Throughout the second half of last season, there were voices on social media saying that Arsenal should fire their manager Mikel Arteta. Those voices grew a whole lot louder after the opening three games of this season. Arsenal lost them all and ended up bottom of the table with no points and no goals to their name. A 2-0 loss away to newly-promoted Brentford set the tone for what was to come. Losing 2-0 again at home to Chelsea didn’t help the mood around the Emirates Stadium much, so following it up with a crushing 5-0 loss away to Manchester City was seen by some as the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Despite supporter anger and speculation in the press, Arsenal’s board didn’t budge. They decided to stick the man who won the FA Cup for the club in his first season as coach and give him a little more time. It’s too early to say that there’s been a turnaround, but it’s starting to look like they might get their rewards. With calls for his head all around him, Arteta regrouped, worked on tactics, and tried to lift the spirit in his dressing room. Since then, they’ve beaten Norwich, Burnley, and bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur to start climbing back up the table. Losing to either Norwich or Burnley would have been a disaster, so victory was expected, but it’s in the 3-1 win over Spurs that Arsenal began to look like the Gunners of old.
Spurs, of course, have problems of their own. A victory over them doesn’t mean as much as it would have done two years ago. What Arsenal and Arteta demonstrated in that game is that the problems at Spurs are worse than those at Arsenal, and there may still be cause for optimism despite their poor start. They’ve made it through the first round of the EFL Cup, and people have stopped making jokes about the prospects of them being relegated. The FA Cup is open to them this season too, and without the distraction of European competition – which is a distraction that they’d still welcome – they can focus their efforts on putting together a solid league campaign. Nobody is suggesting that Arsenal can win the league or even come close to doing so, but they’re one of a number of teams who could conceivably make it to 4th place with a fair wind behind them. The question is whether that’s enough for Arsenal fans or for a club of this stature.
Finishing fourth and seeing it as an achievement is what ultimately did for Arsene Wenger. Fans wanted and expected more. The title victories of the 1990s and early 2000s are still vivid in the minds of many of their supporters – some of whom have forgotten that Arsenal struggled in the Premier League’s mid-table positions before Wenger came along. The same fans who wanted Wenger out now have buyer’s remorse. His heavily-lauded replacement Unai Emery was an unmitigated disaster in the role. In going for Arteta – a young coach who was well thought of during his time as an Arsenal player – they thought they were getting someone who had Arsenal DNA and the ability to take them forward quickly. He had, after all, served as an assistant coach to the great Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Guardiola praised him to the heavens, and everyone expected this to be the beginning of a long and successful career. Things haven’t quite panned out that way – but there’s still time if the club and the fans are willing to give it to him.
Arteta’s situation might be comparable to that of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United. People like him, and they can see positive aspects in the work that he’s done, but ultimately there’s a significant proportion of the fan base that doesn’t think he’s the right man to take them to the next level. Just as they wanted Wenger out and Emery out, they’re now committed to wanting Arteta out. It’s hard to escape the feeling that he’s achieved less than he should have done in the time he’s had with the club so far, but would yet another change of manager really make things any different?
There is no safe time to change a coach when the season’s already started and no right way of doing it. It’s like loading up an online slots game and going all-in on a single spin. You can back yourself, and you can tell yourself you’re OK with the outcome no matter what it is, but that doesn’t take away the feeling of disappointment when things don’t go your way. When that happens with online slots, you’ve always got the option to risk it all again and go for another spin, but Arsenal has already done that by replacing Wenger with Emery and then Emery with Arteta. There comes a time when you have to decide you’ve played enough online slots, and you’re better off keeping hold of what you have. That time might have come already for Arsenal.
Keeping Arteta might not be seen as ambitious enough by some Gunners fans, but it’s probably the pragmatic thing to do. Finding a quality replacement for him wouldn’t be easy. The club can’t currently offer Champions League football to a top-level coach, and nor can it necessarily offer them the prospect of qualifying for the competition next season based on the squad they have at their disposal. They spent heavily on transfers in the summer, and so there isn’t likely to be much for a new man to spend when the January transfer window opens. The names suggested by some Arsenal fans – the Antonio Contes and Zinedine Zidanes of the football world – simply aren’t going to be attracted by the Arsenal job. Whether the fans like it or not, that’s not where Arsenal are anymore. They’re shopping around the upper mid-tier level, and the hard truth is there probably isn’t a better upper mid-tier manager than Arteta they could go to. He’s had plenty of time already, but perhaps just a little more time and a little more indulgence will get things moving in the right direction.