This side is not a contender for the league title — not even close. At this point I’m not confident that they can hold on to a Champions League place: they’re far behind Man City and Liverpool, noticeably behind Aston Villa, and probably behind Spurs (though Spurs’ lack of depth could haunt them in the months to come).
Because Arsenal are so toothless in attack, the temptation will be to think that they have to sign a striker in the January transfer window. But (a) they will almost certainly have to overpay dramatically for anyone worth having; (b) strikers rarely settle immediately into a new side — they need time to get adjusted to new teammates and a new style of play; and (c) there’s not a game-changing striker available. Succumbing to this temptation would lead to heartache — but I fear that that’s what the club will do.
It’s true that Arsenal don’t have a top goal-scorer, but that’s not their primary problem. After all, they had a fine season last year while spreading the goals around quite widely. Their primary problem is this: Arteta has wildly over-reacted to the way that last season ended. Last season’s side was a high-energy, high-risk, excitable, even manic show. Every time they won a game they shouted and leaped into one another’s arms, and the game’s self-appointed Celebration Police tut-tutted and said, in unison, “They act like they won the league.”
It seems obvious that the club’s leadership decided that this emotional intensity caused the team to run out of gas late last season. So they — or maybe it’s just Arteta — decided to take a different approach this season.
The first move in this direction was eminently sensible and has been quite successful: signing Declan Rice means that the team now has a physically commanding and highly intelligent defensive midfielder to play in front of the two excellent centerbacks, which means that Arsenal are very difficult to score against.
The second move was to replace the most excitable member of last year’s side, the keeper Aaron Ramsdale, with the calmer and somewhat more technical David Raya. This decision, I think, has been as bad as the signing of Rice has been good. It’s not that Raya has performed poorly; he hasn’t. He’s been about as good as Ramsdale, though not noticeably better as distribution (which is supposed to be his big advantage). The problem is that Raya is a pretty quiet and undemonstrative guy, while Ramsdale was the emotional leader of last year’s side. He was the spark plug that ignited the fuel, and without him the team seems to be playing mechanically and joylessly. (The other really fiery player from last year’s side, Granit Xhaka, now plays in the Bundesliga. The club might do better to bring Xhaka back than sign an overpriced striker.)
In Sunday’s mostly listless — after the first ten minutes anyway — performance against Liverpool, the crowd at the Emirates was virtually silent. Watching on TV, you could hear everything said on the pitch and sideline through most of the match. At one point Martin Odegaard — a fine captain, about whom I have nothing bad to say — tried to rouse the crowd, but they responded halfheartedly. This was, to put it mildly, not a problem last year. If the team is excited and energetic the crowd will be too; if not, not.
The player who has suffered most from this new emphasis on restraint and discipline has been Gabriel Martinelli — who is a shadow of his last year’s self. But I think everyone’s less intense this year, and other teams are just outworking them.
When the team has had energy this season, it’s been negative energy, generated by Mikel Arteta’s constant whining about officiating. Indeed, I suspect that Arteta’s complaining has hurt the team’s spirit as much as the tamping down of enthusiasm.
Can Arteta make the necessary adjustments both to his tactics and his mood? Can he reignite the fire from last season and become a more positive figure, keeping in mind that he still has a very young side, with many players who are highly influenced by his example? Maybe; he seems to be an exceptionally stubborn person, but I think the organization as a whole is strong and that there’s a good opportunity here at the brief winter break to part with some bad habits. I think we just have to hope that he learns from experience and admits his mistakes. I wish I had a better answer than that.