Mikel Arteta is supposed to be changing Arsenal, which makes the most damaging aspect of Saturday’s 5-0 defeat at Manchester City the fact that this was more of the same: a shambolic display bereft of organisation, discipline and belief, the type which put paid to his predecessors Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery.
The 39-year-old’s early promise as Gunners boss was predicated upon his ability to structure a team to compete against better-resourced opponents. They beat City and Chelsea to win the 2020 FA Cup final at the end of a campaign which also featured a July victory over then-Premier League champions Liverpool.
There was a similar theme among the general disappointment of last season with victories home and away against Chelsea, a success against Man United at Old Trafford and only a narrow 1-0 defeat against City at the Etihad.
Given Arsenal lost 13 Premier League games last season and finished eighth, if Arteta has lost his touch in implementing a basic structure to the team, what is there to suggest he should continue in the job? This is fundamentally the issue of appointing a manager with no previous experience, one Arsenal doubled-down on last September when effectively promoting him from “head coach” to “manager” in recognition of the club’s tentative progress to that point.
Yet his ability to turn things around now is founded purely on faith, one predicated upon his ability as a coach and the evolution of the club behind the scenes, addressing a culture of underachievement. Arsenal will give him time, mindful of a kinder post-international break fixture list which comprises games against Norwich, Burnley, AFC Wimbledon [in the Carabao Cup], Tottenham and Brighton. But the meek surrender here was deeply troubling for the Spaniard, something captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did not even try to hide at full-time.
“We have to play with courage, this type of game you have to play with everything, take risks; we just didn’t do enough today and that’s it,” he told BT Sport. “Definitely we have to talk between us players, it’s important as we are Arsenal and we have to have pride. That’s it, we have to talk, say the truth, be honest.”
Arteta could hardly dispute such frankness. “If he [Aubameyang] feels that, I completely agree because they are the ones on the pitch and have feelings that no-one else can have apart from them. If that’s the case, that’s good,” he said.
City were palpably favourites here before kick-off and there is undoubtedly mitigation in the significant absentees at Arsenal — most obviously centre-back duo Gabriel and Ben White, along with midfielder Thomas Partey — but Arteta adopted a gameplan he did not have the personnel for.
The club have been keen to move on left-back Sead Kolasinac all summer yet he started as a left-sided centre-back here in a three-man defence which, let’s face it, was a five-man defence for almost the entire game. Pablo Mari was left on the bench, Cedric Soares started at right wing-back, while Granit Xhaka was left as the sole pivot in a midfield with the more-attacking trio of Martin Odegaard, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka ahead of him, while Albert Sambi Lokonga, the new signing who has actually shown some promise in Arsenal’s opening two Premier League games, remained an unused substitute.
Each decision looked odd before kick-off and was a view validated shortly afterwards. City have won 10 of their last 11 meetings against Arsenal across all competitions — on nine occasions, they scored in the opening 25 minutes. There is perhaps a psychological problem playing against City, a “rabbit-in-headlights” feel which Arteta, focused and meticulous as he is, was supposed to be addressing, along with the schoolboy defending and sense of inferiority complex.
Yet they were 2-0 down in 12 minutes at the Etihad Stadium, the diminutive Ilkay Gundogan was somehow allowed to head home Gabriel Jesus‘ cross from close range, before Ferran Torres took advantage of more farcical defending to steer home a second.
An alarming complacency in Arsenal’s performance followed, lacking the fundamental commitment and hunger required to bridge the obvious gulf in class. There was precious little discipline either, as evidenced by Granit Xhaka’s idiotic 35th minute dismissal for a two-footed lunge on Joao Cancelo, a needless tackle made with reckless force which put his teammates at a numerical disadvantage against the best passers in the league. For a senior player who has only recently signed a new contract, Xhaka’s 11th red card of his club career was inexcusable.
Beaten last weekend by a Chelsea team who signed a big-money striker in Romelu Lukaku, Arsenal looked equally vulnerable to another who failed in that endeavour. City may have missed out on signing Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane but, even with winger Ferran Torres playing as a striker, their firepower overwhelmed Arsenal.
Gabriel Jesus converted the third goal on the stroke of half-time after fine work from Jack Grealish. The second half was a training game, attack vs. defence. Rodri curled home a fourth from the edge of the box, Torres headed in a fifth and City could have had several more had they truly gone for the jugular.
Arsenal cowered and camped on the edge of their own box, while City had 86.3% possession in the second half. The visitors attempted only 68 passes and had one shot in the entire game.
It is difficult to underestimate how poor this start has been for Arsenal. They have lost their first three league games for the first time since 1954 and are only the second team in Premier League history to begin with three losses and a goal difference of -9. Wolves did so in 2003-04 and were relegated.
That fate surely will not befall Arsenal but they spent more than £130m this summer eyeing a place in the top six, not avoiding the bottom three. They did so in the full conviction that Arteta is capable of developing a team based on the foundations he has already laid. But those foundations look decidedly shaky right now.