Consistent defensive woes cast serious doubt on Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal project

Matt O'Connor-Simpson
Arteta endured another difficult day on Sunday
Arteta endured another difficult day on Sunday / Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The first half 2021/22 season will make or break Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal project.

The fact that the Spaniard was spared the executioner's block despite leading his side out of Europe for the first time in a quarter of a century last season was testament to the faith that the club seem to have in his vision.

They have backed him heavily in the transfer market too, sanctioning around £130m of investment this summer. All of it has gone on younger players, suggesting Arteta expects to be given more time to shape the Gunners in his image. What that image actually is, however, is still not clear.

One thing is for sure, though, and that’s that Arsenal’s start to the season has been almost entirely absent of any redeeming features. Arteta may have been handed a significant curve ball in the form of a coronavirus outbreak and several other fitness issues, but even still his failure to adapt and overcome these problems has been pitiful.

The most worrying theme of the Gunners’ opening two Premier League games against Brentford and Chelsea respectively has been their overly accommodating backline. Ivan Toney had a lovely old time on the opening day, slipping £50m Ben White into his man bag like he was a pint-sized chihuahua. 

White won just three of his seven aerial duels and was fortunate that Bryan Mbeumo did not put away Toney’s flick-on midway through the second half. White’s centre-back partner, Pablo Mari, fared marginally better but looked seriously flustered in possession early on and struggled to find his passing range. 

Out wide Arsenal were porous, with Calum Chambers’ sluggish reactions allowing Sergi Canos to fire home Brentford’s terrific opener.

Losing to a newly-promoted side, even one energised by a rabid home crowd, is never a good look and Arsenal’s performance was similarly haphazard when Chelsea came to town. 

Romelu Lukaku, Pablo Mari
Pablo Mari has endured a tough start to the season / Michael Regan/Getty Images

The reasons for the Gunners’ woes were numerous. Again, it should be stressed that Arteta has far from perfect conditions to succeed. Of those absent on Sunday, White, Alexandre Lacazette, Thomas Partey, Gabriel, Martin Odegaard and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang - who enjoyed an encouraging cameo from the bench against Chelsea - would likely be starting. 

They were also playing a very good side, led by a world-class coach who has an enviable level of squad depth. Another issue is that individually, Arsenal’s squad players are just not good enough, whether due to lack of experience in the case of Albert Sambi Lokonga - who did well in patches - or lack of footballing ability in the case of a good few others.

Arteta must shoulder a significant portion of the blame too. Every Premier League manager will face adversity this season and all will be aiming to deal with it better than the Arsenal boss did this weekend. 

Tactically speaking, Arteta was feeble. Rather than match Chelsea’s back three and deny their wing-backs space out wide, he instead set up his side in a comically narrow 4-2-3-1. This was likely a ploy to deny new arrival Romelu Lukaku the ball, but Jorginho had no problem firing balls into the imperious forward all game long.

Whenever Lukaku got the ball he attracted red shirts like flies, and this tactical misstep created the first goal with the Belgian laying the ball off to Reece James before spinning behind, sending Mari topping to the turf and tapping home.

It was the nadir of Mari’s horrific display. Lukaku toyed with him all afternoon and it took just half an hour for the Spaniard to strop his way into midfield and commit a brainless foul on his tormentor.

Rob Holding’s display was similarly tragic. On several occasions he tried to rattle his opponents with some verbal sparring - despite his side barely laying a glove. It was the equivalent of a primary school kid trying to kick the Year 11s off the main football pitch at lunchtime.  

After the goal, any top manager worth their salary would have tweaked their system to deny Chelsea’s wing-backs being afforded such space again. Arteta didn’t and Arsenal paid when James was given all the time in the world to fire home, after drifting in at the back post to capitalise on Kieran Tierney’s bizarre narrowness.

Chelsea could and should have had more goals after the break too. Lukaku was denied by an incredible Bernd Leno save after ghosting in front of Holding with ease and Kai Havertz failed to convert from close range.

Mercifully for Arteta, the 2-0 scoreline was maintained but that did not make the result any less damaging for his reputation. Arsenal are in a bad spot right now and they need a manager capable of getting the most out of his resources. 

Few could argue that Arteta has done that so far this season and his credentials as the project manager the Gunners crave are getting shakier with each passing game.