After nearly two months under his stewardship, Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal remains a tough read.
Should fans be alarmed the team languishes in 10th place in the Premier League, or excited it is back in the fight for Champions League qualification?
Should they be concerned at a record of two wins in eight Premier League games under Arteta, or impressed at just one loss in that run?
How about the fact that this new-look Arsenal can often seem lifeless in attack, but now come with more sturdiness at the back?
The game against Newcastle on Sunday showed just how difficult it is to judge Arsenal at the moment.
Predictable and exasperating in a first half that ended 0-0, Arsenal finished as a 4-0 winner and was cutting apart Newcastle with almost every attack. There were even goals for Mesut Ozil and Nicolas Pepe, attacking midfielders who have struggled to deliver on their promise this season — and, in Ozil’s case, much longer.
Any praise should be cautioned by the fact that this was Newcastle, a midtable team known for being poor away from home and one that could yet slip into the fight to avoid relegation.
And it is clear Arsenal is a work in progress with obvious weak points, particularly in central midfield.
But Arteta clearly has a plan, something his predecessor, Unai Emery, was often accused of failing to have.
He is trying to make Arsenal harder to beat, and he is succeeding. It’s only one loss in 11 games in all competitions since Arteta arrived in mid-December, and Arsenal has just kept back-to-back clean sheets in the league for the first time in 10 months.
Like with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, the club Arteta left to join Arsenal, he is placing more of an onus on his fullbacks to both help with the attacks and to come inside to protect the team if there is an opposition counterattack.
Arsenal is also trying to keep the ball more under Arteta, again something straight out of the Man City playbook. And when it works, it is a joy to watch.
Ozil’s goal, his first in 10 months, came at the end of a 35-pass move and involved every member of the team, including goalkeeper Bernd Leno, at least once.
A recent goal against Bournemouth in the FA Cup was also a sweeping team move containing 22 passes. That was finished off by 18-year-old Bukayo Saka, one of the many talented youngsters given a chance by Arteta so far.
Another, 20-year-old Eddie Nketiah, started up front against Newcastle ahead of Alexandre Lacazette.
So there are positive things to cling to, even if frustration might have been growing on the back of four straight draws in the league before the win over Newcastle.
“After the (midseason) break, we started saying we had to start closing the gap on the top teams and turn draws into wins,” Arteta said. “Today was the first opportunity and we’ve done it. All good.”
Arsenal is still only 10th in the standings — a sorry position for a club of its reputation and heritage — but is now only seven points off fourth-place Chelsea and six behind north London rival Tottenham, which is in fifth place.
UEFA’s decision to punish Man City for serious breaches of financial regulations by handing the team a two-year European ban means finishing fifth place will earn a place in next season’s Champions League, provided City doesn’t succeed with an appeal.
Arteta could yet profit from the downfall of his old club.
“I don’t think about it. I just want the best for Manchester City, I really do,” he said. “That is the way I feel, but now I have to do the very best for Arsenal to maximize everything we have here to bring this club as high as possible again.”
Arteta will get his first taste of European action as Arsenal manager when his team plays at Olympiakos on Thursday in the first leg of the last 32 in the Europa League.
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