Are Arsenal Going in the Right Direction?
I’m in a difficult position here, trying to write an emotion-less post/analysis on a subject that involves a lot of emotions and impacts the mental & emotional well-being of many of us in a pandemic- and restriction-driven environment. Yet, I must do my best to keep it to the facts, as – I believe – they add more value than my reactions or explanations. (I have a few theories, I shared some already, but there are one yet to come – consider it a threat.) J
But I have to be up front before you jump to any conclusions. I really like Arteta, both as a person and as a coach. I appreciate him having Arsenal ties as a player, and I think even without past managerial experiences he had great ’schooling’ from one of the best, allowing him to become a success story right in his first employment as a coach. And I do want him to succeed, and agree to give him time and space. Emry had his almost 1.5 tenure (he had early successes – despite no silverware – and it took some time until the board concluded tha he doesn’t have the needed control any more), and Mikel deserves at least the same courtesy.
So please don’t misunderstand this piece as the first source of ArtetaOUT, but according to the numbers: Mikel is the best cup-coach we had for 40 years and the worst championship manager. The reasons behind it are not in the scope of this post; the data behind it, is.
Since Mikel took over Arsenal in last December – almost a full year ago – it didn’t seem fair to base the comparison on his early games. He inherited a disturbed team, and it takes time to gain control. Then the pandemic hit, making both training and playing hard and controversial. But it hit the whole PL, and the teams faced similar difficulties. Nevertheless Arteta got his grips on the team, the formation and tactics, he managed to win the FA Cup and had some lovely moments in the Premiere League too. He managed to spend 77M on transfers (plus Saliba, who were bought earlier but brought this summer as well as Willian, who had no transfer fee, but a substantial signing-on and huge salary commitment) with selling only one – although important – player, it seems fair to compare his PL-statistics based on his first 10 games of the 20/21 season.
But before doing that, let me summarize his cup records: 6/6 FA Cup (wins/games), 2/2 league cup, 1/1 supercup and 5/6 international – in this case Europa League – games, totalling an unprecedented 14/15 games won in cups in (less than) a year. Comparing it to Emery, he had 14/20 in the EL (in his defense, he played against some more serious teams as well), 1/2 in the FA Cup and 3/5 in 2 Carabao Cup seasons. The 18/27 is still not bad (especially when we consider that out of the 9 games he didn’t win there were 2 draws), but clearly not as impressive as Arteta’s record – which he is expected to continue at least in the easier fixtures of EL and against Newcastle in the 3rd round of the FA Cup.
So moving on to the top tier comparison, I spent about 2 hours compiling the data from the last 35 years, focusing on the balance of the first 10 games in each season. That is more than 25% of the games, so it seems less random as if I were focusing on 2 games only.
|George Graham||Rioch||Mixed||Unai Emery||Mikel Arteta|
- The first 10 games of this season is bad in 3 out of 4 categories, and average in the last (# of goals conceded)
- In fact the total points and the goal difference is the worst of the last 35 years, and the number of goals socred is not the ‘all-time-low’ only because Arsenal managed to score 9 in the first year of George Graham’s reign 34 years ago
- Arteta indeed managed to improve on the defense, but the 20% less goals conceded came with the price of 30-50% less goals scored (depending on the comparison)
- Arsenal scored more than 3 goals 3 times under Arteta, and 9 times under Emery (who had 40% more games to achieve that)
- Arsenal conceded more than 2 goals 3 times under Arteta, and 12 times under Emery (who had 40% more games to achieve that)
- During Arsene Wenger’s last 2 years Arsenal conceded more than 2 goals 20 times and scored more than 3 goals 22 times
Arteta changing Arsenal is not just a meaningless phrase. Under Wenger and Emery we were a ’reliable’ team, capable of winning against most weaker teams and surely losing against the bests (Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Liverpool, Man City). Mikel changed all that. Arsenal now is a team that can beat anybody, and we can lose as well against anybody. The former is a welcome addition to our portfolio, but the latter is a heavy price. The margin among the PL teams are clearly shrinking, but Arteta has his obvious responsibility in that – just like in beating MU at Old Trafford.
Just some (cherrypicking) examples: While Emery and Wenger won their recent 6 encounters against Aston Villa Arteta lost both, however on the other hand he managed to defeat Liverpool in 3 occasions out of 4, while Emery and Wenger equally lost 3 and drew 1 in their last 4 games against Klopp’s team.
While we should support Arteta (which does not contradict criticizing some of his decisions) and give him time to find the balance between defense and offense, I think we have the moral obligation to voice if we don’t necessarily agree with the direction Arsenal is heading.
This is not a debate between Mikel and us, but rather among pundits, as they keep saying that the club has a new identity, the players are full of energy, that Arsenal is heading towards the right direction, there is an unprecedented team spirit, etc. Well, I respectfully disagree. I think the changes are a mixed bag, and focusing solely on the positives would flatter ourselves beyond reasonable. I don’t really know what is Arteta’s philosophy that is fundamentally different from how Wenger and Emery were trying to play (please don’t hesitate to share your answer), and there were several games in recent months where we had 11 talented athletes on the pitch – often working hard, too – but cohesion or team synergies were missing. That doesn’t make MA a lousy coach, but it doesn’t make him the messiah either.
I, personally, don’t like the direction we are heading. Especially if we remove those goals from the equation that couldn’t be attributed to anything but blind luck (including but not limited to 2 against Norwich and both goals against Liverpool last season). For the last 10 games I was mostly satisfied with the one against Fulham and Manchester United; both on the road. To paraphrase Adrian Clarke, the person behind Arsenal’s ’Breakdown’ column: most times it is not only the result that is disappointing, but also the way Arsenal played. I would rather see more goals conceded if it goes with more chances created and more goals scored (with a more exciting & entertaining game overall), hence I would prefer a 4:2 victory to a 1:0 win, but I take cognizance of belonging to the minority on this matter.
To sign of on a high note: I think we are going to have a happier December-January than our November. The game toll is insane, but that affects most of the clubs (especially the top teams who have international and domestic cup ties in their calendar). But I think Arsenal is in a better position than most, as our backup XI is nearly as strong as the first squad, so the inevitable rotation will not lead to a significant decline in quality – or at least less than with most opponents. We are still a few players overstaffed (I don’t expect Sokratis playing a lot, Saliba should have been sent on loan and Özil cannot be utilized either), but Chambers, Mari, Cedric, AMN, Elneny, Nelson or Martinelli, will be useful additions to the PL-contingent.
I sincerely hope that by March will be in a better position, and have more data to evaluate Arteta’s – as well as Arsenal’s – performance.