Mikel Arteta was unable to provide excuses on Sunday, after Arsenal crashed out of the FA Cup with a 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest.

"We are out of the competition and we have to apologise."

Arsenal have won the FA Cup a record 14 times, with their last triumph coming in Arteta's first half-season in charge. But while they will lament being on the end of a giant-killing, they have the chance to bounce back from only their second third-round exit in the past 26 seasons when they face Liverpool at Anfield on Thursday in the first leg of a semi-final in England's other major domestic cup competition.

Initially, the Anfield fixture of this EFL Cup tie was due to be played second but Liverpool's coronavirus crisis, which Jurgen Klopp revealed was ultimately down to several false-positives within the squad, led to the postponement of the first leg at Emirates Stadium, originally set to be played on January 6.

The Gunners lost 4-0 at the home of the Reds in November's Premier League meeting, as Arteta's men were dealt a harsh dose of reality after a 10-match unbeaten run across all competitions.

A further 10 games have passed since then, with Arsenal losing four and winning six.

With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang having been stripped of the captaincy and ostracised before travelling away for the Africa Cup of Nations, Arteta has once again turned mostly to youth as he looks to continue to grow a new "culture" at Arsenal, who sit fourth in the league.

Claiming some measure of revenge at Anfield could just prove Arteta's plan is the solution for long-term success, and four players seem crucial to that blueprint.

Super-sub Smith Rowe

Aubameyang's omission for a breach of club rules brought unnecessary noise in December, though results were not immediately impacted. With the 32-year-old not playing since December 6, Alexandre Lacazette has stepped in to spearhead Arsenal's attack, but behind him Arteta has an abundance of talent to choose from.

Emile Smith Rowe started the season brilliantly, though has only started one league game since November. That has not stopped the 21-year-old from being effective, however, with three of his eight league goals this season coming from the bench in recent wins over West Ham, Leeds United and Norwich City.

Smith Rowe has only played 63 league minutes since featuring for 70 in the December 2 loss to Manchester United, meaning he averages a goal every 21 minutes in that period. 

Asked about Smith Rowe's game time before the defeat to Forest, which the midfielder missed altogether, Arteta explained he had been carrying an injury, one which also means he is a doubt for Thursday's clash.

"The only reason that changed the dynamic was that [injury], and obviously now there are others who are doing well and have been performing well. That changed the situation, but I am very happy with him," Arteta told reporters, before adding that competition for places can only be positive.

"This is why we need that, we raise the level. Each player raises the level of the player next to him, and this is how you evolve as a team, how you create a culture around the team."

Few could say Smith Rowe isn't embracing that "culture", with his recent hot streak off the bench reflecting a commendable attitude.


Martin the maestro

One of the "others" Arteta was referring to will surely be Martin Odegaard, who signed permanently from Real Madrid following a bright loan spell last season. Given the Norway international burst onto the scene at the age of 15 in 2014, becoming the youngest footballer ever to play in his homeland's top tier, it would be easy to forget he has only just turned 23.

Only Bukayo Saka (38) has created more chances than Odegaard (34) in Arsenal's squad in all competitions this season, with the midfielder topping that metric per 90 minutes when it comes to players to have featured over two times, producing 2.1 opportunities on average.

His eight direct goal contributions ranks him fifth in the squad while his shot conversion rate of 18.2 is good for a midfielder. Indeed, only the outstanding Smith Rowe, who has converted 32.1 per cent (nine goals) of his 28 attempts can boast better among Arsenal's midfield contingent.

Yet with Smith Rowe's recent spell as an impact player, Odegaard has started behind the striker in Arsenal's 4-2-3-1, his eye for a pass and knack of finding space on the edge of the area a key facet to some slick attacking play.

That playmaking ability was on show in the 5-0 thrashing of Norwich on Boxing Day, with Odegaard providing the assists for Arsenal's opening two goals and a key role in their final strike.

While Odegaard (33) has had fewer touches in the opposition box than left-back Nuno Tavares (35) and completed just 10 dribbles compared to Smith Rowe's 23 and the team-leading Saka's 27, no Arsenal player has attempted more passes in the opposition half than Odegaard (523), with 80.9 per cent (423) proving successful.

Odegaard's ability to keep Arsenal in possession with neat and incisive passing has been crucial for the Gunners. Indeed, only centre-backs Ben White (933) and Gabriel Magalhaes (822) have found a team-mate on more occasions than the playmaker (703).


Wing wizards

Flanking Odegaard (or Smith Rowe), Saka and Gabriel Martinelli both head to Anfield in superb form. While Saka scored the opener in the 2-1 defeat to City on New Year's Day, Martinelli has directly contributed to six goals from 18 appearances.

Martinelli's devastating turn of pace was on show in a 4-1 rout of Leeds United last month, though the Brazilian flyer missed a golden chance to put Arsenal back in front in their defeat to City, slicing wide of an open goal – if we're being generous, perhaps he was put off by the referee. Still, he should have scored.

