LONDON — Mikel Arteta is going to need a bit of time. Time to instil his playing style, time to fully impose his authority as a manager after years of playing and being an assistant, time to do something about Arsenal’s still erratic defence. But mostly he’ll need some time to eliminate Arsenal’s capacity for self-destruction.
For the first 30 or so minutes of their 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace on Saturday, Arsenal were terrific. Arteta’s ostensibly bold choice to select all four of their big attacking talents looked like it was paying off nicely, as Alexandre Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang combined with slickness and pace.
David Luiz looked like the best version of himself, bringing the ball out from the back and using it intelligently. Granit Xhaka performed his primary role well but also a secondary one, dutifully covering Sead Kolasinac‘s forward runs down the left, which in turn allowed Aubameyang to play as more of a second striker rather than a left winger. “The first 35 minutes is exactly what I want,” Arteta said afterward.
All of those elements combined for their goal. Luiz drove forward and fed Lacazette who had dropped deep, opening space for Aubameyang to glide infield and collect a pass from the Frenchman to slide in a terrific finish.
In a weird way it was a little reminiscent of that goal Jack Wilshere scored a few years ago against Norwich, as smart passes and clever flicks pinged from player to player before Wilshere turned it home, in that it felt like that was the sort of goal Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal had been working towards for years: this felt like the sort of goal that Arteta’s Arsenal have been working towards. That at least will be extremely encouraging.
It also didn’t reflect especially well on Unai Emery. While injuries and assorted other factors had an impact on the players he could select, that front four never started the same game and spent a total of 58 minutes together on the pitch during his 20 matches in charge this season. It was as if he was presented with a puzzle and simply decided it was too difficult to solve: Arteta instead has just given it a bit of thought, realised he could construct his team in a way that could get the best from them and has now chosen them all in the past two games.
The three-game ban that Aubameyang will now have after his red card for ploughing through Max Meyer‘s ankle, and the interruption of that burgeoning foursome, will be more damaging than the half an hour they spent with 10 men at Selhurst Park. “It’s a massive blow, you know how important it was for the team,” Arteta said. It was the first time an Arsenal player has scored and been sent off in the same game since one M. Arteta, at this very ground in October 2013.
The red card wasn’t the turning point in the game — Palace had equalised 13 minutes earlier and Arsenal’s grip on things had slipped towards the end of the first half — but it was one of many things that is symptomatic of Arteta’s biggest task at the club, eliminating the mental block that has proved so damaging for them for the past few years.
Palace began to get their claws into the game more, putting Arsenal under more pressure and disrupting their play, but the ease with which they eroded control was both alarming and familiar. This was the seventh time this season in all competitions that Arsenal have been leading at the break but have not gone on to win.
“After the break,” Arteta said, “we knew they were going to push and put us under pressure, we started to give a lot of free kicks away, something that we have to avoid. Then we switched off for the goal. We completely switched off. At this level, if you switch off for two seconds, you’ll concede a goal straight away.”
When asked what he needed to do in order to alter the mentality of the team, he replied: “I don’t know. I’ll have to find a way to try to avoid those situations. It happened today, and it cost us two points.”
Arteta shouldn’t be criticised for not knowing. This has been Arsenal’s core weakness for so long that he’s not going to solve it in a month. He’s probably not going to solve it this season, although there is some encouragement there. Arteta himself commented that he was pleased with the way the team reacted after the red card, and they were inches away from winning the game when Pepe’s shot was brilliantly tipped onto the post by Vicente Guaita‘s fingernails. “That’s what I want to see from my team,” he said.
But he will have to see a lot more. All the good work he’s doing with their attacking play, setting up the whole team to get the most from their best players, will be almost pointless until their mentality truly changes. There are some good signs, but that will take some time. Plenty of time, in fact.