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A long, bizarre, painful, unprecedented emotional roller-coaster: The Arsenal 2019/20 Season

By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)

What. A. Season. The most prolonged and crazy campaign in (almost certainly) every one of our lifetimes, and also sadly one of the worst, albeit with an ultimately happy ending. Here’s my 2019/20 Arsenal season review. I’ll imprint my own narrative on the campaign into your brains so that you remember it exactly how I want you to remember it (😅).

Considering it’s now almost 12 months since we kicked off our season at St. James’ Park, it can be easy to forget a lot of what has actually happened. It can be easy to forget that we’ve been through three different head coaches in what has been a turbulent and unstable time at the club. It can be easy to forget that Nacho Monreal and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have played a part in our Premier League campaign. It can be easy to forget we were in diabolical, relegation threatening form and at one point were just 6 points above the drop zone (after a significant amount of games). It can be easy to forget we had a head coach who insisted on using a ball winner as a number ten. It can be easy to forget we had a captain who told our own fans to ‘f*ck off’. It’s been some season.

We travelled to St. James Park on the 11th August, as we looked to commence our campaign with a victory in the North East. The optimism going into the game was refreshing- after an initially frustrating summer where the ‘we care do you’ movement gathered pace, the Arsenal hierarchy finally acted and made a flurry of late signings, including the acquisition of Nicolas Pepe for a club record fee. Despite the disappointment in Baku and the implosion in the League in the backend of the 18/19 season, there was still widespread support for Unai Emery, and a feeling that after being financially backed in the transfer market, we’d see him elevate our side drastically.

After picking up two wins from our opening two games in relatively unconvincing fashion, we went into the two big games prior to the first international break in good spirits. We had good reason to be. The early signs displayed by loanee Dani Ceballos were encouraging, Aubameyang was on fire once again, and youngster Joe Willock was demonstrating his raw potential on the biggest stage. We were beginning to improve in our notorious attempts to play the ball out from the back, Nicolas Pepe was beginning to settle in, and the long-awaited returns of Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding were just around the corner.

A tepid performance at Anfield raised a lot of discussion, as Emery took a very pragmatic approach against Klopp’s side. Many argued it was a sensible approach to take against such an excellent offensive side and we were slightly unlucky with the outcome, whilst others argued it was another move away from Arsenal’s traditional identity. On the whole though, the tide had not changed on the slick-haired coach. An enthralling comeback in the North London Derby at the Emirates drew this period to a close.

The first game after the international break was arguably the turning point for many in their support of our head coach. Conceding a two goal lead at winless Watford, in a display that saw us allow over 30 shots on our goal, was a very worrying sign. Granit Xhaka admitted the team were scared in his post-match interview. This raised serious alarms over the player’s confidence in what their coach was asking of them, and question marks over the identity, or lack thereof, began to reverberate around the fanbase.

A pattern in our form then followed this. Results were positive, but performances were questionable. After beating Bournemouth on October 6th, Arsenal sat third in the league, having won four from eight, and losing just once. Our performances in Europe and the League Cup were yielding better displays as some of our younger players, namely Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka, began to thrive and work their way into the League side.

However, this predictably unsustainable trend began to whither, as results declined significantly and our league position plummeted dramatically. This relegationesque form began with a defeat at Sheffield United, as we picked up just one win in nine games in all competitions. Toxicity around the club became prominent once again, as Emery seemingly lost all support from the fanbase. The chaotic nature of his team reflected the diminishing atmosphere off the pitch. He left Xhaka out to dry, allowing him to be exposed to the fans anger, which essentially resulted in the grim incident at home to Palace. He consistently opted for strange and illogical team selections, and left Mesut Ozil stranded in the reserves, as the long standing feud between the two reached a climax. His poor communication in press conferences gave off an odd perception, as he seemingly defended the team’s horrendous performances in a state of delusion.

This all inevitably resulted in his dismissal, which quite clearly was far too delayed. It took a 96th minute equaliser against Southampton met with disappointment from both the fans inside the stadium and the players, and then a half empty Emirates against Frankfurt for the board to finally wake up. This delay arguably cost the team precious points, and the hierarchy must be held accountable for that.

Freddie Ljungberg was appointed as interim manager, and was unfortunately left rather exposed without the backing of an extended coaching team around him. One win in five Premier League games under the Swede saw our dire form continue, and it was evident that the task of rejuvenating us was slightly too heavy for him.