Nevertheless, his four goals have come from an xG value of 4.2, putting him just about on par based on the quality of chances he has been provided with, though that is in contrast to Saka.

The England winger's tally of seven goals is second only to Smith Rowe (nine), yet they have come from 4.6 xG, suggesting the 20-year-old is finishing chances the average player wouldn't ordinarily be expected to convert.

For example, his swept effort low into the corner against City was only the seventh-best chance of the game, while a wonderful solo strike at Norwich (his second goal of the game) registered an xG of just 0.03 – essentially, this translates to a three per cent likelihood of scoring.


Saka also leads the way for big chances created (defined by Opta as an opportunity from which a player would reasonably be expected to score) with eight, three more than any of his club-mates, and only Nicolas Pepe has provided more assists (five to four).

Not only is Saka already a proven creator of opportunities, but he is now putting them away with unerring accuracy.

Arsenal were dealt a harsh lesson on their last visit to Anfield, but with a second leg at home to look forward to and with Liverpool missing key duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, Thursday could see Arteta's counter-attacking youngsters thrive, with a north London derby against Tottenham up after that.

Even if it again proves a step too far, there's no doubt the future is bright.

Mikel Arteta slammed Arsenal's performance in their 1-0 FA Cup defeat to Nottingham Forest, convinced they were "nowhere near the standard required".

The loss meant Arsenal were eliminated at the third-round stage of the competition for only the second time in 26 seasons.

Arteta was back on the bench after a bout of coronavirus forced him to miss arguably their best performance of the season in the 2-1 defeat to Manchester City last weekend.

But he was not happy with what he saw at the City Ground, with substitute Lewis Grabban getting the winner for Forest, who were also the last team to beat Arsenal at this stage of the FA Cup.

Speaking after the game, Arteta told ITV Sport: "We are out of the competition and we have to apologise.

"When you have nine players out, that's a big explanation, but still I don't want to use excuses.

"The team we put out, I expected them to play better and to compete better than we did.

"When you don't do that in a cup against any opponent, you're out.

"What we've done today is nowhere near the standard required."

The 34th-minute withdrawal of left-back Nuno Tavares after a very sloppy start was the first indicator of potential frustration on Arteta's part.

Yet he opted against criticising the youngster, putting it down to a desire to simply change the level of the team.

Asked if it summed up his frustration, Arteta added: "No, it was a decision you have to make in certain moments to try improve the performance of the team, and that's what I did."

Arsenal will look to get this defeat out of their system as soon as possible, with an EFL Cup semi-final first leg against Liverpool and a north London derby trip to Tottenham on the horizon.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta has suggested that the Gunners will look to sign at least one midfielder in the January transfer window after being left short of options.

With Ainsley Maitland-Niles having completed a loan move to Jose Mourinho's Roma and Mohamed Elneny away on Africa Cup of Nations duty with Egypt, Arteta's squad is running thin on central midfielders heading into the second half of the season.

The former Rangers and Everton midfielder was asked at a news conference ahead of Sunday's FA Cup third-round trip to Nottingham Forest about letting Maitland-Niles leave, with the Spaniard insisting that the player was entitled to move to Italy, but also raising concerns about his lack of options in the middle of the park.

"Ainsley came to me and explained the reasons why he thought the best thing for him in his career right now was to move away," Arteta told reporters. 

"He felt the opportunity to go to Rome and work with Jose was a good one. Being fair with the amount of minutes that he’s played he was entitled to that opportunity. We wish him the best.

"We are very, very short at the moment. But on a player this cannot be the only argument to keep a player. He was very straight with me and I understood the situation.

"We are going to move and we are going to look for options because we are very short there."

The Gunners boss missed Saturday's controversial 2-1 home defeat to Manchester City after testing positive for COVID-19, and insisted that while he is feeling better, he was left frustrated by the loss to the Premier League leaders.

"I feel good. I had a few rough days but I feel in top form. I was so happy to leave my house after seven or eight days," he said.

"I was extremely upset at how we lost the [City] game at the end but at the same time extremely proud for the performance. The support from our fans and the atmosphere it was incredible.

"If I have to rate the decisions that were made in that game [by referee Stuart Attwell] I have to be extremely disappointed because it was completely inconsistent and affected the result in a big way."

Arsenal, like many other clubs, are set to be without several first-team players this weekend due to a mixture of COVID-19 and injuries, with Arteta saying: "I don't want to give anything away as you can imagine.

"We are really short with numbers. We want to play and that's how we are approaching every game."

The 39-year-old was also asked about Arsenal's No More Red campaign, which is part of an initiative to combat youth knife crime in London. Arsenal will wear a special white kit for the game at Forest.

"Obviously we've been really involved as a club over the years with knife crime and we have the capacity to give exposure to that issue in London," he added. "Everyone at the club has been extremely supportive."

