Following Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over Manchester United, Mikel Arteta succinctly summed up the competition as “a game that had it all”.
It was completely reasonable, but it’s definitely not the type of game Arteta wants.
Even by the standards of modern managers in a highly systematized sport, increasingly wary of flair and individualism, Arteta comes across as a manager who demands control.
He wants control in a disciplinary sense, hence his distrust of Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – two stars considered too unreliable to be tolerated.
And he wants control in the footballing sense. He wants Arsenal to play as he did as a player: unspectacular but calm and reliable, doing the simple things well, regularly imposing his game on the opposition.
Suddenly it all went out the window. That victory over Manchester United was similar to the 4-2 midweek victory at Stamford Bridge: frenetic, open and chaotic.
The first half here, in particular, was almost wacky, with Arsenal leading early on but also letting Manchester United waltz behind with ease. It won’t surprise any Arsenal fan that Cedric Soares and Nuno Tavares look shaky defensively, but the extent to which they were exposed against Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga was surely not Arteta’s intention.
After a disastrous start to the campaign, Arsenal came back to pole position in the battle for fourth place in tight control.
There were occasional goal celebrations, such as when they scored four and five goals against Leeds and Norwich in back-to-back games on either side of Christmas. But Arsenal’s telltale wins this season have been like the 1-0 win at Burnley, the 1-0 win at Wolves and the 2-1 home win over Brentford in mid-February, a game when Arsenal conceded to the 93rd minute, yes, but barely allowed Thomas Frank’s side to fire until that point.
Pep Guardiola seems happiest when his team has completely denied the opposition a chance, almost regardless of whether his team has scored five times or once. Arteta, his protege, is similar.
And that’s the contradiction of Arteta’s Arsenal right now. If it’s not strange enough that they lost to three mid-table teams at Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton before beating two stronger teams at Chelsea and Manchester United, it’s even stranger that they have won both of these victories from start to finish. finish basketball games. Arteta and his counterpart Ralf Rangnick exerted minimal influence in this game. They looked more like parents watching an Under-11 game than Premier League club managers.
With Arsenal leading for most of the game and expected goals (xG) suggesting they were deserved winners, there were far too many moments of panic for Arteta’s liking. From Elanga running behind Tavares for a good chance in the early stages to Aaron Ramsdale conceding possession on the edge of his own box, to Soares handling awkwardly while falling, to Tavares handling while trying to clear as well as foul awkwardly Elanga in a situation he didn’t need, Arsenal offered Manchester United a way back into this game without Rangnick’s side needing to play well at any point.
Indeed, the simple fact that Tavares was the most influential player in the game – for better or for worse – summed it all up. Arteta wants well-rounded universal footballers who regularly contribute in defense and attack, with perhaps no obvious strengths but certainly no weaknesses. Tavares is the opposite: incredible speed, great urgency, capable of getting into goalscoring positions – as with the fly-half – but almost comically bad in a defensive sense, and lacking in composure at crucial moments. Obvious strengths, but absolutely huge weaknesses.
In a way, something similar could be said of Eddie Nketiah. Arteta dropped Aubemeyang and turned to Alexandre Lacazette because he wanted a versatile player up front. But Lacazette’s lack of goals meant Nketiah had his chance, scoring two against Chelsea and inevitably keeping his place here. He still looks like a pure poacher and carelessly conceded possession in both games trying to do what Lacazette is doing – failing to tie the game.
At the start of the season, if you had been asked to guess who would lead the line in this match, Nketiah would surely have been your fourth guess behind Aubameyang, Lacazette and Gabriel Martinelli. And it’s not like Nketiah made his way gradually; he had not scored in the Premier League this season until Wednesday. It’s more of a case of Arteta saying “Why not?”, giving him a hand, and then suddenly finding himself with a completely different option up front and, in a sense, a completely different game plan compared to fifteen days ago.
That might just be enough for Arsenal to crack the top four. As things stand, with United now out of action, it looks like there is around 50:50 between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, thanks to two big wins for Arteta’s side this week.
Arsenal are back on the road. In footballing terms, however, Arteta has gone from a careful driver to a helpless passenger.
(Top photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)