Season over. It was like going into the operating theater for something serious. The diagnosis was clear, surgery was necessary, we’re just not sure if we picked the right surgeon for the task.
The best remedy post-surgery? Faith. Positivity. Good vibes.
I can’t spend a summer crying about a very odd season, with historically unique circumstances, that impacted nearly every manager at an elite club.
It’s time to search out the light, hunt out patterns of interest, and rev up that propaganda machine one last time for the boys in red and white.
My base premise for hope is this: We just went through the toughest professional sporting season in living memory. A global pandemic that stretched the physical and mental health of everyone. One that destroyed the basic structure of the game by ripping fans out of the stadium whilst also truncating the season to make amends for TV right issuers. The output? A difficult season.
Arsenal finished 8th.
6 points off 4th place Chelsea, the team that spent £250m on a top 4 squad last summer.
8 points off 3rd place Liverpool, the team that won the league last season with 100 points.
The three managers in the running for the Arsenal job prior to Arteta were Jose, Carlo, and Nuno. Two of them exited their jobs, the most prestigious of them all, Carlo, finished below Arsenal.
The weird season wasn’t just in the Premier League. Sporting won their first title for a long time. Atleti beat off Barca and Real for La Liga. PSG was toppled by a spectacular Lille. Inter beat out Juve.
That’s not to justify our position, it’s clearly not good enough, but all of these observations put perspective on it. It was a fine margins season and we didn’t do well with the margins. Our rookie manager botched a rushed summer and struggled to get to grips with a toxic bloated squad of players until January.
… but things picked up.
People were calling the final 5 ties ‘nothing games.’ You might have thought that, but the players didn’t, and that’s a chink of light for next season.
We won 5 on the bounce.
The Brighton game welcomed fans back into the ground. The boys put on a performance and played to the manager’s tune. Dead game? It didn’t feel like it. The starting 11 looked balanced, well-drilled, creative, and defensively cohesive.
The football was slick and fast. Martin Odegaard and Smith Rowe were pulling creative strings. Our midfield was rock solid, the addition of Xhaka to the midfield gave us more options and left us looking less one-dimensional. Cal Chambers had another really, really good game at right-back. His touch, intelligence and defensive ability really make him stand out.
Nicolas Pepe clearly wanted to take the attention off 7-goals-in-a-row-Joe and he put on one of his best performances yet. He was taking the ball at pace and running towards goal. He was switching sides. He was cutting in. He was defending like he really, really wanted to win that game. Those two goals take his season to 19 g/a for the season. Pretty decent.
When you want to talk about the biggest mistake of the season, I’m struggling to think of a bigger one than signing Willian and giving him Pepe minutes. The player produced next to nothing and he ‘might’ be off at the end of the season. Had we passed on the Kia phone call and given those minutes to Nico or one of the other youngsters, they might have hit their stride in December, versus March.
Still, what I will say is the idea that Nico’s form has just been waiting there is so far off the mark. He’s been dreadful because he’s been dreadful. Coaching is clearly developing his game. But we incubated him at the expense of someone older who wasn’t doing it. Perhaps if we’d let him rough it out hard and fast he’d have implemented the lessons faster.
The irony of the Willian experiment is Arteta thought a seasoned pro would pick up his ideas faster. He never picked them up. I think the player complained in the press that the training was very tactical and he wasn’t used to it.
The biggest truth of the season, bundled in a raft of similar mistakes is this: Older players don’t want to learn new tricks. Nico, against my expectations, really has aggressively eaten up the development plan. He’s not here to bum around, he wants to make it at the highest level, so I’m really, really happy for him.
Back to the game. Brighton does two things well, they create a lot, and their out of possession work limits opportunities against them. Lots of people thought Graham Potter was coming to school us after watching him beat Pep at his own game and amass a whopping 19 shots at their goal, along with a 3-2 win. It didn’t happen. We controlled Brighton. They had 5 attempts, 1 on target. They were completely nullified, left to have shots from less than ideal ranges. We battered them, they were demoralized by the end of the game because that pretty style of free-flowing football they offer couldn’t get off the ground.
We have controlled most teams that way since Chelsea in December.
The one disappointment from the game was Auba. Arteta is trying to play him into form, but it’s not working. He can’t play with his back to goal and the more he tries to do that Lacazette role, the unhappier he looks. Again, an older player, being asked to do new things, and badly struggling. There was a moment when ESR bound into the box and Auba didn’t even chase the run. It’s a bit sad. I’m not sure he’s built for the system we’re trying to operate.
The game finished, the fans clapped the team off, now it’s back to the drawing board.
