Patience is a virtue, supposedly.
If so, it is not a virtue that has been much in evidence among the Arsenal faithful this season.
A significant proportion of the fan base has lost faith in Mikel Arteta as the man to lead us back to the heady heights of Champions League qualification and contending for the Premier League title.
And that’s a bit strange, because many of these were the same fans who were falling over themselves to talk (and write) about needing to “have patience” and “give it some time” when Arteta was first appointed.
Everyone recognised we were in a bit of a hole after experiencing humiliation in the Europa League final under Unai Emery and a subsequent collapse in form in the first half of the following season, so when Arteta became the youngest head coach in the EPL people seemed to take a philosophical approach to what was expected of him.
I saw many columns and comments along the lines of “we must accept there will be ups and downs along the way; it won’t all come right overnight; he’s a young manager who’ll have to learn on the job so let’s cut him some slack.”
There was not much cutting-of-slack as we tumbled tamely out of the Europa League semis and stumbled to an eighth place finish in the EPL, failing to qualify for Europe for the first time in a quarter of a century.
Perhaps Arteta is a victim of his own success.
By unexpectedly winning the FA Cup in his first half season in charge at Arsenal he may have convinced us that he really was the messiah and that good things would inevitably follow.
In fact what followed – in the first half of the season that has just finished – was very NOT good. At times it was as palatable as a bowl of vomit with a dandruff garnish.
It was obvious that Arteta was making mistakes (persisting with the abysmal Willian; tinkering with formations; failing to tackle a culture of inattentiveness and mistake-making). There was genuine cause to doubt whether he was the man for the job.
I suspect that patience first began to run out during that terrible losing run up to Christmas, in which we played 10, lost 7, drew 2 and won only 1 – taking 5 points from a possible 30. There was talk of relegation in the air and it did not seem particularly fanciful.
There were rumours Arteta was facing the boot and plenty of fans seemed happy (or at least unbothered) by the prospect.
But shouldn’t that have been exactly the time to remember what we had said when Arteta was appointed? How we assured ourselves at the start of his reign that there would be downs as well as ups?
Fortunately there was a genuine up side to come immediately after Christmas. From Boxing Day onwards we became more consistent, harder to beat and created more chances. Our form in the final 22 games of the season put us third in the EPL behind Manchester City and Manchester United across that period.
And yes, I know that it’s the league table across 38 games that counts, not across 22 games; but recency is important too.
If our form in the first half of the season had put us third and we then tailed off to eighth in the second half of the season, there would be serious grounds for concern because our trajectory would have been negative. This is what happened during the Unai Emery period: we started well under the Spaniard and got steadily worse.
But under Arteta the trajectory is positive. The recent form has been good. Not perfect by any means and certainly not attractive enough at times. But again, how many of us said when Arteta arrived “his first job is to shore up the defence and make us hard to score against.”? (Do you remember those games under Emery when even low ranking teams were clocking up 20-plus attempts on goal against us?).
Arteta has achieved that task – in fact you could say he has overachieved when you consider that, even including that terrible pre-Christmas run, our defence let in fewer goals over the season than any teams apart from Man City and Chelsea.
He also clearly identified some of the off-field problems at the club, leading to the ousting of Mustafi, Ozil, Sokratis, Kolasinac and Guendouzi. By all accounts London Colney has been a much happier and more united place since January.
To this writer’s mind, Arteta is doing exactly what we thought he would do when we hired him: have ups and downs; make mistakes; correct mistakes; but gradually put us on an upward path.
It may not feel like that given that we face the rarity of a season without European football, but we are progressing and Arteta deserves our continued patience.
You could reasonably suggest I am being too kind to him and that it was perfectly legitimate for people’s patience to run out at Christmas. There is no hard and fast rule for how long a “grace period” for a new manager should last, but I believe we – and Arteta – are still in it.
Mind you, next season – without the distraction of European games – if we are not mounting a serious challenge to be in the top four by Christmas then even my patience will finally be reaching the end of the road.