The Spaniard may be under intense pressure going into Sunday’s north London derby at Tottenham but he was a far better option than the Portuguese
What a difference a few months make!
Arsenal fans were smiling back in August. The FA Cup had just been secured for a 14th time, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was about to sign his new contract and the future was looking bright under Mikel Arteta.
Down the road at Tottenham, meanwhile, questions were being asked about Jose Mourinho after their sixth-placed finish in the Premier League.
The uplift following his appointment had been minimal. The football had been pretty poor and the Portuguese coach had failed to tighten things up defensively, despite having replaced Mauricio Pochettino in November 2019.
And those questions continued to be asked when Tottenham were beaten 1-0 at home by Everton on the opening weekend of the new season, the same weekend that saw Arsenal get their campaign underway with a stylish 3-0 success at Fulham.
The two north London clubs seemed to be heading in different directions. Arsenal were on the up under a young, vibrant coach who had united his squad, while Spurs were struggling for an identity under an experienced manager who many believed was over the hill.
However, just four months later, and as we head into the first north London derby of the season, things couldn’t feel more different.
That defeat against Everton on the opening weekend remains the only loss Spurs have suffered this season in the league. They sit top of the table, have beaten both Manchester clubs and had won four games in a row prior to their 0-0 draw at Chelsea last weekend.
Arsenal, by contrast, have lost five of their last eight games in the league, have scored just 10 goals in their opening 10 games and sit 14th with 13 points – their lowest points tally ever at this stage of a Premier League season.
So, while Mourinho finds himself being lauded for the work he is doing at Tottenham, Arteta finds himself under pressure, with some fans even calling for him to be sacked just four months after he lifted the FA Cup.
“So unjust,” said Hector Bellerin, when asked about the pressure Arteta finds himself under.
“We have to, as players, take responsibility for this because I think we all know that Mikel and his coaching team give us all the tools that we need to win all the games
“When you lose a game it’s always very easy to blame the coach. But also when the coach gives us the tools we have to be the ones to step up.”
Arteta may be inexperienced when it comes to management, but he has been around the game long enough to know that football moves quickly.
He may have won the FA Cup just a matter of months ago, but when you are at a club like Arsenal, you have to get results. If you don’t, intense scrutiny will follow.
And that is the position he finds himself in as he prepares to face Spurs for the second time as Arsenal boss. He lost his first derby, going down 2-1 at the end of last season; a similar result at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this time around will only see the dissenting voices grow louder.
The poor start to the season Arteta has endured has even led to some Arsenal fans wondering whether the club should have made a move for Mourinho when he was available.
Prior to the Portuguese coach taking over at Tottenham, he had been linked with a move to the Emirates as a possible replacement for Unai Emery, with reports circling of a dinner in London with Raul Sanllehi, who was then head of football at Arsenal.
The story was quickly dismissed by sources at the north London club, with one telling Goal that Arsenal would be “selling their soul” by hiring a man who once labelled Arsene Wenger “a voyeur” and who just two years ago sat in his post-match press conference after Manchester United had lost 2-0 at the Emirates and said: “The Arsenal fans, they are happy. I’m happy for them.
“It’s the first time I leave Highbury or the Emirates and they are happy. It’s the first time!
“I left Highbury, they were crying. I left Emirates, they were crying. They were walking the street with their head low. So, finally today they sing, they wave their scarves. It’s nice for them.”
Tottenham’s current form may have some now questioning the wisdom of Arsenal ignoring Mourinho when he was available, but the Gunners were right to go down a different route when they decided to move for Arteta.
London’s most successful club were in desperate need of a rebuild, not a short-term fix. And Mourinho would have been a short-term appointment, one that would no doubt end in a messy, expensive divorce. Why? Because it always does when he is involved.
Arteta needs time to turn things round. Winning the FA Cup so early on in his tenure perhaps raised the bar too high in terms of expectations, because the work that still needs to be done to fix the problems at Arsenal is vast.
“The dream I have for this football club is to achieve the level that this club deserves and build a project,” Arteta said this week. “But believe me, it takes time and this not a month or three months.
“It takes time, a lot of good decisions and a lot of support. This is where we are and I’m ready to fight. I’m ready to fight all the way through because I believe that we can do it.”
Arsenal will go into Sunday’s north London derby on the back of a much-needed boost following their 4-1 win against Rapid Vienna in the Europa League on Thursday night.
It was a performance full of verve and swagger, one totally out of keeping with what Arteta’s side have been serving up in the Premier League in recent weeks.
And it’s left the Spaniard with several big decisions to make ahead of the meeting with Tottenham, decisions that he will need to get right if his side are to come out on top.
Alexandre Lacazette was exceptional against Vienna while operating in a deeper No.10 role. The France striker has been left on the bench for Arsenal’s last two leagues, but must now be at the forefront of Arteta’s mind as he looks to find a solution to his side’s current attacking malaise.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Reiss Nelson were also hugely impressive during Thursday night’s victory and are pushing for starts, potentially in place of Granit Xhaka and Willian, who are both struggling for form.
Arteta must also decide how to set his side up against Spurs. Does he stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation he has opted for recently, or does he return to a back three to protect against the threat Tottenham possess on the counterattack?
A lot will depend on whether Thomas Partey is fit. If the Ghanaian does play, that could allow Arteta to go with the more attacking option. If he doesn’t, playing an extra defender could be the way to deal with the threat of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min.
Arteta faces a crucial test at Tottenham on Sunday. The midweek win against Vienna helped ease the pressure and victory in the north London derby could be exactly what’s needed to jolt a stuttering league campaign into life.
Defeat, however, and the Arsenal boss will come under fire like never before.