For the past few years in the Premier League, there’s been a “Big 6” and the rest. The hope has been that some team from outside that aristocratic cabal could crash the party and stay, like Everton or or Leicester or West Ham, all teams that have at least the resources to compete at that level. Anything to break up the monotony of seeing the same teams at the top of the table. Well, Arsenal seem intent on ending the age of the “Big 6.” Or at least putting their spot in it up for auction.
Arsenal lost their fourth straight home game on Sunday afternoon, this time to Burnely, who are currently in the relegation zone, even with the 1-0 win over the Gunners. Heading into the match, Burnley had scored five goals all season in 10 games, tied for worst. They had surrendered 18, sixth from worst. And technically, they didn’t score against Arsenal either. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang took care of that for them, heading into his own net in the 73rd minute. What a gent.
The loss continued a familiar and infuriating pattern for Arsenal this season. A performance that contains all the creativity of a DMV staff meeting, a moment or two of wild indiscipline, and then finding a way to lose. This time, it was Granit Xhaka getting sent off after a VAR review for trying to demonstrate exactly how Michael Hutchence died on Burnley’s Ashely Westwood. Even down to 10 men, you would have expected Arsenal to easily hold off Burnley’s stone-handed attack and even threaten themselves. Neither of those things happened.
The result makes for grim reading for Arsenal supporters. They’re now in 15th place, just six points above the relegation zone (and Burnley in 18th have a game in hand). They’re 11 points off the top (and it won’t make anyone in a Thierry Henry jersey feel better that it’s Spurs in that spot), and eight points off the top four. They’ve scored just 10 goals all season and, according to the metrics, that’s not really due to an inordinate amount of bad luck. They just don’t create much. Not only are they bad, they’re lifeless.
Most fans and the Arsenal higher-ups will preach patience for manager Mikel Arteta, if only so the latter doesn’t have to pay yet another fired manager. And this is supposed to be something of a project, and Arteta has only had one transfer window to reshape the roster.
Still, the early signs for Arteta’s reign aren’t encouraging. The club signed Willian from Chelsea on a free transfer but for a large salary, even though he’s 32. After some encouraging season-opening performances, he’s been nothing more than scenery for a couple months.
The club gave into Aubameyang’s demands for a new contract, even though he is also over 30 and every measure suggested his brilliant scoring binge at the end of last year, which brought Arsenal the FA Cup, was something of an unrepeatable heater. Arteta has shoved him out wide and starved him of any service. He has two goals. Thomas Partey, another signing who has looked tasty in scattered appearances, can’t get off the training table. None of the youngsters that flashed last year that provided hope have taken a step forward so far this term.
More worrying for them is that they just look so insipid in attack. Arsenal are near the bottom of the league in shots-per-90 minutes and shots-on-target-per-90 minutes. Merely laying an outstretched hand on their forehead causes Arsenal’s attack to wildingly swing their arms short of the target. It feels as though they thought Aubameyang would just keep scoring because, without understanding what was happening.
For a team that is so starved of any inspiration, the continued freezing out of Mesut Ozil remains bewildering. Yes, Arteta isn’t the first manager to decide he had no use for the playmaker, who can run hot and cold within the same 10 minutes of a match much less over a season. And in a league where pressing and speed become even more vital, Ozil’s style of taking time to smell the roses doesn’t seem to fit. Still, it’s Mesut Ozil, and is most certainly the best playmaker on the books by some distance. When you’re Arsenal and in 15th, what is it exactly you have to lose?
Arsenal’s lack of discipline isn’t helping, and that also is down to the manager. Here’s a thing:
All of it begs the question: is Arteta really up for this? The list of names that go from assistant to the top chair for a big club and have success is woefully thin, if it even exists. This isn’t American sports where bench coaches, or assistants, or offensive coordinators rise up to the top job somewhere else. Almost every manager cuts his teeth at a smaller club, or even a lower league, before rising up the ranks. Even Pep Guardiola, whom Arteta assisted at Man City, spent a season as manager of Barcelona’s B team before taking the top job. Arteta may get more leeway with his status as beloved former player, but it’s now fair to ask if this is too big for someone who has never been a manager before. Arteta has made Arsenal defensively more sound, and that’s not nothing, but it matters little if you’re kindergarten recess at the other end. There’s certainly been no whiff of Arteta bringing any strand of Guardiola’s attacking verve with him to North London.
The packed Christmas schedule isn’t kind either. Arsenal host a lively Southampton on Wednesday, and then follow that up with Everton, Man City, and Chelsea on either side of Christmas. Biff that, and Arsenal easily could, and both Arteta and the Arsenal board are going to have some very difficult questions to answer. If they don’t already.