The worst-kept secret in the Premier League will become official on Friday, when former Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta is formally introduced as the Gunners’ next manager.
Although it’s been expected for days, the appointment still looks like one hell of a risk. Arteta could turn out to be a fine boss at the Emirates. He couldn’t be much worse that Unai Emery, who was fired last month after just one full season on the job following the once-proud club’s worst run of results in almost three decades.
But while former players being fast-tracked into head coaching jobs with their ex-clubs is all the rage these days — see Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United and Frank Lampard at Chelsea — this hiring is particularly eyebrow-raising.
Arteta, 37, enjoyed a fine playing career in the Prem, moving to London after seven seasons with Everton. He knows Arsenal inside out, having served as captain during his final season in 2015-16. He was a favorite of legendary manager Arsene Wenger and has long been regarded as an up-and-coming young bench boss; Arteta was strongly considered as Wenger’s replacement in the summer of 2018 before Emery was ultimately hired.
The Spaniard clearly has ideas about how the game should be played. He’s a romantic, a fan of the sort of all-out attacking that was the hallmark of Wenger’s legendary 2003-04 side, the only team in Premier League history to get through an entire 38-match campaign without a single loss. Arteta’s lack of experience cost him in 2018. The problem is, the same knock on him still applies 18 months later.
Arteta has spent almost four years serving as Pep Guardiola’s top assistant with two-time defending Premier League champ Manchester City, learning from one of the finest tacticians in football management today.
But he’s still never served as the head man himself, not even with one of City’s youth sides. And that’s why putting him at the helm of a fractured squad that has won just one of its last 13 games under Emery and interim boss Freddie Ljungberg is such a gamble.
By any measure, the Gunners are a team in utter disarray. They don’t play hard. They don’t play together. They can’t defend. It’s gotten to the point that top stars such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Granit Xhaka are reportedly eyeing the door.
There could be a new-coach bump, of course. We saw it last season after Solskjaer spelled Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford and we’re seeing it right now at Tottenham, where Mourinho has Spurs on a roll after replacing Mauricio Pochettino last month. But things went sideways at United down the stretch, with the club finishing sixth, same as their current position. Solskjaer apparently will get the opportunity to bolster his roster during the January transfer window, but he’s far from a lock to return to the dugout next year, with upper management at the club still in shambles.
Arsenal have been even more poorly run than United in recent years, and it’s only gotten worse in the 18 months since longtime chief executive Ivan Gazidis bolted for AC Milan. It’s not the sort of environment set up for an unproven young coach to thrive in. And Arteta is significantly less experienced than most.
Solskjaer has spent most the decade as a head man, with a Premier League stint at Swansea sandwiched between a pair of spells with Molde in his native Norway. Lampard nearly took Derby County to the Prem last season before they fell short at the final hurdle. Without that on his résumé, the Blues — which have struggled mightily of late — might have looked elsewhere despite Lampard’s status as a club legend. Even Zidane put in his time with Real’s reserve team, which he led for two seasons before ascending to the hottest seat in Madrid.
Settling on Arteta is an even more interesting choice considering the other options available. Pochettino — who led Spurs to its first Champions League final earlier this year — was a candidate before Arsenal identified Arteta as their No. 1 target. The club apparently didn’t even consider former Real, Chelsea and AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti, who wanted the job and was disappointed not to have been approached after leaving Napoli last week. (Ancelotti is widely expected to be snapped up by Everton.)
If an Arsenal alum was the preference, the Gunners might have been better going with former midfield hard man Patrick Vieira, who has steadily climbed the ranks by cutting his teeth in lower leagues, first with New York City FC in MLS and more recently with Nice in his native France.
None of that matters now. The decision has been made, Arsenal are Arteta’s team, and he will get the chance to prove his many doubters wrong.
He’s certainly got his work cut out for him.
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