Player of the season? Biggest flop? Most improved? WLYA's Arsenal awards 21/22
By Mac Johnson (Deputy Editor)
I think most Arsenal fans would have relished a true award for this Arsenal squad this season. A trophy was nearly impossible, given their lack of European participation, and how difficult it is to win the FA Cup without a hopeless league campaign or a super-team. We have neither, and because we've failed to qualify for the Champions League, there's a slightly bitter taste that comes to the tongue when considering the scope of this season.
Fortunately, I'm here to change all that! Presenting, WeLoveYouArsenal's 2021-22 season awards for Arsenal Football Club.
Player of the Season: Bukayo Saka
Like Manchester CIty's Phil Foden, who has earned the accolade of PL Young Player of the Year for two seasons running, so has Saka won our POTS award this year and last.
Unlike last season, where he was a bright spark in a dismal campaign, Bukayo Saka's 21/22 showed an amazing amount of growth, maturity, and development. He took last season on the chin along with the crushing defeat of EURO 2020, and evolved into a new man. He refined his finishing and goalscoring, began to develop his one-on-one skills in isolation, rather than merely in transition, and earned a cemented place in the England squad. Not to mention, he tallied 11 goals and seven assists this season, leading the side in both categories.
Last year, WLYA writer Max Mishcon used the word "tranquility" to describe Saka, and though it's true that he still brings a wonderfully level head to proceedings, I want to highlight his fire and desire this season. He has become a talisman, a leader, and a figurehead of this squad.
The only way is up for our Starboy.
Signing of the Season: Martin Ødegaard
Yes, he counts.
This was the most difficult decision I've made on this list, because our summer window was unbelievably successful. Between Aaron Ramsdale and Martin Ødegaard, the competition is stiff, and Ben White and Takehiro Tomiyasu had a toe in the door as well. Neither Albert Sambi Lokonga nor Nuno Tavares scratched the competition, though both had good moments.
But I chose Ødegaard for two reasons: first, his influence on the squad, and second, his individual ability. I'll begin with the latter. Signed for around £35m after a very successful loan spell at the back half of last season, he immediately stepped into the squad and made a difference, earning a locked-on starting berth before his true colors started to flash through.
He ranked second in the league for key passes and in the top five for chances created. For a player within a team sitting fifth, that's an unbelievable rate of success. He became our chief creator, our central ball-progressor, and eventually, the captain of the squad.
And that's the biggest reason I've picked him over Ramsdale. Though the Englishman is a year older, it's Norway's captain who has doubled his feat, and donned the armband for the Gunners as well. For a player to accomplish that in his first full season with the club is staggering.
Disappointment of the Season: Winter Recruitment
I'll keep this short. It was a make-or-break season for Nicolas Pépé, and he broke. It was Alexandre Lacazette's last chance to stay at the club, and he'll leave come next Tuesday. Even Kieran Tierney could be in that discussion, because of how much time he spent out of the squad—yes, I know, injuries are unavoidable, but he needs to stop pushing himself to the breaking point. Cédric can be in for being Cédric, and none will disagree.
But no, the real disappointment this season was the January transfer window. Quality aside, Arsenal took a bloated 25-man squad with about six possible reserves and turned it into a squad with a maximum of 20 players who have first team experience. That on the surface is positive.
Unfortunately, Arsenal most likely lost out on top four because of a lack of winter recruitment. We entered the most crucial art of the season understaffed and injured, and I think Arteta struggles mightily to adapt his tactics to a squad that cannot play them to the level which he demands.
This summer may pay different dividends, but it will have to if Arsenal are to continue their upward climb.
Most Improved Player: Gabriel Martinelli
In 2019-20, Gabi gave us an amazing cameo of his abilities, hitting double digits for goals in his first season with the club mostly due to the graces of the Europa League and league cup. Still, they all count. Then injuries derailed that season. Last season, he still managed to show us his staggering ability in flashes, including his wonder-goal against Chelsea, but with only 14 appearances, his time in the spotlight was limited.
