What would a baying Emirates crowd have made of Arsenal’s recent form? After all, few fan bases have become quite so accustomed to the ritual swing from exhilaration to exhaustion, and how the breath of hope can so quickly be replaced by growls, groans and other guttural noises. But then, perhaps what has been most alarming are the now all too common nights when Mikel Arteta’s side no longer seem to breathe at all.
A lethargic, creatively asphyxiated defeat against Wolves was hardly an anomaly and, at least throughout those latter years of embittered frustration under Arsene Wenger, the guarantee of attractive, fluid football sustained a silver lining. It has been almost nine months since home supporters last took to the Emirates and in that period there has been the unimaginable high of an FA Cup victory, an encouraging transfer window, and yet they return amid an arresting downhill stumble.
The unavoidable truths are that Arsenal are currently 14th in the Premier League after 10 games, have lost more than they’ve won, are devoid of invention and sit upon a desperately low goals tally. For all the talk of revolution, they are now caught in an untenable slide; a reality that was reflected in Arteta’s own assessment. “When you lose two games, three games at home, three games, it's like ‘wow’, it's like having a stab here in your chest,” he said. “It’s not acceptable and we have to change it… Even when we were winning we were still a long, long way from what I want.”
So, when a smattering of 2,000 supporters takes up their seats tonight, more important than an effectively meaningless Europa League game will be the window into the fans’ prevailing mood. They have bought into Arteta’s vision unreservedly and bear few gripes, but to maintain that sense of hope and giddy excitement that followed their momentous victory at Wembley, there has to be a vision on the horizon. In recent weeks, it has become a little harder to see.
There is no doubting that Arteta imbued Arsenal with courage and a decisive jolt of direction when he took over almost a year ago. Marrying the friendship of a former teammate with the demanding nature of a drill sergeant, he quickly re-established order on and off the field; the leaky defence plugged; the rotten apples cored and ostracised. It is tempting now to paint is as a steady rise, but really it was one that stuttered and required plenty of faith. Those first few months were always a grace period; a season driven into chaos before he’d taken the wheel; a squad desperately imbalanced practically since he left it as a player in 2016; not to mention the boardroom upheaval that followed. Arteta shared no blame for the issues he inherited and, regardless of having learnt from arguably the game’s best modern teacher, he was still an apprentice in the job and pacified those problems admirably.
But Arteta has stepped into something of a second - and less forgiving - phase now, though. He has had the time to imprint his ideals, to tear out old bricks and rebuild piece-by-piece, and for a while, it was clear to see how Arsenal were improving. After a decade of accusations towards a lightweight demeanour and brittle defence, those glaring weakness were toughened. But in doing so - largely successfully - the scales have lopsided and Arsenal’s attack has been left almost entirely bereft of imagination or ingenuity - what many would pinpoint as the very fabric of Wenger’s much-vaunted ‘DNA’. “We haven't had any goals from midfield,” Arteta added, somewhat alleviating the burden on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. "It is something that has to be addressed. To change the qualities and characteristics of players is very, very difficult. A big team needs players in midfield who score goals."
Most recently against Wolves, Arsenal had just two shots on target, launched an unending wave of crosses into the box and seemed to have little alternative. Their spine is undoubtedly stronger, but it can actually feel so rigid that there is barely independence at all, with Arteta often directing almost every movement and passage from the technical area. And whenever the coach has attempted to revive the team’s attacking potency, the defence has been almost immediately prised open; the three goals conceded against Aston Villa particularly woeful.
Every team relies on those players who live in complete harmony with a manager’s principles - take Jordan Henderson or Rodri as two obvious examples - but there is a need for the outliers, too. Those who don’t exist within boundaries, who can bend a game to their will and unpick openings others don’t see. At Arsenal, that always raises the spectre of Mesut Ozil, but this seems to be an issue of balance - between Arteta’s meticulous planning and trust in the free will of his squad - rather than the role of any one player.
These are the lowest waters of Arteta’s reign so far but no long-term project can avoid tides. Right now, Arsenal’s football is a reflection of these past few months; unfamiliar and austere. Perhaps, with inspiration momentarily lacking on the pitch, it can be supporters back surrounding it who help breathe new life into a team high in quality but short on confidence. For a long time, the Emirates had a tendency to become a little toxic. Maybe now it can be an antidote.
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