Mikel Arteta’s pained expression, caught on camera as he watched Manchester City embarrass and dismantle Arsenal, could be interpreted in a variety of ways by the cynics.
Pep Guardiola’s highly regarded assistant could have been frustrated by Manchester City’s failure to add to the tally that gave them a 3-0 half-time lead – or maybe he had let his mind wander to the horror that might await him should he become Arsenal’s preferred target to succeed sacked Unai Emery.
Former Gunners midfielder Arteta was, of course, fully focused on Manchester City business but as an astute student of the game it will not have escaped his notice that the current Arsenal side is a pathetic shell heading south in the Premier League’s pecking order.
Indeed, Arsenal’s performance was so bad and their embarrassment so complete, that it should serve to inject urgency into the club’s hierarchy to find the manager to halt the drift and decay this giant club is now suffering.
Ironically, such was City’s authority and domination that it could even speed up the call to Arteta, overlooked at the last minute when Arsenal switched to Emery in May 2018.
Freddie Ljungberg, former winger and club legend, was brought in to reconnect with a disaffected support, remind modern players of old values and get some decent results to push Arsenal towards their stated aspiration of a place in the top four.
Ljungberg was meant to deliver the caretaker manager bounce – instead he has flatlined. None of the above has even looked like happening.
The Swede sat passively in his seat for much of this one-sided humiliation, rarely showing emotion or animation.
‘Lifeless and lacking in inspiration’
It was hard not to compare Ljungberg’s lack of impact with the spectacular entrance into caretaker management of Duncan Ferguson at Everton, not only getting four points from two tough games against Chelsea and Manchester United but electrifying fans with his touchline presence, including tearing off his jacket to stand in his soaked white shirt amid a torrential Old Trafford downpour as his weakened side fought like tigers for a point.
If you wanted to see this from Arsenal and Ljungberg here on Sunday, you were looking in the wrong place.
Arsenal were lifeless and lacking in inspiration. Ljungberg was lifeless and lacking in inspiration. The game ended with thousands of empty red seats as its backdrop and it was actually a show of real resilience that so many lasted that long.
The home team were brushed aside by a Manchester City side who had this all wrapped up in 15 minutes with goals from the peerless Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, the Belgian adding a third to produce a scoreline that still flattered the Gunners and did not reflect the visitors’ superiority.
There was a familiar sour note when Mesut Ozil, a passenger at best, was replaced by Emile Smith Rowe after 59 minutes.
Ozil, a little like Granit Xhaka when he felt the rough edge of the Emirates’ tongue as he strolled off when replaced in the 2-2 draw at home to Crystal Palace, was booed as he made a slow-motion exit, showing a rare flash of fire as he volleyed his gloves into the air.
It was about as involved as Ozil got on an eventful day for the midfielder.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV removed this game from its scheduling after disapproval at Ozil posting on social media about the treatment of Uighur Muslims in the country.
For Arsenal’s China-based fans, at least, the lack of coverage of this dreadful performance was a relief.
This was a shambles. Manchester City effectively had the second half off, Arsenal mustering just one shot on target, their joint lowest in a Premier League game at Emirates Stadium.
The Gunners have now gone six games without a home victory, winning three and drawing three – their longest run without a home success since George Graham’s side had an eight-game winless streak between December 1994 and February 1995.
After the ritual jeering of the home players at the final whistle, eyes must now turn to the club’s boardroom as pressure intensifies to find some leadership and direction for a club that looks lost.
Ljungberg, in some respects, was the safety-net appointment who they hoped might even be able to see Arsenal through until the summer.
‘Arsenal cannot delay any longer’
This particular safety net is already looking unfit for purpose, if that purpose was to get Arsenal back in contention for the Champions League places.
It is unfair to blame Ljungberg for Arsenal’s malaise. This club was broken before he was handed control, although he will have seen it coming as a member of Emery’s backroom team before he was shown the door.
The problem for Arsenal and their interim manager is that has simply had zero effect on a team in decline and this is now a pressing issue for the club’s decision makers.
Arsenal are ninth in the Premier League and stuck right between the top four and the relegation zone, separated either way by seven points.
And on this evidence, they will not be moving on an upward trajectory any time soon.
If Arsenal’s board have a preferred candidate, and Arteta is mentioned as being very high on that list along with former midfield player Patrick Vieira, then they need to kick into action now. They cannot delay any longer.
There is talk of Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo, Carlo Ancelotti after his sacking by Napoli and suggestions of a long list of other candidates still being investigated.
They must identify that top target and somehow persuade them that they can move a club that is a sorry shadow of its former stature in the right direction.
The notion that Ljungberg could see them safely and respectably through to the end of the season looks increasingly fanciful and unsustainable.
These are crucial and potentially defining days for Arsenal, and their hierarchy must show they are not as inert, directionless and lacking in ideas as the team that was so easily dispatched by Manchester City.