The biggest problem at Arsenal might be that no one can figure out what the problem is

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Leander Schaerlaeckens
·5 min read
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It’s December. Arsenal Football Club, owner of 13 English titles and the only undefeated season in Premier League history, purveyors of the highest average ticket prices in the world, a club with the third-most all-time appearances in the Deloitte Football Money League top-10 all-time, has fallen to 15th place.

After Sunday’s 2-0 loss in the North London Derby to hated rivals Tottenham Hotspur, the Gunners now sit 14 spots behind the league-leading Spurs. That is to say, Arsenal is as close to the ninth-placed team in the second-tier Championship — Blackburn Rovers — as it is to first place in the Premier League. It is already eight points out of the Champions League places, but just seven above the relegation zone.

The club that once embodied flowing, attacking soccer has a goal difference of minus-four. It’s one of just four teams in the league that averages less than a goal a game. It has scored once in its last four games and only twice in its last seven.

Then again, only four teams have conceded fewer goals. Still, it has six defeats already, and for years, Arsenal would only lose around six league games in an entire season.

The collapse is breathtaking. Because Arsenal was a club that always seemed to do things the right way.

Mikel Arteta is overseeing the latest period of Arsenal's free fall the last few years. (Andy Rain/Pool via AP)
Mikel Arteta is overseeing the latest period of Arsenal's free fall the last few years. (Andy Rain/Pool via AP)

Historically, the Gunners were dogmatic about playing attacking soccer, and could be relied upon to develop their own players. Then, when it became economically necessary, Arsenal saved up its money and was one of Europe’s first juggernauts to upgrade its homey but dated ground for a cash-printing mega-stadium.

The club slowly slipped from winning three titles and five silver medals from the 1997-98 season through 2004-05 to being a perennial third- or fourth-placed team. And then it slipped further still, missing the Champions League for the first time in 21 years. This is the fourth consecutive Champions League campaign without Arsenal — which had survived the group stage 17 straight years — taking part in it.

Fingers were pointed.

First it was the stadium’s fault, for cannibalizing the transfer budget. But as the Emirates Stadium opened and revenues grew, so did the return of the big-ticket acquisitions. Arsenal has paid 30 million euros or more for 10 different players and at least 50 million for four of them.

Then it was the fault of long-time manager Arsene Wenger, the architect of all those titles and Champions League berths. But things didn’t get better under his successor Unai Emery, once Wenger was finally pushed into retirement. Once the club was managed by Mikel Arteta, the ballyhooed apprentice of Pep Guardiola, some promising flashes shone through, until he oversaw the ongoing face-plant toward rock bottom.

A popular culprit has been the club’s American absentee owner Stan Kroenke, who cannot seem to bestir himself to do anything past the bare minimum for the umpteenth team in his portfolio of sports investments. Still, it isn’t like the club hasn’t had plenty of money to spend.

Lately, straws are being grasped at.

Earlier in the week of the North London Derby, Arteta argued that the trick to mending his misfiring attack was to have more crosses — a hopelessly archaic notion. “It’s maths, pure maths,” Arteta declared, giving his growing body of critics a handy rallying cry.

In the mirthless contest against Tottenham, Arsenal sent in 44 crosses. It was the most of any Premier League team this season and the most the club has compiled in a single game under Arteta’s year-long reign. It still didn’t score a goal. The Gunners had 69 percent of possession and 11 shots to Tottenham’s six. But then only but two of those on target.

“They did everything I asked them to do,” Arteta said after the game. “If you look at all the stats, they are in our favor.”

“I don’t know what else we can do,” he added. “If we can’t score goals we cannot improve our situation.”

A manager who has run out of ideas for how to score goals, in a sport where scoring goals is the whole thing, does not sound like he is long for his job.

Certainly, equal credit for Sunday’s result should go to Spurs manager Jose Mourinho, who has resuscitated his battered reputation. But the thing that redeems Arteta is that it isn’t at all obvious what the problem is. Or, by inference, that he is the problem.

There is so much else that ails his club, like an oddly constructed squad, the abidingly bizarre situation surrounding its highest-paid player, Mesut Ozil, who has yet to make an appearance this season, an apparent problem with mentality, to plain old bad luck.

Arsenal continues to spiral ever downward from the lofty perch it occupied just a decade ago, when it reached three straight Champions League quarterfinals. It continues, as an entire club, to be less than the sum of its parts. A club that can’t even get the simple PR stuff right anymore, laying off dozens of employees, including the long-time mascot, the same week it dropped a 50 million euro transfer fee on midfielder Thomas Partey.

But for all the diagnoses, a cure has not yet been found.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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