A Decade Apart: Comparing Mikel Arteta’s First Arsenal Squads
Updated: Jun 26
By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)
Two posts in a day, and both from Mac! I'm so excited... why is this happening? The answer is simple: I forgot to publish this one last week. I do apologize.
I’ll be completely honest, I have no idea where this idea came from, but I’m rolling with it. You may be asking, dear reader, "how is it possible that Mikel Arteta can have more than one first squad? Surely that's a typo?"
Well you see, Mikel Arteta, way before he was ever Arsenal manager, before he won the FA Cup against Chelsea, even before he didn’t lose to Olympiacos a second time… he played in the red-and-white for our beloved Gunners. I hope you’re detecting the sarcasm here, because this shouldn’t be news to any of you. That fact is about as interesting as watching paint dry.
What might be slightly more interesting to you is that Mikel joined Arsenal in 2011/12, exactly ten years before this past season began. Which makes this super convenient for me, because I get to introduce you to the stunning revelation that Mikel Arteta’s first full season as a manager was a decade on from his first full season as an Arsenal player. Why does this matter?
Oh, It doesn’t. It’s just a nice, whole number. But I was wondering, though, how much has this squad, not to mention this club, transformed since Arteta arrived at the club? I considered comparing his last Arsenal squad, which was our 16/17 team, but that squad still lives fresh in most of our memories. Instead, I wanted to compare two squads that began decades, and two squads that couldn’t be more different.
On the surface, the difference is stark. That Arsenal squad finished third in the Premier League, scoring 74 goals, and conceding 49. They earned 30 points away, and 40 at home. This season’s squad conceded fewer, at 39, and earned three more away points, but gathered a mediocre 28 points at home, and only scored 55 goals. On simple face value, what we know about the 20/21 Arsenal squad is that they struggled to create chances, but were defensively resolute. 11/12, in contrast, was a classic Arsene Wenger squad: they won by outscoring their opponents.
The 2011/12 season was made famous for Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp winner to seal the title, but the Argentinian didn’t win the Golden Boot that season. No, Aguero finished seven goals behind Robin Van Persie, who broke the 30-goal mark, and tallied another 11 assists. For reference, Nicolas Pepe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Lacazette tallied 33 goals and 6 assists combined this season. Having a consistent and prolific goalscorer can make or break a campaign, but RVP played a very similar role to Harry Kane at Sp*rs this season, acting as the centerpiece for a dynamic and lightning quick attack. In contrast, the 20/21 Arsenal squad has become well renowned for holding possession while struggling to create chances. Tepid passes and lack of movement have replaced the free-flowing Wengerian philosophy, albeit with greater defensive success.
Given the 11/12 Arsenal team only earned 9 more points than its counterpart a decade later, an eighth placed finish may seem harsh, but this current Arsenal team would only have finished sixth that season with the same amount of points, qualifying for the Europa League play-off round. In contrast, seventy points would have garnered the 11/12 Arsenal squad a third place finish in the league, once again behind both Manchester clubs. Comparing results between the two seasons shows us that the mid-table teams have become more difficult for the big clubs to conquer. However, that fabled 40-point mark still holds mostly true, with no relegated club in either year, or in the interim years, breaking that tally. Newcastle came closest in 15/16, with 37 points.
But what do all of those seemingly useless comparative facts mean, and why do they matter? Well, I’m not just trying to rub it in your faces that Arsenal are a worse side, because let’s be real, it sucks for me too. But we have to ask ourselves, why the change? What’s happened, across this decade, that has resulted in Arsenal slipping so far from their previous average. Because let’s face it, this 11/12 season was pretty much considered an average season for Arsenal at the time, and our third-place finish is a benchmark most Arsenal fans remember, and compare to our current results, as a sign that we have slipped below what we should be capable of. So, again, what’s changed?
One answer could lie in the squads, and personnel available, especially in the key attacking areas of the pitch. So let’s break down the players, and see what’s changed, from then to now.
Goalkeeper and Defenders
The goalkeeping breakdown is very similar across both seasons. In 2011/12, a 21 year-old Wojciech Szczesny played all 38 games in the Premier League, and seven of eight in the UCL, with Vito Mannone and Lukasz Flappyhandski splitting their only appearance for the season across the eighth. This past season, Bernd Leno played in 35 of our Premier League games, and ten Europa League ties. Alex Runarsson was our second most capped, proving himself entirely untrustworthy across his four Europa League starts, along with one Premier League substitute appearance. Maty Ryan proved a capable backup for an injured Bernd Leno, starting three Premier League matches. There’s something to be said for having a guaranteed starter between the sticks, and both Leno and Szczesny proved themselves capable and reliable starters.