Pep Guardiola believes Arsenal will be missing their "most important player" on Saturday in the forced absence of head coach Mikel Arteta, who he believes has the Gunners in the best shape since even before Arsene Wenger retired.

Club great Wenger left Arsenal in 2018 after 22 years in charge, during which time he presided over some glorious times but then also saw the club fall behind the Premier League's leading lights towards the end.

Unai Emery replaced Wenger but only lasted 18 months before eventually seeing fellow Basque coach Arteta succeed him, the former Arsenal captain leaving his role as Guardiola's assistant at City in order to take up the job.

Arteta's win percentage (55.1 per cent) may be no better than Emery's (55.1 per cent) but he recently celebrated his two-year anniversary in charge and the club appear on course for a largely positive season after an early wobble.

Saturday's visit of Premier League leaders City comes three days after Arteta tested positive for coronavirus, however.

Guardiola believes it could be a massive blow for the Gunners.

"I would say Mikel maybe is the most important player they have," the City boss told reporters. "I know his charisma, his ideas and especially the personality to do what he believes to do for the best, for the team or for the best for the club.

"So, no doubt about that. The most important thing we want is for him to stay well, that the symptoms are low as everything is under control and recovering after the protocols, and come back soon.

"And then the place that you love is on the touchline, in the training sessions, but I know exactly which Arsenal is going to play, with Mikel or without Mikel."

Arsenal are averaging exactly two goals per game this season, the best they have recorded since Wenger left, while their 1.6 expected goals (xG) is also a high over that period.

It was initially thought Arteta would attempt to implement a Guardiola-inspired possession-based system at the club, though their average passing figures have decreased from 523.7 each game in Emery's only full campaign to 476.3 this season, with Arsenal more willing to relinquish the ball and spring fast breaks.

While their 15 fast breaks may only rank as the eighth-highest in the Premier League this season, their frequency has more than doubled to 0.65 such occasions per game from 0.32 in each of the past two campaigns under Arteta, highlighting a shift in mentality.

Arsenal's record against City is dreadful as they have lost each of their past nine league meetings with them – including the 5-0 hammering suffered in August – making it the club's longest ever losing run against a single opponent.

Yet Arteta has overseen a five-match winning streak as well as a run of five successive home league victories, keeping a clean sheet in last four – not since 1999 have they won five in a row at home without conceding in the top flight.

As such, Arsenal are up to fourth with a four-point cushion over West Ham and Manchester United, leaving Guardiola under no illusion as to the level Arsenal are currently playing at.

Asked if Arsenal are at their best since Arteta took over, Guardiola replied: "Absolutely, but not just since Mikel took over as manager. I think it is the best Arsenal for the last four or five years.

"So, it's no secret they are now top four. The energy they are playing with the good ideas that Mikel has, and the end result is that this is an example that to sell something, you need time.

"I had the feeling, not just the club, or the team, it is obvious that he has changed the club. I'm pretty sure he felt for many things that when he started at Arsenal, maybe it wasn't good and he took it step by step.

"Maybe right now we are going to face one of the one or two best teams in the Premier League right now, in the best form with incredible young players that are dynamic.

"They are playing with the same back four which is stable and the physicality they have, the pace they have, the quality means there are more spaces. So it will be a real, real tough game.

"So, as I said, since I arrived here this is the best Arsenal I've ever seen, and it is already six seasons [since he moved to England]."

Mikel Arteta says he is doing "much better" after some "rough days" suffering from coronavirus, though he is still set to be absent for Arsenal's clash with Manchester City on New Year's Day.

Arsenal confirmed on Wednesday that Arteta had tested positive for COVID-19, thus ensuring he would be unavailable to attend their first match of 2022.

The Spaniard was the first major Premier League figure to get the virus at the start of the pandemic back in March 2020, which coincidentally led to Arsenal's game with City being postponed at the time.

The Gunners head into the game against the Premier League leaders in good form having won each of their past four top-flight games, including a 5-0 thrashing of Norwich City on Boxing Day.

As such, the absence of Arteta for a big game is a blow, but his condition has seemingly improved significantly and he still expects to be able to have some impact on the contest, while his illness does not appear to have been passed on to any of his players.

"I'm feeling much better today," he told reporters. "I had a couple of rough days but obviously I have experienced this before, so not bad at all [now].

"The rest of the squad is in a good place. We tested the players; we don't have any other news other than the ones before.

"We try to communicate with them as much as possible, and we rely on the rest of the players and staff and I trust them 100 per cent."

Elaborating on how it will work without him on Saturday, Arteta added: "Albert [Stuivenberg, Arsenal assistant] will be in charge with the rest of the team and depending who of the coaches are available, because we've had issues in that department recently, everybody will be there trying to help as much as possible.

