Staff Writer Seb Brooks analyses Arsenal's difficult start to the 20/21 Premier League season, and discusses who is to blame for their current failings.
Fifteenth in the Premier League. Fifteen goals in fifteen games. Even outperforming expected points, in which bracket they would be behind Brighton. Players misfiring left, right and centre, unable to score consistently from open play or keep clean sheets. Manager top of the list on next Premier League manager to be sacked.
Whilst stats are unable to tell everything, they do give some indication about what is happening. And at this moment in time, almost everyone involved in English football knows that there is something wrong at Arsenal. It is therefore worth investigating why this has happened, and how they went from FA Cup winners to having wide scale problems in just a few months.
Arsenal entered this season with renewed optimism. Despite enduring an incredibly turbulent league campaign in 2019-20, finishing eighth, new manager Mikel Arteta managed to guide the Gunners to a record fourteenth FA Cup, beating Manchester City and Chelsea along the way. Added to this, although it is not of the same significance, Arsenal then defeated Liverpool in the Community Shield, a match which is better to win than to lose. This meant that pre-season predictions were looking good. The majority of fans and pundits forecasted they would place either fifth or sixth, and some (perhaps over optimistically) even believed that the Gunners could break into the top four. The start then somewhat lived up to these expectations. They comfortably disposed of newly-promoted Fulham 3-0 in their opening match, and held on to defeat both West Ham and Sheffield United at home 2-1, and although losing to Liverpool away was a blow, the Anfield side have now not lost a home league match for nearly four years, and for a whopping 67 games. Yet, despite these positive results, cracks in the team were already beginning to emerge.
Whilst these results saw points picked up, this does not tell the full story. Most notably, the Gunners scraped through against West Ham, who hit the crossbar late on, and similarly had to fight just to hold off Sheffield United, who as it stands are yet to win a league match, and have lost 13 out of 15 games so far. Indeed, from this point onwards, everything fell apart. Arsenal lost narrowly to Manchester City and Leicester, and got trounced 3-0 by Aston Villa at home, before being lucky to draw at Leeds. This was followed up by additional losses to Wolves, Tottenham, Burnley, Everton and a 4-1 league cup drubbing by Manchester City. A solid 3-1 win over Chelsea on Boxing Day has given some hope, but perhaps the damage has already been done. This poor run of results has meant that the Gunners will do well just to finish around a European spot, with a huge gap to claw back on their rivals.
More damningly, however, this run has not only seen defeats, but has brought with it some unwanted statistics. Up until the Chelsea game, Arsenal had failed to score a goal from open play for over ten hours in the Premier League; defeat at home to Burnley meant that the club had lost four home league games in a row for the first time since 1959, and this is the worst start to a league campaign for over forty years. Despite training under Pep Guardiola, it appears that Arteta is yet to bring a fluid, attacking style of play. The Gunners have lacked creativity on a number of occasions, and have looked out of ideas in how to break teams down. This has rightly led to fans questioning why Mesut Ozil was left out of the Premier League squad. Perhaps stemming from this lack of creativity, both Aubameyang and Lacazette have struggled, and not one of the attackers at the club is in form.
Combined with a defence that always seems to be an Achilles Heel, this is not a great recipe for success. However, with that said, Arteta perhaps needs more time to form the team in his image, and his main summer signing, Thomas Partey, is yet to play extensively due to injuries. Yet, both himself and his support staff should be getting more out of this squad. They are nowhere near good enough to be title challengers yet, but could easily be around the European places. Leno is a solid keeper, Tierney has great potential at left back, along with Gabriel at centre back, and Saka, Lacazette and Aubameyang could thrive under a system which suits their styles of play. Arteta must hope that results can pick up in the new year, since if you finish fifteenth, or even in the bottom half, with any Arsenal team, that is undeniably a sackable offence.
Despite clear problems on the pitch with the manager and players, however, there is perhaps a much deeper issue with Arsenal. Since former co-owner and vice-chairman David Dein left the club back in 2007, the club has been on a downward spiral. Whilst Arsene Wenger rightly took criticism for some poor management at the end of his reign, maybe now Arsenal fans are recognising the role that he played in keeping the club stable. Dein was eventually replaced by current full-owner Stan Kroenke, and since Kroenke has been in charge, the Gunners have failed to progress. Arsene in effect acted as a ‘shield’ for the board, taking most of the blame for poor results on the pitch. But now, with that ‘shield’ taken away, fans are more easily able to recognise the role that Kroenke plays.
For nearly eighteen months now, the club has been in a mess. Unai Emery was sacked, former chief executive Raul Sanllelhi left the club, and overall it still lacks a clear direction. Kroenke’s main interest is the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL, rather than Arsenal. This lack of focus and direction from the top in turn spreads throughout the club, and results are currently showing that. Perhaps sacking Arteta will change the mood and improve the performance of the players for a brief spell. But, in any case, the club is not set up to win. You can go through manager after manager, as has been seen with Manchester United in recent years, but if the club is not set up right, then nothing will ever change. As such, in my view, in agreement with others, until the board changes then Arsenal will never return to its former glory days.