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After just one win in six and languishing behind Tottenham, is project Arteta doomed already?

Published on: 04 December 2020

First things first: Mikel Arteta’s job remains one of the safest in the Premier League.

There is no hint of boardroom disgruntlement and only an epic capitulation of the Gunners’ season would alter that stance. And even that may not be enough to turn them. Arsenal are fully invested in Project Arteta.

They recognise his potential and are convinced that his career — and the club’s fortunes — will head in an upward trajectory.

But while the people who matter remain on board, others are starting to ask questions over Arteta’s lack of experience. This is his first managerial job after all.

Some are wondering whether an unwavering commitment to his brand of possession-based football simply isn’t possible with the players at his disposal.

A scan of social media would suggest some supporters are already convinced Arteta isn’t the man for the job. ‘So unjust’ was how Arsenal full back Hector Bellerin described those opinions on Friday.

Victory in Sunday's North London derby would go some way to appeasing what can be a fickle fanbase. The squad will be asking their own questions. How can a side who performed so encouragingly at the start of 2020 have taken such a downturn?

What they should not doubt is Arteta’s work ethic. The Spaniard is leaving no stone unturned in trying to arrest Arsenal’s alarming form. For instance, ahead of this season Arteta dispatched bespoke dossiers to Arsenal’s new signings so they understood fully what was expected of them.

Similarly, he spent the international break meticulously devising a strategy to get Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang firing again.

Concerned that his captain was spending too much time out wide, Arteta spent night and day hatching a plan to get his talismanic striker into central areas, where he causes maximum damage.

‘The way that Mikel plans these games... all the knowledge that he gives us before we step on the pitch is second to none,’ Bellerin said.

Not that it has worked with Aubameyang, who still hasn’t scored a goal from open play since the opening-day 4-0 win over Fulham.

Management must have seemed far simpler back then. Just a few weeks before that win at Craven Cottage, Arteta had led his team to a euphoric FA Cup win before defeating Manchester City in the Community Shield as hope sprang eternal. But just over three months later, Arteta is navigating negativity for the first time.

Doubts are emerging — and how Arteta deals with it all will be intriguing. One win and a draw in their previous six Premier League games leaves Arsenal 14th. They have scored just twice during that sequence, and one of those goals was from the penalty spot.

The fact arch-rivals Tottenham are top of the pile makes their predicament even more unbearable. Thursday’s 4-1 Europa League win over Rapid Vienna renewed hope that Arsenal are about to turn the corner. Nevertheless, as Arteta approaches the first anniversary of his managerial career, problems are building.

The difficulties on the pitch — particularly in front of goal — are clear. But delve a little deeper and you discover the problems are not confined to performances.

A missed Covid test by a player provided Arteta with another unnecessary headache, as did a training-ground clash between David Luiz and Dani Ceballos, sparked when Luiz took umbrage at perceived rough-house treatment by his team-mate of the club’s academy players.

The management upheaval hasn’t helped, either. The sudden departure of head of football Raul Sanllehi in August left a significant hole.

The reasons for Sanllehi’s exit are shrouded in uncertainty, but there is a sense that Arsenal miss the Spanish administrator’s understanding of modern-day football. They could certainly miss his contacts book in future transfer windows.

Chief executive Vinai Venkatesham is a hugely popular figure at Arsenal and is said to be impressing as he grows into the role as the club’s figurehead at boardroom level.

Technical director Edu’s powerbase has also grown since Sanllehi’s exit, but according to certain sources there is a feeling that Sanllehi’s influence is missed.

As Bellerin admitted: ‘There are obviously questions, and we’re not on the best run. But when you are planning on changing the identity of the team, of the club, change the behaviours, not just on the pitch, it isn’t something you can do overnight.’

Eyebrows have also been raised at Arteta’s treatment of Mesut Ozil and Sokratis, two senior professionals who have been disregarded by the Arsenal manager. It is fair to say players often do not take kindly to their team-mates being ostracised.

There is a consensus of opinion that Ozil’s omission is linked to bonuses in his £350,000-a-week contract.

Sportsmail understands Ozil’s deal includes lucrative win and appearance bonuses. But the decision to ostracise Ozil — on his day a superb playmaker — has left many scratching their heads given the lack of creativity.

The style of football Arteta, 38, is trying to implement is easy to comprehend — build from the back, keep possession and wait for the right time to strike. It is similar to what Pep Guardiola has developed at Manchester City.

Arteta was a big part of City’s recent success in his role as Guardiola’s No 2 and it is only natural that he is influenced by his work at the Etihad.

Indeed, sending prospective recruits tactical dossiers, as Arteta did this summer, is a ploy that Guardiola has used himself.

But there comes a time when a manager has to find his own path, his own style and his own approach. Trying to imitate Guardiola’s teams is fraught with difficulty, not least because Arsenal’s squad does not have the quality and depth of City’s.

The signing of towering centre back Gabriel from Lille looks excellent; his comfort on the ball certainly sings to Arteta’s tune. Thomas Partey, who could return from injury against Spurs, also has the attributes to excel in Arteta’s system. But that is not the case for many of the squad, and it is not going unnoticed.

There is a sense that Arteta must play the hand he has been dealt and utilise the strengths of the players he has before gradually introducing his own ideas. ‘You can’t reinvent the wheel without the right tools and materials,’ said one well-placed source.

Victory against Jose Mourinho’s team on Sunday and it would be a case of, ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ Lose, however…


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