It’s now European qualification or bust for Mikel Arteta

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And then there was one. Because Arsenal failed to qualify for Europe last season, they were only ever going to feature in a maximum of three competitions this season and after recent cup calamities including the Defeat in the second leg of the Carabao Cup in Liverpool, they only have European qualification through the league to aim for. The key, perhaps career-defining, question for Mikel Arteta is: can they do it?

It’s now European qualification or bust for Mikel Arteta

A month to forget for Mikel Arteta

Even by the roller coaster standards of his two years in charge of the Emirates, January 2022 has been a particularly bad month for Mikel Arteta and his Arsenal side. They started the new year with optimism, having ended the old one by winning five games in a row to qualify for the Premier League’s top four and the Carabao Cup semi-finals. However, things soon changed dramatically for the worse.

First, there was the devastating last-second loss to Manchester City on New Year’s Day. After producing arguably the best overall performance of Arteta’s entire tenure to take the lead against the champions (and champions-elect), Arsenal eventually capitulated to set the utterly undesirable record of losing to the same team in the league. 10 times in a row for the first time in club history. And despite all that Arsenal fans have blamed the referee and VAR for seemingly favoring City with some of their decisions, they would be much better off blaming the madness of their own players than the officials’ supposed incompetence. Granit Xhaka foolishly gave away a penalty, Gabriel almost immediately received two yellow cards in quick succession, and Arsenal’s lead turned into a losing position faster than most New Year’s resolutions are dropped.

Unfortunately, that depressing league defeat set the tone for the cup games that followed. Arsenal proved that lightning can indeed strike twice by rightfully losing to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round for the second time in four years, when a team dressed in all white (for the laudable reason for promoting the anti ‘No More Red’ -knife crime campaign) not only looked like Spurs, but played like Spurs, at their pre-Tale worst.

There was a brief and unexpected respite in the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final at Anfield last week when Xhaka proved he was really just a top Gus Caesar (the young Arsenal fans should go read Overexcitement if they don’t get the ref) getting sent off yet again, but the remaining 10 men rallied brilliantly to hold on 0-0. However, as admirable as that performance was, playing at home in the second leg (after the two legs were controversially reversed due to Liverpool’s Covid situation) was always going to require much more than just action from behind. -keep. And in the end, Arsenal were unable to provide that.

Midfielder isn’t so much Arteta’s Achilles heel as it is an entire Achilles leg

As has often proven to be the case since Arteta took over at Arsenal, it was the central midfielder, or rather his near total absence, that proved Arsenal’s defeat to Liverpool. Arsenal haven’t had a dominant central midfielder since Patrick Vieira left the club almost 20 years ago, and they haven’t had a real quality central midfielder since Santi Cazorla started ( late 2015) to suffer the succession of injuries that ultimately ended his Arsenal career. And yet, more than two seasons after his spell at Arsenal, Arteta still hasn’t solved this major and utterly glaring problem.

Xhaka must now be the most universally hated Arsenal player – that is, universally hated by his own fans – since Emmanuel Eboué was all but kicked out of the club in the late 2000s.

In his absence through suspension and the continued absence of Thomas Partey due to his involvement with Ghana at the Africa Cup of Nations, the only central midfielder Arteta had at his disposal against Liverpool was the young and inexperienced Albert Sambi Lokonga. With no other real midfielder available to play alongside him, not even the generally unloved Mohamed Elneny, who is also absent at AFCON, Arteta has remarkably resorted to trying again with the tactic that has continually failed over the course. of the last year or so, namely trying to make central midfielders from Martin Ødegaard and Emile Smith Rowe. And as before, for example against Villarreal in the Europa League last season and against Manchester City at the Etihad this season, the experiment ultimately failed spectacularly. After Arsenal’s first attacking attacks at the start of both halves, the infinitely more experienced central midfield duo of Jordan Henderson and Fabinho took control of the center of the park and provided the platform for what s eventually turned out to be Liverpool’s comfortable 2-0 victory.

Midfield indiscipline compounds lack of real midfielders

Of course, Thomas Partey finally arrived on the pitch for the Emirates, after Ghana’s surprise exit in Cameroon and their blistering return to London, not arriving until midday on match day. Therefore, he was only on the bench to start the game. However, when he arrived on the pitch at the end of the second half, he did a Xhaka or a Gabriel (as he is surely now officially called) and was almost immediately sent off, having received two cards. yellows in quick succession for what would charitably be called late tackles, which was hardly surprising as he was likely still suffering from jet lag.

This type of endemic indiscipline from Arteta’s alleged senior midfielders only compounds the lack of real midfielders in the team, so he will probably have to resort to playing at least one from Ødegaard again or Emile Smith Rowe in midfield against Burnley in the Premier League this weekend. And this despite the fact that they are undoubtedly attacking midfielders, or number 10s, whose best work is always done offensively, not defensively.

All of this makes Arteta’s decision to allow Ainsley Maitland-Niles to join Roma on loan this month all the more mystifying. Despite excelling in Arteta’s FA Cup-winning side in 2020, though at right-back, Maitland-Niles has barely had a chance in his preferred central midfield position since then . But Arteta knew Partey would be out in Africa for most, if not all, of January, and he must know by now that Xhaka is completely untrustworthy, so allowing Maitland-Niles to leave on loan was borderline irresponsibility if not outright. ridiculous.

It’s as if Arteta forgot he himself played in midfield

It really is as if Mikel Arteta forgets that he himself played in central midfield, with distinction for PSG, Rangers and Everton then, with increasingly diminishing results due to his injury problems. , with Arsenal. Although he has made real progress in improving defense and attack with signings such as Ramsdale, White, Tomiyasu and Ødegaard, Arsenal’s midfielder is probably worse now than he was. t was when he took over at the club, not least because Dani Ceballos, who also excelled in the FA Cup triumph two years ago, has long since left the club.

In what remains of the January transfer window, the priority for Arsenal and Arteta should be trying to sign an experienced and unflappable central midfielder rather than the forward that has been so much publicized. Without such a signing, Xhaka’s built-in indiscipline and Partey’s continued inability to really adapt to the rigors of the Premier League, more than 18 months after playing there for the first time, could mean that all the promise that was generated this season will eventually be dissipated.

Now that they are out of both domestic cups, Arsenal only have to focus on European qualification across the league. The dream of Arsenal fans is to reach the Champions League by entering the top four. an unsatisfactory but ultimately acceptable alternative would be to reach the Europa League; but a qualification for the Europa Conference, by finishing seventh, would be unacceptable. After coming eighth in a row in the league for the past two years, Mikel Arteta must ensure his side finish at least in the top six this season, if not in the top four. If he doesn’t, despite all the progress he has made, especially in the transfer market, he could still be forced out of the club this summer or at the start of next season.

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