Arsenal’s collapse, from FA Cup winners and top-four hopefuls to tongue-in-cheek relegation candidates, has been as steep and as fast as any in Premier League history.
Not since Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea fell apart shortly after winning the title in 2015 have we seen anything quite like this, and even then it only took another year for the Blues to get back to the summit of the table.
There is no chance Arsenal will be revived 12 months from now. The club face a long and wearying recovery.
The board publicly backed manager Mikel Arteta this week but the tactical drop-off in 2020-21 has thrown the Spaniard’s credentials into doubt. In August he was building choreographed moves and solid structures, but now Arsenal play without any sense of direction and Arteta looks lost.
What on earth has happened?
The initial ideas appeared to be closely aligned to Pep Guardiola’s philosophy, with Arteta seeking total control of games via complex and highly structured positional instructions.
His team moved up the pitch as one, aiming to suffocate and overwhelm with their possession while guarding against the counter-attacks by ensuring the spread of bodies remained even, and balanced.
From the outset the discipline, and the shape, was very impressive. By the time the Premier League was suspended in March, Arsenal looked controlled and cohesive. Crucially, they had begun to find some automatisms; set moves practised in training that allow attacking teams to think two or three steps ahead.
The most important tactical feature was Arteta’s unique hybrid 3-4-3 / 4-3-3, in which Bukayo Saka would switch between left wing-back and central midfield, opening up space for central defender Kieran Tierney to overlap and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to drop intelligently into the half-space.
But then the break came and things began to unravel, slowly at first and then all at once. Problems behind the scenes - chiefly the player wage cuts, subsequent redundancies, and big contracts given to senior players - appear to have made things difficult.
Arteta has been the victim of a hostile environment; tactical discipline inevitably evaporates when there are psychological issues. But he is not blameless.
Perhaps the biggest issue of all has been Covid-19. The congested fixture list has limited time for coaching in the week and made it impossible for players to press high for long periods, which has undermined Arteta’s plans on several levels.
Without the press, his team – like Manchester City – become passive and easy to counter, creating more territorially even games in which Arsenal are no longer in control. Without time to coach in the week, the automatisms have dissolved, leading to meandering performances and weakening ties between the players.
But good managers adapt to their environment, and Arteta has failed to do so effectively. Arsenal are continually playing at a low tempo, emphasising sluggish sideways possession, which ensures the opposition can simply hold tight and wait for the move to break down.
Arteta has a Guardiola-like anxious tendency for controlling the ball, which means he leans on risk-averse technicians like Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka more than he should.
It is a huge problem that Arsenal lack truly creative players, with Arteta instead packing the side with neat and tidy types who can play the link pass or the clever one-two but rarely the killer ball.
Over time, this has seen the Gunners’ tempo drop and drop, until everything feels static and the players cannot shake themselves into an urgent, line-breaking tempo.
This problem is further emphasised by Arteta’s decision to continually pass out from the back, a strategy that cannot work while he continues to stack the side with Elneny, Xhaka, and Willian – players who will come short and then pass the ball straight back, failing to gain any yards.
Switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation only seemed to make things worse. The Tierney-Saka-Aubameyang link disappeared, and without a third centre-back – initially introduced to correct for the litany of errors that set in during the Unai Emery era – Arsenal were countered far too easily.
The nadir came when Arteta used a post-match press conference to praise the ‘pure maths’ of swinging crosses into the box, which isn’t just bad statting but also sounds far too much like something Tony Pulis or Sam Allardyce might say.
It was a PR gaff that doesn’t bode well, and more importantly it showed that Arteta had given up on those automatisms seen last season. Deploying Alexandre Lacazette as a No.10 failed, and things started to look desperate.
Fortunately, Arteta moved back to the 3-4-3 / 4-3-3 for the 1-1 draw with Southampton in midweek and Arsenal instantly improved. In small glimpses, the confusing movement of Saka, Tierney, and Aubameyang saw all three players pick up the ball between the opposition lines and facing goal, most notably in the build-up to their equaliser.
Not that this is enough to turn things around for Arteta. It is too late to bring Mesut Ozil back into the fold, but in January the club badly need to sign a creative player who is willing to take risks in the final third.
In the modern game No.10s tend to play on the wing, and indeed it is Ozil’s inability to do this effectively that saw Arteta lose patience. That he wanted to sign Philippe Coutinho shows the manager is aware he needs a wide playmaker.
Thomas Partey has already become a key member of the side and things should improve when he returns from injury, as the former Atletico Madrid man is a line-breaking dribbler in possession; someone who can play with enough assertiveness to lift the speed of Arsenal’s play and create the dominant style Arteta craves.
In his absence, Arteta should give Ainsley Maitland-Niles more of a chance in central midfield. He has excelled in this role in the Europa League, offering a verticality that few in the Arsenal squad can match.
It is equally important that Dani Ceballos is trusted more regularly, while the quicker Arteta can get exiled young centre-back William Saliba on the pitch the better.
But none of these suggestions would be enough. As he said himself, Arteta needs five or six new players before he can switch to the 4-3-3 formation he wants to become the staple at the Emirates. Arsenal are several transfer windows and several years away from getting back towards the top four.
Arteta showed enough promise last season to suggest he is the right man to do undertake this monumental task. Reinstating the 3-4-3 was a start. Signing a couple of playmakers would help. But this is a huge project and one constantly undermined by issues higher up the chain of command.
The manager, so often the fall guy, may not get the time he needs.