(We Love You) Arsenal Awards 2021
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
A year ago today I wrote the final piece on this site for what was a turbulent and traumatic year. 2021 has certainly been a better 12 months. For us at WLYA, we've made tremendous progress in the consistency in the quality of our writing, broadening our horizons to different styles of content and doing so with greater frequency- we should get to piece 250 for the calendar year tomorrow. If you want to see a round up of the website's year, check out Rob's piece where he does so.
As for Arsenal on the pitch, it's been significantly better than what we saw in 2020. Besides from an enthralling FA Cup run which was capped off with a trophy in a sterile Wembley Stadium, last year was pretty bleak. We finished 8th after inconsistent form in Mikel Arteta's early months, followed by a period where the results inevitably dipped as the metrics had suggested they would do, leaving us lingering just above the relegation zone in mid-December. However, the final couple of results and performances of last year did indicate a sign of better things to come in 2021. And despite some blips and incredibly low low points, much better things did come.
We built some solid foundations for an actually functional team in the early months of the year, with significantly better performances and metrics, blended with inconsistent results, which saw us rise from 14th at the start of the year to 8th come May. Still nowhere near where we wanted to be, but there were signals of the process in motion. Off the pitch, the Super League debacle left a sour taste in the mouth of all Arsenal fans towards the ownership.
The Villarreal double leg disappointment against our old Gaffer was undoubtedly a low point that raised serious questions over the future of Mikel Arteta, but we stuck by him, and are beginning to reap the rewards for this patience that the majority of the fanbase had run out of. Maybe judging a manager purely on knockout football and the inherent randomness this entails might actually be quite harsh.
The emergence of Emile Smith Rowe and the continued development of starboy Bukayo Saka set the tone for our Summer recruitment. The board identified the need to rebuild a damaged and ageing squad, and did so in a smart manner, looking to bring in young players with high potential. Despite many scoffing at this seemingly logical approach, it now appears to be paying off, with this newly put together, youthful and exuberant side leading us to 4th going into 2022. The opening three defeats saw us in crisis again, but the extent of the turnaround and just how good some of the positive results have felt leave me yearning for more of the Arsenal. I can't wait to see how this side develops in the next 12 months.
So, without further ado, here are my Arsenal related awards for 2021.
Player of the Year- Bukayo Saka
Could it really be anyone else? Saka has become the poster boy of this football club in 2021, and has undoubtedly been our most consistent and important performer. Playing more minutes than anyone else, he's also managed 11 goals and 8 assists this year, thus contributing to the joint 2nd most goals in the squad. However, he brings a lot more than just his direct output, with his dribbling ability, creativity and work rate at the forefront of his performances. He leads the side for shot-creating actions, progressive carries and progressive passes received this year. Not only is he our most prolific creator, he is quite clearly our main outlet that we look to to make things happen.
Aside from a slightly patchy start to this campaign, he has consistently produced excellent displays throughout the year, and was awarded with our player of the season award for 2020/21. The only other players who may come close to taking this accolade off him are perhaps Kieran Tierney and Smith Rowe, but their impacts have certainly not been as substantial as Saka's.
I didn't consider anyone who hasn't been at the club the entire 12 months, although shoutout Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White and Takehiro Tomiyasu.
Goal of the year- Bukayo Saka vs West Brom
Saka racking up the rewards here.
It may be look lazy that I've literally chosen the second goal we scored in 2021, but I actually went through every single fixture and made an extensive shortlist.
We scored a few screamers this year, a few beautiful free-kicks and a few nice solo goals, but for me, nothing beats a nice passing move that results in a high xG shot and finish (lol). This goal against West Brom was exactly that. Aesthetically, the goal had everything. A few flicks around the corner, great one touch passing, one-twos and slick off the ball movement, beautifully carving open a low block, before a tap in with the picturesque image of snow falling down inside the Hawthorns being the backdrop. A huge shame there were no away fans to witness this magic.
