We have been here before. Eighteen months ago, Arsenal were on the verge of appointing Mikel Arteta as first team head coach. No matter what has been said since, Arteta thought he had the job. Eighteen months later, Raul Sanllehi has returned to Arteta, hat in hand, days after Arteta was part of the coaching staff that took Arsenal apart in forty-five minutes and highlighted the club’s decline, accentuated by eighteen months of Unai Emery’s mismangement.
Indeed, those eighteen months make all the difference. Perhaps Arsenal felt that all they needed eighteen months ago was a bit of fine-tuning, and that the club would return to the Champions League. Their signings in the summer of 2018 certainly emphasized that line of thought: Sokratis, Bernd Leno, Lucas Torreira, all of whom were ready-made footballers, with the potential for the latter two to develop. This was a team that was built to succeed in the now.
That is why Unai Emery is no longer here. Emery failed; he failed at the end of last season, and he failed this season. And while that failure is not just on him, Arsenal’s current place highlights that a new approach is necessary. Emery was the safe pair of hands, to fine-tune things, and return Arsenal back to the Champions League. As Freddie Ljungberg has effectively said this month, there are no little fixes that can fix this Arsenal side. Arsenal are now a project.
Giving your rookie manager a project makes more sense than giving a rookie manager a team that needs a fix or two here. Indeed, Arteta’s current boss, Pep Guardiola, was given a project. While many aspects of that Barcelona side were experienced, the expectation was for some players to learn and grow along with Guardiola—not just Leo Messi, but Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique. With Arsenal, there has to be that expectation. Arteta’s success at Arsenal will not be determined by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mesut Özil and Alexandre Lacazette, because the likelihood is that by the time we can determine the success of the Arteta project, those players will have been moved on.
This means Arteta needs time. The rest of this season is basically a write-off; the month of December definitely is, as Arsenal’s curious approach to sacking and replacing a manager means that Arteta is coming in during the busiest time of the season, where the time to work with players is at its most limited. This does not mean that Arteta gets carte blanche, but that results, at least in the Premier League, are secondary (the Europa League is a different matter).
That doesn’t mean that we can’t evaluate Arteta. These months will be crucial, as Arteta gets to grasps with management, and looks to instill new tactical aspects to Arsenal’s play. It may not always work; it may not look pretty. But the crucial thing will be if new ideas are trying to be implemented. Arsenal, at the end of the Wenger era, had gone stale; at the end of the Emery era, they had gone absolutely rancid.
Arteta has obvious links with the Wenger era, as a player, captain, and fulcrum of the side. But he also comes in with a bit of a clean slate. He was absent for the last two years of Wenger’s reign, learning and working at Manchester City. Because he hasn’t managed a game, we have very few ideas about how he will approach teams, and what the game plan will be. It’ll take time to work that out, but time that Arteta should get. Because of the club’s mismanagement, there shouldn’t be pressure to get straight back into the top four, but rather acknowledgement that this is a long-term project. All we can do is give Arteta the time to impart his ideas, and to evaluate how he is trying to put his stamp on the football club.