8th position is not good enough, but it’s clear how we got there. A shocking start we weren’t able to recover from. 38% of the season wasn’t good enough. We were 15th for points accrued, that’s grim. The mitigating circumstances, we hope, were player unrest, Thomas Partey injuries, and no creative players.
The solves, we hope, were the Hale-Enders, creativity, a fit midfield, and a better team dynamic behind the scenes. The remaining 62% of those games gave us a lot of good things, but let’s talk holistically…
We finished the season with the 3rd best defensive record in the league. That’s not bad when you consider the amount of unforced errors that are hidden away in that mess. Dim penalties, inexplicable mistakes, and just all-round punching yourself in the face. If the plan was to build from the back, Arteta has done a good job there.
The final 24 games of the season also post a cheery outlook. 2nd most points. 2nd best defensive record. 3rd most goals.
If you are looking for signs of life and you can’t feel a heartbeat in ‘6 points off 4th place, with the 2nd best form over the final 24 games after we made pointed changes at Christmas’, I honestly can’t help you.
If you thought the first 14 games were relevant enough to merit sacking Arteta, I can’t listen to you tell me the 24 games after count as a mathematical sleight of hand. Again, just to remind you, I understand that the league is 38 games, but we’re searching for light, I’m not trying to convince you we actually won a trophy.
The best part about our little finish to the season was that we kept the pressure on Europe, won all our games, and were pipped by Spurs after a Kasper horror show. Have you ever felt so fine about missing out on St Totts day? I know my pulse on this is right because not one Spurs fans messaged me to gloat about their achievement.
Missing out on Europe is huge for us. It gives Arteta more time to work with a squad that will have new additions. It’ll keep our players fresh for Premier League games as we don’t have to travel long distances to play pubs teams on pub pitches. We’ll also have fans in the ground for Saturday 3pm games.
The summer objectives are clear. We need to be ruthless, fast, and clinical in the decisions we make.
Leadership has moved on coaching staff already. I was very sad to see Steve Bould sacked. Seems like a pretty brutal decision to make on a guy that has served the club diligently for 30 years. I remember him setting up Tony Adams with a peach of a chipped pass for the final goal against Everton to win the league in 1998. I wish him well and hope Per has a sharp idea of what he’s looking for to replace. I also wonder what happened to our PR? ‘Sacked’ is such a brutal headline for someone like Steve Bould.
Edu’s physio buddy Bruno M is out the door. Everyone loves him on the insta, but he was another disaster hire they’ve been trying to deal with for a while. I hope there is deep introspection for other areas of the coaching staff that is clearly not working. The job of Edu is to work out where the flaws in Arteta are and build muscle around them. There are flaws in the backroom team and the moves can’t stop at two changes.
Then we move onto the squad.
Arsenal needs to start selling well. Lucas Torreira just won a La Liga. Matteo G is too talented to take a shit fee on. Willock has 7 goals in 7, Newcastle want to build around him, make it happen. Then there’s a whole group of players like Kola, Hector, Willian, AMN, Reiss, Eddie, maybe Lacazette/Elneny who need to find new clubs. The market will be better this year and I think the players we have on offer this time are more buyable. It’ll also help that clubs know we have cash, so we won’t get lowballed like we did last season.
There’s so much work to do. Every addition has to be perfect if we’re to make moves on the summer. We’ll need a back-up left-back, a right-back, and a proper centre midfielder. I really, really, really hope we make Odegaard our focus. I think he has such a high ceiling. Madrid needs to sell, this would be a good moment to bring him in before he blows up at the Euros feeding that monster from Dortmund.
I also suspect there will have to be some movement for younger players on cheap deals that can pick up some of the weaknesses we have in midfield. I’m also interested to see what happened on replacing David Luiz. It’s a huge position, we have Saliba, but he’s still very green. It’s a moment for Arteta… plugging the gap with someone who is 30 is a tried and true bad approach for Arteta. Signing someone that is 25 blocks the way of a player that could have a Pepe like bounce if he’s given games.
We need to get all this done early, no pissing around until deadline day again.
Once all those moves have been secured, it’s time to use the 6 weeks worth of preseason to bed down the new ideas to ensure we have a really, really fast start. There can be no excuses next season if everything is corrected in the summer. There’s been a lot of patience, a lot of heartache, and a lot of weird stuff fans have had to deal with. Time to bring it all together and prove out the vision.
This is an exciting time to be an Arsenal fan. The club is spending money, problems are slowly being fixed, and the numbers are on our side. So you can choose to be miserable about the totality of our season, or you can be smart, and seek out the positive patterns, and put ALL your chips on next season being a banger.
Thanks for reading this season, it’s been a pleasure. Podcast later. x