It was also the players involved and the context of the goal that made it so special. Saka and Smith Rowe were the architects of it, with the latter eventually teeing up the former for the tap in, after a move that had also involved Alex Lacazette. We were just three games in to our renaissance with this pair leading it, and it was the first goal we'd seen in such a long time that reminded us of the football we'd typically associate with this football club we all love. I'm sure if the travelling faithful had been there to view it, the now iconic chant of 'Saka and Emile Smith Rowe' would've been born 9 months earlier.
My personal close contenders were Tierney's screamer in the same game, Gabriel's monstrous header in Athens, Lacazette's similar goal to Saka's at Bramall Lane, Willian's free-kick against West Brom because of the novelty behind it, Aubameyang's goal in the North London Derby and finally, Lacazette's against Southampton just a few weeks ago.
Breakout Star of the year- Emile Smith Rowe
I mean, do I really need to explain this one? Smith Rowe may be the only player who has 'broken out' this year, but boy has he exploded. His introduction to the side may have technically come 6 days prior to 2021 starting, but he really asserted himself in the first team, came into his own and began to flourish this year.
12 goals and 7 assists in the last 12 months is a brilliant return for a player of his age and emblematic of a player who could develop into an output machine. The timing of his runs into the box and his finishing ability appear to have improved exponentially this year, and this raw attribute makes for a mouth-watering prospect. While there are certainly aspects of his game that need improving, the early indicators are good. Expecting a huge 2022 from him.
Performance of the year- Arsenal 3-1 Spurs
This definitely wasn't our most complete display of 2021, but the way we played for 35 minutes of the 90, the symbolic nature of the day and the significance of the result make it my game and performance of the year. We've had better performances that included more sustained intensity, such as West Ham at home a few weeks ago, Villa at home in October and Leicester away in February, but none of them match this for several reasons.
The context around the game makes it significant and also made it extremely enjoyable. We'd come into the game off the back of losing our opening 3 games in dramatic style and then narrowly beating Burnley and Norwich. Huge question marks around our summer business and where we were heading as a team under this regime loomed, but this performance would ultimately serve as a marker for what these young players and manager could do. It was the first time we'd seen the newly assembled outfit together in a big game and they blew Tottenham away in the first 35 minutes, storming into a three goal lead with some electric football. The pressing game plan was on point, our transition game was frightening and every one of the new signings looked perfectly settled. Yes, the second period was very much dictated by game state, as we largely sat off and let Spurs grab a consolation, but the opening 35 minutes were a statement to the rest of the league.
We moved ahead of the then dubbed title-challenging Spurs and new chants 'Saka and Emile Smith Rowe' and, 'Tottenham get battered everywhere they go' were born. This was also the first big game we had won with fans back inside the Emirates, and as someone that was there, it was genuinely the best atmosphere I'd experienced since we beat Pep Guardiola's Barcelona in 2011. The sun was shining and we retired to the Tollington to drink many a pint. What a day.
Moment of the year- The Emirates being full again on 22nd August
There were several great moments during 2021, with the Saka goal against West Brom, our late winner in Athens against Benfica which relieved the stress of exiting the Europa League, the galvanising anti-Kroenke protest, the moment the Super League collapsed, the winning goal in the North London Derby in March, the signings of several of our important players and several of the goals scored by Saka and Smith Rowe this season, all standing out. However, for me, nothing compares to seeing the Emirates Stadium at full capacity again after 533 days of football not being the same.
The sterile atmosphere that we'd played in for over 17 months just didn't provoke the emotional connection towards following the team that it had previously. It didn't feel right. Even when watching a game on TV, watching it with a live attending crowd cultivates your feelings about the outcome of the game much more drastically. Tears were shed when the Emirates was full on August 22nd for our first home game of the season against Chelsea. Although tears were also shed with what was to actually follow in the game, the emotion of seeing football return to normal after so long was truly beautiful.
Let's hope this continues in 2022 and we don't see a return to the bleakness of behind closed door football. For now, Happy New Year and thank you for supporting us at WLYA in 2021.