Mikel Arteta’s Arsene Wenger tribute act is fooling no one – Arsenal fans have heard it all before
Arteta is adamant that the club is making progress but supporters will point to the league table as proof that the opposite is true
Arteta talks a good game but has struggled to reverse Arsenal’s fortunes
Amongst the archaic leadership techniques and crumbling instruments of state that Mikel Arteta inherited from the manager that first brought him to Arsenal, it is the myopic Wenger-ian vision, the selective incapacity to see what is glaringly obvious to all, that is becoming his most alarming crutch.
Arsene Wenger famously claimed never to have seen a thing that happened on the pitch at Highbury or the Emirates in his 22 years in charge, a habit which proved a reliable alibi when challenged to criticise or defend his players in the court of public reckoning. In the absence of ‘a proper look at the incident’, plausible deniability could always be maintained.
As Arsenal have tottered and tripped their way through the Premier League’s opening fortnight, racking up back-to-back defeats and not a goal scored, Arteta has found self-assurance in the same selective approach to appraising his team’s shortcomings.
There are none so blind as those that won’t see, and the manager seems to willfully be shielding himself from the worst of his team’s increasingly familiar failings. Against Brentford on the Premier League’s opening night, the presence of a boisterous home crowd visibly unnerved them.
As in the past, a soft underbelly and ‘will this do?’ approach to defending allowed their hosts to out-think and out-muscle them; one long throw-in, a couple of loose balls in the defensive third, and 17,000 exuberant supporters is all it really took to derail them and add ‘Brentford away, 2021’ to the club’s growing list of embarrassing surrenders.
This is a club in stasis, which in real terms means going backwards as those around them recalibrate and modernise. At their head is a manager who talks like he is masterminding a moment of great change, and the talk would be convincing, provided the audience hadn’t seen more than a handful of Arsenal’s fixtures under Arteta’s leadership.
“I really believe in what we are trying to do,” he said of his team, currently 19th in the Premier League table, ahead of Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off against Manchester City at the Etihad. Defeat to the champions would mark Arsenal’s worst start since 1955 and could leave them marooned in last place.
“I see the progress, I see everything that is being changed around the club. [I see] that it’s in a much better place, I see the atmosphere around the place. I see the belief that the players have when we are coaching them. The commitment, the desire, the togetherness and the atmosphere; anybody that comes through these doors can see what is building.”
The fear is that Arteta is resembling the same kind of unreliable narrator that Wenger became during the latter years of his reign. One of the failings that over time stripped Arsenal’s longest-serving boss of credibility amongst supporters was a refusal to acknowledge the extent of the club’s inertia, publically at least.
In a time of crisis – and who could deny that this is a crisis by Arsenal’s giddying standards – the populace craves that their leaders live out the struggle with them, not fan smoke and angle mirrors to build some barely believable Orwellian dreamscape, where stasis equals progress and the only truth is the lie.
During Sunday’s 2-0 defeat against Chelsea, the missing ingredient was once again a sense of urgency, a feeling amongst the players that what they do on the pitch matters. Yet the question remains, could they reasonably be expected to approach their work any differently whilst the party line remains that everything is in hand, and that more of the same formula will in time pull the club’s fortunes around?
Arteta played under Wenger for five years (Photo: Getty)
“You have to be able to adapt, to see what is happening and how can you help the team and individuals on that pitch,” said Arteta, before reaffirming that he has never had cause to doubt the direction in which he is taking the club. “Whether it’s with a speech or with the way you communicate with them or what you are demanding them to do, you have to adapt. But the direction is not going to change.”
It’s a comforting enough mantra, but it is a false comfort; when there is enough wool in one’s head, sometimes the simplest thing to do is to pull it over the eyes.