The three main priorities on Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal to-do list

Mikel Arteta during his playing days with Arsenal
The novice Spanish manager faces a daunting task at the Emirates (Picture: Getty)

With Freddie Ljungberg having failed to steady the increasingly turbulent Arsenal ship, the Gunners’ hierarchy have turned to another familiar face to try and resurrect their season. Former skipper Mikel Arteta – who was overlooked for the role when Arsene Wenger departed – is set to return to his old stomping ground after serving a three-and-a-half year apprenticeship at Manchester City. Now he must step out from Pep Guardiola’s enormous shadow.

The task awaiting Arteta is no less gargantuan, with the Gunners having won just once in their last 14 matches in all competitions – and even that was only secured thanks to nine frantic minutes against West Ham that belied the lethargic and lacklustre play that had preceded it. On and off the pitch, Arteta has a plethora of issues to address but, in the middle of the packed Christmas fixture list, very little time to deal with them.

With just a few days until the Gunners take on Everton – another of Arteta’s old teams, just to add to the narrative – the Spaniard is facing a real baptism of fire at his new club…

His coaching team

Mikel Arteta and Raheem Sterling in Man City training
Arteta was praised for the one-to-one work he did to help Raheem Sterling (Picture: Getty

It is very rare for a new manager to be given a job as difficult and tumultuous as the one that awaits Arteta at Arsenal. Usually a new project begins in the summer, with months to adapt to the new job, build a coaching staff and install a philosophy during the off-season. In the other half of north London, Jose Mourinho spent his time out of the game adapting and learning, poaching two coaches from Lille to join an already well established backroom team.

But time – the one thing Arteta will need most – is precisely what he is lacking. The most pressing concern he will have, and which will be preoccupying him right now, is the coaching staff he assembles. Freddie Ljungberg has been forced to work with a skeleton staff since Unai Emery’s departure, leaning on Per Mertesacker and even talking through ideas with technical director Edu.

Arsenal interim boss Freddie Ljungberg in training
Arsenal’s current setup is light on coaches and short on experience (Picture: Getty)

‘If you look at the person who was here before, he had a lot of staff and maybe I don’t have so many. So if you keep on going like that for months and months, it’s not so easy,’ explained the Swede. ‘I have Per but at the same time he is academy manager but he is helping me with coaching.’

Arteta will not be taking any of City’s staff with him – not with the champions having been so angered by the way Arsenal moved for their assistant – while so many of the experienced heads left behind by Wenger, such as Steve Bould and Jens Lehmann, have been culled. Getting his backroom team just right, finding the ideal blend of expertise and stylistic fit, will be one of his key first decisions. Most managers experience an element of trial and error when cultivating the necessary trust and harmony from an inner circle, but Arteta will have to hope he and his staff click from the off.

The defence

Arsenal's David Luiz, center, holds his head after Brighton's Neal Maupay scored his sides second goal during their English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Brighton, at the Emirates Stadium in London, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019
Arsenal have been giving up more goals and shots than in Wenger’s final season (Picture: AP)

In most mid-season rescue jobs, the manager parachuted in has a very specific profile, and very specific formula, for arresting the slide: think Roy Hodgson or Sam Allardyce spending hours on the training pitch repeatedly drilling the defence, working on tightening the space between the back-line and midfield. But Arsenal’s position is rather curious than what we’ve seen before.

Despite the state of chaos that envelops the club, and a run of form that has had some fans even fearing relegation, they are actually only seven points adrift of the top four. This season is no write-off; they have an abundance of firepower up top, but just lack a solid, dependable platform. Two clean sheets in 17 Premier League matches is the joint-worst in the division, though even that miserable record owes overwhelmingly to the reflexes of one of the league’s best goalkeepers. Strange, then, that Arsenal’s hierarchy have plumped for a project manager noted for his attacking coaching.

Most shots conceded per Premier League match 2019/20

1. Aston Villa 18.40 2. Norwich 16.60 3. Arsenal 16.40 4. Bournemouth 15.40

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Arteta’s philosophy is almost inseparable from Guardiola, yet it took two summers and £200m on centre-backs to make his defence title-ready. Stylistically he looks to dominate, press high and push up: the further the opposition are away from your goal, the harder it is to score. But it is instances when Arsenal have played a high line, and when players must take individual ownership of defending space and winning their one-on-one duels, that they have looked most ragged.

Mikel Arteta with Manchester City defender Aymeric Laporte
There’s a stark contrast between City’s defence with and without £57m Aymeric Laporte (Getty)

Any scenario that has David Luiz high up the pitch or exposes Sokratis to a foot race is something that should be avoided and this Arsenal back-line – as well as the passive midfielders meant to shield them – feels entirely unsuited to playing the way City do and the way Arteta wants to.

City themselves have often had a vulnerable, makeshift backline and protect it by making tactical fouls early in transition and high up the pitch. Ljungberg noted it after Sunday’s game, admitting Arsenal needed to be more ‘cynical’ and street-wise like their opponents. For Arteta, striking the right balance between his own attacking principles and the limitations of Arsenal’s defence will be paramount, as well as introducing some more ugly elements to the beautiful football he advocates.

Unite the team… and the fans

Arsenal fans angry
Arsenal fans have voiced their displeasure with both the team and the board (Picture: Getty)

Even after almost a year-and-a-half in the job, Unai Emery had little concept on what his best XI actually looked like and interim boss Ljungberg has fared little better in his five games in charge. Striking the right balance in the team eluded both men, even after the latter had restored the exiled Mesut Ozil and reinstated Lucas Torreira to his natural position as a holding midfielder.

Arsenal’s youngsters, meanwhile, have shown the most promise – rare bright sparks in otherwise dreary matches – and Gabriel Martinelli’s performances against West Ham and Manchester City validated Ljungberg’s decision to start him. Equally, it feels hard to justify leaving £48m man Alexandre Lacazette on the bench in both games, even if the Swede feels the side are more solid with only one of their star strikers on the pitch.

Ljungberg on Aubameyang and Lacazette

‘We looked vulnerable defensively. But of course, they are both great players, that’s why I wanted them both on the pitch, but we became very vulnerable defensively. So we took the route against West Ham where we changed it and played one of them and then had more defensive organisation.’

What Arteta must do, immediately, is settle on an XI. Right now the players feels muddled and confused, a group of individuals rather than a team. Down the road at Tottenham, Mourinho named the side’s first unchanged team since March 2017 when they visited Molineux and secured a massive victory. Familiarity, structure, clarity, it is all hugely important. And it’s all been missing at the Emirates.

The fans need it too, a sign that somebody knows what they’re doing; somebody has a plan. A former club captain, a player who understands the DNA created under Wenger as well what is required to win back-to-back Premier League titles. Get the fans up off their seats, thrill them with ferocious defending as well as incisive attacking, and get the Emirates rocking again. Over to you, Mikel.

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