"We will be in touch but as well I want to give them the responsibility and the freedom to make decisions on the pitch and to express themselves, because it's completely different being on the touchline and close to the players than at home.

"I’m going to be here to support and help in certain moments but they have to get the momentum of the game and communication with the players themselves.

"I never experienced this before. It is what it is. It won't be easy, I'm frustrated and with a lack of options as I'm not in training so can't prepare as I would like, put [out] the messages I want, have the players feeling you are next to them, but you have to adapt, and we've tried our best to get prepared.

"[It's] very strange. I think I will need a big room so I can walk and move a little bit. It's a really frustrating thing not to be able to there, helping the team, but I will do my best from here with everything I can do.

"We've prepared for every scenario possible. They know what they have to do, then it will be down to the players to execute as much as possible what we want to do."

One player who certainly will not be present against City, however, is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The striker was stripped of the captaincy this month, reportedly after returning late from a trip abroad, and Arteta has left him out ever since.

He has been allowed to link up with the Gabon national team early ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations, with Arteta confirming that request was granted because Aubameyang was not going to be selected to face City.

"We had a letter from the national team asking for permission to get the player," Arteta revealed.

"He wasn't going to be involved [on Saturday], so for his fitness and to keep him competing, it was the right thing to do."

It was put to Arteta that Arsenal players had shown their backing to him and his decision to take the armband off Aubameyang with their recent performances, though he dismissed the importance of this.

"For me it's not about being right or wrong, it's about making the decisions that you believe are a consequence of what you're asking them to do. As I said, we'll go game by game," he said.

As for Aubameyang's future at the club, Arteta once again refused to commit either way, adding: "At the moment he's gone. He needs to focus on the national team. We had the conversation, that was the best way to do it. As I said before, we'll address it game by game."

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta has tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the Gunners' game with Manchester City on New Year's Day.

Arteta was the first major Premier League figure to test positive for COVID-19 back in March 2020, which coincidentally led to Arsenal's game with Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium being postponed at the time.

The north London side have won their last four games in the Premier League, including a 5-0 win at Norwich City on Boxing Day.

A statement on Arsenal's official website said: "Mikel Arteta will miss our match against Manchester City on New Year’s Day after testing positive for COVID-19.

"Mikel is isolating in line with Government guidelines and we wish him well."

City, where Arteta previously served as assistant coach to Pep Guardiola before moving to the Gunners in 2019, have won the last nine meetings between the sides.

The in-form Bukayo Saka needs "a cool head and very clear direction of what he wants to become", according to Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta.

The England international has played an instrumental role during the Gunners' resurgence in recent weeks.

Indeed, he has been directly involved in five goals during their four-match winning streak, scoring twice in the 5-0 rout of Norwich City on Boxing Day.

That means the 20-year-old has now been directly involved in nine goals for Arsenal this term (five goals, four assists), a tally only bettered by fellow academy graduate Emile Smith Rowe (10).

Arteta is pleased to see Saka living up to expectations, but has urged him to remain focused and maintain his momentum.

The Gunners boss said: "What I know, what I expect is what he does all the time. 

"He works extremely hard, he's a really humble boy, and he has a really special connection with this football club. 

"His talent overall is unquestionable. But he needs his teammates, this environment. 

"He needs a cool head, and he needs a very clear direction of what he wants to become. So time will tell."

Arsenal return to action when they host Premier League leaders Manchester City on New Year's Day.

Their scheduled showdown with Wolves on Tuesday became the latest match to be postponed during the ongoing rise of COVID-19 cases in England.

With the continual postponements potentially culminating in a fixture pile-up, Arteta says it is impossible to look after the players' welfare while maintaining the integrity of the competition.

He added: "In this situation, I think we are wasting time if we're trying to accomplish both of them because then people are saying that we have to use common sense and common sense in this situation – again, it doesn't work. 

"So, whether we change the rule, we change the testing system – whatever we change, we cannot continue to try to achieve those two things because it's just impossible."

Kenny McLean says Arsenal "didn't have to be good" to thrash beleaguered Norwich City 5-0 on Boxing Day.

Bukayo Saka scored in each half, with Kieran Tierney, Alexandre Lacazette and substitute Emile Smith Rowe also finding the net at Carrow Road as Arsenal recorded their joint-biggest margin of victory away from home in a Premier League match.

McLean, however, feels that Norwich did not make Arsenal work for their win and warned the bottom-of-the-table Canaries must make life much more difficult for opponents.

"That's the worst result we have had recently for sure against a good Arsenal team who didn't have to be good," McLean said to the BBC.

"We gave them everything. We need to show some character. We're not here to complain about injuries and Covid-19.

"Everyone has got those issues. We need to be doing more."

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta heaped praise on his side after they eased to a fifth consecutive win.

"It's a very satisfying result because in this festive period we have to keep performances to a high level," Arteta said to the BBC.

