A year ago, you could still project a glowing future with Mikel Arteta. At that point, Arsenal had improved. 12th when Arteta was hired, Arsenal were in the top half of the table when football was paused because of coronavirus in March 2020. At that stage, Arsenal had lost only once in ten Premier League games under Arteta, with seventeen points from ten games—not a fantastic run of form, but one that you could project on. It was easy then, to talk about improving the squad, as Arteta grew.
Going out of the Europa League to Olympiakos was a blemish, but one that wasn’t remembered for long, as Arsenal won the FA Cup. Winning the FA Cup also allowed fans to ignore the middling form of Project Restart: another ten games, and four losses, meaning Arteta ended his first season in charge having managed twenty Premier League games, with nine wins, five losses, and six draws: 33 points from 20 games, a ratio that would be 63 points over a full season. In retrospect, winning the FA Cup hid a lot from Project Restart, which Cups tend to do; they’re an imperfect way of evaluating a manager.
A year on, Arsenal are out of the Europa League again. This time, it’s at the semi-final, but that isn’t much credit. Arsenal have made the semi-final of the Europa League three out of four years. It’s not a tough competition to get to the semi-final in. In the league, Arsenal are tenth, with 49 points from 34 games. Mikel Arteta has now managed 54 Premier League games. Arsenal have a goal difference of 20 in those 54 games, with 82 points. That works out to 58 points over a full season—two points more than Arsenal got last season. To reach that level this season, Arsenal would need to win three of their final four games.
You shouldn’t just managers on Cup competitions because anyone can win a cup competition. The list of recent FA Cup winners, after all, includes Arteta, Louis van Gaal, and Roberto Martinez. But Arsenal’s failure in the Europa League is perhaps indicative of larger issues under Arteta. In the biggest matches of the season, Arteta experimented. Away from home, he utilized Emile Smith Rowe as a false 9. At home, he used Thomas Partey as the only #6 with Smith Rowe and Martin Ødegaard ahead of him. Without Granit Xhaka, he asked Kieran Tierney to be more conservative. In the end, it didn’t work. That Arteta chopped and changed shows that he is not convinced with his own tactics and set-up. If he isn’t convinced, how can the players be? It’s the same quandry that fell Unai Emery.
We are now 16 months into this project. Mikel Arteta is still an inexperienced manager, but he’s not a novice. We know now some of his preferences, and his style, and anyone who says otherwise is lying to you. We know that Arteta’s football is conservative; that his attack doesn’t put teams under constant pressure. We know that whether planned or not, Arteta’s football leads to largely playing on the margins. We know that he sees Willian has having some sort of vital role. This is what he is; anyone saying otherwise without offering in-game proof is projecting.
Two months ago, it looked as if Arsenal and Arteta had turned a corner. Two months later, they are not two steps backwards; they are more. It’s hard to see where Arsenal go from here. The structure of the club is so badly mismanaged, by the Kroenkes, and by Edu, that Arteta turning out to be good was the one plan they had. That he is, at this moment, not a very good manager is a huge issue.
That doesn’t mean it was wrong to hire him, but rather, that there was always a possibility this could happen, and that means you have to be prepared to act if it doesn’t work out, especially as it’s becoming increasingly harder to see how it is going to work out for Arteta at Arsenal. If you divide his time up into ten game periods, you have the following: 17 from 10, 16 from 10, 13 from 10, 15 from 10, 12 from 10, and 7 points from 4. While you can get inconsistencies within those group of ten games, there is a larger pattern of long-term mediocrity.
Arteta is still a young manager. He may end up being good at the job one day. It appears that it is going to unlikely be at Arsenal. Making the case that Arteta is going to be good requires a good deal of projection and hypotheticals, all of which begin to fall apart when held in contrast with the large sample of actual results on the field.