“Reunite” and “refocus” were two words Mikel Arteta used to describe what Arsenal are hoping to get out of their trip to Dubai during the two-week winter break. After the last couple of months, time away is no bad thing. If only to draw a line under their current malaise. For the first time in 27 years, Arsenal have the ignominy of failing to win their first five games in a calendar year.
That being said, perhaps those aren’t quite the areas that need to be cultivated or honed. Sunday’s draw against Burnley was many things. Infuriating for the Gunners, valiant from Sean Dyche’s side and, to be honest, bleak for the rest of us who came to this fixture for entertainment. But Arsenal’s inability to beat the team sitting bottom of the table, thus missing out on an opportunity to move into fourth, did not feel like the result of a disjointed group of players unable to focus on the matter at hand. Rather of tired bodies and minds running out of physical and creative steam
Had Alexandre Lacazette and Gabriel Magalhaes shown more composure with their second-half chances (an open goal and free header, respectively), Arsenal might have triumphed 2-0. It was those on the pitch who picked up their levels at about the hour mark to play at such high tempo with an extra thrust Burnley could not live with. A period, it should be noted, that was not instigated by any tweak Arteta made but encouraged by a boisterous home crowd, rallied by some impromptu cheerleading from Martin Ødegaard, recognising those efforts.
All for nothing, mind. Dropping those two points meant relinquishing the chance to occupy that last Champions League spot. They are out of both cups following defeat to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round and Liverpool in the League Cup semi-finals and have scored just once in January. And all they have to show for it is a(nother) shirt collaboration, this time with TFL.
Are Arsenal coming off the rails? On scorelines alone, you could make an argument for it. But rather than “reunite” and “refocus”, Arteta’s priority should be “rest” and “reinforcements”.
As bad as January has been, much of it was to be expected. The African Cup of Nations and Covid cases (yes, they’ve had a few) were always going to cause issues to a squad already limited on numbers. The New Year defeat to Manchester City featured Arsenal’s best half of football, taking a 1-0 lead into halftime only to end 2-1 down after Granit Xhaka gave up a penalty, Gabriel Magalhaes’ received a red card and then Rhodri popped up with an injury-time winner.
Since then, they have been patching things together as best as possible. While they were helped by the postponement of the north London Derby the previous Sunday, the performances in both legs against Liverpool hinted at a lack of energy that became evident as this match against Burnley wore on.
Emile Smith Rowe has looked uncharacteristically leggy, forced back into competitive action far sooner and far more regularly than he should have been. Bukayo Saka has made 11 appearances since the start of December and looks to be running on fumes. Likewise, 30-year-old Alexandre Lacazette has made as many appearances in that time, not least playing a withdrawn, more dutiful role than he is used to.
In many ways, over-playing at this time is unavoidable. However, that only brings Arteta’s actions over the last month into starker focus. Even with the various hindrances, he has made some questionable calls.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles sums up the situation best. The 24-year-old was allowed to move on loan to Roma, in part because of a lack of first-team opportunities in the opening five months of the season.
Shorn of one option unnecessarily, things began to unravel. While primarily a midfielder – at least on preference – Maitland-Niles was certainly Arsenal’s second-best right back and could have deputised there far better than Cedric Soares during the defeat to Nottingham Forest. When Xhaka was suspended for the second leg of the League Cup semi-final against Liverpool, he could have come on in the last stages instead of Thomas Partey, who was fresh off the plane following Ghana’s early exit from the African Cup of Nations.
Partey picked up a red card, thus both he and Xhaka were ruled out for Burnley. Maitland-Niles could have operated in the middle, or even at right back where Ben White was having to fill in. Among many clear areas where Arsenal underwhelmed against Burnley, the loss of White from the middle as the defender who has been expanding his passing range, felt like one that could have given their opponents something extra to combat. Even Saka’s threat looked that little bit diminished as Burnley doubled up on him knowing White was not one to overlap.
The heat is not quite on Arteta as it has been in the past. Arsenal are still only two points off fourth-place Manchester United and one behind West Ham, with one and two games in hand on those two, respectively. But there is a sense the Spaniard must use these next two weeks to allow some juice to return to the legs of his most valued players while also working behind the scenes to bring in new players.
The protracted courting of Dusan Vlahovic needs to come to some kind of conclusion if only to administer a shot in the arm to both Arsenal’s ambitions as a club and bolster their attacking wares in the most outlandish, non-Erling Haaland way possible but an auxiliary right back and another body in midfield feel like a must too.
Arteta was disappointingly coy from a fan’s perspective on incomings: “Well, we are certainly trying but I don’t know if we are going to be able to do it. Let’s see.” One hopes he will be more forceful behind the scenes. Sunday was a reminder of how their top four ambitions are still alive yet far from certain.