5 Positives to Take From Arsenal’s 20/21 Season
By Max Mishcon
The days of league titles and invincibility are long gone now, consistent Champions League qualification, which was once deemed an ambitious target, is now considered a pipe dream, even the humiliation of playing on Thursday nights are long gone.
Arsenal’s decline has been leisurely in its pace, but devastating in its effect. Its impending nature suggests our current state should come at no surprise, yet every season there is a naive, yet fearful undertone amongst the fan base suggesting that “it can’t get any worse than this… Right?”
Comfort and assurance are two feelings football is perceived to provide in a world of political confusion and anxiety, but supporting Arsenal this season has felt like an emotional burden in itself.
I breathed in, I breathed out.
I acknowledged it has been the worst season in Arsenal’s recent history, but I do believe that within this footballing storm, there was some sunshine. Here’s 5 things to be cheerful about in a season that has exerted a powerful sense of apathy and doom.
The beginning of the season saw our squad oversized and underperforming - relatively useless players were eating up the wage bill and taking away minutes from youth prospects. After Emi Martinez’s departure to Aston Villa stood as the only sale in the Summer, the supposed successful signings of Gabriel and Thomas Partey were tarnished by a demand for outgoings.
January saw these outcries addressed, with Sokratis, Shkodran Mustafi, Matt Macey and Mesut Özil all leaving for free - players that, for various reasons, weren’t of use to the squad. This has, and will allow for more financial flexibility and space for players who deserve a chance.
The Defence is Solid
Wenger received much criticism, towards the end of his reign especially, for a lack of grit and backbone. If you and your friends want a good drinking game, take a shot every time Danny Murphy stated that Arsenal’s opponents simply “wanted it more than them.”
This season is a very different story, as of writing this, we have the third best defence by goals conceded at 39, only 5 less than Chelsea and 7 more than champions, Man City. Do take into account our expected goals against is 44, so this is an over-performance. But if Arteta is to build his team from the ground up, he has built a strong foundation in a defence that is organised and committed to the cause. Add a partner for Gabriel and a competent right-back and then we’ll really mean business.
If there’s one guy who deserves a pay rise this season, it's Ben Knapper: Arsenal’s loan manager. Every loan, incoming and outgoing, can be labelled a success, in my eyes.
In the Bundesliga, Dinos Mavropanos and Matteo Guendouzi have helped their respective sides to a mid-table finish and survival, Lucas Torreira has a La Liga medal to his name, albeit in a rotation role, and although his best position is at right-back, Ainsley Maitland-Niles has deputised in his preferred central midfield role at West Brom.
Most notably, Willam Saliba has proven himself as one of the finest centre-back prospects once again in Ligue 1. His ambitious and accurate distribution as well as physical presence has seen him put in consistent performances since January. Additionally, Joe Willock has become a fan favourite at Newcastle, scoring almost every week with a 37% shots to goals rate, the best in the league, giving us the choice of either selling the Hale End graduate for a decent price or slotting him into midfield, an area desolate of any goal-scorers.
Martin Odegaard has also impressed and sparked creativity amongst the side and Mat Ryan looks to be a solid backup keeper.
Let The Kids Take The Wheel
Now, it is quite worrying when a 19-year-old is having to play for 2,500 minutes and in 5 different positions in order to carry a lifeless side, but Bukayo Saka really is our franchise player.
Emile Smith Rowe’s breakout season rejuvenated the squad and arguably salvaged us from the dire Winter run, as we are yet to know his best role in this team which is quite scary.
Injury has hampered Martinelli’s development, nevertheless recent cameos have showcased his relentless nature is still prevalent as he looks to spearhead our attack in future seasons.
The aforementioned Willock and Saliba possess undoubted quality and attributes this squad have been crying out for and will push for starting roles next season.
And if that wasn’t enough, Miguel Azeez will look to get more minutes next season and Flo Balogun’s new contract ensures that he will be having a bigger role in the squad come August.
Arteta has Learnt Through Failure
Some of the set-ups the Spaniard has opted to play have baffled and disgruntled to say the least. From asymmetric formations to striker-less systems, it’s fair to say Arteta has tried and tested everything in the book, with all signs leading to a high-pressing, high-tempo 4-2-3-1 being most successful.
Undoubted is Arteta’s coaching abilities - his time at Man City saw him engage intensely in the development of players such as Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané - but this season has seen his management abilities come under the test and much scrutiny. But if we are to trust our former captain, we need to accept that he is learning on the job, and that a ‘process’ is not day and night, I do think a team needs to suffer (maybe not in a manner as severe as this) in order to achieve things.
We’ve seen that we can play some really tidy football, albeit in fits and spurts, and with the right recruitment, said tidy football could become a lot more consistent.
I’m not saying, nor expecting us to reach the days of league titles and invincibility any time soon, but I, and all fans miss the joy and warmth this Arsenal side used to provide us with.
These 5 positives all point to the future and I can’t guarantee it will be bright, but this season has seen glimmers of what we can become.