Arsenal have become a Jekyll and Hyde club since Mikel Arteta took the reins, blowing hot and cold on an almost weekly basis.
His 13 months in the dugout have experienced many peaks and troughs. A first Premier League win at Old Trafford since 2006 is second only to that superb FA Cup triumph in terms of notable high points.
However, at one stage this season his position looked untenable. Arsenal went seven games without a win, including defeat in the North London derby, causing a meltdown on social media and genuine talk of relegation trouble, with Sam Allardyce quick to fan the flames and declare Arsenal a ‘rival’ for safety.
The young coach has since weathered the storm with four successive wins under his belt at the minute, but he will know there is still plenty of work that needs to be done before his side can climb into the top half of the table and consolidate their position there.
But how has it gone so wrong for Arsenal this season? And what must Arteta do this month if he is to turn the tide and push for a top-six finish?
A regretful summer?
Hindsight is 20/20 as the old adage goes, and while it would be easy to pick apart the signings Arsenal made over the summer, with Willian yet to set the world alight and £14m signing Pablo Mari only just finding his groove, the problems they have faced this season can perhaps be traced back to their outgoings, notably Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
At times, Arsenal have lacked the requisite creative spark to truly unleash the potential of their frontline, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang noticeably struggling for consistency in front of goal. In fact, Arsenal, as a team, have only created 136 chances this season in the league. In this respect, they are bettered by the likes of Everton (139), West Ham (143), Brighton (160) and Wolves (150). On a slightly more granular level: record-signing Nicolas Pepe is yet to create a single goalscoring opportunity in 454 minutes of league playing time.
By contrast Mkhitaryan, who endured a polarising stint in north London and completed a permanent switch to Roma in the summer, has been in tantalising form, netting eight goals and registering eight assists in just 17 Serie A games; he is behind only Cristiano Ronaldo as the division’s most productive player (goals and assists combined).
Of course, Arsenal fans would have demurred at the suggestion of Mkhitaryan staying put in the summer, having witnessed the Armenian fail to recapture his Borussia Dortmund form while in the Premier League. But, there was always a player there waiting to be unlocked. He just needed the right manager and set-up to cultivate a semblance of consistency in his game. Could Arteta have been that man?
Elsewhere, the sale of Emiliano Martinez may prove regretful down the line. The Argentine is working wonders between the sticks at Villa Park, keeping the joint-most clean sheets in the Premier League this season (eight) while also boasting the third-best save percentage among ‘keepers with 10 or more appearances (76.47%).
Considering Arsenal have conceded at least once in each of their last 11 Premier League home games and have kept just five clean sheets this term, Martinez’s dextrous exploits could have come in handy. That said, Bernd Leno’s most recent heroics against Newcastle in the FA Cup may pour cold water on regrets about his sale to the Birmingham-based club.
Arteta’s January in-tray: sell, loan or replace?
Mesut Ozil is seemingly inching closer to an inevitable Arsenal exit, with Fenerbahce and DC United among those offering the outcast playmaker an escape hatch. Elsewhere, ‘fringe’ players Sead Kolasinac and William Saliba have already secured loan moves away from the club.
But there are still issues that need addressing. Arteta has already acknowledged that having such a bloated and (in certain areas) dysfunctional squad has caused difficulties behind the scenes. “When you have the squad we have at the moment for many circumstances, it’s impossible to have 31 happy players in the camp,” he said. “It’s impossible and I don’t know any club in the world that has that.”
So the January ‘cull’ is well and truly under way, but who else faces the chop? And what big decisions await the Spaniard this month?
Sokratis, like Ozil has been frozen out by Arteta, who chose not to register the Greek centre-back in his Premier League squad this season. An exit is a guarantee, with the 32-year-old’s contract set to expire this summer, but it is heavily suggested Arsenal are actively looking to sell Sokratis this month to reduce their wage bill.
Some reports suggest Arsenal would be willing to allow the former Borussia Dortmund player to leave without demanding a transfer fee, which would certainly perk up the ears of several clubs. Real Betis, Genoa and Fenerbahce thought to be monitoring the situation closely and, according to journalist Fabrizio Romano, he’s been offered to Liverpool.
