Adam Walton reevaluates the standing of Arsenal Football club, 28 weeks into the Premier League season.
For Arsenal supporters, the most soul-crushing moment from last season came in the Europa League exit to Olympiakos. The hysteria and relief of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s late faux-winner was replaced by the even later Youssef El-Arabi goal, which sent the Greeks through on away goals. The combination of capitulation from a position of control, and inevitable farcical defending created an emotional cocktail all too familiar to Arsenal supporters. The defeat was also the Gunners’ last game before lockdown, leaving a lingering bitter aftertaste during the following months.
Post-lockdown, the Arsenal outlook brightened. Whilst the league campaign was unsalvageable, a shift to a back three, David Luiz’s adoption of meditation (I assume) and Aubameyang’s personal vendetta against opposition clean-sheets saw Arteta’s team unexpectedly scrape the FA Cup. At last, it appeared, Arsenal were progressing, following the underwhelming late and post-Wenger era. I, on occasion, may have even suggested that Arsenal would finish third behind Liverpool and Manchester City, come the end of the 2020/21 campaign.
At the time of writing, the Gunners sit 11th in the Premier League table, 15 points worse off than third placed Leicester. My optimism was, shall we say, misplaced. Looking back, however, I should have known.
In my decade and a bit of dedicated Arsenal fandom (I wasn’t checking Expected Goals when I was 11), the club have followed a distinct pattern. With the exception of the 2015/16 season, the Gunners have been consistent slow starters, managing to secure underwhelming defeats to any lower league opposition that are put in front of them. This is then followed by a series of increasingly rash tactical changes, attempting to right the teetering campaign. Theo Walcott was played as a striker one year; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was made a wing-back in another. Andre Santos was even allowed a run as a regular starter one season, which really is the stuff of nightmares.
These stopgap solutions tended to work. For a decade, Arsenal would snag Champions League qualification and potentially have a deep run in the cup – the bare minimum. The late rallying would paper over any cracks that clearly remained from the start of the season, and once again supporters (including myself) would believe the club had turned a corner. It is this same trap that I fell into following the FA Cup win last season.
This campaign, however, is different. Arsenal have instead gone from being totally incapable to only mildly underwhelming. There is no late dash for the finish line in sight. This, ironically, is what fills me with hope.
For too long, Arsenal’s campaigns have been reactive, with nothing done about the underlying problems within the team. This season, however, there are no obtuse mid-season tactical shifts or last deadline day signings of injured players. Arteta has stuck to the philosophy which he believes will have the best long-term results for the club. Yes, fans may be terrified every time Bernd Leno plays a pass to Granit Xhaka with sixteen opposition players closing him down, but at least there’s an identity the squad can aspire to.
Perhaps more exciting is the long-overdue squad clear-out that happened over January; gone are the likes of Shkodran Mustafi, Sokratis, Sead Kolasinac and (painfully) Mesut Ozil. Not only is the club’s wage budget less strained (despite the best efforts of Willian), but it shows that faith is being placed in the glorious talent of youngsters like Bukayo Saka, Emil Smith-Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli.
There have also been positive recent performances. The horrors of Olympiakos have been overcome with a recent 3-1 away win, complementing the comeback victory against Benfica and the assured wins against Leicester and Spurs.
Before I am accused of hypocrisy, I am not predicting this squad will be challenging for the top four next season, or that winning the Europa League is at all realistic. This isn’t the trickery of previous years. Instead, I’m suggesting that this season Arsenal have finally hit rock-bottom. It certainly hasn’t been fun to watch, but it now means the club can rehabilitate. Of course, it’ll be long and often painful; there will probably be a few more days when Burnley have 17% possession and one shot on target, yet still score three. But it at least appears that Arsenal are on the right track, and that certainly gives me hope.