Arsenal fans need Mikel Arteta to work out what he is trying to do


On Sunday the Emirates Stadium will finally be at full capacity for the visit of the European champions, Chelsea. It promises to be a stirring, moving homecoming after 18 months of empty stands and cavernous silence, and certainly Arsenal’s manager, Mikel Arteta, could scarcely contain his excitement. “I can’t wait to have our fans back after 18 months,” he said. “This is why we are here, to experience those moments.” Alas, it appears that Arteta’s excitement is not universally shared. As of Friday morning, two days out from the game, tickets were still available.

The overwhelming likelihood is that Arsenal’s first game back with a full stadium will not, in fact, take place in a full stadium. In the good times this would have been unthinkable. Under normal circumstances a crackling London derby in the first home game of the season would probably have sold out within a couple of hours, even at the current prices of £64-£95.50. Instead the club’s platinum members received an email this week offering them the opportunity to buy four further tickets for the game. There are numerous anecdotal reports of members who have been marooned on the season-ticket waiting list for years suddenly jumping thousands of places and being offered a seat this summer.

Of course, nobody is remotely suggesting that these are the good times. A club knows it is in the doldrums when the absence of European football for the first time in 26 years is being sold as a reason for optimism. There was a time at Arsenal when every defeat felt like an acute crisis, when every decision the club made seemed to unfold against a backdrop of dispute and discord and vein-popping anger. These days losing 2-0 to Brentford on the opening day brings only shrugs. The days of mutiny at Arsenal are over. The long years of apathy and disillusionment are upon us.

This is the tide that Arteta is trying to beat back. The title challenge is probably some years off. The Champions League can wait for now. Arteta’s most pressing concern is to make Arsenal fans care again.

In one respect at least he has been supported by the board. The arrivals of Martin Ødegaard from Real Madrid and Aaron Ramsdale from Sheffield United will bring Arsenal’s summer transfer fee spend to about £130m, the highest in the Premier League. Factor in things such as outgoings and salaries, of course, and Manchester United have probably had a bigger window. Nonetheless, it is a considerable investment given the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on their finances.

Each man fills an established vacancy in the squad: Ødegaard in the creative role just behind the striker, Ramsdale as the main competition (and ultimately perhaps the replacement) for Bernd Leno in goal. Along with the signings of Ben White and Albert Sambi Lokonga, each also fits in with the club’s current strategy of signing promising players in their early 20s with room for improvement and strong potential resale value.

Do any of these signings actually make Arsenal better than they were last season? It is a tough case to make. Any significant improvement on their two consecutive eighth-place finishes will rest instead on the long-term fitness of key players such as Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney, on the continuing development of youngsters such as Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka, on a resolution of their troubles up front, where neither Alexandre Lacazette nor Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang seems to inspire full trust. These are not the sorts of problems that one can simply sign one’s way out of.

At which point it is back to Arteta and the extent to which he is culpable for the mess he inherited: the culture of mediocrity, the lack of a clear transfer strategy, a squad stuffed with highly paid players nobody wants.

Certainly at some point in the late-Wenger years the idea of Arsenal as a place where talent was nurtured and developed slowly began to erode. Principles were compromised. Trolleys were filled. Players were allowed to coast, run down their contracts, wither on the vine. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mesut Özil, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi left only in the past year. Lucas Torreira, Sead Kolasinac, Cédric Soares and Willian are all, in some guise or another, still there. The sense of long-term wastage is colossal.

Equally Arteta has been in the job for 20 months and there are times when it is still not entirely clear what he is trying to do. Perhaps this is because, like anyone else at the start of a career, he is learning on the job. The oft-quoted truism about Arsenal lacking leaders actually masks a greater problem: a lack of teachers. Leno is a perfectly good technical goalkeeper but lacks the ability to marshal a defence. Héctor Bellerín, one of the most commanding voices in the squad, has drifted to the fringes. Granit Xhaka has been entangled in a Roma transfer saga all summer and like many of the club’s senior players seems to exist in a curious semi-permanent, half-in, half-out state.

Who are the stalwarts in this squad, the guaranteed starters, the standard-setters? For all Arsenal’s promise and talent these still look in short supply, and perhaps the reason there are so few players who seem to enforce Arteta’s standards is that there is still no real understanding of what those standards actually are. By the same token, perhaps the reason there are so few supporters prepared to invest in Arteta’s vision is that 20 months down the line he is still trying to work out what it is.

In his press conference on Friday Arteta railed angrily against the club’s many critics. “There are people who have the intention to bury us, to criticise us,” he fumed. “In moments when there are certain negativities around the place, you need your fans more than ever.” It was probably intended as a call to arms; in the event it sounded more like a plea for help. And as he emerges from the tunnel on Sunday afternoon, the number of empty seats should give him a decent grasp of the task that awaits him.