Four months is a long time in football – just ask Mikel Arteta.
Arsenal’s manager was lifting the FA Cup at Wembley on August 1, but now – as we enter December – he is already facing questions about his future less than a year on from replacing Unai Emery in north London.
“The day I decided to become a coach, I knew that one day I would be sacked or I would leave the football club,” Arteta said in the aftermath of Sunday’s night’s 2-1 defeat by Wolves when asked whether he feared losing his job.
“I don’t know if that will be the day I sign my contract or in a month’s time, a year’s time or in six months, so I never worry about that.
“My only concern is to get the best out of the players, give the best possible service to the club and become better and better.
“I know one day I will get the sack, I will leave, but I don’t know when that is going to happen.”
If you wind the clock back four months to when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s double saw off Chelsea and secured Arsenal’s 14th FA Cup success, few would have predicted that Arteta would find himself under this much pressure before the year was even out.
But that is the position he now finds himself in following Sunday’s performance and result at the Emirates Stadium.
It was a defeat which left the Gunners languishing down in 14th in the table after 10 games with just 13 points, their lowest points tally ever at this stage of a Premier League season.
They have already lost five league games since the start of the campaign and are now on a run of three successive home defeats in the top flight.
Arteta’s side have scored just 10 goals in the league; only West Brom, Burnley, Fulham and Sheffield United – the bottom four sides – have scored fewer.
This is Arsenal’s worst start to a season for 39 years, and while the players have certainly been underperforming, Arteta must shoulder a large chunk of the blame himself.
Ultimately this is his team and they are following his tactics. Some of the decisions he has made in recent months, meanwhile, also leave a lot to be desired.
The Mesut Ozil situation, for example, is one that could certainly have been handled better.
Arteta has said on countless occasions that Ozil has been left out of his squad for footballing reasons, but that is a stance that is tough to justify when you have been using Joe Willock and Alexandre Lacazette as number 10s in recent weeks.
There is no doubt that Ozil’s best years are behind him, but even the most ardent Arteta loyalist would struggle to argue that Willock or Lacazette are better options behind the striker than the ex-Real Madrid star.
Arteta also allowed Emiliano Martinez to leave in the summer, sanctioning his £20 million ($25m) move to Aston Villa having been unable to guarantee that the Argentine would be his first-choice goalkeeper this season.
While Bernd Leno is still a fine keeper and had been Arsenal’s undisputed number one prior to his injury last season, there is a growing feeling that the departure of Martinez has left the Gunners weaker in the goalkeeper department than last season.
“Obviously, it wasn’t in my plans to sell him,” Arteta explained. “But we gave him the chance because he deserved it.
“He performed really, really well but we have to balance the books. We have to make the right choices in the market and obviously, I couldn’t guarantee him to be the number one.”
Then there is the William Saliba situation.
Arsenal spent £27m ($34m) to bring the French defender in from Saint-Etienne last summer, and the teenager was widely expected to make a big impact this year having spent last season back on loan with his former club.
Saliba was even denied the opportunity to play in the Coupe de France final by Arsenal, only for Arteta to then deem him not ready for the Premier League or the Europa League, with the teenager not even included in Arsenal’s 25-man squad for Europe’s second tier competition.
The 19-year-old has instead had to make do with the odd Under-23s appearance, with a January loan move back to Saint-Etienne looking increasingly likely.
There have been mitigating circumstances with Saliba, who had to deal with a family tragedy soon after arriving in London, but it certainly feels like the situation could have been managed in a better way.
Arteta also seems to have his favourites in his squad, players who continue to get game time when perhaps their performances do not warrant it.
Willian is a prime example of this. The Brazilian, handed a three-year contract after joining on a free transfer from Chelsea, has been horribly out of form and has yet to score for his new club, but he has started all but one game in the Premier League this season.
Nicolas Pepe, however, has just two league starts to his name despite netting four times in all competitions. Good performances in the Europa League have gone unrewarded, and that goes for other players as well as the Ivory Coast international.
So there is no doubt that Arteta has not helped himself at times since the start of the season, but that is what happens in management. It is impossible to get every decision right.
He will know he has to bring about a quick halt to the slide Arsenal find themselves on. If he fails, and results continue to go against his side in the run up to Christmas, then the pressure could soon become overwhelming,
But any talk right now about the possibility of a change is premature at best.
Arteta inherited a mess when he walked into the changing room last December. To manage to pick up the pieces that had been left behind and mould them into a group of players capable of winning silverware, beating Manchester City and Chelsea along the way, deserves huge credit.
For that alone, Arteta has earned himself some time, and while there might be some questions being raised about him externally, internally he still has the full support of the hierarchy.
He was not brought in with the short term in mind. This was an appointment focused on the long term, on bringing some stability back to a club that had started to lose its way.
The instability that has plagued Arsenal for the past few seasons has resulted in a disjointed squad, one that includes players brought in by three different managers who all had their own vision of how they wanted to play.
The squad has also been built during a time which has seen chief executive Ivan Gazidis leave and his replacement, Raul Sanllehi, shown the door following his stint as head of football. Technical director Edu is now the man in charge.
Poor decisions have been made in the transfer market and Arteta is now having to do what he can with a squad that is far from tailored to the way he wants his team to play.
The additions of Gabriel Magalhaes and Thomas Partey in the summer have improved Arsenal’s spine immeasurably, but much more work needs to be done – especially in attacking areas – before the Gunners can be considered serious contenders for a top-four finish.
Arteta needs time to put his squad together. It cannot be done in a week or a month. Arsenal are where they are for a reason. On the whole, the players are not good enough and it will take a few transfer windows to sort things out.
“As you know, Mikel talks about trusting the process,” Aubameyang said in his captain’s notes ahead of Arsenal’s game with Wolves.
“We have to keep doing that because in a short period he has changed so many things. So imagine if you give him more time what he can achieve.”
The big issue for Arteta, however, is time is not something that many people get in football. While he retains the full support of the Arsenal hierarchy for now, that support will inevitably weaken if results continue to go against him.
Emery was in a similar position last season and was unable to turn things around and pick up the wins he needed to ease the pressure. In the end he paid the price, and Arteta must find a way of halting the slide quickly to avoid a similar fate.
Arsenal head to Tottenham on Sunday with Jose Mourinho’s side sitting top of the Premier League. There would be no better place to get back on track than at the home of their neighbours in a North London derby.