Here’s a thought experiment: how would you feel if Mikel Arteta’s record for the next 21 games was as follows: Won 16, Drawn 5, Lost 0?
Most of us, I think, would feel that we finally had a manager who had put us on the right track after several years of drift and missed opportunities.
It would likely be too late to achieve much this season (apart from scraping into the Europa League places) but it might well fill us with optimism for the 2020/21 season.
Well, and here’s the kicker, there is a manager in Arsenal’s recent history who had a run of W16, D5, L0 early in his career. That man, as you may have guessed, was Unai Emery. And we all know how that turned out.
We started the 2018/19 season with two defeats under Emery (home versus Man City and away at Chelsea), but from August 25th to December 8th (three and a half months) we had an impressive unbeaten run in the Premier League, the League Cup and the Europa League.
The run ended with a 2-3 loss at Southampton on December 13th and a period of inconsistency and slow decline set in from them onwards.
Here’s my point: after the woeful final months of the Emery regime, we supporters have been quick to laud the obvious improvements in team shape, discipline, effort and confidence under Mikel Arteta.
But how can we be sure this improvement will last?
As that 21-game spell early in Emery’s stewardship of the club shows, false dawns are common in football, and fans (who are always eager to clutch at any straw) are in danger of placing too much hope in what may turn out to be a temporary uplift.
Was Emery’s unbeaten run a result of what he brought to the party? Or was it simply a group of players who had become demoralised in the final Wenger years going up a gear partly to impress the new boss and partly because ‘a change is as good as a rest’?
And if it’s the latter, who’s to say that we’re not experiencing exactly the same phenomenon now?
In fact, Arteta’s record in the short time he’s been in charge doesn’t even have the sort of clear up-tick in results that Emery achieved. Yes, we’ve stopped losing so often, but we are having a great deal of trouble pulling out wins.
I’d appreciate your thoughts on how and why we should feel more optimistic about early Arteta, although I have some ideas of my own.
For a start, I well remember that, in that long run of unbeaten games under Emery, we seldom felt we were playing well as a team. We were getting results, but usually it was as if we had ridden our luck to come away with the points.
Supporters responded to this is two different ways: the ‘glass half full’ types like me thought: “This is great! We’re getting results even though we haven’t properly hit our stride yet. When that happens there’ll be no stopping us.” The ‘my glass just smashed’ types thought: “We’re getting lucky wins, but you can tell from the way we’re playing that the underlying problems are still there.”
It turned out the pessimists were right.
In this happy morning of the Arteta era, the feeling is exactly the opposite: we are playing well, but not getting the results. That makes me hopeful and explains why some who were pessimistic during Emery’s good run are now optimistic during Arteta’s average run.
Another big factor is the demeanour of the head coach. Emery seemed a decent man, but he never came across as a strong one. Language difficulties clearly didn’t help, but his personal qualities seemed ill-suited to delivering a kick up the derriere when required or for wrangling a difficult and fractious bunch of individuals into shape.
Arteta, on the other hand, has been virtually faultless in all his public statements since taking over. He exudes confidence, strength and authority in a manner that appears to be communicating itself to the players.
Finally, I would hazard that the tactics Arteta is employing seem more likely to work with our squad in this league than those of his predecessor (although the more tactically astute among you may wish to weigh in on this point).
Am I deluding myself again with falsely-grounded optimism?
Over to you.