Mikel Arteta will face huge task to turn Arsenal’s fortunes around | Football News

Mikel Arteta sat in the away dugout at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday

Mikel Arteta sat in the away dugout at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday

If Mikel Arteta needed any help to fully appreciate the scale of the job he faces at Arsenal, it is handy that he had a front-row seat for the latest show of evidence. At the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, the flaws were laid bare for the man soon to be tasked with transforming their fortunes.

Sat on the Manchester City bench alongside Pep Guardiola, Arteta will have noted the extraordinary openness of Arsenal’s midfield and watched at how their defenders backed off and then backed off some more, inviting Kevin De Bruyne and his Manchester City team-mates into their penalty box without so much as making a challenge.

He will have seen the bowed heads and shrugged shoulders of a group of players devoid of confidence. He will have heard the anger of the fans who booed Mesut Ozil from the field in the second half and spotted the emptying of the stadium which began long before that.

He might even have wondered whether it would be a mistake to take it all on.

Arsenal are as close to the relegation zone as they are to the Champions League places. The ease with which City swatted them aside on Sunday – “we played much better against Manchester United,” said Guardiola afterwards – underlined just how far behind the elite they have fallen.

They have conceded more goals after 17 games than in any previous Premier League season. This is the first time they have had a negative goal difference at this point. They have never won fewer games, and the only time they had fewer points – in 1994/95 – they went on to finish 12th.

Arteta has been described as an 'important part' of City's success

Arteta has been described as an ‘important part’ of City’s success

These would be immensely challenging circumstances for any coach – let alone one with no experience – but it is a testament to how highly Arsenal regard Arteta that they are willing to stake their future on him. For his part, and considering how failure could impact his managerial prospects, it also shows how much he believes in himself.

He will certainly need that self-belief. Arteta has spoken about his commitment to “expressive” and “entertaining” football in the past, but if he is to succeed at Arsenal, the priority must be to instil organisation and urgency at the back. That won’t be easy with a group of players who seem to struggle with the basics of defending.

“Every time I watch them play, every time the ball comes in on the attack, they just drop off,” said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher on Sunday. “They drop off when they should press, they press when they should drop off. It’s like they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Arsenal could not contain Kevin De Bruyne on Sunday

Arsenal could not contain Kevin De Bruyne on Sunday

Carragher added that Arsenal’s defenders simply aren’t at the level required and it is difficult to argue with that in light of recent evidence. But it is also true that they aren’t helped by the gaps in the midfield in front of them. It is another area in urgent need of attention, but another in which there are few obvious solutions in the squad.

At Manchester City, Arteta has the luxury of working with Fernandinho, a master in the art of protecting a defence. At Arsenal, however, he will inherit a group of players in which his only experienced option for the role, Granit Xhaka, lacks the speed and mobility required, and the others, Lucas Torreira, 23, and Matteo Guendouzi, 20, remain raw.

Arteta must drum positional awareness and tactical discipline into those young players and change attitudes towards defending across the squad, but can it be done quickly? Because while his appointment will represent the start of a long-term project, there can be no hiding from the fact that immediate improvement is required.

Free highlights from Arsenal’s 3-0 loss to Manchester City

Free highlights from Arsenal’s 3-0 loss to Manchester City

The January transfer window will provide an early opportunity for Arteta to begin shaping the team in his image, but the imbalanced make-up of the current squad raises questions of the recruitment team above him.

Can the club’s decision-makers be trusted to resolve the problems correctly? Are the plans in place to give Arteta the best possible chance of succeeding? And are the club’s owners willing to ensure last summer’s expenditure was not a one-off – even if they end up facing a fourth consecutive season outside the Champions League?

Because there are already issues to address at the top of the pitch as well as at the back.

Arteta has been an assistant coach on City's coaching staff since 2016

Arteta has been an assistant coach on City’s coaching staff since 2016

It only took Freddie Ljungberg a couple of games to determine that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette could not be used in the same team – “you need to have defensive balance,” he explained after leaving Lacazette on the bench against City – and there are question marks over how to get the best out of the £72m Nicolas Pepe as well as Ozil.

Aubameyang and Lacazette’s contractual situations complicate matters further, with both due to enter the final years of their deals next summer, and for all their scoring efforts – they have hit 69 goals between them since the start of last season – the underlying numbers paint a picture of decline in Arsenal’s attacking as well as their defending.

Recalibrating Arsenal’s attack will be yet another job for Arteta’s lengthy to-do list, but there are also areas of encouragement amid the challenges.

This squad may lack leaders, but there is a large crop of highly-promising academy graduates, most notably Joe Willock, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, while there is similar excitement about Gabriel Martinelli, the emerging Brazilian forward, and William Saliba, the teenage Saint-Etienne centre-back who will bolster their defensive ranks next summer.

Arteta bid an emotional farewell to Arsenal in 2016

Arteta bid an emotional farewell to Arsenal in 2016

Arteta’s return will also generate plenty of goodwill among fans who watched their former captain leave the pitch in tears on his final appearance for the club in 2016. They will be heartened by his understanding of the club and desperate for him succeed.

It might also help him that, after the mixed messages and muddled tactics of Unai Emery’s tenure, this Arsenal side is not wedded to any particular way of playing. Arteta will not have to change their approach because right now they don’t have one. Instead, this is a club craving clear direction. There is a blank canvas for him to implement his own ideas.

Those ideas have been formulated during more than three years of working with one of the greatest managers in history. The idea of Guardiola’s former assistant getting Arsenal to play in the manner in which Manchester City did on Sunday is a tantalising prospect. But is also a distant one. Mikel Arteta will be under no illusions about the size of the task ahead.

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