Arsenal in the Springtime: In Like a Lion and Out Like a Lamb
Three reasons why Mikel Arteta has gone from hero to zero as Arsenal lose sight of Champions League qualification
On March 17, the Arsenal players celebrated at Villa Park after a 1-0 victory that propelled the youngest side in the Premier League towards Champions League qualification. The travelling supporters roared Mikel Arteta’s praises. However, three games, three successive defeats and exactly one month later, the Spaniard’s plan has spectacularly unraveled.
The Gunners now lie in sixth, three points begin Spurs with a run of difficult fixtures against Chelsea, Manchester United, West Ham and Tottenham still to play. Further, Thomas Partey and Keiran Tierney both look set to miss the rest of the season, Takehiro Tomiyasu’s return date remains a mystery and goals are seeming almost impossible to come by.
So, where did it go wrong? How did the March Manager of the Month go from hero to zero in 31 days? They say a week is a long time in football, but here’s why the past month has encapsulated the season.
Crystal Palace 3 Arsenal 0
Arsenal returned from the international break with a seemingly winnable run of three games. First up, the most difficult of the three was a Monday night trip to Selhurst Park. Arteta’s only change from the win at Villa was to include Nuno Tavares in place of the injuried Tierney for the Portuguese’s first start since he was hooked after 30 minutes during the FA Cup defeat at Nottingham Forest. For Arsenal’s first-choice left back, this is the Scot’s second spell on the sideline this season and the second successive season his fitness has broken down during the run-in.
As Arsenal collapsed under the weeknight atmosphere in South London, Arteta reverted to type, pulling Tavares off at halftime. Singling him out seemed unfair and held a whiff of Mourinho-esque bullying when, in reality, any of the starting 11 could’ve suffered the same fate amidst a dismal performance that resembled this season’s opening day defeat against Brentford where the lack of intensity and attacking coherency plagued the performance.
With Arsenal 3-0 down, Thomas Partey limped off with a hamstring injury to make it two season-ending injuries to two injury-prone players who both came back from international duty.
Arsenal 1 Brighton 2
What better way to bounce back with a home tie against a mid-table side with nothing to play for? Think again.
Just as he did last season, Arteta’s solution to Tierney’s injury woes was to use Granit Xhaka as a makeshift backup. Once again, it backfired against Brighton. While Sambi Lokonga put in a performance that illustrated his potential, the absence of both Xhaka and Partey in the middle meant Martin Odegarad was forced to play deeper, limiting Arsenal’s already-diminishing attacking potency and disabling one of the side’s most creative players.
Despite a late rally where Arsenal struck the bar twice, Arteta turned to Eddie Nketiah and Nicolas Pepe to make an impact from the bench, both of whom have seen a finite amount of minutes this season due to Arteta’s lack of squad rotation. The late rally aside, Arsenal fell flat.
Southampton 1 Arsenal 0
As Arsenal faltered, Tottenham enjoyed two resounding wins that returned nine goals, which both elevated Spurs above Arsenal and delivered Conte’s side an unassailable goal difference.
Yet, as predictable as the change in seasons, Spurs will always be Spursy. Their defeat against Brighton in the day’s early kick-off provided an opening for Arsenal to make up some ground. Hope springs eternal, adding pressure to what was already a must-win game.
After upsetting the team chemistry by moving Xhaka to full back, Arteta returned Tavares to the starting 11 despite openly criticizing him in the prematch press conference where he questioned the left back’s desire. Additionally, Nketiah landed his first start since January 9 after Alexandre Lacazette pulled out for “personal reasons.” Gabriel Martinelli also replaced Emile Smith-Rowe as Xhaka partnered Lokonga behind the advanced Odegaard.
Arteta did get one thing right at St. Mary’s, saying Arsenal was the better team. True. But the absence of a goal-scoring striker was conspicuous and the blame falls squarely on the club. Despite 18 shots and five on target, Arsenal’s decision against investing in a striker and save funds for the summer after missing out on Dusan Vlahovic in January was once again brought into stark perspective on the South Coast.
Before the Southampton game, Arsenal had scored just three out of the 17 big chances they created in the Premier League in 2022, according to SofaScore. Their 17.6% big chance conversion rate was the lowest among all 98 teams in the top 5 European leagues this year. And with Saka, Smith-Rowe and Odegaard all missing chances at St Mary’s, the blame for the ineffectual attack clearly extends beyond Lacazette.
Arteta must learn. However, his man management skills, or lack thereof, and evidence of making the same mistakes, such as overplaying Partey and Tierney and retrying Xhaka at left-back, it might be too late.