An evening in the life of Mikel Arteta usually involves a stress-relieving walk with his dog, Arnie. Arteta revealed as much this past week and it was a relatively rare insight into the extracurricular pursuits of a manager who, during his first year in the job, has proved adept at answering questions with a smile while giving little away.
If only the same could be said for his team. Arsenal have been both hangdog and porous in recent Premier League outings, losing their past three home games and somehow surviving a pounding at Leeds.
Something has to change quickly: they are 14th in the Premier League and have not had to gaze this far upwards at Spurs in the week leading up to a north London derby for 27 years. Back then, when Arsenal travelled to White Hart Lane one place off the bottom, they could at least point out it was the second weekend of the season. This time the table is starting to shake down and Arsenal cannot afford to slide further.
“This is the game that we have to make into a turning point for us this season,” Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang said in his programme column on Thursday, writing before Rapid Vienna’s visit but dwelling on the trip to Tottenham. “We have to understand that if we can win this game then everyone will change their mindset.”
Presumably he meant those in the dressing room as well as the growing minority of outsiders who are wondering whether Arteta’s new broom is what it was cracked up to be. When Arsenal filed on to the Emirates pitch last Sunday the contrast with their opponents’ body language was stark. Wolves, led vocally by Conor Coady, were bolt upright and bouncing on their toes; Arsenal and Aubameyang were gazing down at theirs and it was hard not to wonder whether the game had already been half-lost.
Not all captains shoot from the hip so it would be unfair to level that flatness entirely at Aubameyang’s door. The problem is that he is hardly firing them in from the boot, either, and that unhappy fact is the headline trend behind Arsenal’s unravelling.
Over the past three seasons it has become customary to note the extent to which his brilliance has masked systemic failings, while rarely considering the goals might ever dry up as long as he stayed fit. But he is a week from hitting three months without scoring from open play in the league; a nagging concern has become one that threatens to engulf everything and it hastens the pressure on Arteta to evolve the side’s style.
“To put almost 80% of that responsibility on one man is not fair,” the manager said on Wednesday when reviewing a goal count that is bettered by everyone bar the bottom three. Arsenal delivered 35 crosses against Wolves with three meeting a home head or foot. “It’s maths, pure maths, it will happen,” Arteta said of the odds on that approach eventually bearing fruit, but it remains unclear who, bar Aubameyang, will reliably get on the end of them.
A more varied, fluent approach is required; it is, in fairness to Arteta, what he clearly wants to instil. He deserves more time to mould a team in his image given the mass of expensively contracted deadwood that must still be cleared from London Colney. It is hard to see how he might complete that job in January, but he already has form for publicly nudging the Kroenkes and set out his stall again in an interview with Spanish media. “We want to move to a 4-3-3, but for that you need a lot of specificity in every position, [and] now in five or six positions we don’t have it,” he said.
The September signing of Thomas Partey, heralded in some quarters as the final piece in Arsenal’s midfield jigsaw, may better be understood as the first. Arteta must continue to squeeze everything from his existing resources for the time being and it was eye-catching to see Ainsley Maitland-Niles, a fine player whose versatility treads a margin between blessing and curse, put in an intelligent and ambitious performance in their deep midfield pairing against Rapid. “I tried to get up and down the pitch and make us more dynamic,” Maitland-Niles said, pointing straight to a quality Arsenal have lacked.
Europa League group games are little more than a petri dish for loftier assignments, but the consistency and crispness with which they entertained 2,000 of their returning fans on Thursday felt the most persuasive glimpse yet of Arteta’s ultimate design.
‘Mourinho has something really special,’ Arteta said, prompting amusement with his choice of adjective
Paradoxically, Sunday is probably not the time to release the handbrake. Arteta has guided Arsenal to a win at Old Trafford and Wembley FA Cup triumphs against Manchester City and Chelsea, and an improvement on their now-regular shellacking at Anfield. His insistence upon structure tends to bear fruit when they are not expected to pull their opposition around.
It will give José Mourinho a dilemma of his own given Spurs have emerged admirably from their past two games by letting Manchester City and Chelsea come at them. There is an argument Arsenal can be backed more heavily to eke out a result on Sunday than they could be against a Wolves team that looked capable of exposing their home discomforts from the off.
Perhaps there is encouragement to be taken by the way Mourinho, albeit with a squad that required fewer adjustments, has overcome a scratchy start to send Spurs dancing to his tune.
“Mourinho has something really special,” Arteta said, prompting amusement with his choice of adjective. “Whatever he wants to get into the football club, he manages to do it. He believes in a way and players execute what he wants to do.”
There was clear projection into his own vision for Arsenal and, should he outwit his rival, there will be renewed optimism about his ability to fulfil it. Arnie could find himself in for a rather more relaxed runaround, too.