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If Mikel Arteta remains as Arsenal manager, then Arsenal need a big January

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Mikel Arteta has taken this group of Arsenal players as far as he can. Changes have to be made, one way or the other.

FBL-ENG-LCUP-ARSENAL-MAN CITY Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

At this point, it’s hard to see any compelling reason why Mikel Arteta should remain Arsenal’s manager. While winning the FA Cup was a genuinely lovely and memorable moment, it is hard to see how a cup run should provide cover for a team that enters Boxing Day languishing in fifteenth place, with two points since the beginning of November. Indeed, if anyone has any compelling answer, please send the answer on a postcard.

Unfortunately, though, Arsenal under Josh and Stan Kroenke, with their crack team of Vinai Venketesham, Kia Joorabchian and Edu Gaspar, rarely do the smart, justified, or necessary thing—after all, they green lit handing out four and three year contracts to Cédric Soares and Willian. This is a club that wasted weeks before sacking Unai Emery, and if David Ornstein’s reporting is correct, they seem as committed to giving Mikel Arteta every opportunity to bring this club to places that Arsène Wenger held the club back from—specifically, the relegation zone.

So, unless something drastic happens in the next week, like Stan Kroenke opening the sports pages and looking at the Premier League table, Mikel Arteta will be in charge of Arsenal in January 2021. According to Arteta, the club have already finalized their transfer plans for the month of January, with Edu in charge of getting them across the line. Assuming Edu can find the right fax machine, if Arsenal are going to retain Arteta as manager, it is time to make wholesale changes to the players. While the players are, well, bad, they’re not 15th or 16th bad. A team that finished in 8th last season (and won the FA Cup!) and 5th the season before that does not become a bottom five side overnight.

A few weeks ago, Arteta spoke of needing “five to six players” in order to move to a 4-3-3 system—a move he tried to half-make anyway, which somewhat precipitated this huge decline in form, as Arsenal lost their defensive shape, the one thing they could do well under Arteta. Presumably, Kieran Tierney, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Gabriel Magalhães, Bukayo Saka, and Thomas Partey are four players who fit in his idea of a 4-3-3 team, as well as potentially Héctor Bellerín. That still leaves some big holes, particularly down the spine of the team: the midfield area.

Presently, because of injury, Arsenal are playing with Dani Ceballos and Mohamed Elneny in midfield. This is becoming a genuine problem. Without Thomas Partey, Arsenal’s midfield cannot play progressive passes, be defensive secure, physically dominate the midfield, or control games. While Arteta’s tactical decisions don’t help him, a large number of them seemingly stem from the inability of the midfield to do anything at the level required. Undeniably, Arteta should be getting more out of the midfield than he has been. However, he is not, and if Arsenal are to persist with him, they should recognize that by buying a new midfield.

Last winter, Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were struggling for form. When they signed Bruno Fernandes, they had accrued 34 points from 24 games, and were fifth. After signing Fernandes, Manchester United took the most points over the final 14 games of last year’s Premier League season, and have taken 26 points from 13 games this season, for a total of 58 points in 27 games. Liverpool have taken 63 points from 29 games—.03 points per game better.

While a similar level of signing likely wouldn’t put Arsenal into European contention through the league, a similar profile in terms of talent, especially creative talent, and age is necessary. Outside of Pépé, Bellerin, and Rob Holding, Arsenal have no starting player in the 24-26 range. Given Arteta’s predilection for not playing younger players, any investment Arsenal make in the transfer window has to be for a player of an age where they can make an immediate impact, but also potentially be part of a better Arsenal team in two to three years—which would also mean Arsenal would move beyond the cycle of short term thinking that they have fallen into over the last three seasons.

One thing is abundantly clear: Mikel Arteta has taken this particular collection of players as far as he can. There will be no magical improvement or flip of the switch. Arsenal’s underlying numbers are those of a mid-table team, as they were last season. While they are perhaps a little unlucky to find themselves in 16th, there is a ceiling with this group of players and this manager. If Arsenal want to improve, then there will have to be changes. If it’s not the manager, then it has to be the players, and it has to happen immediately.