The spectre of the Arsenal Invincibles is a reminder their past was more glorious than their present is. As Mikel Arteta attempts to shape a brighter future, two totems of their history have loomed large, twin illustrations of how far Arsenal have fallen.
Arteta is the reigning Premier League manager of the month and Arsenal have taken 10 points from their last four games but the club’s record scorer Thierry Henry cited the stalemate against Brighton when he said: “I don’t know if things are going in the right direction.”
Despite their recent renaissance Arsenal remain in the lower half of the table while last season’s eighth-place finish was their joint lowest in a quarter of a century. Henry is close to Daniel Ek, the Spotify CEO who hopes to buy Arsenal, whereas the current owners, the Kroenke family, have backed Arteta.
The Spaniard shrugged off the verdict of a man synonymous with a more stylish and successful Arsenal. “It's just another opinion and you have to respect that,” he said. He was more effusive about Henry’s compatriot and the skipper of the Arsenal team who completed the 2003-04 Premier League campaign undefeated. Patrick Vieira returns to the Emirates Stadium for the first time as a manager when Crystal Palace visit on Monday.
“He’s an Arsenal legend and I hope he gets the reception he deserves for what he did as a player and a person,” Arteta said. “He was the captain of the football club in the most successful era.”
Perhaps Arsenal have lacked a similarly dominant leader since Vieira left. Arteta, who captained them from the centre of the pitch, disagreed: “There have been some really good midfielders and Patrick was Patrick. There’s not going to be another one like him.”
Arsenal have been accused of being weaker without a captain of the aura and power of Vieira and Tony Adams but Arteta argued times have changed. “Obviously it would be great to have someone like Patrick or Tony in the team, but we have different qualities and different characteristics,” he said. “It’s a different era.”
It certainly is. Vieira’s nine seasons brought three Premier League titles and four FA Cups. They can feel distant times and not merely because now only Norwich have scored fewer goals than their five. “It’s something that certainly we can do better,” Arteta added. “We can improve our efficiency in front of goal.” They have drawn four blanks and scored once each against the strugglers Norwich and Burnley. Only against Tottenham, when a 3-1 win could have been more emphatic, have Arsenal looked like realising their attacking potential.
Yet Alexandre Lacazette has only had 49 minutes of top-flight football. Covid ruled their player of the year in 2018-19 out of the opening two defeats. Yet since a scoring comeback in the 6-0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion, his only Premier League action has been as a substitute at Manchester City, when Arsenal’s 10 men were already 4-0 down, and a cameo at Brighton, when the Frenchman demonstrated that he holds the ball up better than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Lacazette was Arsenal’s top scorer last season but Arteta’s decision to use his captain as a striker has left him on the margins now. One of Arsene Wenger’s last buys and one of the costliest signings in Arsenal’s history is in the final year of his contract. They seem likely to lose him on a free transfer next summer. Arteta ignored talk of the forward’s future. “We are focusing on getting the best out of Laca,” he said. “He’s showing every day his commitment is here. We want to give him the right minutes.”
But the dynamic has changed, with Arteta fielding the youthful creators Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe behind Aubameyang. Smith Rowe has excelled but only has three goals in 29 league games. Arteta wants more. “I think the intention, the hunger and the ambition should be there,” he said. “He’s capable of doing it.”