsenal’s lack of creativity and the fact the German remains at the club. The reasons for his ostracism are opaque. The club denies it has anything to with either Ozil’s reluctance to accept a pay cut during the shutdown or his comments about the plight of the Uighurs in China, but it is undeniably odd. 

Something else has happened, though, something more worrying, which is that Arteta seems to have lost sight of the path. Pressing generally is down this season, roughly 20%, but Arsenal’s has dropped off more than most–and that appears to be a conscious plan. Arteta has suddenly started talking about the importance of crosses–that was what underlay his statistical barrage–as though he’s suddenly decided mid-table English football of the 1980s is the apogee of the game. Yet he has no great headers of the ball in his forward line. Of 235 goals scored by Aubameyang in his career, only 24 have been with his head. Only 15 of Lacazette’s 165 have been, two of Pepe’s 50. 

Mikel Arteta and Arsenal are struggling

Arteta can talk about probabilities all he likes, but crosses do not get the best out of the forwards he has. It’s a baffling change of priorities. It is true that Pep Guardiola’s City, at its best, focused a lot on crossing, but those were low cutbacks from the goal line. That is not the type of cross Arsenal is playing. 

Amid the confusion, morale has gone and so too has discipline. Arsenal has had three red cards in its last six league games, all of them entirely needless. The sense is of a team falling apart. There remains a clear sense at Arsenal that the hierarchy, which has itself undergone major changes over the past couple of years, wants to give Arteta time to pursue his vision, but results need to improve. If this goes on another month, the jokes about Arsenal being in a relegation scrap won’t be jokes anymore–and nothing that’s been seen from this squad suggests it would respond well to the pressure of a dogfight. In those circumstances, the temptation of the quick-fix sacking may become irresistible. 

League Cup success rarely keeps a manager in a job, but a decent performance against City might at least calm some frayed nerves.