Why Mikel Arteta’s redemptive powers may not solve Arsenal’s underlying problems

On Jan. 21, Shkodran Mustafi had one of those moments that seemed to be happening to him more than any other defender. Certainly it was not his fault alone that David Luiz brought down Tammy Abraham and Chelsea scored from the resulting penalty. But it was the German that had sold Bernd Leno short with a back-pass that had created a chance out of nothing for his opponents.

These were the moments that had Unai Emery tearing his hair out, publicly insisting on separate occasions that Mustafi could not be trusted in a back four and should leave Arsenal. In the aftermath of another error, Mikel Arteta was given the opportunity to reprise that approach, perhaps even to hint that his World Cup winner might be uncoachable.

Could Arteta change Mustafi’s career trajectory at Arsenal? “It’s my job to do that. Absolutely.”

It has not been unmitigated perfection from Mustafi in the past nine months but the German center-back is one of several Arsenal players for whom Arteta has shown remarkable powers of restoration. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny and Rob Holding might all reflect on the great strides they have taken since their new manager took the helm.

Arteta has understood their qualities and applied them to his side. In Mustafi’s case, they are a strong passing range for a center-back and a willingness to throw himself in the way of danger. At times the latter has spilled into rash defending that creates more problems than it solves but this Arsenal manager has helped the German learn when is the right time to play conservatively.

At his best during post-restart Premier League football, Mustafi reflected the improvements that Arteta had made to Arsenal as well as anyone: A bit too safe perhaps but far more reliable than they had once been. It is something he would credit to having had a clear plan laid out to him.

“I have to say, I have never had such detailed training sessions,” Mustafi said ahead of Arsenal’s Europa League clash with Dundalk at the Emirates Stadium on CBS All Access on Thursday. “We are working in great detail about everything. Of course, we try to do our football first but then we analyze the next opponent and see where we can defeat the opponents with our strength.
“He always has an idea of how he wants to play the next game and not every game is the same. He analyzes the team so well that when we go to the training pitch, he knows exactly what he wants to do, what we have to train to then be prepared for the weekend.
“That’s the positive thing, when you go into the game you have that picture that you had in the training session, you have the same picture in the game and that helps you a lot.”

For his part, Arteta is no less impressed with Mustafi. Publicly he speaks of being “really pleased” with the performances the defender has offered, in private he is equally enamoured with the German.

That rather brings up the matter of his future. Mustafi himself intimated that no talks had taken place over an extension to a contract that expires next summer, a matter which Arteta said would be discussed internally. Sources close to the defender suggest that those conversations will not happen for some time yet with the 28-year-old focused on regaining his sharpness after three months on the sidelines with a hamstring injury.

It will be several weeks, and likely over a month before his focus begins to move to what might happen next season. In the summer, the German was the subject of interest from Lazio and several other clubs in Italy, though none progressed to the stage of a formal bid.

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Mustafi said that he would not rule out extending his stay beyond its fifth year now that he has finally showed the sort of form, even in flashes, that earlier in his career might have justified the $45 million Arsenal paid for him. “When I made the decision to sign for Arsenal it is because I respect this club and I think it is a huge club. That’s why for me, if I could stay at Arsenal, of course it would mean a lot to me.”

Arsenal for their part would rather not lose Mustafi for nothing but would have entertained offers for him last summer. The question is now whether Arteta is so enamoured with the prospect of reviving this player’s fortunes that he fails to make the more ruthless decision of allowing him to leave when his contract expires.

Arsenal players celebrate David Luiz’s goal in a 2-1 win over Rapid Wien in the Europa League
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Arteta’s belief in his restorative powers was on display throughout this summer. He pulled the plug on a loan to Newcastle for Rob Holding because he believed the Arsenal first-team was a better environment for the 25-year-old to develop in. For the same reason the Gunners dismissed any and all interest in Emile Smith Rowe, the young playmaker who was the subject of loan interest from Premier League and European clubs.

He has similarly persevered with Alexandre Lacazette and is publicly bullish over his faith in the Frenchman, whose three goals in the Premier League so far this season have somewhat masked a player who lacks the ferocity and guile of the 2018-19 season. To accommodate one misfiring striker, he has stationed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang wide on the left, often isolating him in the games where Arsenal most need their captain’s goals.

Meanwhile, players like Mustafi remained, partly because in financially troubled times there was not a great market for high-earning fringe players but equally because Arteta and Edu Gaspar were not all that aggressive in communicating to many of their squad that it was time to move on.

The unanswered question is just how much better he can make those players, to what extent Arteta or any manager can really influence development. Where do Arsenal get with a significantly improved Mustafi, particularly when for all the strides he has taken, he is still guilty of the sort of errors that handed Leicester City victory on Sunday.

After all, when Arteta took over this group of players, demotivated and confused by their recent coaching as they were, they sat 11th in the Premier League table. Even for the best manager it is a tough challenge to take such a squad and remold it into a serious contender at the top of the English game. 


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