Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal in danger of becoming like Mauricio Pochettino’s nearly team at Tottenham

Mikel Arteta on the touchline during Arsenal's Champions League tie at Bayern Munich
Mikel Arteta endured another frustrating night as Arsenal were beaten by Bayern Munich - Getty Images/Odd Andersen

Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal are in danger of becoming Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs; a side to be admired for nearly being great.

Unless Arsenal rapidly brush off their Champions League disappointment to win the Premier League, the north London rivals can exchange notes about how cruel football can be.

It is damning with faint praise to say Arteta, just like Pochettino during his spell at Spurs, deserves more respect and credit for making Arsenal challengers than criticism in the event of falling short. Recognition for doing such a good job will be no consolation if history judges Arteta’s reign without a Premier League or Champions League on his CV.

The brutal reality is any Arsenal team that does not win one or more of the biggest prizes will never be more than an afterthought, and will be spoken about in almost patronising terms when compared to double winners or ‘invincibles’.

Naturally, Arsenal’s remaining six games are massive in terms of defining this season. The players’ reaction in the coming weeks, and the club’s response over the summer, will be massive in defining this Arsenal era.

This weekend’s trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers has become one of Arsenal’s biggest tests of the year to ensure there is no hangover from the loss to Bayern Munich.

They are still in the title race while teetering on the brink. Three defeats in a week would mean the season is effectively over in terms of silverware.

That will beg the inevitable question, ‘what next for the Arteta project?’

We talk a lot about taking the ‘next step’ in football, and generally mean moving forward. The next step is more often than not backwards. Spurs managed to get so far between 2015-2019 before it unravelled without a trophy. No matter how much promise there is, the windows of opportunity close quickly.

Arsenal have progressed over the last 12 months on the back of the giant leap they took the season before.

The challenge is how to keep that going when you have already ‘gone big’ in the transfer market. The signing of Declan Rice was a statement and – in terms of the balance of the side – it has had the desired effect.

Mikel Arteta's Arsenal in danger of becoming like Mauricio Pochettino's nearly team at Tottenham
Declan Rice has made a big difference to Arsenal but they still need more - Shutterstock/Ronald Wittek

Arsenal now need a player of Rice’s calibre in attack. They are the top scorers in the top division, but have been goalless in five league games, and were unable to find a way through in the Allianz Arena in midweek. A superstar striker could have found the goals in the two legs against Bayern, or collected the extra five or six points which would mean it is Arsenal, not Manchester City, in the ascendancy heading towards the final straight. In the eleven games in all competitions Arsenal have gone 1-0 down this season, they have lost eight.

Without significant sales, do Arsenal have the money left to make that kind of purchase before next season? My suspicion is they have been worried about the profit and sustainability rules in the last few transfer windows and took a calculated gamble in completing the Rice deal, seeing him as a possible game-changer. The fact that keeper David Raya was only signed on loan with a view to making the move permanent this summer demonstrated a juggling of resources.

Whether Arsenal win the title or not, big decisions are needed to ensure Arteta can give his squad the necessary injection of class to continue competing with City next season, without offloading too many of those who brought the team so far.

As I wrote several weeks ago, because of the age profile of the Arsenal squad and the quality within it, I do not see them going away any time soon. They should be regularly in the Champions League for as long as Arteta can keep the spine of his team together, and they will be the most likely challengers to City going into next season, too.

The problem they and everyone else with title ambitions has is how to beat City over 38 games. Arsenal and Liverpool have shown that their preferred starting XI can match City to this point in a season. The problem is City have assembled a squad which means they do not suffer when big names are missing, and their challengers are clinging on in the race for top spot.

It should be no surprise to anyone City look the freshest of the three title contenders right now given Pep Guardiola is able to rotate often without compromising quality.

Arteta does not have Guardiola’s luxury. He has tended to stick with his favoured starting XI, and needs those players to find a second or third wind to win the title this season. In the short-term it has looked like Arsenal are coping well, helped by avoiding too many serious injuries. But the rigours of playing more minutes over the course of the season eventually take a toll and in the last few weeks it has looked like Arsenal are running out steam because the same players are used a lot.

Just as it is wrong and unfair to say Arsenal ‘failed’ when finishing second to City last season, the same applies if they end up just behind them again.

Such are the standards set by City, the months between August and March have almost become a warm-up to the main event when the season really kicks into gear, and unless you have the physical and psychological capacity to win every game you are accused of ‘bottling it’ by rival supporters revelling in others’ disappointment.

Arsenal still have much to be positive about

It is a crazy situation that Arsenal can suffer their first league defeat of 2024 in mid-April and it feels like the sky has fallen in on their title hopes. That is more to do with City’s excellence and in anticipation of them winning all their games than any deep Arsenal shortcomings.

I must also say this; if Arsenal and Liverpool are ‘bottling it’ in April and May, what does that tell us about Manchester United and Chelsea for the rest of the season?  They are clubs which have made so many poor decisions they are nowhere near the required level, albeit Pochettino is in the process of trying to fix previous mistakes.

Arteta and Klopp are being judged to the ultimate standard in taking on Guardiola. City are so freakishly good with resources beyond Arsenal and Liverpool, the fairest reference point is with United and Chelsea, especially, who have spent mega millions for a watching brief in the race for the top four at this point in the season.

There is a sense of despondency and disillusionment when a season’s efforts do not look like they will yield rewards that for so long have seemed within reach.

It is not over yet. One bad result for City allied to wins and good performances by Arsenal and Liverpool can change the landscape again.

Arsenal still have much to be positive about. City have their own setback to contend with following defeat to Real Madrid. They are favourites for the title but look more vulnerable than when completing those flawless dashes to the line in 2019, 2022 and 2023.

Whatever happens, going head-to-head with Guardiola until the final games is not the definition of failure. But the unavoidable truth is if Arsenal do not win the title, no-one can justifiably call the season a success.