Cycle of impatience and change leaves Arsenal still searching for an identity

Jonathan Liew
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Michael Regan/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Michael Regan/AFP/Getty Images

Fair play to Arsenal: if this is all a devious ploy to inflate Mesut Özil’s transfer value before the January window, then it’s working a treat so far. While Arsenal again struggled to create, their best creator was on Twitter having an argument with Piers Morgan. Their record signing was sent off for a sneaky off-the-ball headbutt in a venue with 38 live cameras and video replay technology. Against a promoted team, they spent most of the closing minutes pleading with the referee to blow the final whistle. Meanwhile, they remain 11th in the Premier League.

Related: Arteta angry at Pépé over 'unacceptable' red card in Arsenal stalemate at Leeds

In a way, this game was the Premier League in microcosm: rich in incidents and intrigue and talking points and pre-match hype and post-match recrimination, poor in virtually every other aspect. You were reminded why this is one of the world’s most lucrative sporting competitions: its ability to generate compelling content is unrivalled, although there were times when as a neutral you would quite happily have traded in a metric tonne of funny memes for one accurate cross.

Perhaps this is a little harsh on Leeds, who defended well, whose buildup play was supreme, and who on another day might easily have converted one of their 25 shots. Then again, their lack of composure and cunning in the final third was a timely reminder that for the most part, these are Championship-level players who have been coaxed to the very limits of their abilities by a master coach given time and freedom to work. Progressing the ball into threatening areas is often a function of system and tactics; converting those situations into goals is often a function of individual inspiration, and here Leeds remain a little underpowered.

But then, partly this is the tyranny of raised expectations. What did we really expect from a Leeds starting XI costing £48.3m, less than a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and two-thirds of a Nicolas Pépé? Ironically, Pépé lasted exactly two-thirds of this game before being sent off on the hour for butting Ezgjan Alioski. And yet, such was the slowness in Arsenal’s play all afternoon that you could legitimately argue that Pépé was making a genuine attempt to play the ball, albeit a ball that had departed the scene several minutes earlier.

If there was one startling difference between two sides, then this was probably it. Arsenal played like a team of ringers, a group of players who had been introduced to each other on the morning of the game. How else to explain the lack of synchronicity, the painful viscosity of their passing exchanges, the sense of football being played while simultaneously trying to read the instructions from a manual?

Partly, you suspect, Arsenal’s malaise is a consequence of fatigue and poor form. But you can glimpse a certain institutional dysfunction there too, a never-ending cycle of impatience and change and restlessness and mindless tinkering that encompasses the end of Arsène Wenger’s reign, the whole of Unai Emery’s and at least the start of Mikel Arteta’s.

That ceaseless noise, that sense of perpetual crisis, the thirst for permanent renewal: over time, angst and chaos has become a more reliable Arsenal identity than anything they have been able to muster on the training ground.

Related: Leeds United 0-0 Arsenal: Premier League – as it happened

And so with Aubameyang restored to the centre, with Willian redeployed to the left, with Joe Willock suddenly deemed good enough for a league start, with Dani Ceballos effortlessly putting the ball on a sixpence located about 15 yards beyond the touchline, Arsenal again resembled a team of misfits with not the faintest scrap of a plan. Individual quality can often override this, but Arsenal have precious little of that either.

It was telling that the dismissal of Pépé ushered in Arsenal’s best and most coherent period of the game, as they defended with a renewed vigour and offered the occasional threat on the counterattack through the sharp Bukayo Saka. And yet this game, against statistically the worst defence in the Premier League, marked seven weeks without a league goal from open play.

Above all, what Arsenal lack is an identity, a heartbeat, a way to make you care about them. Arteta may be a fine technical and tactical coach but on some level still comes across as stern, sterile, bloodless, the first-time manager still finding his feet and the former player still trying to establish boundaries. He has earned the time to leave his mark, but until Arsenal define what they are, they will find others perfectly happy to do it for them.