The defense is where it gets a bit more interesting. The center of the most-used back four for Arsene Wenger’s 11/12 side was a duo of Laurent Koscielny, alongside either Gentle Giant Per Mertesacker, or Thomas Vermaelen, although the recently retired Johan Djourou also made 22 appearances that campaign. Wenger deployed a back three more often than was his wont in this particular season as well, which accounts for the overrepresentation of centre-backs within the squad, compared to wingbacks, in terms of appearances and starts. It’s a very similar setup to the current Arsenal squad, with three centre-backs making the main rotation—in our case, it’s David Luiz, Rob Holding, and Gabriel Magalhaes—with a fourth waiting in the wings to step in when necessary—this, for all intents and purposes, is Pablo Mari.
Defensively, those players are pretty on par, and as for the fullbacks, Arsene Wenger had a much easier selection than his one-time midfielder. Andre Santos and Kieran Gibbs split duties in a majority of the matches where Wenger deployed a back four, with Bacary Sagna and Carl Jenkinson picking up the same roles on the right, along with Djourou. Arteta, of course, has Kieran Tierney, and Hector Bellerin played a majority of the games at right-back this season, though he suffered a dismally disappointing campaign by his standards. Calum Chambers impressed late on, and Cedric Soares proved himself a capable backup once again. What is notable, though, is the change in the role of the fullback over the last few decades. While Gibbs and Sagna weren’t awful going forwards, their defensive output was the centerpiece of their inclusion in the squad.
And to really get a scope of the turnover within the squad, Calum Chambers made his Premier League debut for Southampton, in 2013/14. Hector Bellerin was still in the academy until 2014/15. The Spaniard, though, is the longest-serving player on the Arsenal books, having joined the academy in 2011/12. In fact, the only player in the 2020/21 Arsenal squad to play in the Premier League in the 11/12 season was David Luiz, and he's departed the club since then. And I'm not just talking defenders. I mean the whole squad.
Arteta really does look the same, doesn't he?
The midfield is the area of the squad with the most accessible differences, given that this particular Arsenal squad had a glut of midfielders, and our current iteration certainly does not. Alex Song and Mikel Arteta both earned themselves over 3000 minutes, with a young Aaron Ramsey garnering just under 2800. And this season was especially notable as one of the last where Thomáš Rosicky was truly at the peak of his powers, as the then-30-year-old made 28 Premier League appearances.
31-year-old Yossi Benayoun and Francis Coquelin both had decent campaigns in the red-and-white, and a 17-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain broke into the first team, making 19 appearances throughout the season. Legend has it, our former wonderkid still looks the same. Abou Diaby and a 19-year-old Emmanuel Frimpong also managed a few cameos apiece.
A malaise of "meh" dominated Arsenal's midfield this season, and the quality depth appreciated by Arsene Wenger was sorely lacking this season. Granit Xhaka was arguably the one exception, starting 31 Premier League matches, and playing 2500 minutes, only one of four players to break that benchmark for Arsenal this season, and the only midfielder. Behind him, Dani Ceballos, Thomas Partey, and Mohamed Elneny deployed for around 1500 league minutes. Ceballos had a pretty awful season, Elneny was his typical worldie-strewn average, and Thomas was inconsistent, if often injured. The one player who was truly consistently brilliant was Emile Smith Rowe, but he only made his entrance as a Premier League regular after Christmas, and is still only 20. Martin Ødegaard gave a decent showing on loan, but it's looking increasingly unlikely he'll return to the Emirates.
The real difference between the two lineups, if I'm honest, is the fact that Wenger built his midfield with a purpose, as all the best teams do. Of course, one of the main purposes of Wenger's 11/12 midfield was to feed RVP as much as humanly possible, but it's nearly impossible to overlook how crucial the midfield's goal contributions were. His midfield was designed to control possession at all costs, with a double powerhouse of Alex Song and Mikel Arteta accompanying Ramsey or Coquelin in a midfield three, or supporting Rosicky or Benayoun, or Oxlade-Chamberlain. It was a midfield, most importantly, signed to play together, by a singular coach to with a singular vision.
But what exactly were those goal contributions?
Notably, Song tallied 10 league assists that campaign, with Ramsey contributing another seven goal contributions and Arteta providing eight. In total, the 2011/12 midfield provided Arsenal with 15 goals and 24 assists. For context, that's 16 goal contributions shy (read: one pretty good season from Nicolas Pepe) of the amount of goals we scored this season. Which is wild.
This season, that combined tally drops to five goals and 16 assists, which is marginally improved to six and 21, if you include Willian as a midfielder, rather than a forward. Now, if we include Saka, it totals a slightly more respectable 11 and 26, but in my estimation, Saka can comfortably be considered a forward, especially given that's very much where his future lies.
For the record, Arteta had much less to work with. If I'm honest, his midfield can barely be considered his own. He was unhappy with Willock and Maitland-Niles, fell out with Guendouzi and considered Torreira too limited to play the role asked of him. Özil needed to leave for the betterment of the club. The same can arguably be said for Guendouzi. That leaves him with two midfielders, a semi-capable backup, and two players on loan from a club that doesn't want to sell. And of those midfielders, he signed one of them. Just one. Not exactly award-winning, is it? But what about the forwards?
