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Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta’s fairytale start long forgotten about with confusion and unhappy stars

Only 55 weeks have passed since Mikel Arteta’s foremost afternoon as a manager, quietly stood at the back of Arsenal’s jubilant party as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang lifted the club’s record 14th FA Cup inside an empty Wembley. This was a feeling with which he could become accustomed.

Arteta earned high praise for first beating old employers Manchester City in the semi-final and then edging past Chelsea in a seesawing showpiece. Aubameyang’s four goals in those two ties marked a considerable contribution in earning his boss a first trophy within eight months of taking over and key players stepped up.

There were encouraging signs that Arsenal were headed somewhere and a belief in the man leading them. Some around the club enthused at the training ground sessions dedicated to the two central midfielders, Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka, dropping their defensive positions by 10 yards to counter City’s attacks from wide and their tendency to cut crosses back from the byline. 

Mikel Arteta had an exciting start to life as Arsenal manager winning the FA Cup in 2020

Early optimism has faded though and his bright start as Gunners boss is long forgotten about

Early optimism has faded though and his bright start as Gunners boss is long forgotten about

The pair swept up everything that day, Pep Guardiola’s side failing to score and reduced to one big chance. Arsenal happily ceded possession and created two of their own, both dispatched by the captain. Similar can be said of the victory over Chelsea a fortnight later, although their resurgence in that final came after a water break where Arteta fine-tuned their game plan during the stoppage.

There is evidence that Arteta can become a top coach. But those performances during Project Restart, and the planning behind them, are long forgotten. In eerie grounds, the constant deliverance of tactical advice through matches last year began to grate on players, with consternation at perceived ‘over coaching’ growing louder as results turned.

There is a feeling that Arteta is more likely to succeed on occasions when Arsenal are underdogs, yet Chelsea — who lost both games against the Gunners last year — will arrive at the Emirates on Sunday smelling blood. 

Brentford’s Thomas Frank admitted he would have been disappointed not to overcome Arsenal, so it is probably not a great stretch to surmise that Thomas Tuchel is privately expecting another three points in front of a conflicted home crowd.

Arsenal's season got off to a bad start as they fell to a humiliating 2-0 defeat away at Brentford

Arsenal’s season got off to a bad start as they fell to a humiliating 2-0 defeat away at Brentford

Their start doesn't get any easier with games against Chelsea and Manchester City next up

Their start doesn’t get any easier with games against Chelsea and Manchester City next up

Finishing eighth last season — it was looking a good deal worse until they won their final five matches — and the limp Europa League exit against Villarreal constituted a worrying first full term in charge.

Even at this early stage of the campaign, one game in, the criticism has not softened. There is an acceptance that this is a tough start; City await next week and Spurs in September. If they are to lose those games, the manner of the performances will dictate which way the wind blows, but the showing at Brentford has not helped.

This is not down to a lack of planning on Arteta’s part. The 39-year-old will often predict patterns of play in the days before matches, telegraphing scenarios and presenting his team with information that regularly materialises at a weekend. Yet they still struggle. 

‘You can only do so much with the players you’ve got,’ one source said, alluding to the rebuild that is under way and wider difficulties at the club. Arteta knew what he was signing up for, that the in-tray bulged from the off, but some shoots of real progress are required quickly. 

The board have backed him financially for a second summer — Martin Odegaard’s return from Real Madrid for £30million taking their spending over £100m this time — and there is hope that could prompt a change in formation.  

Arsenal had a worrying first full-term under the Spaniard during the 2020-21 campaign

Arsenal had a worrying first full-term under the Spaniard during the 2020-21 campaign

Arsenal’s best results over the past 18 months have come while operating a back three, which a number of players would like to revert to.

That, some have reasoned, would get the best out of £50m signing Ben White, who endured a difficult debut in west London as Arsenal went down 2-0.

Bigger issues than tactics have remained at play since Arteta took the job. Sources insist he has not tackled dressing room problems with enough gusto and that internal wrangling is what holds this squad back the most. The cliques at London Colney have not been eradicated.

Others claim, though, that the manager has been too heavy-handed with popular members of the group, jettisoning the likes of Mesut Ozil and Matteo Guendouzi as acts of authority. They point to Arteta maintaining a ‘no excuses’ mantra following defeats, only to then criticise individuals. It raised eyebrows when Aubameyang was publicly rebuked by his manager for turning up late for their victory over Tottenham in March. The striker subsequently scored once in his next 10 games.

Equally, a few senior players have not made life easy for their boss during his first crack at a No 1 job. What can be agreed upon is that a lack of warmth and loyalty exists within the squad and the consequence of that is an inconsistency on the pitch.

There remains bemusement at the £20m sale of Emiliano Martinez — so integral in the FA Cup triumph — days after Arteta stepped up from head coach to manager last September.  

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was publicly rebuked by his manager back in March

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was publicly rebuked by his manager back in March

Some claim Arteta has been too heavy-handed with the likes of Matteo Guendouzi (left) and Mesut Ozil (right) having forced them out of the club during his tenure

Some claim Arteta has been too heavy-handed with the likes of Matteo Guendouzi (left) and Mesut Ozil (right) having forced them out of the club during his tenure

Aaron Ramsdale’s move from Sheffield United could eventually cost £30m.

The decision to throw Xhaka the armband at Brentford provoked confusion after the Switzerland international was recently open to joining Jose Mourinho’s Roma, only for the move to break down. Xhaka has since signed a new contract until 2024 with the option of a further year — another new deal for another player whose future may not lie with Arsenal.

These are calls that Arteta did not have to make at City alongside Guardiola. City sources, who believed Arteta could one day succeed Guardiola, were genuine when liberally using the words ‘potentially disastrous’ for the champions in the days before he departed the Etihad Stadium in December 2019. City struggled thereafter, his absence opening a chasm until Juanma Lillo was appointed assistant.

Arteta’s individual coaching was one of his key successes. Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling were two notable beneficiaries and players would often wander into Arteta’s small office at the club’s base to review clips on their own time. 

The Spaniard still devotes plenty of time to one-on-one sessions himself, with the younger players improving on his watch. Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney have benefited. The more established names have not.

‘I think he is a smart guy and going to be a good manager eventually,’ one source said. ‘A real student of the game, very meticulous. But do they create, how many goals do they score? Look at the senior players who were great players consistently in their careers like Partey, Aubameyang — how have they fared under him?’

Changing to a back three could bring the best out of new £50m signing Ben White

Changing to a back three could bring the best out of new £50m signing Ben White

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