Many ongoing stories are running throughout the Premier League this season. Can Tottenham not bottle like they always do? Are Liverpool suffering from a league winning hangover? Are Manchester United ever going to realize where their problems lay? But possibly the most intriguing question is what is wrong with Arsenal and how does Mikel Arteta fix it?
Arsenal currently sit 15th, five points off the relegation spots after Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at home to Burnley. Before then Burnley had never registered a Premier League win away to Arsenal. The sending off of Granit Xhaka didn’t help matters but maybe a blessing in disguise going forward.
Xhaka is a very one-dimensional player who is fine yet not spectacular in a holding midfield role. He can break up play and distribute the ball at a high level, averaging an 88.8% pass completion ratio so far this season. However, he has yet to make an assist this season and had only two last season. Ultimately he isn’t the player going to unlock defenses.
While against bigger teams it may make sense to play two holding midfielders and look to counter-attack, that shouldn’t be your tactic against a struggling Burnley side. It would have made much more sense for Arteta to play Ainsley Maitland-Niles or Dani Ceballos alongside either Xhaka or Mohamed Elneny. However, with a defense as suspect as Arsenal’s you can understand Arteta’s cautious approach.
Gabriel has looked decent at times since joining in the summer from Lille but on occasion has looked like he won a competition to play. Having Rob Holding alongside you probably isn’t helping Gabriel much and the less said about Hector Bellerin the better. That only leaves Kieran Tierney, who has been Arsenal’s best defender. That doesn’t say much although he has looked far more comfortable at left-back in a four than left center back in a three.
The latest defeat also shows a lot of what is wrong with Arsenal. They have scored only two goals in their last eight Premier League games with a strikeforce that includes Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who scored 22 goals last season. That is far from ideal, but the problems lay much deeper than a misfiring front line.
Despite bringing Willian in from Chelsea during the summer the lack of creativity has become a factor. It doesn’t help that Arteta’s game plan always seems to be the same, get it wide and put crosses into the box. This sounds ideal except neither of his strikers in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are that good in the air.
Recent results will only heighten calls for Mesut Özil to return after being frozen out. There is no doubt Özil is a creative force that Arsenal could use, but he doesn’t fit Arteta’s style. There is also the perception of Özil being a luxury who won’t track-back, which may be a valid point against top teams, but against the likes of Burnley, he would have been ideal to open up a stubborn defense.
There is no doubt Arteta needs new players. Realistically he’s had only one transfer window as he was still evaluating his team during last January’s opening. The problem for Arteta though is the same that faces Ole Gunnar Solksjaer at United. Without European qualification, he’s not going to be able to attract the caliber of player to strengthen.
Right now Arteta has to play the style that suits his players, even if that means giving up on his philosophy for a time. This may also include bringing Özil back in from the cold to play behind Aubamayeng. Ultimately he has to do whatever is necessary to get European football so he can then replace them with players who can play his system.
It’s often said Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has the players at Manchester United but not the system. For Arsenal, I believe it’s the opposite. Arteta has the system and style he wants to play, just not the players to execute it. Yet he persists. It’s a rookie mistake from a rookie manager and one that will cost him his job sooner rather than later.
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