Arsenal have been quick to dismiss any suggestion that Mikel Arteta’s position is under immediate threat, despite the club enduring its worst ever start to a Premier League season, but Wednesday’s game against Southampton has a feel of make or break about it.
Defeat against Burnley on Sunday felt like the nadir, but with only five points separating Arsenal from the relegation zone and the likes of Fulham getting the act into gear, combined with a tough run of fixtures on the horizon, the unthinkable could quickly become a reality.
It is all a far cry from the jubilant scenes that accompanied Arsenal’s FA Cup triumph back in the summer when all and sundry were welcoming in a bright new dawn. In fairness to Arteta, he had always been at pains to point out that, despite the short-term success he had masterminded, the club were still some way from being equipped to challenge the elite over a 38-game season.
Still, Arsenal’s performances, let alone results, have deteriorated at such a rate that their manager must act decisively to arrest an alarming slide that prompted his technical director to effectively issue a vote of confidence earlier this week.
In the search for any kind of positive result, Arteta would surely be best served by dispensing with the 4-3-3 formation he is desperate to implement on a regular basis and revert to the 3-5-2 system which has helped yield the most eye-catching results of his tenure, starting with the visit of the in-form Saints.
Bernd Leno has done little suggest Arteta definitively made the correct decision in making the German his undisputed No.1 and cashing in on Emiliano Martinez, but the former Bayer Leverkusen keeper’s form represents the least of his troubles right now.
The form of summer signing Gabriel, meanwhile, represents one of the very few encouraging aspects of Arsenal’s season so far and he was faultless in the club’s last Premier League victory at Old Trafford at the start of November.
On that occasion, the Brazilian started at the heart of a three-man defence which also featured Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney. That triumvirate should be entrusted to start against Wolves, unless David Luiz is fit enough to make his return having not featured since he was involved in a sickening clash of heads with Wolves striker Raul Jimenez a fortnight ago.
Luiz has endured a roller-coaster 18 months as an Arsenal player – even this week his agent forced to deny there had been a total breakdown in the relationship with his manager – but, at his best, he offers a passing range most of his team-mates, let alone defensive colleagues, can only dream of.
Granit Xhaka’s three-game ban following his latest brain fade is likely to represent a king-sized blessing in disguise for Arteta who was badly let down by one of his most trusted foot soldiers on Sunday.
Mohamed Elneny, who was also fortunate to avoid a sending off, will likely retain his place alongside Dani Ceballos. On paper, the pair at least would appear to offer a balance between defensive aptitude and creativity, but the Spaniard in particular appears to have lost the sense of adventure and daring in his game that characterised his form towards the end of last season.
While creativity may be short in supply from central areas, Arsenal do possess a handful of players capable of providing a threat from the flanks, but with Tierney arguably more effective in a back three and Hector Bellerin desperately out of form, Arteta should consider changes here.
Bukayo Saka has been shunted all over the place over the course of his fledgling career, but he is a dependable option wherever he plays, while Ainsley Maitland-Niles deserves a run on the opposite flank, even if it is a central midfield role he craves the most.
Without a goal from open play in approaching 13 hours, Arteta must be tempted to make wholesale changes in this area of the pitch, but dropping beleaguered captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is only likely to create further unwanted headlines and distractions.
The club captain looks a shadow of his former self and even a return to a central striking role has had little impact on his performances.
Balogun will likely mature into a better player than Nketiah in the long-run, but the latter has a track record of performing for Arteta and even when he’s not scoring he offers the sort of infectious work rate this current team would certainly benefit from.
In his absence, however, neither Willian or Reiss Nelsson have done enough to suggest they represent the sort of goal threat the Ivorian is capable of offering.