Thursday’s draw between Tottenham Hotspur and Bournemouth yielded one conspicuous stat: José Mourinho’s team didn’t have a single shot on target, even against a Bournemouth side that had allowed 105 shots on target in its previous 33 matches. In a news conference the Portuguese professed a belief that he can win trophies with his club, but argued that he needs time.
Yet, it is hard to attach much weight to Mourinho’s words when his coaching philosophy seems outdated and Tottenham’s team looks clueless about the direction it is going in. You get the feeling that we have been here before, that you are watching an unedifying déjà vu, simply at a club that is less glamorous and potent than Manchester United or Real Madrid.
So, on the face of it, Arsenal should be favorites in the North London Derby when playing a modern club hamstrung by a coach the world has left behind. Recent results suggest the momentum is with Arsenal and that Mikel Arteta, appointed in December, has a plan.
Against Leicester on Tuesday, Arsenal displayed some of its slickest football to date under the Spanish coach. They seemed to pick Leicester City apart at will with quick ball retention, smooth transitions, enough ideas on the ball and an intelligence in attack. It was crisp, if somewhat facilitated by Leicester’s defensive high line, and a world away from both the stuttering ideas of Unai Emery and the ill-fated interlude that befell, more than anything else, caretaker manager Freddie Ljungberg.
Bukayo Saka starred again, impressing and improving each and every single game. His versatility and maturity aside, Arsenal’s number 77 has been offering a glimpse of what Arsenal could become in the future. Arteta’s choice to use him different positions is a consequence of Arsenal’s thin resources, but also shows that the Spaniard trusts players who couple talent with attitude, no matter their age or experience. He has told Saka “to enjoy the moment.”
On the touchline, Arteta can be seen cajoling his players on and shouting instructions in English, French and Spanish. His CV and real-life skill set are impeccable. It is also a way of connecting with his players. At least with those who follow his instructions. Arteta has proven early on he is prepared to enforce tough choices. He has all but alienated Mesut Ozil and in recent weeks Matteo Guendouzi has been banned from training with the first team over attitude issues.
A rapprochement between Arteta and his two exiles doesn’t seem imminent. In his news conference Arteta’s update was just that. “No updates,” said the Arsenal coach. It was an unusual tone to strike for a coach whose diplomacy in fending off endless questions about Ozil in recent weeks has been remarkable.
Reflecting on the first 30 minutes against Leicester, Arteta said: ““I want the players to play that way as much as possible during the games, to be in the opposition’s half, to be very aggressive every time.”
After the break, Eddie Nketiah proved to indulge that aggression perhaps too much and was sent off. His red card derailed Arsenal’s game and incapacitated the team of controlling the match and attacking the right space, something Arteta has constantly hammered on.
Instead, a truncated second half was another illustration of the team’s almost innate quality for self-destruction in the game. Nerves frayed, legs tired and Arsenal were ready to trip up again, but got away with a point as Leicester played out the most insipid eight minutes of injury time since yesteryear. It was glaring, yet such a familiar sight, to see Arsenal implode in a strange time warp of hope and ultimately despair.
It’s a fine line between a positive analysis of Arteta’s maiden months as head coach or something far worse. Wins over Southampton, Sheffield United, Norwich and Wolves hardly disguise the club’s systemic flaws and an ecosystem that from Robbie Lyle down at Arsenal Fan TV to the aloof owner Stan Kroenke at the very top has been toxic for too long. Ivan Gazidis and Sven Mislintat have both excited the club, but Raul Sanllehi remains.
He presumably played a part in the club’s recent controversial deals with David Luiz, Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares which revealed that agents could be guiding Arsenal’s transfer market dealings.
Could this bleak reality perhaps be too much to handle for a novice coach? It’s incontrovertible that Arteta will need time to settle down in his new role and new environment, a big cheque in the next few transfer windows to acquire the players of his preference and build the team to his own image, and the unconditional and structural support of the Arsenal hierarchy. So, for now, every victory, even against the archenemy, comes with an asterisk.