"We looked really sharp and committed. It's a big win for us. I am really pleased. The amount of chances we create is pleasing.

"We go to every ground to try and impose our game. Today was a really good example. The unity we have around the club and with our fans is very pleasing."

The 39-year-old was evasive when asked about Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's continued absence - with the forward not featuring since a substitute appearance against Everton on December 6 - and insisted that his side can beat Wolves on Tuesday despite the short gap between matches.

"[Aubameyang] wasn't selected for today's match," Arteta said. "We'll take it game by game. That was the decision.

"We will try and recover as well as we can and try and win the game [against Wolves]."

The Gunners have scored more goals in their last two Premier League away games (nine) than they managed in their first eight on the road this season (six), also netting four or more goals in consecutive away games in the competition for the first time since April 2009.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta insists he wants Tuesday's EFL Cup hat-trick hero Eddie Nketiah to stay with the club amid his contract stand-off.

Nketiah is believed to be frustrated by a lack of opportunities at Arsenal, with Tuesday's cup quarter-final appearance in Arsenal's 5-1 win over Sunderland marking only his sixth this season in all competitions.

The 22-year-old's current deal expires at the end of this season and he may leave on a free transfer after turning down a new contract offer earlier this month.

"I tell you every day that we want to keep Eddie," Arteta said at the post-game news conference. "We see how he trains, that’s what he does every day, he works so hard and puts the ball in the net every session.

"I am really delighted with him. Every time we have needed him he has always responded."

He added: "We are trying [to re-sign him]. It’s not about anything else but minutes. He wants gametime, he wants to be on that field and that is the only reason to say, 'Can I do it here?' That’s the question. We all want him to stay."

Arteta has only used Nketiah three times in the Premier League this season, off the bench on all three occasions.

"The way we planned the squad and the way his situation looked in the window, he had a lot of options to go and we thought that was probably the best way to go," Arteta added.

"But the way we assembled the squad the situation changed and he decided to stay and it was hard to found minutes for him. But he’s finding the space right now and is using his minutes really well."

The Gunners boss admitted Nketiah's treble on Tuesday would boost his case for more minutes in the league.

"Recently he’s played more minutes than in the past and we’re going to need him and he’s going to play more minutes," the Spaniard said.

Arteta also labelled Charlie Patino's debut goal as a "beautiful moment" and heaped praise on Nicolas Pepe after a bright display against the Black Cats, having only been used 11 times this season.

Pepe scored Arsenal's second goal and set up their last two, including producing some wizardry down the right flank to tee up Nketiah's classy backheel finish.

"It is hard for everyone who doesn’t play," Arteta said about Pepe. "What they have to do is when they have the minutes, show on the pitch that they can do it and they are ready when the team needs him."

After celebrating his second anniversary as Arsenal manager on Monday, Mikel Arteta can settle in for Christmas with his team in the top four of the Premier League.

A convincing 4-1 win at Leeds United on Saturday was the Gunners' third victory in a row the league, with young stars Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe all finding the net.

However, it wouldn't be Arsenal without a shadow looming over any potential optimism, and Arteta's ongoing problem of what to do with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rumbles on.

Having recently stripped the Gabon international of the club captaincy following "his latest disciplinary breach", the Arsenal boss must now decide whether he can bring Aubameyang back into the fold or must cut his losses and try to move the striker on in January.

But where did it all go wrong for the 32-year-old, broadly considered to be one of the best forwards around in recent years?

Stats Perform takes a look at the player, the numbers, and whether the north London club might actually be better off without their main marksman.

Heir apparent to Henry

It felt like a statement of intent.

After spending big money to bring Alexandre Lacazette to the club from Lyon ahead of the 2017-18 season, Arsenal decided to splash out even more to add Aubameyang at the end of the following January transfer window.

Having scored 138 goals in 209 games at Borussia Dortmund, plenty was expected of him upon arrival in the Premier League, particularly as his style of play, pace and goalscoring abilities gave more than a hint of a similarity to Gunners legend Thierry Henry.

Aubameyang even took Henry's iconic number 14 shirt, but unlike the Frenchman, he needed no settling in period as he bagged 10 goals in his first 13 league appearances for the club.

Only Mohamed Salah (13) scored more Premier League goals in that time, while of players who took at least 10 shots, only Romelu Lukaku (80.0 per cent) had a better shooting accuracy percentage than his 79.17.

Arsenal finished sixth in the league that season, 12 points off the top four and 37 points behind champions Manchester City. It would prove to be Arsene Wenger's last campaign, and if there was going to be real progress, new boss Unai Emery would need Aubameyang to have an exceptional first full season in England.

That's exactly what he got, with the former Saint-Etienne striker scoring 22 goals in 36 appearances, winning the Premier League Golden Boot jointly with Liverpool pair Salah and Sadio Mane.

