Mikel Arteta was not arriving at a happy football club. When the Spaniard joined Arsenal from Everton in 2011, his new team were still reeling from a recent 8-2 demolition by Manchester United. Some fans had begun to call for the head of then-Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
Yet slowly but surely, the cerebral midfielder established himself as an integral part of Wenger’s team. He left five years later as a fans’ favourite and Arsenal’s most popular captain since Patrick Vieira.
Arteta is now back at the Emirates Stadium as Arsenal manager. Once again, he finds the club in a difficult position, this time down in 10th place in the Premier League. Here are five things he must do to instigate an improvement.
1. Tighten up the defence
The ease with which Manchester City cut through Arsenal’s defence last Sunday was worrying. The Gunners have conceded 27 goals in 17 games this season, more than Bournemouth, Brighton and Newcastle. No club in the Premier League has kept fewer clean sheets.
It will be difficult for Arteta to improve the individual quality of the defenders at his disposal, but plenty can be done to solidify the team’s structure. Arsenal need to become difficult to play against again.
2. Give the team a clear attacking identity
Under former Arsenal manager Unai Emery, the team failed to develop a coherent attacking strategy. Tailoring a game plan to suit a specific opponent is sensible, but a side must still have an overarching identity.
Arteta will have his own ideas of how the game should be played, and it is vital that he transmits them to his players as soon as his possible. Liverpool and Manchester City, the Premier League’s two best teams, do not chop and change between different systems and styles every week. Arsenal must follow suit.
3. Solve the Mesut Ozil conundrum
Emery’s muddled thinking was best encapsulated by his approach to Ozil. In late October, he declared that the German’s omission from the team was part of an agreed strategy between him and the club’s executives. Four days later Ozil was back in the side, before starting Arsenal’s seven subsequent Premier League fixtures.
Squeezing Ozil into the same XI as Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will not be straightforward, although a diamond midfield is a possibility. Whether the new Gunners boss decides to incorporate or exclude the playmaker, he must stick with his decision.
4. Re-engage with the fans
The principal emotion emanating from the Emirates crowd in recent weeks has been apathy. That is a concern. Supporters have grown disillusioned with owner Stan Kroenke, and the team’s on-field struggles have exacerbated the sense of drift at Arsenal.
Appointing a figure who is already popular with the fans could galvanise the Gunners. Arteta must ensure he unifies the club and gets everyone onside. Results might not improve immediately, but supporters will want to see maximum effort from those wearing the red shirt. It will ultimately be down to Arteta as Arsenal manager to make sure that happens.
5. Bring energy back to the role of Arsenal manager
Arteta’s lack of managerial experience means his installation as Arsenal head coach is a gamble. The 37-year-old will have learned plenty from his two-and-half years as Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City, but this is the first time he will be calling the shots.
Some fans have questioned why the board did not ask Carlo Ancelotti, a serial trophy-winner who is on his way to Everton, to be the next Arsenal manager. The reason for that is simple. Ancelotti is an excellent coach but one who tends to excel when taking over a team already established among the elite.
Arsenal require a younger, hungrier boss who can bring dynamism to the role. Arteta said all the right things at his unveiling, but actions speak louder than words. Now is the time to prove he has what it takes.