Few first-time managers have ever had it harder than Mikel Arteta. Taking on your first job at a big club that many commentators and fans think is too big for a novice to manage would have been hard enough in any circumstances, but taking it on just before the famously tough Christmas period in England made it even tougher. However, as hard as the Christmas period was because of him, things are going to get even harder, starting with the Gunners’ trip to Crystal Palace this weekend.
Fortunately, in another sign that Arteta knows Arsenal and their predicament in a manner that Unai Emery regrettably never did, he has already signalled that he fully appreciates how difficult a visit to Crystal Palace will be. In the build-up into the game, he said:”Every time that I played at Selhurst Park, I suffered.” This time around, there’s every chance that he will”suffer” in Selhurst even more as a manager than he did as a player, because of Arsenal’s recent full-back crisis.
‘Crisis’ is not too strong a word to use, given that Sokratis needed to deputise at right-back against Leeds on Monday night. Although Arteta was presumably saving his first-choice replacement right-back, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, for the Palace game, it was still alarming to see the Greek centre-back’s lack of speed being regularly subjected out wide by Leeds. And even if Maitland-Niles does perform against Crystal Palace, since he’s a central midfielder only filling in at full-back, there is every chance that he will fight against Andros Townsend, Palace’s skilful and hard-working left-winger.
Worse, Sead Kolasinac, who’s a wing-back masquerading as a full-back (as Arsene Wenger effectively admitted within a few months of the Bosnian linking Arsenal), the side has to be wary of coming up from Wilfried Zaha, Palace’s right-winger and star man. That’s especially true now that the January transfer window has opened and Zaha will be even more determined than ever to earn the move to a Champions League club that he’s so openly seeking.
Of course, neither Maitland-Niles nor Kolasinac are first-choice full-backs for Arsenal. Those are Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney, who are not only currently injured but who have been injured so often this season that they have barely played at all, let alone together. Neither will likely return in the short term, therefore it is probable that Arsenal will need to fight on with Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac (but hopefully not Sokratis) from the full-back positions, at least for the near future.
In the press conference prior to the Palace game, Arteta was specifically asked about any potential transfer plans he had for January. However, although most Arsenal fans have been anticipating the beginning of the New Year as their new manager’s first opportunity to reinforce the squad, especially in defence, the Spaniard himself appeared to downplay any chance of significant transfer spending this month. “I’m not expecting big things in the marketplace this month.
Arteta may be alone in expecting”big things” out of his existing players and in particular his current defenders. Arsenal fans are so used to bemoaning the problems in central defence, where the team have not boasted a top-rate pairing because the Invincibles partnership of Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure, that the problems at full-back may have escaped their attention. But if Zaha and Townsend can perform to their full potential tomorrow, there’s every possibility that the full-back crisis will require everyone’s attention, including that of Arteta.
There are most likely two big reasons why Arteta isn’t yet actively demanding new players and especially new defenders. The first is his own self-belief for a coach, which will convince him he can get far more from Maitland-Niles, Kolasinac, Sokratis as well as David Luiz than Unai Emery was ever able to. And it has to be acknowledged that on the basis of Arteta’s four games in charge of Arsenal so far, he’s right to possess such self-belief, as David Luiz, in particular, has looked like a very different player to the walking accountability that he has been for much of the season.
The second reason, of course, is the notorious difficulty of acquiring top-quality transfer targets in the January transfer window. The kind of defenders that Arsenal need – Champions League-class defenders – are largely unavailable at this time of year, precisely since they are still competing in this year’s Champions League. It’s certainly much easier to target and then acquire new players in the summer than it is in January, so Arteta might want to keep his move powder dry until later in the year.
Nevertheless, sooner or later Arteta will have to admit that even the best coach – a combination, perhaps, of Rinus Michels, FIFA’s Coach of the Century, and his own erstwhile boss, Pep Guardiola – will struggle to make a team at Arsenal that is genuinely capable of competing for the Champion League areas, let alone competing for the Premier League and the Champions League themselves, from the team alone. Substantial reinforcements will be required if he’s truly to make Arsenal competitive at the top level again.
As previously mentioned, for more than a decade now the priority for Arsenal is to purchase at least one genuinely dominant centre-back, if not two. However, close behind that is the need for a really creative passing midfielder, of the kind the Gunners have lacked ever since Santi Cazorla’s injury issues and subsequent exit from the club. Naturally, that man might have been Dani Ceballos, if just Arsenal had negotiated a right to buy him as part of his season-long loan from Real Madrid. Unfortunately, neither Unai Emery nor anyone else at the club thought that such a clause in the loan deal was necessary. Because of this, Ceballos, after demonstrating some early-season promise, has mostly played like a man who has known all along that, come what might, he’ll be going back to his parent club.
Finally, Arteta might wind up needing to get a new striker, or two, if either Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Alexandre Lacazette, or indeed both of them, require a move this summer if, as is still likely, Arsenal don’t return to the Champions League next season. Fortunately, in this department at least Arteta looks as though he has at least one ready-made replacement, in the shape of the exciting young Brazilian Gabriel Martinelli, should one or both of his top strikers require a move.
The most encouraging thing about him so far is that, judging by everything he has said publicly since taking over (including his specific comment about the challenge at Selhurst Park), he is under absolutely no illusion about the scale of the task ahead.