Michael Walker: Arsenal’s Arteta revolution is already stalling
Gunners are in need a major squad overhaul as they struggle for Premier League goals
Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal are 14th in the Premier League table heading into the North London derby. Photograph: Julian Finney
At the end of June when Liverpool had been crowned champions of England for the first time in 30 years, Jamie Carragher wrote a confessional column in the Daily Telegraph admitting that he had been of those doubters Jurgen Klopp had been tasked with turning into believers.
Carragher talked of how far he felt Liverpool had fallen before Klopp’s arrival in October 2015. Carragher called Brendan Rodgers’ team’s title challenge “an anomaly” and his conclusion was that Liverpool “were no longer a Champions League side. They were a Europa League qualifier.” It was written with a heavy heart.
By way of supporting his opinion, Carragher offered this comparison: “Anyone who thinks a Liverpool title in 2020 was plausible when Klopp joined should put a bet on Arsenal winning the Premier League in 2025.”
It bordered on the brutal. This was in late June when Arsenal were in the midst of nine wins in 12 games and were on the way to an FA Cup final victory over Chelsea. The air was full of what Mikel Arteta was doing right and how he had recalibrated Arsenal in six months post-Unai Emery. Surely five years is plenty of time. In fact, what about 2022?
But even then Carragher was raising a question about the nature of Arsenal’s improvement, whether it was a temporary spike or a long-term trend. Another six months on and questions have multiplied. You would not get many punting on Arsenal winning the Premier League in 2022. And while 2025 still seems far away, there might be some fresh doubts about that date too.
The Gunners won’t be champions in 2021, that’s for sure. Last Sunday’s defeat by Wolves was the third in a row at home in the league. It leaves Arteta’s side 14th in the table and while it can be said they are only five points off the top four, there are other statistics. For example, free-flowing Wengerian Arsenal have scored 10 goals in their 10 games; only the bottom three have scored less. There was that 1-0 win at Manchester United a month ago; but Arsenal’s only other victories since the beginning of October have been in their Europa League group, as Dundalk can confirm.
Next Thursday brings the ‘home’ game for Dundalk. This would have been a great occasion on non-pandemic days. Not that Arteta will be thinking that far ahead. He has a trip up the Seven Sisters Road to Tottenham on Sunday on his mind.
After the Wolves loss he said: “We have many, many different issues . . . it is nowhere near good enough for this football club and we have to change this dramatically.” At a club seemingly on a 24-hour news loop, the self-criticism chimed with all the rest.
Constant criticism is a problem, of course, and the elevation of fan opinion to official status is more noticeable at Arsenal than elsewhere. But it also feels like there is too much praise. This affects the club’s young players in particular, who are sometimes left stranded by the hype.
Take for instance the goal at Chelsea scored by teenager Gabriel Martinelli. It brought forth a level of praise beyond sensible and was voted on one fan website as goal of the season. But had N’Golo Kante not slipped, there would have been no goal. It was based on luck. According to some though, Martinelli had gone to Stamford Bridge with five loaves and two fish.
When there was collective improvement - and winning the FA Cup was worthy of some admiration - it too was overstated.
This was understandable because of how dour it was before. Arteta was bringing relief. This immediate contrast is the case at most clubs. But inflated praise leads to inflated expectations. It was the same following Thursday night’s 4-1 win over a makeshift Rapid Vienna, who were nothing like what Tottenham will be.
But while Cup wins can generate and feed momentum, they are not reflected in the league table. The reality is that Arsenal were eighth last season, the fourth in a row when they finished below their north London neighbours. A fifth - and Spurs are top at the minute - would make people think again about 2025.
Reviewing Klopp’s first Liverpool starting XI, only James Milner and Divock Origi remain significant at Anfield. Klopp knows that if a manager cannot coach change, then change must come from personnel. Who in this Arsenal team would merit a start at Liverpool? Or even Tottenham.
In private Arteta may have reached the opinion that he needs a Countinho-type windfall to reset Arsenal. But that would require clever club selling and clever club buying and Mesut Ozil watches on as an example of neither.
“Take a long, hard look at the challenge facing Mikel Arteta today,” Carragher said, “and it is the closest you will get to what Klopp walked into at Anfield - a huge club failing to match up to their history.”
Neil Lennon deserves better
“The cheers I got from the Celtic fans as I left the field were very special to me. I felt accepted by the supporters from the first.”
Neil Lennon wrote this in his autobiography, Man and Bhoy. He was referring to his first Celtic goal and the reaction from the travelling fans at East End Park, Dunfermline in March 2001.
He had signed for Celtic four months earlier - 20 years ago on Sunday - and the support in Dunfermline was all the more welcome as four days earlier in Belfast Lennon had been booed by sections of the home crowd at Windsor Park while playing for Northern Ireland. Lennon did not appear for the second-half of the friendly against Norway. At that stage in his career, Parkhead was a refuge.
Lennon would play four more games for Northern Ireland but the death threats and pressure became too much. He was intimidated out of international football: because he was a Catholic, because he played for Celtic.
But Parkhead is no longer a refuge for Lennon. In Milan on Thursday he saw some absentee defending and goalkeeping contribute to another four goals conceded and though Celtic played reasonably well and could have scored five themselves, it was another defeat and more scrutiny. Losing at home to Ross County does that.
Yet the sight of Celtic fans protesting against a Celtic man suggests some do not remember or comprehend what Lennon went through as a player, what he means to the club and vice versa. As a coach he is certainly enduring a low, but as an authentic Celtic figure, Lennon deserves respect; particularly from his own.