It’s easy to be disconsolate about Arsenal at the moment. The North London club have played some of their worst football in decades this season. Barring any sort of miracle, the Gunners are set for their first season outside of Europe in a quarter of a century and are heading towards their worst finish in the Premier League since 1995. The disappointment reached a crescendo when they failed to turn up when their season was on the line, losing 2-1 on aggregate in the Europa League semi-final to Villareal up against their former manager, Unai Emery.
The football has been hard to watch, more methodical and structured compared to the free-flowing days of “Wengerball”. The recruitments have been questionable too, with players such as Willian and Alex Runnarson being signed last summer. But contrary to public opinion, things at Arsenal aren’t as bad as they are made out to be. Negativity festers, spreads like wildfire and gets more clicks so you can see why all the discourse around the club is largely trending in that direction. Yes, the negatives have largely outweighed the positives this season, but things haven’t been as doom and gloom as it is made out to be.
Since Christmas, Arsenal have taken the third most points in the Premier League, scored the fourth most goals (38) and conceded the fourth fewest (20). They have taken the same points as Chelsea in each of the clubs last 25 league matches (42 points). This has been Arsenal’s worst season since the turn of the century but somehow, they are still only 1 point behind Tottenham, 3 points behind West Ham, 5 points behind Liverpool in fifth and 9 points behind Chelsea.
The performances against the big sides have been a plus and Mikel Arteta has gotten the better of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho in his time so far at the club. This season, Arsenal have won at Old Trafford for the first time since 2006 and at Stamford Bridge for the first time since 2011. They have also only conceded twice away from home against the current top four and have the third-best defensive record in the league.
Arteta has proven that he is a great tactician that can adapt his team’s style of play according to the opposition, and amidst all the furore and disappointment this season, that’s a definite positive.
Then there is the young core at Arsenal. Bukayo Saka has carried the team on his back at times this season and played in virtually every position apart from centre-back and in goal. Emile Smith Rowe’s return to the Premier League team on boxing day was one of the main reasons behind Arsenal’s second-half surge and Gabriel Martinelli continues to make things happen whenever he is in the XI. Kieran Tierney has been a constant bright spark at left-back and it seems to be only a matter of time before he is given the armband permanently.
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Gabriel has shown some promise at centre back and has the raw materials to belong at the top level. The hope is that the highly-rated William Saliba can be his long-term partner once he returns next season following his two-year French education. Add the likes of Thomas Partey, Martin Odegaard and a fully focused Aubameyang into the mix and there is some semblance of a top-four squad.
Arsenal have shown over a 22-game period that they can be part of the top 4 and the job now is to make sure it lasts an entire season. For that to be possible, Arsenal need to be “ruthless” in the transfer market as Mikel Arteta mentioned post the Villareal defeat. Players such as Bellerin, Leno, Kolasinac, Torreira, Willian and Ceballos, that don’t represent the desired quality, need to be moved on and the money needs to be reinvested wisely.
Football is an ever-changing game, and one summer or key decision can spark a club into life or send it spiralling downwards. Just look at Manchester United’s form since Bruno Fernandes arrived in January 2020 and how he has single-handedly changed their fortunes under Ole. Similarly with Chelsea and Tomas Tuchel. The Blues were reeling in the doldrums of mediocrity for the last few months of Frank Lampard’s tenure but the managerial switch has transformed the club into one of the best teams in Europe since his arrival.
It can go the other way as well, Liverpool scored 99 points in 2019/20 but injuries to key players sent them back down to earth this season. Nothing is as good or as bad as it truly seems. This might be the lowest period in Arsenal’s modern history but the damage isn’t unsalvageable and the light at the end of the tunnel may be closer than you think. Every transfer window and summer feels like a defining one for clubs nowadays but for Arsenal, that notion seems to ring true more than most. The margin for error is very little in North London this summer, but it shouldn’t be a massive surprise to see them get it right and return to their former glories in the years to come.
[Image Credit: Arsenal]