What had made this all the more impressive was that Aubameyang had a better minutes per goal ratio than both, registering one on average every 124 minutes, with only City's Sergio Aguero (118 minutes per goal) performing better of those who scored at least 10 goals.

Arsenal did improve in 2018-19, finishing seven points better off and one place higher, but they were still a point shy of rivals Tottenham in that elusive top four spot.

Aubameyang was also potent in cup competitions, bagging nine more, including eight on the way to the Europa League final, but the Gunners were soundly beaten by Chelsea in Baku.

Despite the agony of missing out twice on Champions League qualification, there was little doubt by this point that Aubameyang was the talisman of the team and the player Emery would have to build around to have any hope of success.

Captain Auba

After Granit Xhaka was stripped of the captaincy following an angry confrontation with fans when coming off in the 2-2 home draw with Crystal Palace in October 2019, Aubameyang was appointed as his successor, following Henry's path once again as the star man expected to lead by example.

The player seemed to appreciate the significance, posting on Twitter: "Arsenal has a great history of wonderful captains like Patrick Vieira and Tony Adams. It is a privilege to follow in their footsteps and I will honour the armband by doing my very best on and off the pitch."

Less than a week later, the man who gave him the armband was sacked, with Emery eventually replaced by Arteta in the Spaniard's first shot at senior management.

The extra responsibility and change of boss did not seem to slow Aubameyang down, scoring 22 league goals again, with only Jamie Vardy (23) grabbing more. However, the team's form was very much going in the wrong direction.

Arsenal did lift the FA Cup, with their captain scoring both goals against Chelsea to exact revenge for the previous season's Europa League defeat, but faltered in the league, finishing eighth on just 56 points, 10 off the top four, behind Wolves in seventh and nearly twice as close to relegated Bournemouth as they were to champions Liverpool.

Could Arteta get the best out of both player and team?

The notion that Arsenal could only succeed if Aubameyang was firing on all cylinders was beginning to be tested. He appeared to be doing all he reasonably could, but the overall form of the team did not seem to improve.

With a former player now in charge in Arteta, who had learned his trade under the guidance of Pep Guardiola while at City, would he also want to build around their goalscorer or try to change the mentality of a team that seemed to lack ideas if giving the ball to Aubameyang didn't work?

Although he had scored plenty, Aubameyang's minutes per goal average had lengthened again, going from 106 minutes in his first half-season to 124 in his first full season and 143 in the next.

The 2020-21 campaign was strange for everyone, with most games played behind closed doors. Arsenal finished eighth again but with five more points than the previous year and only six behind the top four.

While it was not immediately clear to see if the Gunners had improved much, if at all, under Arteta, what was noticeable was that even if they had been treading water, they had done so without the same output from Aubameyang.

He managed only 10 goals in 29 games and his minutes per goal reached a sluggish 234, significantly slower than Lacazette, whose 13 goals came at an average of one every 148 minutes, and even Nicolas Pepe, who scored 10 at an average of one every 161 minutes.

As this season has progressed, Arteta has appeared to be trying to move away from reliance on his now former captain, who has managed just four goals in 14 league games and has not scored since the 3-1 home win against Aston Villa in October.

After another insipid performance in the 3-2 defeat at Manchester United at the start of December, Aubameyang was left on the bench for the 2-1 loss at Everton, only coming on late in the game, notably after fringe player Eddie Nketiah had already been introduced.

He was then missing from the squad entirely for the win against Southampton before Arteta confirmed that he had stripped the player of the captaincy as well following a disciplinary dispute.

"We have made this decision that unfortunately is a really tough one," Arteta confirmed.

"If I had to choose, I wouldn't like to be sitting here talking about it, but we had to do it.

"When we have to make that decision, it's because it's the right one to defend the interests of the football club."

So, what next?

It would be harsh to make too much of a link, but Aubameyang has been missing from the Gunners' past three squads and they have won all three games, scoring nine and conceding just once.

They are also the joint-fifth-highest scorers in the league (27), despite the lack of goals from their one-time main man.

Against an admittedly depleted Leeds side at the weekend, what was particularly notable was how Arsenal went at their hosts from all angles, hitting the target 11 times in the first half, with six different players taking these shots.

Lacazette played a hard-working and selfless role up front, while promising wide forwards Martinelli and Saka showed energy and ruthlessness.

Should Aubameyang leave in January, the assumption would be that it relates to his disciplinary issues, but tactically, could a move actually be beneficial to both parties as well?

The player looks like he needs a fresh start, possibly to a team who are not as reliant on him as Arsenal have been for most of his time there, while the manager seems to have deliberately reduced his team's dependence on just one man.

Speaking on Monday, Arteta said of his anniversary: "It's been an incredible journey, and I am really happy and proud with the company that I have had on the journey.

"Now it is a new phase where we start to rebuild the team, we take a very clear direction with how we want to move forward with the club, a real connection between the team and supporters, the ownership and board and I think now it is excitement.

