Last Thursday’s European disappointment against Olympiacos has largely overshadowed what has been a promising start to life at Arsenal under the guidance of Mikel Arteta. We certainly have not been perfect, but I believe that we are heading in the right direction. In this article, I will address four positives that we have seen during the early stages of the Spaniard’s tenure.
1. Providing an opportunity for young players.
At Arsenal, there has always been an emphasis on providing opportunities for those who deserve it, and integrating youth players into the first team whenever possible. Arsène Wenger was an advocate of this, and it would appear that his ex-captain carries the same values. So far, Arteta has provided many youth players with chances to prove themselves on the big stage. Those who have benefitted most from this attitude are Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah. The success of both Saka and Martinelli has been well documented this season, so I will focus on Nelson and Nketiah in this segment.
Reiss Nelson was a surprise inclusion in Arteta’s first game in charge at the Vitality Stadium. He struggled in the first half but was much improved after the interval. At full-time, our newly appointed head coach had a lengthy conversation with the English winger as they returned to the dressing room. Reiss retained his place in the side against Chelsea and was impressive throughout, particularly in the first half. He was dropped to the bench in the game that followed, but this was to be expected. The English festive period is very congested, and most players were given some rest when possible. Nelson is still very young, and playing three games in the space of a week could have proven to be unwise. He was reintroduced to the side in our FA Cup against Leeds United, where he scored the game’s only goal. Unfortunately, he then picked up an injury and faced almost two months on the sideline. He made his return against Portsmouth in the FA Cup and was a candidate for the man of the match award. He set up both goals in the game and looked dangerous throughout. Admittedly, Portsmouth are not the best side in the world but, nonetheless, it was an impressive display from him.
Eddie Nketiah spent the first half of the season on loan at Leeds United. Although his goal tally was impressive, his opportunities were extremely limited. Marcelo Bielsa preferred Patrick Bamford as his lone striker, and Eddie largely had cameo appearances in which to prove himself. The whole purpose of the loan deal was to secure first team opportunities for the twenty-year old Englishman, and these were at a minimum. Subsequently, Arsenal recalled him in January, and were seemingly keen on loaning him out for the remainder of the campaign. However, Eddie impressed Arteta in training and the Spaniard decided to keep hold of his young striker. So far, this has proven to be a wise decision. In just four starts for the first team, Nketiah has found the net on three occasions, including his first Premier League goal at The Emirates Stadium against Everton. His knack for being in the right place at the right time coupled with his tireless running off the ball are a breath of fresh air, and he certainly has the potential to push the misfiring Alexandre Lacazette for a starting spot between now and May.
2. Resolving the Granit Xhaka situation.
When Mikel Arteta arrived at Arsenal, Granit Xhaka’s future appeared to be sealed. Our ex-captain was still out of favour following a well-publicised falling out with some of the Arsenal fans at our home game against Crystal Palace. Media publications claimed that a return to German football was inevitable for the Swiss, and Hertha Berlin were very interested in signing him. These rumours were so strong that even Granit’s brother addressed them publicly and acknowledged the interest of the German side.
What has happened since has been incredible. I have said in the past that even the most experienced managers around would have struggled with this situation, and I stand by that. It was new territory. The saga was incredibly delicate. One word out of place and Xhaka would have felt that he no longer had the backing of his manager. Alternatively, some fans may have felt that Mikel was undermining the importance of fans and their support if he appeared to side too heavily with Xhaka. He handled the situation with such class, and it appears to be benefitting all involved.
Xhaka has been one of our best performers under Arteta so far. For that, he deserves immense credit. He has not held a grudge against fans, and has done his talking on the pitch. His performances have improved dramatically and he has featured in almost every game under the Spaniard. He missed the home game against Chelsea due to illness, and was omitted from the starting XI for our trip to Fratton Park, but this was the case for numerous first team players. Apart from that, he has featured for every minute of Arteta’s rein.
