Carlo Ancelotti looks set to become the Blues’ new manager, while Mikel Arteta, who played for both clubs, quit as Manchester City assistant boss to replace Unai Emery at the Emirates Stadium on Friday.
Arsenal are tenth in the Premier League, four points better off than 16th-placed Everton, but Ljungberg has failed to change their fortunes on the pitch, and they were destroyed on their own turf last weekend in a 3-0 defeat to Manchester City.
The Gunners have won just one of their nine league games since their 1-0 home victory over Bournemouth on October 6, with Emery’s inevitable sacking in late November failing to catalyse an immediate upturn in form.
RBM: Firstly, it is now three weeks since Arsenal sacked Unai Emery. While their form since then has barely improved, do you believe they still made the right decision?
Paul: Yes, but not for the reason everyone thinks. You hit on something in your question: “their form since then has barely improved.” This Arsenal squad isn’t exactly one manager away from being a title contender.
Arsenal’s squad just isn’t that talented, particularly on the defensive side of things. Yes, there’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pépé (who is just getting going) up front, but any team with Granit Xhaka, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and Mattéo Guendouzi in it is never going to be up to anything good defensively. The Arsenal defence has conceded 51 goals in each of the last two Premier League seasons, and is on pace to concede 60 this season.
Sure, part of that is coaching, but most of it - to the point where all I have to do is just say “go watch any of the last ten goals Arsenal have conceded” - is because the Arsenal defenders, when faced with a choice, make the worst possible decision, almost without fail.
Until that gets fixed, Arsenal will be pretty much what you see now. But Emery for sure wasn’t helping, and by a lot of accounts did not have the respect of his players (including reports of ‘several younger players’ mocking his accent, which is never a good look), and hadn’t for a while, so I think it was a firing that was a bit past due.
RBM: Emery was quite strongly linked with replacing Marco Silva at Everton - do you think he would be have been better-suited to a job like that?
Paul: I honestly don’t know. All we were told about Emery was that he was a good Europa League coach who would win the Europa League in a couple of seasons and get Arsenal back on track to be Champions League regulars again. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
Arsenal’s slide to whatever they are now started about a month before they were supposed to play the Europa League final last season, and it never got better. At this point, I’m not sure what Emery is best suited for, to be honest. He always said he wanted his Arsenal team to be “the protagonist” in any game, but then never set his teams up to be that. Honestly, I think Everton may have dodged a bullet.
RBM: What did you make of Emery’s handling of Mesut Özil and Granit Xhaka? Should either player have a future at Arsenal?
Paul: I’m sure Granit Xhaka’s parents love him very much.
I honestly don’t know what Emery’s deal with Özil was - it’s a mystery. Whatever happened, I don’t think it was handled well at all - Özil has, for reasons outside his control, always been a fairly polarising figure at the club. People scrutinize his body language and see that he doesn’t ‘work very hard’ or whatever, and think he’s just mailing it in.
I think there’s still a very good player in Özil, but I think it might be time that he plays somewhere else and gets a fresh start.
RBM: Are you pleased with Mikel Arteta replacing Emery, and how much does his total absence of managerial experience concern you?
Paul: I’m not going to lie - while I liked Arteta a lot as a player, I am a little concerned that he has no managerial experience whatsoever. As you read that sentence, you’re probably thinking: “but he works with Pep Guardiola!” as if that’s a guarantee that Mikel Arteta will automatically become Guardiola Mk. II, just by association.
I am, shall we say, sceptical of that. He’s got a good reputation at City, and is well-respected by City’s players and staff, but no matter how good you are at being an assistant manager, and by all accounts Arteta is very, very good in his role, that’s a wholly different skill set than actually running the show.
Arsenal may not be the European heavyweight they were ten years ago, but they’re still a big team with global reach and large ambitions, and I’m still bummed that they didn’t hire (or at least seriously try to hire) Mauricio Pochettino. Despite his lack of hardware accumulation, he made Spurs relevant in a five-year period, and that’s exactly what Arsenal need right now. That ship, though, has apparently sailed.
To be clear: I am actually OK with Arteta being named manager. I am not, however, expecting great things from him for a season or two. As much as I hate this word when it’s applied to sports teams, Arsenal are a project right now, and it’s not a project that will succeed quickly, regardless of who’s in the technical area.
RBM: Given the dreadful first few months of the season Arsenal have endured, what would you now consider a successful campaign for them this term?
Paul: Here’s where I’m different from many Arsenal fans. Before the season started, I had predicted they’d sneak into fourth place, but as that possibility quickly and painfully receded, I re-calibrated. All I want for them this year is to not finish in a European place. If Arsenal finish 11th this year, as they may at this rate, so be it.
Why? Because then, all they will have next year is the Premier League, the FA Cup, and the Carabao Cup, and Arteta can take the time to really instil his philosophy and style on whatever players are left, without a lot of added pressure, after a hopeful clear-out this summer.
I’m not rooting for them to fail or to intentionally lose, by any stretch of the imagination - I’m just being coldly realistic about what they can do, and what it would mean next season if they were in a European competition, participation in which tends to make people gloss over the very real systemic problems at the club right now.
RBM: One of Everton’s summer signings, Alex Iwobi, will face his former club on Saturday. Iwobi seems to play best as a number ten but lacks consistency - was that a fair assessment of him during his time at Arsenal, too?
Paul: Yep. I don’t think this is unique to the Arsenal fanbase, but there’s a lot of over-romanticising of ex-players who move to other clubs in England, and Iwobi is certainly subject to that.
I always liked him, but he couldn’t ever find that consistency that would allow the switch to flip and allow his seemingly massive well of talent to unleash itself. He’s not a bad player, but I think he is what he is at this point.
RBM: How do you expect Arsenal to set up on Saturday?
Paul: Your guess is as good as mine. There’ll be eleven guys out there, and Bernd Leno will be in goal, but with this being Ljungberg’s last game in charge (Arteta officially takes over after the game), it’s an open question whether Freddie will go with his usual lineup, or if Arteta will have any say at all and will want to see some new/rarely-seen faces.
If Arsenal go with their “typical” lineup, accounting for injuries, it’d be something like:
(4-2-3-1) Leno; Maitland-Niles, Chambers, Sokratis, Kolašinac; Guendouzi, Torreira; Martinelli, Mesut Özil. Nicolas Pépé; Aubameyang.
RBM: Which of Arsenal’s players do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Paul: Define ‘problems’. Have you seen this team? Anyway, Lucas Torreira has been a solid player, and Pépé’s showing signs of why he’s Arsenal’s record signing, even if he’s not fully there yet.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
Paul: Honestly, Arsenal are so bad right now, a 3-0 Everton win wouldn’t surprise me in the least. That’s not my prediction, though, because part of me thinks that a bunch of Arsenal players will be playing for their jobs, with the new boss watching, and thus playing better than they have in a while.
I still don’t think Arsenal will win, but I think 2-2 is pretty realistic.
Our thanks to Paul for his time.