"[There is] excitement to keep driving this project forward, to keep working with this really young squad, but ready to compete, to get better and take the club back to where it belongs."

It has been an interesting first two years at the helm for Arteta, and it feels like whatever decision is made on the future of Aubameyang could well define the direction things take from here.

Aubameyang has occasionally donned a Spider-Man mask when celebrating in the past, but as far as his future at Emirates Stadium goes, there might be no way home.

Mikel Arteta says he is "excited" to "take the club back to where it belongs" with a young Arsenal squad after two years in charge.

Arteta was appointed Arsenal head coach on December 20, 2019, and won the FA Cup and the Community Shield in his first year in the job.

However, the Gunners have not played in the Champions League since slipping out of the competition towards the end of Arsene Wenger's tenure. 

Arteta believes the rebuilding work has been done, with six players under the age of 24 arriving in the most recent transfer window and the club sitting fourth in the Premier League.

"Now it is a new phase where we start to rebuild the team, we take a very clear direction with how we want to move forward with the club, a real connection between the team and supporters, the ownership and board and I think now it is excitement," Arteta told Arsenal's official website.

"Excitement to keep driving this project forward, to keep working with this really young squad, but ready to compete, to get better and take the club back to where it belongs."

The excitement Arteta feels does not just extend to the young players that he brought in at the start of this season, but also those he inherited, including 20-year-old Gabriel Martinelli.

The Brazilian was used sparingly at the start of the season, but has featured regularly since coming off the bench to score in the 2-0 win over Newcastle United on November 27.

The forward has started each of the last five Premier League games, scoring four times and registering two assists, and Arteta feels he has developed well away from the limelight, learning to harness his natural energy and enthusiasm.

"You cannot play every action at 100mph, it is impossible," Arteta continued. "It is not very efficient for you because you burn yourself out after a few minutes, and then you are just chasing a situation and not reading exactly what is needed. 

"Gabi is doing much better at that. We have to try to [develop] that without losing the passion, the energy and this capacity he has to just affect the game with the way he acts on the pitch.

"He trains incredibly hard, he is always willing to do more and he is not scared or afraid to take risks, and that is what I like about him.

"I can imagine [playing against him] - you're not going to have any time on the ball, every time the ball is 50/50 he is going to chase it and he's going to use his body, his speed, his technical ability to get away from you. 

"You have to be careful, because he can attack you one-v-one, he can attack your back, he can make movements off the ball. He is a real threat in front of goal."

Mikel Arteta hailed Gabriel Martinelli's "huge" influence in Arsenal's thrashing of Leeds United, but knows there is more to come from the forward.

Martinelli put Arsenal in control with a first-half double at Elland Road, with goals from Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe - either side of Raphinha's penalty - securing a 4-1 win for the Gunners.

It ended a three-match losing streak on the road for Arsenal, who will head into Christmas four points clear of West Ham in fourth place in the Premier League.

Martinelli's opener took Arsenal onto 7,000 top-flight goals, with the Gunners becoming only the third team, after Everton and Liverpool, to hit the milestone.

The Brazilian's second brought up his first Premier League brace in his 39th such appearance, while with Saka and Smith Rowe also getting on the scoresheet, 14 of Arsenal's 27 top-flight goals this season have been scored by players aged 21 or under.

Indeed, Arsenal had three different players aged 21 or younger score for them in a single Premier League game for the very first time.

At 20 years and 183 days, Martinelli became the youngest player to score a league double for Arsenal since Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against Crystal Palace in 2014 (20y 171d), and Arteta was full of praise for the attacker's display, even if he believes there is much more to follow.

Asked by Sky Sports for his opinion on Martinelli's impact, Arteta said: "Huge. That's why you have to prepare a player.

"You can't throw in a player when he's not ready. He has so much still to improve. He's very humble. His big passion in life is football."

In an interview with BBC Sport, Arteta added: "That's what he can do. He's getting a level of maturity. He's so willing to learn. You can see that on the pitch."

Martinelli thrived in the continued absence of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has fallen out of favour with Arteta after a disciplinary matter.

"He wasn't involved in today's game. Let's see. There's a privacy matter at the moment that I have to respect," Arteta told Sky Sports, perhaps suggesting Aubameyang's absence was not just down to his previous indiscretion.

Arteta confirmed before the match that Arsenal had multiple coronavirus cases among their staff and some players, including midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga.

"Everyone is healthy. We always follow the guidelines," he added.

"Now it's play as you can and we'll play as we can. The Premier League will make the best decision for everybody [about continuing or not].

"We want to play all under the same rules. That's where I think they have to come forward. Whatever they decide is best for the competition, but it has to be explained."

While Arsenal were able to celebrate, Leeds sit 16th with 16 points from their 18 games.

It is the joint-fewest points they have ever earned from their first 18 matches of any league campaign, along with 2006-07 in the Championship, assuming three points for a win.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta has confirmed there are several COVID-19 cases within the Gunners' camp, as he called on the Premier League to make a decision on whether games continue.

