Arsenal 20/21: A Season of What ifs
By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)
What if Arsenal signed Martin Ødegaard, or a different creative midfielder, last Summer, instead of in January?
What if Thomas Partey and Emile Smith Rowe weren’t injured during the first half of the 20/21 season?
What if Mikel Arteta managed to steady the ship a few weeks prior to the signpost 3-1 victory over Chelsea?
What if Premier League officiating was a little more consistent?
The list could go on, and on, and on.
However, these are all questions I’ve asked myself during my hiatus from writing about the club I love. It’s been a turbulent season at Arsenal Football Club, but hindsight shows us that if just a few more results and decisions went our way, we could well have been reflecting on a fantastic campaign.
To answer the questions at the top of this piece, they’d all receive a pretty straightforward response – Arsenal would have finished the season in a top four place.
Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal team have gone from strength to strength since the introduction of Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Ødegaard into the fold, Thomas Partey is a world class midfielder who doubtlessly would’ve acted as a handy tool for Arsenal during the torrid Winter run and the infamous ‘league table since Boxing Day’ illustrates to us that if the ship was steadied a little earlier, Arsenal could have been right up there fighting with Liverpool, Chelsea, Leicester, West Ham and Manchester United for a Champions League place.
Of course, the facts of the matter are that those ‘what ifs’ will always remain ‘what ifs.’ Unfortunately, Arsenal were sitting on just 14 points after 14 matches prior to the win over Chelsea leaving Arteta’s side’s fate sealed in terms of finishing in a European qualification position as early as December.
The gap was simply too big. And that’s not to excuse Arsenal’s final league standing or Mikel Arteta’s job performance in any way, but it does provide insight into exactly why Arsenal finished as low as they did despite the apparent upturn in form in the second half of the season.
Finishing just 6 points off the Top Four considering the perilous position Arsenal were in is not something which should be underappreciated. It really is quite an achievement and it bodes well for the future. It wouldn’t surprise me if we’re sat in a position a year from now with a spot in the 21/22 Champions League secured and at that point the question will be – ‘what if Arsenal sacked Mikel Arteta at the end of the 20/21 campaign?’
Nonetheless, amid my optimism, what can’t go unmentioned is Arsenal’s dumping from the Europa League at the hands of Mikel Arteta’s predecessor, Unai Emery. Emery’s Villareal side, despairingly, just appeared to want it more than the Arsenal players over the course of the two legs. Indeed, Arsenal’s exit from the competition stands as my only major reservation regarding Mikel Arteta during the second half of the season. The fact he wasn’t able to motivate his players for such a monumentally important game really did worry me.
Yet, after a few weeks of objective reflection, it has become clear that Mikel Arteta is still the man for the job at Arsenal. As aforementioned, since adding some creative ingredients to the mix at the Emirates Stadium, things really have improved tenfold, something Arteta deserves credit for. Given his lack of experience in the job, it is without question that this would’ve been an incredibly informative season for the Spaniard. Next season we shall see if he has learnt from his mistakes of the early weeks of the 20/21 campaign.
Thus, while a thundercloud is still looming large over Arsenal Football Club, with fans more united than ever in their opposition to the owners, on the pitch, where it matters, there’s reason for optimism. Arsenal are in no way a flawless team, but they are an improving team, one which will unquestionably harbour greater success during their 21/22 season.
A season away from European football could be a blessing in disguise for Arsenal. With a bit of quality added to the squad and more time for Mikel Arteta to spend with his players on the training pitch, next season, with fans back in stadiums, could well be a memorable one for the Arsenal.