Mikel Arteta is under pressure after Arsenal's meek departure from Europe but Alex Keble believes the Spaniard actually deserves more time in the hotseat. Here's why...
"A presumed shortlist that includes Steven Gerrard, Sol Campbell, and even Arsene Wenger shows just how difficult it would be to find a replacement at this moment in time. That, more than anything else, might be reason to give Arteta one final shot at a summer rebuild."
Miserable end to European campaign
The manner of Arsenal's defeat in the second leg of the Europa League semi-final told the whole story of the club's sorry decline. They were not valiant in defeat, nor did they even fail spectacularly in the sort of way that might trigger a total rethink of how the club is won. Instead, they slinked out of the tournament without so much as a whimper. No plan, no fight, no tears. Barely even a shot on target.
It was a miserable end to a Europa League campaign that was never really as good as it looked, the poor results against Olympiacos, Benfica, and Slavia Prague in previous rounds leaving them on three wins from eight knock-out matches. The result on Thursday means Arsenal will be without European football for the first time in 26 years. It might not even be their nadir with a finish outside the Premier League top ten on the cards.
All the talk this morning is of Arteta's time coming to an end, and indeed there is a convincing argument that the experiment of hiring a rookie and Pep Guardiola protégé has not paid off.
Arteta's tactical decline
When Arteta took the Arsenal job he quickly created a tactical cohesiveness that had been absent in the final days of Unai Emery, creating a highly-structured 3-4-3 in which Arsenal - quite boringly - passed the ball in neat patterns and controlled the majority of matches. Ending in an FA Cup win in 2020, his initial tactical imprint was actually very similar to the kind of ruthless tactical structure Thomas Tuchel has implemented at Chelsea.
But things have unravelled at a remarkable rate and Arteta has never seemed able to control the variables or to foresee danger and avert it. The structured possession football melted away and in its place came a strange individualism, as if Arteta had given in to the lawlessness of pandemic football as Bukao Saka and Emile Smith Rowe drove Arsenal through games. Clearly that is no way to create long-term stability.
Perhaps in an attempt to get back on top of things Arteta's decisions over the last few months have been increasingly erratic and hard to explain. Experimental formations and line-ups betray a man anxious to live up to the Guardiola hype, but unlike the Manchester City manager nothing Arteta does seems to stick.
And the latest method has been the strangest. Arteta keeps emptying midfield, instructing his central midfielders to stretch out to the flanks to make a weird ring shape - and inevitably that means Arsenal just pass it round and round, back up and down the flanks to no avail. It is why they look so helpless and so directionless now. It is why they only mustered four shots on target across two legs against Villarreal.
Arteta could improve next season
But there is still space for an alternative reading of the Arteta era, one backed up by the underlying stats and one that relies on appreciation of just how chaotically the pandemic has skewed the 2020/21 season.
Covid-19 has made 2020/21 the weirdest campaign in history, and more than ever managers should be given a free pass. Arteta had been Arsenal manager for just three months when the UK first went into lockdown; he has never had time on the training ground to impart tactical wisdom.
The fixture list has been gruelling ever since Project Restart and if even the likes of Jurgen Klopp are struggling to get their ideas across then perhaps we should be more forgiving to a new manager. Arteta, with a full summer to work with the team, may yet prove to be the tactical genius many had hoped he would be.
What's more, although the sight test suggests Arsenal performances are increasingly deconstructed and individualistic their 10-game rolling xG tells a different story. The below graphic indicates that steps are being made in the right direction, even if it is hard to see through the haze. Perhaps a season without midweek European action offers the chance of a fresh start and more precise tactical direction.
Irrespective of the correct cause of action the growing consensus is that Arteta's days are numbered, and following the Super League fallout it would make sense for the board to listen to fan unrest. Attention across the media is already turning to who might be his successor. The options are very limited.
Max Allegri (13/5) is the current favourite, perhaps because he is a free agent and Arsenal are in financial difficulty. It seems likely that the former Juventus manager would be interested in the job and yet his tactics do not conform to the blueprint Arsene Wenger has created. Supporters will expect a more attractive style of football, potentially also ruling out Rafa Benitez (10/1).
Patrick Vieira (10/1), a club legend who had mixed results at New York City FC and Nice, seems like a good bet given the lack of options, although if they can get over the Chelsea connection then Maurizio Sarri (25/1) is actually the best candidates given his tactical aesthetic and recent trophy haul.
But a presumed shortlist that includes Steven Gerrard (17/1), Sol Campbell (17/1), and even Arsene Wenger (40/1) shows just how difficult it would be to find a replacement at this moment in time. That, more than anything else, might be reason to give Arteta one final shot at a summer rebuild.