“He was offered to Liverpool too, you know that? Liverpool were looking for an opportunity and he was offered to Liverpool, but at the moment he’s not an option,” he during the Here We Go podcast.
Klopp and Sokratis were at Dortmund together for 18 months till 2015 but it seems Liverpool’s response was a soft no, for now at least.
Romano added: “Yes, also he could be an opportunity. He was an opportunity because he was offered, but at the moment Liverpool have not decided whether they’re signing a centre-back or not, they’re still in the middle of the situation, so nothing has been decided.”
The 25-year-old has been plagued by injury problems since returning to the club from his loan spell at Fulham in 2018/19, and he may now find that another temporary stint away from the club suits all parties until the end of the campaign. Getting minutes under his belt is crucial at this stage of his recovery, and during his last loan move, he secured Fulham’s Player of the Season award despite suffering relegation. Another short stint away from north London could prove fruitful.
The writing was on the wall for Shkodran Mustafi the minute Gabriel signed on the dotted line. The German was pushed further down the pecking order and has inevitably found playing time scarce this season. Mustafi will also see his present deal expire in June, but with Arsenal having couriered £35m to Valencia for his services in 2016, they will no doubt want to recoup at least a fraction of that fee, which means a January exit would be preferable. And quite incredibly Barcelona has been touted as a future destination after his agent confirmed he was in Catalonia to explore the possibility.
“I’m not in Barcelona because of Yusuf Demir, but because of Shkodran Mustafi from Arsenal, whom we also represent,” when quizzed by journalist Fabian Zerche about a recent Instagram post showing him at the Nou Camp.
Shkodran Mustafi next club odds (via Sky Bet)
- Barcelona 6/4
- Valencia 10/1
- Any Chinese Super League club 16/1
Odds correct at the time of writing. 18+ Only. UK only. Terms and Conditions Apply. BeGambleAware.
When Arsenal jumped to the front of the queue and signed the highly-coveted Pepe from Lille, it looked a game-changing piece of business, even for the earth-shattering price of £72m. The 25-year-old had just finished a season having netted 22 Ligue 1 goals for Lille, as well as a further 11 assists. Simply outrageous output, no matter the division.
However, the Ivorian has largely flattered to deceive since completing his switch, starting just 22 Premier League games last season and only four this time around. He was supplanted by the ageing free transfer of Willian in the summer and has recently seen the likes of Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli picked ahead of him.
If that pattern is to continue then Arsenal should take a leaf out of West Ham’s book and sell the mercurial forward before his value depreciates further. The Hammers took a huge hit on the sale of Sebastien Haller, but fans couldn’t believe they got as much as £20m for him. If Pepe is not in Arteta’s vision, they should look to replace him as soon as possible, which could mean rekindling their interest in Wilfried Zaha.
Emery, whose first-choice target while Arsenal manager was Zaha, told Football London: “When you make the decision you have to decide how easy the adaption will be of some players.
“I was thinking the adaption was easier for Zaha because he was playing in the Premier League and you didn’t know exactly how fast Nicolas Pepe can adapt to the Premier League because I know you can need some time to adapt.
“I was thinking at this time that the adaption of Zaha was probably easier and faster than Pepe.”
Wilfried Zaha next club odds (via Sky Bet)
- Everton 6/1
- Arsenal 10/1
- PSG 16/1
- Dortmund 20/1
Onto another player who has seemingly fallen out of favour in recent games. Arsenal’s upturn in fortunes over the past four games (winning each of them) have coincided with Eddie Nketiah’s complete exclusion from the first-team, with the young striker an unused substitute in each of those wins.
This is no slight on the young forward, who has proven himself capable of hitting the right notes in the Premier League, but rather an indication of the direction Arteta is planning to take. Arsenal will not want to hinder his progress by keeping him restricted to a peripheral role, so perhaps a loan move would be best for his development, and West Ham would be a match-made-in-heaven given their current striker crisis.