You’d think that a Dulux dog had mugged off both sides of North London, judging by Twitter when the Arsenal team was released last night. Gaggles of Gooners, congregated virtually, bemoaning the blackboard in Mikel Arteta’s office, once again.
Oh, the uproar at Gabriel Martinelli getting benched - especially after his glittering performance on Sunday against Sheffield United. The worry over a continued absence of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (later explained by the skipper contracting malaria). A back four, on paper at least, of Chambers, Holding, Mari and Xhaka. If Arsenal could harness such a collective intake of breath when fans are permitted back at the Emirates Stadium, perhaps the crowd could suck the ball into the net a little more often.
You can understand the worry. A novice has the keys to the club: perhaps uniquely for such a big English side, every single fan watching has just as much prior experience in management as the man in the dugout. The board didn’t get the first post-Wenger appointment right - and the basic numbers do not make good reading for the second, either.
Eighth in his first season, Arteta was dumped out of the Europa League to Olympiacos and squeaked back into Europe by winning a domestic cup; an arcane, long-forgotten scenic route. Arsenal have spent much of his second season in the lower half of the table. They score few when Aubameyang isn’t on form and the mistakes are worthy of putting on a 1990s compilation VHS. When Arsenal are beaten these days, it often comes with all the indignity and embarrassment of a stranger walking in on you on the toilet.
The “basic numbers” don’t tell the whole story, though. A team’s position in the league very rarely does. And when Arsenal were lifting (and subsequently dropping) the FA Cup on a balmy Wembley afternoon last summer, fans were more than happy to tell you that Arteta was still a young manager who will make mistakes along the way. The mistakes themselves have since blotted such optimism.
But Mikel Arteta got it right last night. Against a Slavia Prague side who had something to protect, his 3-3-1-3 set-up exploited the space perfectly, just as it did at the dress rehearsal at Bramhall Lane. It was a masterclass - albeit one that would have perhaps been better welcomed last week. Even in the first leg though, Arteta made the changes in Pepe and Aubameyang to change the game - and didn’t get the credit for it, as he should’ve done it earlier.
Lack of faith has become routine. The vultures circled before the North London Derby, as news filtered in that Aubameyang was dropped. Fans almost waved a white flag before the game began - yet Arsenal triumphed. Against Leicester City, there was similar discontent at Willian sneaking onto the first XI - before he got the Man of the Match award.
There have been questions when Dani Ceballos hasn’t been chosen ahead of Mohamed Elneny: somewhat vindicated following Ceballos’s high-profile mistakes in the Europa League. There was anger at the ease at which Granit Xhaka stepped back into the side following a(nother) red card against Burnley - yet he’s been almost flawless since.
Should Arsenal fans be quite so untrusting at the personnel choices of a man who works with these players, day in, day out? There has been cause for concern under Arteta, for sure - but equally, there are plenty of examples of why he deserves a little more trust.
Two midtable campaigns don’t fully tell the story of the individual errors from players; they don’t tell of the hellish pandemic-enforced circumstances four months into Arteta’s management career or the lack of full-scale investment that the team so badly needs. It neglects to mention that Arsenal won an FA Cup last year, have reached a European semi this and that they have beaten big teams in this last year in ways they hadn’t for a long time.
The table doesn’t lie - but it doesn’t provide you with any context, either. Maybe this is why Pep Guardiola has never taken armchair pundits’ advice and given himself a challenge at a smaller club with less money. Fans don’t have much patience when you’re lagging behind supposedly smaller teams, even if the club is going in the right direction.
And Mikel Arteta has been vindicated after making wholly unanimous decisions quite a few times along the way. He won’t get much of the praise for his team thrashing Slavia Prague 4-0 last night, but perhaps he should get a little credit in the bank the next time he makes some big calls.
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