I am very pleased for Xhaka, as the situation was undeniably a tough one for him. He has never attempted to hide his love for the club, but was brave in standing up for himself and his family regarding personal abuse. He was presumably fully aware that it could have lasting repercussions on his career at the club, but this did not stop him from speaking his mind. Arteta’s added trust and public praise has made him feel more at home and fans have, in turn, warmed to him following a rich run of form. For me, both men deserve praise for their involvement in his resurgence.
3. Added stability away from home.
Arsenal’s struggles on the road over the past three seasons has been football’s worst kept secret. Since 2018 commenced, our away form has been dismal, and this has largely impacted the lack of Champions League qualification during that period. Arsène Wenger registered just one domestic away victory during his final five months at the club, and Unai Emery continued this sub-par performance level. During the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons, our home form has been up there with the best in the league, yet we failed to qualify for Champions League football on both occasions. This speaks volumes about just how poor our travelling form was.
Since Unai Emery departed in November, we have seen an upturn in our fortunes on the road. Since Emery’s sacking, we have played twelve away games, and we remain undefeated during that period. There is certainly a lot of room to improve even further, but we have minimised the games that we have lost, at the very least. Admittedly, this run of twelve games contains numerous draws, but this is still better than the vast majority of what we have been subjected to over the past thirty months. The run is our longest unbeaten streak since December 2016. Aswell as that, we have now kept three consecutive clean sheets on the road for the first time since August 2014. Clean sheets have been like gold dust over the past two seasons, particularly outside of The Emirates, so this is a sign that we are gradually becoming more solid collectively. The system is much more robust, and this has resulted in much improved performances from defenders such as Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz .
4. Bringing the best out of so-called liabilities.
It is safe to say that Mikel Arteta didn’t inherit the best squad in the country. There were numerous positions which needed major addressing, and pundits were quick to point fingers at the defenders who were on our books. Gary Neville went as far as to claim that Luiz, Mustafi and Sokratis are ‘uncoachable’. Other players such as Xhaka and Özil were no strangers to pointed criticism from outsiders.
In my opinion, one of the biggest tasks that Mikel was faced with was getting the best out of the players who were struggling. Players like Aubameyang and Leno will thrive regardless of the system or the head coach, but this is not the case for many members of the squad. In the past, our non-existent defensive setup has left the likes of Mustafi and Xhaka exposed, with minimal support from their teammates. This has led to slip-ups and subsequent scrutiny. Over the past few months, the performances of many of these players have improved immensely.
Since December, some of our best performers have been Xhaka, Mustafi and David Luiz. This seemed entirely out of the question when Arteta arrived, and none of the three appeared to have a long-term future at the club. The various tweaks in the system, as well as the new playstyle, have helped the individuals mentioned to excel. Xhaka often fills in as a third central defender when we are building from the back. Not only has this enabled Bukayo Saka to venture forward on the left, it has also supplied the existing centre halves with added support, combating the threat of potential turnovers. The added emphasis on playing out from the back has allowed David Luiz/Mustafi to control games from deep areas, with the added defensive support of Xhaka and others keeping their one-v-one defensive situations to a minimum. This benefits all round, as we are all fully aware that both defenders in question can struggle in these scenarios.
There have also been notable improvements in the performances of Mesut Özil, Nicolas Pépé, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Dani Ceballos and many others. I am not suggesting for one minute that all of these players will be key to our success in the future, but it makes me excited to see how Arteta will develop the players that he signs himself. He is currently enabling the majority of the squad to perform at a level above their standard level over recent years, so this can only be seen as an encouraging sign for the future.
We have played fourteen games since the arrival of Arteta. Our European exit and current league position would potentially indicate that he has struggled to change our fortunes. However, I still believe that we have appointed the right man for the job. The atmosphere around the club is much healthier - both among fans and in the dressing room. As fans, we need to remain patient, as it won’t be an overnight fix. Stick behind the team, stick behind the management, and hopefully we can turn around our fortunes and transform the 2019/20 season into a successful campaign between now and May.
If you have any additional thoughts, then feel free to let me know in the comments section below. I will get back to you all. Thank you as always for reading.