It's impossible to mention the 2011/12 season without mentioning Robin Van Persie. This may be the most bittersweet season in the hearts of most living Arsenal fans, considering it was his 30-goal season, and the season before his infamous move to Manchester United. And to the lovely lads and ladies of WLYA, I've titled the above image "snake" in our database in case you're looking for it. I'm not over it yet.
Behind Van Persie, 22-year-old Theo Walcott made 35 league appearances, scoring eight and assisting eight. On the left flank, a combination of Gervinho and Andrey Arshavin earned another five goals and eight assists. Marouane Chamakh was the super sub of the campaign, only starting one of his 11 appearances. And who could forget the Return of the King! No, not Aragorn. Thierry Henry. Though he only made four league appearances off the bench, scoring a single goal, his presence was (and still is) an inspiration to Arsenal players and fans alike.
And while Wenger had a one-man wrecking ball available in the shape of the flying Dutchman, Arsenal's pricey and high-powered attack was nothing if not lacklustre this campaign, especially compared to previous heights. Top scorer Alexandre Lacazette was a credit to his side throughout the season, but just looked off the pace, and only started 22 of his 31 appearances. Talismanic captain and goalscorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will be disappointed with his 10-goal campaign, halving the total of every full season he's procured in an Arsenal shirt up to this point. And were it not for five goals in the last month of play, Nicolas Pepe's 10 goals and 1 assist in the league would look similarly shoddy, especially given the ever-present price tag hovering over his head.
No, it was 19-year-old Bukayo Saka who really provided a spark for this Arsenal side. 5 goals and 3 assists detail a productive campaign for the youngster, but 6.9 xG and 4.9 xA tell a truer story. Saka is the only player who underperformed both his xG and xA this season, which speaks to a youthful output underpinned by some incredible raw creation numbers. This team struggled astronomically to create chances, and didn't finish well either, and Saka was our greatest source of happiness. There's a reason he was voted Player of the Season, both by Arsenal writ large, and more importantly, by us here at WLYA, twice over in fact.
And besides him, wonderkid Gabriel Martinelli and Hale End Graduates Eddie Nketiah and Folarin Balogun gave a decent showing of themselves this season, albeit mostly in the Europa League. Martinelli struggled with injury for much of the beginning of the campaign, but managed to chip in a few excellent goals towards the tail end. Balogun proved to be slightly more exciting than his countryman Nketiah, and looks to be Arsenal's first choice academy graduate coming into next season.
In summary, the squads are relatively even. The defenses and keepers are on par, and the attacks should be able to generate some of the same levels of scoring and creation. The midfield difference is a bit more stark, but at the same time, these two teams aren't awfully different in terms of ability. Which leads us back to the beginning.
Asking the Big Questions
So back to the important questions. Why were Arsenal so good back then, and why have we fallen off since? I have two possible solutions, and I'm rather evenhanded between the two.
The first option is that it's a simple measure of consistency. Arsene Wenger managed Arsenal for over two decades. He became synonymous with the red and white, not to mention puffy coats and fighting Jose Mourinho. Coming into Wenger's Arsenal, you knew what to expect, and what you were going to get.
Since his departure, we've had three different managers, all of whom had different visions for what they wanted the team to be. We've also navigated through a global pandemic and pretty much rotated our entire backroom staff in the last five years, from top to bottom. When team's can't find consistency with managers and personnel, they usually slip and slide down the table. Ask literally any midtable team that's found success then had talent or managers poached.
The solution is simply to stick by Arteta until he can really build his own squad, and establish himself in a job, and it's as simple as that. Give him a squad to play his game and the facilities to maintain it and he'll take us back to the top.
But on another hand, it's also important to note that Wenger's tactics, at that time and for years beforehand, were cutting-edge. They bedazzled and bewildered opponents, and in order to play for Arsenal, you needed the requisite skillset to play within that system. As much as this Arsenal team does have talent, they're not quite good enough for the league in its current iteration.
The Premier League has evolved, no mistake about it. Squads are more expensive, the midtable has improved greatly, and especially in this time of a pandemic, teams are even more likely to lose a game they "shouldn't," or find unexpected competition from a team lower down the table. The teams who win consistently are those able to dominate, and they dominate because they have adapted their teams, tactics, and backrooms to suit the modern game. It's fair to say that Arsenal have not done that.
We rely on agents and connections, rather than statistical analysis, for recruitment. We don't have the finances available to compete with the teams rising up the ranks around us. And most importantly, our players aren't able to play the tactics demanded of them by Arteta, plain and simple. My second suggestion is that this squad, but more importantly, this club, has not evolved with the modern game, and we're paying the price.
One of the reasons I quite enjoyed writing this article is because this era is just when I started watching Arsenal. I'm American, so I'll cut myself some slack, but I didn't watch Arsenal with any semblance of consistency before 2009-10. Mikel Arteta, Thomas Rosicky, Laurent Koscielny, and Robin Van Persie were my introduction to the Gunners, and I'll forever be grateful to them for that. But they also gave me standards and expectations of what Arsenal should be, and those expectations are not being met.
I know I'm not alone in that. We deserve better. Let's hope 2021/22 can deliver.