The clubs are set to convene in the coming days to determine whether matches should go ahead amid rising coronavirus cases in the United Kingdom.

Arsenal's trip to Leeds United was the only fixture to go ahead on Saturday, with the other postponed. There are three matches set to be played on Sunday.

Albert Sambi Lokonga missed out at Elland Road after returning a positive test result and Arteta, who contracted the virus in March 2020, revealed there have been a number of cases detected within the club and the training ground will be closed.

"There are a lot of games being suspended but we want to improve our form and place in the league," he told Sky Sports before kick-off.

"We cannot train after the match because we have to close [training ground] Colney. We have a few cases like any other team, the Premier League has to make a decision what is the best way to continue or not and we will carry on with whatever they say.

"They know much better than us. The government knows better. We are here to just to make simple decisions to prepare the team in the best possible way.

"We have quite a lot of staff members and a few players [positive] as well."

Mikel Arteta has confirmed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is "not available for selection" against Leeds United, having been left out of the squad for the club's last two Premier League games.

Aubameyang reportedly returned late from a trip to France and was not involved as the Gunners beat Southampton 3-0 at home on December 11. 

The Gabon striker was subsequently stripped of the captaincy and was omitted again on Wednesday as Arsenal clinched an important 2-0 London derby victory over West Ham to leapfrog the Hammers into fourth.

The Gunners' success in the absence of Aubameyang suggests the team is moving on from their reliance on the 32-year-old, who has managed just four league goals in 14 appearances so far this season.

Arteta's men travel to Elland Road on Saturday but will do so without their former skipper as the Gunners boss refused to expand on the star forward's future.

"No, [Aubameyang] is not available for selection," Arteta said at a news conference ahead of the match against Leeds.

No permanent replacement captain has yet been selected by Arteta, with the Arsenal manager seemingly content to allow leadership duties to be shared in the short-term.

He did single out 23-year-old Martin Odegaard - who wears the armband for Norway - for praise, hailing the attacking midfielder's professionalism.

"He's very young but he already has a lot of experience in different clubs and at international level," Arteta continued. 

"He's getting very close to his best level and the ceiling for him, I don't know where it is because of the talent he has and desire he has. We've got a tremendous player there.

"He's a natural leader. If you look for the perfect professional he would not be very far from there."

Mikel Arteta hailed the influence of captain Alexandre Lacazette as he expressed his delight with his senior players after Arsenal's 2-0 win over West Ham.

Lacazette, who saw a second-half penalty saved by Lukasz Fabianski, wore the captain's armband on Wednesday after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was stripped of his captaincy the previous day following a "disciplinary breach".

Arteta's side dominated throughout and Gabriel Martinelli broke the deadlock after the interval with his seventh Premier League strike, Gabriel Jesus (16) the only Brazilian to score more times in the competition before his 21st birthday.

Substitute Emile Smith Rowe sealed the victory late on with Arsenal's 10th English top-flight goal scored by a player aged 21 or under in the 2021-22 campaign, which is more than any other side this season.

While the Gunners' young guns downed West Ham to move into the Champions League spots, Arteta praised his senior leadership group following Arsenal's 11th win in 12 league games against the Hammers.

"I think they were good all of them and the senior players led by example," Arteta told reporters. "We shared the goals. It's important for Gabi [Martinelli] to score a goal like today. Everybody, I'm really pleased.

"The players play for the club and the pride that we expect from them. I was really happy from the beginning, because we knew that we had to play really good today to beat West Ham."

Asked on the performance of Lacazette, Arteta added: "Well he's the next in line and he's taken [the captaincy], the way everybody played today with such pride and commitment. I'm really proud of it.

"Laca has always been like that in the dressing room. You see the way he acts with the young players, how willing he is to help. It's in his nature. He's not a selfish player. He's happy when he makes the rest better, and he's like that in the dressing room as well."

David Moyes has never won at Arsenal in 18 Premier League attempts, extending the record for the longest such managerial run in the competition without an away win against a single side.

Alongside Moyes' personal poor record, West Ham were also displaced in the top four by Arsenal, but Arteta insisted his side boasting a Champions League spot is irrelevant at this point of the campaign.

"No, because the league finishes in May," Arteta added when asked whether he was satisfied with Arsenal's top-four spot. "But it's much better than where we were, and we want to be higher.

"We need to find that consistency - we know the level of this league. This league is absolutely ruthless and tomorrow is always different to today, so let's prepare for the next game.

"When we went to Old Trafford, I think we played much better than last year but we lost the game - and that's where we have to come away from those grounds when we get the performance with the points. That's the next challenge."

Lacazette can be expected to lead the line, and perhaps team, once again at Leeds United on Saturday after Arteta said he had no news on the Aubameyang situation.

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