Having watched Arsenal’s performance first hand last Sunday against Manchester City, Mikel Arteta will have had no illusions about the task ahead of him, and it was confirmed yesterday lunchtime at Goodison Park. It was ironic that Everton announced another of Unai Emery’s potential successors – Carlo Ancelotti – as their new manager an hour before kick off. The vastly more experienced Italian has agreed a deal a year longer than Arteta’s - doubtless on bigger wages - and probably with the promise of greater investment in the playing squad.
However, Arteta has a chance to forge a reputation as a coach by turning around a flailing giant currently heading south dramatically, and if he can pull it off, would probably have the pick of the jobs in world football. Should he return Arsenal to glory, one imagines it will be dependent on the ambition of the owners as to whether or not he decides to stick around should the likes of Barcelona come calling (not optimistic on that one), but let’s see if he can work a miracle in north London first.
Some of the less informed BT Sports presenters tried to make out that Arteta had an influence on the team selection. I’d beg to differ. What I saw was a reaction to the poor performance against Manchester City, with Ozil and Pepe removed specifically because of their lack of contribution when the opposition had the ball. With this being Freddie’s last game in charge, he had no reason to massage anyone’s ego, and perhaps the game might even have been broadcast in China. Other than that, the changes were down to injury or suspension.
Arsenal created two shots on target to Everton’s none. We’ve seen a fair amount of poor games at Goodison Park over the years, as well as a few corkers, but at the moment, neither side have too much in the way of evident quality or confidence, as their position in the table indicates. That both announced new managers on Friday and the day of the fixture says all you need to know.
The game itself does not require a great deal of analysis. Arsenal’s players looked, unsurprisingly, like they weren’t on the same wavelength going forward, a consequence of the changes in personnel, but at least it gave Arteta to look at some young players he would not have been too familiar with. After the game, Ljungberg described the goalless draw as a building block, and that's fair enough, but it feels like a piece of lego at the base of the Empire State Building right now.
Let’s be thankful for the point and wait to see incremental improvement over the rest of the season. The team will not develop confidence or understanding overnight, but for this to happen, Arteta will have to be consistent with his team selection and drill the players more than they’ve experienced under previous coaches. Good habits need to be established, and critically, discipline on all levels needs to become an indisputable aspect of how everyone goes about their jobs.
Arteta will probably put his greatest priority on having a shot at the Europa League, and at least he has two months before that gets going again. Aside from that, while embedding his method, he will try and get the team picking up enough points to make the Europa League next season (which is worth a decent amount of money so worth doing) – sixth place should be good enough for that. On paper, you could argue that, having played 18 matches, the team are still within reach of fourth place, but that would necessitate them overcoming all of Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester United above them. Champions League football is critical to Spurs’ finances, which is why Jose Mourinho has been recruited. Given how much the new manager has to do, I’d be content with a top six finish and signs of a turnaround in the culture of complacency at the club.
Effectively, what Arteta has to do is an echo of George Graham’s work from his arrival at Highbury in 1986. The club had some big names who were coasting, and a group of developing youngsters. They hadn’t got too close to winning anything and were floundering a bit. Graham shook things up, gradually moved on the experienced players whose egos were unlikely to make them fit his plans and bought astutely whilst developing the homegrown produce. What's changed now is football. You can’t defend as Graham’s players did or you’d get red carded, so there has to be more emphasis on controlling the ball rather than opposition players. All the same, Arteta cannot afford to ignore this side of the club’s weakness. At least, at Everton, we saw more signs of defensive commitment than we have too often this season. And the first thing any footballer needs to succeed is a willingness to battle for his team. That has been notable by its absence, so alongside technique, the new head coach must work on attitude. And critically, dispense with those not willing to follow – which he has indicated he will do.
I don’t expect a dramatic turnaround on Boxing Day. If the players get tomorrow off (at least in terms of physical work), Arteta only has three days on the training pitch at London Colney to start introducing tweaks. But an upturn in commitment will be obvious at Bournemouth if he can instill that. From that foundation, he can begin to effect the much-needed changes that the team require in developing their gameplan. Let’s see how quickly he can turn chaos into order.
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