Mikel Arteta can be only reason for Arsenal cynicism in this era of the manager cult

Date published: Wednesday 27th July 2022 9:09 - Dave Tickner

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta watches on during the pre-season friendly against Nurnberg

The pre-season hivemind has Arsenal as the weakest of the Big Six and that’s mainly a judgement on Mikel Arteta.

It’s not a perfect system, but I’ve always enjoyed perusing pre-season odds as a way of gauging expectations for the season. Sure, Liverpool and Manchester United will always be a touch shorter than their true odds because of weight of numbers, but as a barometer and hivemind-style guide to how things are expected to pan out, there isn’t really a better option.

You’re certainly better off compiling a pre-season predicted table from the odds on Betfair than from the predictive outpourings of any number of high-powered tabloid newspaper supercomputers.

(We’ve secretly always suspected that the ‘supercomputers’ so beloved of The Sun and The Mirror are in fact nothing more than one bored junior reporter with a Betfair account, but we try to bury that thought deep down because it is much more fun to imagine a giant clanging metallic beast the size of a house with all lights and whistles and whirring gears rumbling away for hours on end while boffins with white coats and clipboards scurry around nervously before it spews out reams and reams of paper that essentially say ‘Same top four as last season, lads, and whichever one of Norwich or Fulham is in the Premier League this time might struggle a bit imvho.’)

Anyway, as we strive desperately and tangentially towards something approaching a point, the key learnings from this season’s antepost odds is that 2022/23 is going to be all about the Big Six but that Arsenal have still convinced absolutely nobody.

The first point is pretty understandable. There’s a good chance the season stands in history as a significant one. With the two most recent Big Six-botherers Leicester and West Ham looking distinctly vulnerable and Newcastle perhaps still too early in their journey towards either replacing or adding to the current sextet, this could be one final hurrah for the Big Six as we know it. They may well have things their own way this season for one last time.

But while the hivemind is pretty convinced the Big Six are levels clear of the rest, they also anticipate that it will be Arsenal bringing up the rear.

And really it’s hard to conclude that this reflects anything other than a lack of belief in the manager Mikel Arteta. This season, for the first time since taking the Arsenal job, he has absolutely no cover. He has no canary down the mine. For the first time, this promising yet unproven manager faces down a top six who have all decided to have proper managers.

Arsenal’s summer recruitment has been eye-catchingly good. While signing players from the champions is no guarantee of success, it’s pretty clear they’ve got a couple of good ones in Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko.

How Jesus handles the opportunity presented by the responsibility of being the undisputed leader of a Premier League side’s attack will be fascinating, and there is a very good chance he absolutely thrives. Zinchenko, meanwhile, looks a really canny acquisition, a player who can fill multiple holes in a squad – Arteta has even hinted at using him as a No. 10 – and always gives the impression of a player who will look better with greater responsibility than one who simply benefits from having great players around him.

Arsenal’s end to last season was deeply disappointing but really, there was very little between them and Spurs – and even ultimately Chelsea – while they were well clear of Manchester United.

They have improved their squad in a way United conspicuously have thus far failed to do and should go into the new season feeling pretty confident.

Their squad stands up against any bar the obvious big two. Yet they are three times Spurs’ price with the bookmaking hivemind for both the title and a top-four finish. Spurs have clearly also improved their squad, but by so much as to explain that kind of gulf? Not really.

The beauty of the pre-season prices is that they reflect not only expectation but also perception. Unsullied as they are by the inconvenient reality of actual results, they reflect only vibes and feels.

And it shows that the cult of the manager remains strong at the top end of the Premier League. Whatever changes to the playing staff occur at City and Liverpool, they are perceived to be well clear of the rest. For as long as Guardiola and Klopp remain, so too you’d imagine will this view.

But it is the comparison between Arsenal and the rest of the Big Six that most clearly highlights this difference. Chelsea may be the current designated crisis club, but they have Thomas Tuchel and the expectation remains that however much the panic may currently be rising within him, he will ultimately sort it out.

Spurs – Spurs! – are third favourites in most places because for now at least they have Antonio Conte and with it an expectation that he can override the powerful inertia of Spursiness.

But at least those sides come into the season having already shown last year that they were – just about – better than Arsenal. United very much did not do that, yet they too are markedly shorter than the Gunners almost everywhere. Just the very idea of United under a proper manager is enough for them to leapfrog Arteta’s Gunners in people’s minds.

It’s why, of course, Erik Ten Hag’s pre-season has been so ludicrously closely scrutinised. It is clearly the most fascinating pre-season angle and at the biggest club. We all know that City and Liverpool will be good. We all suspect that Conte will make Spurs pretty formidable and that Chelsea will be fine because Chelsea always are.

Ten Hag’s United are the unknown quantity, and he is a fascinating appointment because the range of plausible outcomes is so tantalisingly vast. It is just as easy to imagine a brilliant coach, which Ten Hag undoubtedly is, taking a squad that has been lacking vision and direction for so long and dragging them to a far higher level and far greater consistency than they’ve managed in recent years. Equally, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture Ten Hag struggling under the sheer weight of everything that Manchester United are. That it is simply all too much for him and he’s gone full De Boer by the time of the World Cup.

And behind all that uncertainty come Arteta and Arsenal. Where the hivemind knows exactly what it expects despite all the changes and enticing potential for further improvement: that Arteta will be Arteta and Arsenal will be Arsenal.

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