Arsenal should not fold on Arteta in this weird season…

Dave Tickner
Mikel Arteta Arsenal

Of the three giant English clubs who currently find themselves run by a rookie at the worst possible time, it’s no secret that Arsenal are struggling most conspicuously. Of the three appointments, Mikel Arteta was always the most fascinating.

While it’s undeniably true that none of Arteta, Frank Lampard or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be in their current jobs based on managerial credentials alone, Arteta is the one that always made both the most and least sense.

Arteta was respected as a player at Arsenal, but he was no club legend like Solskjaer and Lampard. Unlike Solskjaer and Lampard, he had no experience in the top job at first-team level anywhere; but unlike Solskjaer and Lampard he had significant experience working on the coaching staff at an elite club alongside a world-class manager.

And for all his current struggles, Arteta still somehow feels like the best long-term bet of the three to make it to the top in management. If Lampard or Solskjaer lost their current jobs, it’s hard to see where they would go next. With Arteta it feels slightly different. And we may soon find out, because there is no doubt that his grip on that current dream job is the most fragile of the three.

But should Arsenal even be looking at another change? Is there in fact a rare chance here that, having backed a rookie, they can effectively write off a league season and trust in the long-term vision that convinced them to take such a punt in the first place? Having made such an investment in Arteta, there really doesn’t seem much downside in sticking with him right now.

For one thing, he’s already delivered the club a trophy after last season’s FA Cup triumph. That was sealed with superbly well-orchestrated and thoroughly deserved victories over Manchester City and Chelsea in the semi-final and final. It doesn’t matter what competition it is; those victories in crunch games against those opponents show Arteta has something.

And it’s carried on into this season. Yes, Arsenal’s Europa League group was weak even by that tournament’s standards, but they walked it.

They have already knocked two of the current Premier League top three out of the Carabao Cup and certainly shouldn’t fear next week’s quarter-final against a Manchester City side way short of their own best form.

A managerial change now is unlikely to propel Arsenal into the top six even in this wild season. They would be relying not only on vast improvement in their own baseline consistency but a falling away from others. And yet, while the first whispers of “too good to go down” have started in jest, there is no serious danger of a relegation scrap given the paucity of the bottom four.

So write the league season off. Treat it as a free hit. A chance for Arteta to mould the team into the one he wants in a league season that no longer matters, while going full gun in all three of the cup competitions having already provided ample evidence of his ability to get the team and the plan right for those big one-off games (even if weirdly he sometimes currently gets it so very wrong in the big one-off Barclays games). Sack him now and you’ve already written off a year of what will be a long-term project whoever is in charge; where’s the harm in seeing what another six months of evidence shows?

Whatever Arsenal do, the cup competitions are the only really plausible route to saving this season on the field. And Arteta has credit in the bank on that score. Can he turn around the league form to at least achieve respectability? Well let’s find out.

The obvious caveat here is an assumption that things behind the scenes remain reasonably stable. Or at least as reasonably okay as they can be when you keep losing. The rumbles are starting that may suggest things have already or will soon become too poisonous and Arsenal will be forced to make a change anyway. But the disappointing league results alone – in this of all seasons – should not be enough to discard the Arteta experiment entirely. If Arteta was worth a gamble this time last year, then 12 months and an FA Cup later seems far too early to fold.

The wider point is that this might just be too unusual, too surreal, too unique a season to fairly judge a rookie. We might even have to start thinking about being kinder to Ole, to be honest. Frank is fine anyway, because of the Englishness.

But there is a clear pattern to those clubs who have exceeded expectations. Spurs, Leicester, Southampton, West Ham, Everton: all have vastly experienced managers who know exactly what they are doing. Manchester City, currently misfiring and struggling – by their lofty standards – down in sixth are an anomaly but when you’ve got Jose Mourinho clambering to the top of the table and David Moyes taking West Ham level on points with both Manchester clubs almost a third of the way into the season, you have to consider the possibility that this season might just be altogether too weird to fairly judge anyone.

Dave Tickner