wGabriel Jesus walked off Lusail on December 2, after playing 64 minutes for Brazil in a match against Cameroon. They could have taken the loss – and in the end they did – the impact on his club was disastrous.
An unfortunate Thursday afternoon saw Jesus on crutches at Arsenal’s Colney training ground. The word “progress,” followed by a series of motivational emojis, was the one-word social media message. After Mikel Arteta said he was unwilling to schedule a return from his deformed medial knee ligaments, the Arsenal boss then veered into dangerous territory to try and take the positives.
“If you want to be at the top, there will be those challenges,” said Arteta, whose Christmas comeback brings a string of anniversaries. Three years ago on Boxing Day his tenure began, with a 1-1 draw against Bournemouth leaving only three starters left in Granit Xhaka, Reiss Nelson and Bukayo Saka, who was then playing left-back.
Two years ago, Arsenal entered the Christmas period in 15th place, doubts about a manager who began his competitive career with the aforementioned match against Bournemouth. This time last year a 5-0 win at Norwich, in which Saka scored twice for fourth-placed Arsenal, signaled 12 months of decent progress and doubts dispelled.
After another year, finishing top of the league at Christmas, five points clear of Manchester City, and even allowing for a cut-down schedule of just 14 matches, is an unexpected – though well-deserved – progress. For it to continue, starting at West Ham on Boxing Day and then a New Year’s Eve trip to Brighton, Arteta must figure out the means to replace Jesus.
Although Jesus headed to Qatar after 10 matches without scoring, his command of the press did much to dictate Arsenal’s tempo and craft their adventurous attacking style. Arteta showed a side of Jesus that is rarely seen at Manchester City. He was their yard dog, forever snapping at the heels of opposing defenders, a nuisance of a level perhaps not seen in the Premier League since Jamie Vardy was at his prime at Leicester.
Arsenal did plenty to take the lead when the World Cup came around, with nine players reaching more than 1,000 minutes in the Premier League – the most combined of any club, along with Newcastle. However, Manchester City could welcome back Kevin De Bruyne to feed Erling Haaland, a Belgian seeking redemption after a horrific World Cup for his country, and the Norwegian goal-machine rested and hungry. Third-placed Newcastle could be grateful for the return of Bruno Guimarães, who played in the same Brazil match against Cameroon, in the midfield. All while Arteta carries the biggest collateral damage from the mid-season break; Arsenal also dealt with the fallout from Ben White’s premature exit from the England camp.
“We did everything we could to support him to give him again an environment in which he feels comfortable,” said Arteta. White was able to join his club mates at their training camp in Dubai during the break. “He’s been exceptional with us and that’s what we expect of him.”
If Arteta had such problems, he wouldn’t tell any competitor. His team’s apparent and impressive evolution has gone a long way to bury any previous idea he was little more than Pep Guardiola Light after three years at City, with few of Arsene Wenger’s ideals drawn from Arsenal’s later years of his footballing career.
The public statement this week that “this team still doesn’t have the luxury of not maximizing every single window” served as a reminder to the club’s owners, the Kroenke family, with whom he described as having a “very special relationship”, that he would not settle for second place in the transfer market. Wenger has rarely spoken openly on this subject.
In West Ham boss David Moyes, Arteta will face another key influence, perhaps overlooked. He played some of the best of this football under Moyes at Everton, often as a winger within a team that played hard, direct football. “I had to adapt or die, basically,” he recalls. “It was quite a challenge but for my education and development as a player, I think it was really rich. Every manager gives you some grades and some moments that build your beliefs in you what you want to do.”
There is plenty of Moyes’ tough determination in Arteta, and conditioning his team’s attacking line seems to be the strongest they can handle without Jesus. Eddie Nketiah, for all his love for the young South Londoner, has neither started nor scored in the Premier League this season. This suggests that one of Saka, the 21-year-old ‘veteran’ who came out of the World Cup fantastic, or Gabriel Martinelli, who is similar in age but has struggled to make a big impact with Brazil, will be asked to lead the line.
“I feel a really good energy in the place,” Arteta said when welcoming his team home at the World Cup, though without Jesus to take over the batons, it should be a different Arsenal getting back into action.
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