LIVERPOOL, England — As first anniversaries go, Mikel Arteta could definitely have asked for a better way to mark one year in charge of Arsenal. Yet all he got on Saturday was a seventh defeat in 10 Premier League games and a run of results that marks the club’s worst start to a season for 46 years.
The Spaniard may have guided the Gunners to FA Cup glory last season, but that piece of silverware is now long forgotten by the club’s supporters, who greeted the 2-1 defeat at Everton with a torrent of social media demands for the 38-year-old to be sacked. Football has always been a fickle business, but Arteta has gone from hero to zero at the Emirates in what seems like the blink of an eye.
Results are always the ultimate barometer for any manager, and this was another defeat, with a Rob Holding own goal and Yerry Mina header, either side of a Nicolas Pepe penalty. Arteta’s side rarely looked like finding another goal as Everton secured the win that takes them into second spot, behind neighbours Liverpool. Arsenal remain 15th and are sinking as though they are in quicksand.
Less than a week ago, Arsenal’s technical director Edu gave his public backing to Arteta, saying the manager was “doing a great job” and that he would lead the club to a “beautiful future.” Senior figures at football clubs are not always the most reliable sources when it comes to giving an unvarnished perspective of any situation, so Arteta would be wise to treat Edu’s words with caution. But on this occasion, Arsenal really need to hold their nerve and make good on Edu’s vote of confidence.
The statistics are awful — five points from a possible 30 — and so are the performances, but it wasn’t so long ago that Arteta was heralded as the solution to all of the club’s long-standing problems. In that sense, it would be foolish to regard the recent run of results as a sign of terminal decline and the manager having lost control of his, and his team’s, destiny.
The real problem at Arsenal is not the manager, but the players. Goalkeeper Bernd Leno even went public with that claim this week when he said “the attitude is bad and discipline is lacking.” As manager, Arteta is of course responsible for that, and he must address both issues if he is to pull the team out of their nosedive, but he can only work with the players at his disposal, and too many of them are not good enough or lacking the motivation to perform at their best.
Against Everton, the warning signs were there before kickoff as the Arsenal players sauntered onto the pitch without any kind of urgency or focus. Willian and Eddie Nketiah in particular gave the impression that they would rather be anywhere else at that moment than on the pitch at Goodison Park, preparing for a big Premier League game. Willian has managed just one shot on target in 15 games since being lured from Chelsea by a three-year contract at the Emirates. Needless to say, that shot did not come against Everton.
As for the rest, David Luiz has shown he cannot be relied upon on a consistent basis, the same to be said of Mohamed Elneny and Nicolas Pepe. And even though Arteta was without the injured Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, absent with a tight calf, the Arsenal manager was still unprepared to rely on Alexandre Lacazette, choosing instead to start with Nketiah and select the French forward as a substitute.
Arteta has already made the controversial — and correct — decision to plough on without Mesut Ozil, but he can’t ditch all of those players who don’t fit his plan. Until he has a squad of players in his own image, he must work with the unsatisfactory group he inherited from Unai Emery a year ago.
Dani Ceballos is another player who can’t be trusted, as evidenced by his cynical foul on Yerry Mina on 41 minutes, which was missed by referee Andre Marriner and VAR official Michael Oliver. Had Ceballos’s challenge, when he plunged his studs into Mina’s calf, been seen, it would surely have resulted in yet another Arsenal red card after three in five games prior to this one. Ceballos was lucky to get away with it on Saturday, but Arteta can’t afford his players to be so ill-disciplined because winning with 10 men is almost impossible in the Premier League.
Arteta was measured when asked to assess his team’s performance, but he said enough to highlight his frustrations.
“We need to generate more to win football matches,” he said. “When it comes to small details, the other team wants it more. Without conceding much, we lost the game on two key moments. We are in a big fight, but we are making it difficult for ourselves by conceding the first goal. The boys are absolutely still fighting, though. They’re hurt right now.”
Only Arteta knows whether he believes that his players really are hurting and fighting. The truth is that they didn’t show much proof. In midweek, Arteta said that he would “take the hits and take the bullets” when criticism comes Arsenal’s way, but he needs his players to step up and put themselves on the line too, otherwise the likes of Edu, chief executive Vinai Venkateshem and director Josh Kroenke may have a big decision to make.
Arsenal’s next four games are huge. They face Manchester City at home in the Carabao Cup in midweek before hosting Chelsea on Dec. 26. Without a positive result in either of those games, they will travel to Brighton and then West Brom with the pressure on Arteta likely to have become intolerable.
But Arsenal must be strong, sticking with the manager and allowing him time to get rid of the players that continue to let him down. Sacking Arteta will only see his successor charged with the same task.