The midfield, strikers and the left-wing – The story of Arsenal’s failed season – What next for Mikel? (2024)

What Next For Mikel Arteta? by Ssekatawa Patrick ​ The 2023/24 season comes to an end in disappointing fashion for all those with an Arsenal persuasion. After a huge outlay that saw Arsenal shell out £211m on Declan Rice, Kai Havertz, Jurrien Timber and David Raya who arrived on loan for an initial £3m, the intention was clear: go one better than Pep Guardiola’s City, whom the Gunners trailed by 5 points in May last season, falling short in a title charge that had caught many by surprise.

Unlike the 2022/23 season where Arsenal were breathtaking in their gung-ho approach to football matches, this time Mikel Arteta’s men were cagey, winning games by the skin of their teeth and you could sense and aura of diffidence at the Emirates Stadium during games. There was a perceived inertia among the Arsenal players, with the manager seemingly too cautious to urge his players to venture forward with relentlessness, instead electing to stay structured and attack the opponent with a bit of a handbrake. As result, the Gunners’ scoring rate wasn’t convincing. In the first 20 games, Arsenal scored only 35 goals despite their XG being higher than the actual goals they scored. It is possible that such a poor return in front of goal was the main reason Arsenal have fallen short in the title race again.

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By December 31, Arsenal had lost 4 league games, two of which were lost by 1-0 (Newcastle and Aston Villa), with the Newcastle game in particular ending with Arsenal having a had a solitary shot on target. Such a cautious approach could be attributed to a change of personnel in the Arsenal engine room as well as the left side of Mikel Arteta’s team. In the season prior, the Arsenal midfield was occupied by Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka and Martin Ødegaard. This season though, the midfield personnel changed with new players coming in. Granit Xhaka had since departed to Bayer Leverkusen while Thomas Partey succumbed to a long injury early in the season, with Kai Havertz and Declan Rice taking their places respectively. Whereas Rice settled in seamlessly, Kai Havertz struggled badly to adjust to a new role, rendering Mikel Arteta’s plan of exploiting the German’s goalscoring potential to add more goals from midfield a futility!

On the left side of the Arsenal team, it became apparent that building relationships between players was very difficult to achieve. First choice left back, Zinchenko started the season injured, forcing Jurrien Timber to start there. Timber lasted only 56 minutes on his league debut and succumbed to an ACL injury that kept him out until the final day of the season. Replacing him was Takehiro Tomiyasu who got sent off in the next game against Crystal Palace, with Zinchenko coming on to replace him. At the other end of the pitch, Gabriel Martinelli had niggles that forced manager Mikel Arteta to keep on changing personnel there. With such enforced alterations, Kai Havertz and the rest of the players on the left failed to have any rhythm which impacted the team’s attacking play.

At centre forward, Arsenal struggled badly too with Gabriel Jesus having a stop-start, topsy-turvy season due to the several injuries he suffered throughout the season that couldn’t allow him any sort of momentum. His replacement, Eddie Nketiah flattered to decieve. Aside from his sensational performance against Sheffield United, the striker failed to convince thereafter. The pair have ended with 9 goals between them, figures unworthy of strikers for a team fighting to win the league.

By the time Mikel Arteta found a solution to his goal-shy team after a warm weather training in Dubai during the winter break, Arsenal had lost 4 games already. The fact that the team lost once in the next 18 games, scoring 56 and conceding 7 is enough to conclude that Arsenal’s failure to win the title was down to their tame attacking displays, that saw them lose games they should have won with more attacking purpose! The 2-2 draw with Fulham at the Emirates and the 2-1 reverse at Craven Cottage, the loss at home to West Ham, the 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge where Arsenal practically played no football in the attacking sense in the first half were more damaging than the 2-0 loss to Aston Villa! For me, Arsenal lost the chance to win the league in the first half of the season. Many will point to the 2-0 loss to Unai Emery’s men, but if Arsenal had played better against Fulham, West Ham and Chelsea, the 2-0 loss to Aston Villa would not have been as bad as it seemed at the time.

The midfield, strikers and the left-wing – The story of Arsenal’s failed season – What next for Mikel? (1)

Arsenal’s English midfielder #41 Declan Rice (2R) and teammates react to going two goals behind during the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Aston VIlla at the Emirates Stadium in London on April 14, 2024. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ‘live’ services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. / (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

What next then? It is difficult to tell the mood in the Arsenal camp. I don’t know if it’s one of sheer disappointment, because I’m sure even Mikel Arteta and his team knew that the moment City seized control of proceedings with a handful of games left, becoming champions for a record fourth time became a distinct inevitability. Now, Mikel Arteta needs to sit down, reflect and forge a way forward, recharge their batteries and go again. That Arsenal pushed Man City all the way to the ultimate game of the season is extremely commendable. The sturdiness, the fluidity, the new found rhythm of 2024, the mental fortitude that have been the hallmark of this Arsenal team have made Mikel Arteta’s team an adorable outfit. Despite that though, there’s still work, a lot of it to be done if Arsenal are to topple City next season.

Despite scoring 91 league goals this season, there’s an undeniable fact that Arsenal need a centre forward, a genuine source of goals. Havertz has done really well under the circ*mstances, but he’s not a centre forward. Therefore, Mikel Arteta and Edu must pull out all the stops to bring in an elite striker to bury the chances that the likes of Ødegaard and Saka create.

Viktor Gyokeres, Victor Osimhen, Alexander Isak and Benjamin Sesko are some names that can do the job.

In the middle, Mikel Arteta needs to bring in a reliable and long term partner to Declan Rice and the name that comes to my mind is Bruno Guimaraes. If he’s available for transfer, there’s no need for a second thought. With him and Rice in the middle, Arsenal will have unbelievable steel in midfield, which will allow Ødegaard to apply his finesse to establish the finest midfield trio in England.

The impact of the absence of Bukayo Saka in the game against Everton at the Emirates was laid bare. His absence is extremely damaging to the team and therefore it is clear the team needs a like-for-like replacement. Pedro Neto or Nico Williams would do the job with aplomb!

With Timber now fully fit, Arteta will have a healthy backline to choose from, solve the Aaron Ramsdale problem with a replacement if the Englishman goes for pastures new, and Arsenal will be armed to teeth to dethrone Pep Guardiola’s City juggernaut next season.

Ssekatawa Patrick

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