A shocked Mikel Arteta sat on the opposition bench as Manchester City annihilated Ljungberg’s Arsenal at the Emirates in mid-December. The broken and fractured atmosphere around the club was stark that day, it was in desperate need of new life, new energy- a new face to revitalise the club’s identity and stature.

Just 5 days later, Arteta was named the new Arsenal Head Coach. His transparency and directness in his opening interviews were a breath of fresh air, and there was certainly an air of optimism amongst fans that he was the right man for the job.

After a few encouraging performances but ultimately disappointing results, Arteta finally got his first win as Arsenal boss in one of the stand-out results in this dire season- a 2-0 win at home to Manchester United on New Year’s Day. The work he had done in such a short space of time was astounding; after looking like a team breathed of confidence and lacking any sort of tactical structure, in just a matter of days, the Spaniard had implemented a cohesive and organised shape, which enabled players to get behind him, as they felt they had specific roles and knew what was being asked of them.

This identity was beginning to creep back into the club, as a possession based style was born. Despite four league draws in a row following this emphatic win over United, it was clear that the mentality of the team was improving, and that our new shape had given us increased defensive solidity. Although we continued to struggle to create chances, there was more of a defined structure to the team; we were less frantic, with our shape giving us an element of control in games.

After a mid-season winter break in Dubai, the players returned and we finally began to build some momentum in our results. Despite crashing out of the Europa League in disappointing fashion, we won three league games in a row for the first time this season and progressed comfortably into the FA Cup quarter-final. Just as this momentum began to grow, Arteta was diagnosed with Covid-19, and the subsequent lockdown ensued.

Something as unprecedented as a worldwide pandemic inevitably had it’s knock on effect on the football industry. Arsenal became the first club to impose a wage cut of any kind on its playing staff. Arteta himself led the negotiations with his squad, as they collectively agreed on a 12.5% one-year cut, despite initial reluctance from certain corners of the dressing room. Arsenal Supporters Trust member Nigel Philips declared that the club would make a £19 million loss if the rest of the season was completed behind closed doors.

And so it was. After three months without football, it finally returned. Speculation had ensued throughout this period about what project restart would look like, how it could be completed in such a short space of time without risking increasing ‘the r rate’ of the virus. The Bundesliga led the way, serving as a perfect example of how the game could commence in safe circumstances.

Arsenal returned with a nightmare trip to the Etihad. After losing two players to injury within the opening 25 minutes, David Luiz produced a disasterclass which saw him sent off and his future at the club questioned, as City comfortably beat the gunners 3-0 in Arteta’s homecoming. A few days later, Luiz’ contract was extended by a year, to widespread outcry from supporters and the media.

A desperately disappointing defeat to Brighton at the Amex, which saw star performer Bernd Leno stretched off after a needless challenge from Neal Maupay, resulted in the club re-entering disarray mode. Huge doubts over the playing squad lingered over the club, as the size of necessary rebuild was emphasised.

Could Emi Martinez cover sufficiently for the heroic Leno? Simply, yes. The Argentine was at the heart of our upturn in form, as we won four on the bounce, including a last minute winner at Brammal Lane in the FA Cup Quarter-Final and a brilliant win over Wolves at Molineux. This run also coincided with starboys Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli committing their long-term future’s to the club or in other words they, ‘signed da ting’.

After a North London Derby defeat, things came crashing down once again. An austere lack of creativity left some fans bemoaning Mesut Ozil’s absence, who by this point had been frozen out under another regime. Perhaps a directive from those above? Another man no longer in Arteta’s plans was Matteo Guendouzi, who, after certain events at Brighton, was left to train alone. His poor attitude and commitment seemingly not changing, and he paid the price by not featuring again in the season.

A daunting week lay ahead for the gunners. An encounter with already crowned Premier League champions Liverpool and then a trip to Wembley to face Manchester City in an FA Cup Semi-Final. Miraculously Arteta’s men overcame this challenge, beating both in incredible fashion, with very little of the ball and conceding a host of chances. Another trip to Wembley lay on the horizon, and once again it was a showdown with Chelsea which would determine our place in Europe, after we messed up our League campaign finishing 8th, outside the European places.

Against the odds, Arteta pulled it off again. A performance filled with grit, determination, tactical ingenuity and individual brilliance from our player of the season and talisman, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. A mirror of the 2017 final, with a 2-1 win against an exciting Chelsea side who had finished in the top four. Redemption for so many players. A release from the trauma and turmoil for the whole club. Fans celebrated in the streets of North London, as this crazy, ludicrous and emotional season came to an end.

I can’t wait to do it all over again in just under five weeks’ time.

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