11:35 PM GMT
Mark OgdenSenior Writer, ESPN FC
LONDON — On the face of it, Mikel Arteta has made an unimpressive start to life as Arsenal manager. Tuesday’s 2-2 draw at Chelsea left him with just one win in six Premier League games since taking charge last month, and the club he described as the “biggest in England” lie in 10th position in the Premier League. Arsenal are 10 points adrift of fourth-placed Chelsea, and their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League are hanging by a thread.
Yet statistics don’t tell the full story where Arteta is concerned, especially after this London derby at Stamford Bridge when Arsenal emerged unbeaten, despite being reduced to 10 men after just 26 minutes following David Luiz‘s red card against his former club for a reckless foul on Tammy Abraham.
Progress, measured by the black and white of the league table or won-and-lost column, is hard to find, but this was a night when Arsenal showed they are displaying the green shoots of recovery that have been conspicuous by their absence for longer than anyone at the Emirates cares to remember. Young players, such as goal scorer Gabriel Martinelli and full-back Bukayo Saka (both 18), showed tenacity and ambition beyond their years, while right-back Hector Bellerin grew with the responsibility of the captaincy.
Chelsea, with an extra man and home advantage, twice took the lead, but Arsenal somehow emerged from Stamford Bridge with a point.
“I am so proud of the courage, the fight and the leadership,” Arteta said. “I am very pleased.
“We are playing with a lot of young kids and what we showed tonight means we can be very proud of them. They stepped up; if a teammate makes a mistake, they have to have their back.”
Arsenal are clearly at base camp in their rebuilding job under Arteta. Unai Emery was unable to bring stability and progress following Arsene Wenger’s exit in May 2018, so Arteta has inherited a mess at the Emirates. His squad lacks quality in key areas, and there are too many players, such as Luiz and Mesut Ozil (who was substituted after 56 ineffectual minutes), who drag the team down due to their deficiencies.
But while Arteta has struggled to improve results since relinquishing his role as Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City, he has found a way to get his players to do the basics. That should be the first objective of any manager, but Emery was unable to get his Arsenal team to fight as a collective and stick to a coherent tactical plan, so Arteta is already doing a better job than his predecessor on that score. The fact that Arsenal were a better team without Luiz and Ozil, despite being down to 10 men, says everything about the improved mentality Arteta has already instilled.
“After this game nobody will have to speak about us,” Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka said. “We showed big character. A lot of people say we have no character in the team, so after this game we showed we have.”
Battling and scrapping and chasing lost causes will get a team only so far, however. Arteta will have to reshape his squad in the summer to ensure that his side make greater progress in terms of results. But the stunning goals scored by Martinelli and Bellerin to secure a point will at least give Arteta the belief that he has some players who can help Arsenal get back to where they want to be as quickly as possible.
Chelsea manager Frank Lampard is attempting a similar rebuild at Stamford Bridge, and he is not much further up the mountain than Arteta, having been in the job since only July. Chelsea have a better squad — a reality borne out by their position in the top four — but they are beginning to lose momentum after winning just four of their past 12 league games.
Lampard’s challenge is different to Arteta’s because he has better players, but he now needs to help his young stars by adding experience to the squad. Failing to beat an opponent that has been forced to play with 10 men for more than an hour is an example of the lack of game-changing quality in Lampard’s squad, and he will be concerned about slipping out of the top four if the poor run continues.
“We could have had three or four goals today,” Lampard said. “Having shots, crosses and lots of ‘ooh’ moments. But we have to be clinical. When game day comes you have to have the killer instinct. We’ve not got that at the moment.
“We might be a bit young and in a bit of transition about us, but we have to have that quality.”
While Lampard was frustrated, Arteta was realistic.
“Time will tell if this is a steppingstone, but at least I saw a reaction,” he said. “I demand from the players that they never give up — we have to keep playing with the spirit we showed in every game.”
Arsenal’s problem in recent years has been their inability to build on good performances. If Arteta can change that, Arsenal can look forward to better days ahead.