This season, though, Martinelli made himself impossible to ignore. With an even balance of six goals and six assists in the league, he ties Smith Rowe for the second-most goal contributions in the squad, only short of Bukayo Saka's 18. Smith Rowe, coincidentally, was the other player up for this accolade, but he was set for a brekaout year—Martinelli has caught us all off guard. But more than that, he made 29 league appearances, including 21 starts, establishing consistency where before there was none.
Always an adept scorer, his passing has come on in leaps and bounds, and his decision making has parted ways with his aggression—both used to provide elements of helter-skelter and chaos into a match; now, his pace causes opposition defenders no end of problems, while his decision making has been among the best in the squad. His dribbling is fearsome, too.
Unlike Nicolas Pépé, who earned this accolade last season, Martinelli has a real and tangible future in the league and with this team. His improvement is a mark of his hunger and drive, something we lauded Pépé for last season that he seems to have lost. I can't wait for what's next.
Unsung Hero: Rob Holding
My goodness, I wanted to give this to Granit Xhaka. I really did. Xhaka had an amazing season in his own right, leading the midfield almost singlehandedly in the absence of Thomas Partey, and showing us all how much he cares about Arsenal Football Club. That said, fans also recognize that. Not the most unsung.
It's not a "Mac Johnson: Deputy Editor" article without some Rob Holding love. Forget the red card against Spurs for a minute, and let's bask in a real renaissance for Holding. And not just for his hairline.
He was forced into a starting role last season, and though he wasn't terrible, he often left fans wanting more. Nothing could be further from the truth this season. Red card aside, he proved pivotal in a number of tactical tweaks and enormous wins this season, providing a glut of stability and calm at the back. When Arsenal needed him most, he came to the call.
He's not glamorous, or flashy, but I can think of nobody more deserving of a little extra love than Rob Holding.
Goal of the Season: Alexandre Lacazette against Southampton
The second-hardest decision I had to make, because it was between this wondrous goal, Xhaka's howitzer against Manchester United, Ødegaard's free kick against Burnley, and Martinelli's blinders against Watford and Newcastle. Five very contentious options, but this one is particularly special.
Though all four of the runners-up were special, there is one quality that sets Lacazette's goal apart: it is scored by the team, rather than from a moment of individual brilliance from a single player. Martinelli's strike against Watford comes close, but it's the sheer risk involved in the Southampton goal, and the unique, press-resistant and system-centric nature of Laca's strike against Southampton that sets it apart.
Arsenal have been at their best this season when unified as a team, and this goal exemplifies that. Seven players touch the ball in buildup that starts from Aaron Ramsdale's touchline, until a dizzying series of passes slices Southampton to shreds on the counter. Saka finds Lacazette expertly with the type of slipped cut-back that is quickly becoming a trademark, and the top corner ripples. An ostentatious finish for an ostentatious move, and a deserving goal of the season.
Match of the Season: Arsenal 3, Spurs 1
Though wins against Chelsea and Manchester United feel great, there is no better feeling as an Arsenal fan than to triumph over Tottenham. But to do it under those circumstances was beyond startling. Coming off three losses from three matches to start the season, and sitting 20th, plumb last, with a -9 goal difference, Arsenal looked a sinking ship.
Arteta was offered a deal: he had five matches to turn the season around or he was gone. The first two matches of those were at home against Norwich—my first Arsenal match, incidentally—and away at Burnley. Two shaky 1-0 wins followed suit, and Arsenal returned to the Emirates to face a Spurs side who were, at that time, top of the league, or had been within the last week.
We emerged 3-1 victors from a dominating performance. It saved Arteta's job, and catapulted Arsenal into both a mindet of self-belief and into a run of success that launched them up the table. We may have finished fifth, but it could have been infinitely worse had that match gone the opposite way, as many thought it would. Now all we have to do is triumph over them at the toilet bowl, just once.
And that's it! I hope you enjoyed the WLYA Arsenal Awards for 2021/22. Please, give us a follow on socials, and check out our YouTube Channel, now up and running with transfer content, exclusive reports, full podcasts, and more! Thanks for reading, and COYG <3.