Pbarany has written today’s article.
After a terrible 2020/21 season, ending with the lowest points and league position in 30 years, last week we concluded a more interesting, more controversial and – untill the (pen)ultimate round – more exciting and hopeful campaign. But how should we assess the season gone by?
If we compare most aspects with the previous season, the progress is obvious. However, bearing in mind the previous season was the worst in the clubs history in a long time, we should look beyond that one simple comparison.
Here is my take on the season evaluation. Some are facts – thus undeniable, yet open to interpretation and some are subjective perceptions. (Therefore challenges are welcome and encouraged.) I admit some of my disappointments are related to this unique opportunity of having no European distractions, unprecedented spending in the transfer window with 6 reinforcements coming to support Arteta’s vision in all necessary departments, and key opponents like Chelsea, Spurs and Man Utd struggling big time, which might not happen next year. Anyway, I’ve tried to put the trends into perspective from Wenger’s last campaign (WL), through Emery’s and the joint year to Arteta’s second full season.
- After an amazing run of good games Willock was sold well over his reasonable market value.
- Games won this season (WL: 19, E: 20, E/A: 14, A1: 18, A2: 22)
- 6 points against strong opponents like West Ham, Leicester, Wolves, Aston Villa and Leeds.
- Not conceding goals from corners the entire season.
- Mature and conscious display defending set pieces, limiting shots following them.
- A reduced squad enabled fringe players (like Tavares, Lokonga, Holding, Elneny, Nketiah) getting valuable minutes.
- The high press seems to be working more often than not, leading to costly mistakes by the opponent.
- Saka and Smith-Rowe becoming reliable performers – and recurring England nationals – despite their young age.
- Odegaard proved to be a master signing: key passes, relentless pressing, leadership abilities – what a class of a player.
- Nketiah getting his chance and scored 10 goals in 1280 minutes (compared to Saka’s 12 in 3360), albeit way too late.
- Partey, Xhaka and Elneny performing exceptionally well in some (critical) games, strong midfield partnerships.
- Tomiyasu hit the ground running, had a few fine games when fully fit.
- Arteta acknowledging mistakes after (lost) post-games press conferences.
- Academy players – probably due to the thin squad and injuries – often called up to train with the first team.
- Games lost this season (WL: 13, E: 10, E/A: 10, A1: 13, A2: 13)
- Goals conceded (WL: 51, E: 51, E/A: 48, A1: 39, A2: 48)
- Goal difference (WL: 23, E: 22, E/A: 8, A1: 16, A2: 13), and 2-3 should be realistically deducted due to the nature of the last game.
- Points against Top 6 teams (MC: 20, L: 18, Ch: 13, T: 11, MU: 11, A: 9)
- Surprisingly frequent and recurring injuries, too many illnesses.
- Lost 12 games out of the 13 when we conceded first – unsatisfactory mid-game change management.
- Lousy displays against Brighton, Crystal Palace (1 point in 2 games) and Southampton (3 in 3)
- Ramsdale and White – after a few good games – failed to live up consistently to the hype and expectations.
- 4 red cards a PL season is one less than the previous 2 campaigns, but still a lot and the second highest in the league.
- 6 red cards (4 in PL, 2 in the League Cup) a year – without European football and long cup runs – is just simply unacceptable.
- Penalties conceded (WL: 6, E: 7, E/A: 8, A1: 3, A2: 7), too few favorable VAR decisions.
- Some players seemingly overused (Saka, Gabriel, Ramsdale, White), some underutilized (Pepe, Leno, Holding, Nketiah)
- Overly predictable line-up and tactics exploited by experienced managers.
- No Arsenal player in the team of the season.
The weird (neither positive nor negative, rather strange or interesting):
- The least games drawn in the 7 top leagues (3), tied with Borussia Dortmund and PSV Eindhoven (but those are 18 teams / 34 games leagues)
- Balanced scoring distribution; only 2 players reaching double digits in the PL (Saka: 11, ESR: 10), 3 More players with double digit goal contribution (Odegaard, Martinelli, Lacazette)
- We have 5 full (adult) internationals without playing a single minute for our first team in competitive games: Ballard (Northern Ireland), Hein (Estonia), Rekik (Tunisia), Flores (Mexico), Saliba (France)
- Even though we didn’t win many more games or played more convincingly compared to the last few seasons, the chronology/distribution of our performance resulted in Arteta winning PL manager of the month twice this year – September and March – while the previous Arsenal MotM was Wenger back in 2015 (!) October (fun fact: Nuno Santo won this in August, but neither Conte, Klopp nor any MU managers won this season)
- Decreased French and African contingent, while the Brazilian unit keeps getting bigger and younger.
- Playing out from the back is established (albeit not always followed), however I couldn’t find data showing its superiority, and sometimes causes nervousness among players and spectators alike
- We had the youngest squad of the league which is to be proud of, but not the academy lads adjusted the average but purchased young players, which is a bummer
- We played 45 games in all competitions this season, the fewest since 1988/89.
- Missed out on the Champions League and finishing below Spurs 6 times in a row.
- Uncharacteristic poor run in domestic cups.
- Academy players were given a shameful and pathetic 79 competitive minutes.
- Players sent out for loan or exiled seldom (if ever) get the second chance to prove themselves.
- Only 3 games the entire season with an xG of 3 or higher (Cicero, look away!!!): Aston Villa (H), Leeds (A), Everton (H), and the last one being a gift.
- Lack of long-term thinking prevented form-timing, hence winning critical games.
- Still burning cash to dispose players: Willian, Kolasinac, Chambers, Aubameyang.
- Players not in the plans are rumored/communicated publicly, thus minimal income is expected for Leno, Mari, AMN, and Rúnarsson, and limited (less than fair) fees for Bellerin, Torreira and Nelson.
- Excellent players were sold for a fraction of their true value: Guendouzi and Mavropanos were treated unfairly and sold in a humiliatingly amateurish way, jury is still out on Saliba.
- Arteta’s inability to rotate the squad (you read it well: not dispreference or reluctance; inability)
- The first team achieving the lowest rank within Arsenal: Women: #2, U23: #3, U18: #4, first team: #5.
Everybody has his/her own hypothesis what is the biggest issue with the current team, what is the main obstacle to compete with the very best clubs. And rightly so, it’s not just the usual “everybody is entitled to his/her own opinion”, but I’m not sure there is a single best answer. For many it’s the lack of funds. For others it’s the American leadership culture, a.k.a. the incompetence of the Kroenkes. Some slate the quality of the team – apart from the new signings – while other name Arteta as the main obstacle to progress. There is even a small group romanticizing a conspiracy theory against Arsenal on journalist, pundit and matchdayofficial level. Probably the most common answer is the lack of a clinical striker; as we are allegedly losing games without a proper heir to Wright, Henry and RvP.
However you haven’t seen me writing “no forward reinforcements in the winter” among the bullet-points above. And the reason is my answer to the ‘ultimate problem’ is the sharp and consistent decline of chance creation. So even if we had bought a world class striker in January, we might only have been a couple of goals better off. Or less if that player wasn’t keen on pressing. The sad truth is that we are not scoring 13 goals less in the PL compared to Wenger’s last and Emery’s first season, mainly because Lacazette and/or Nketiah are bad finishers, but because they don’t have many chances to score. They key passes leading to big chances are painfully rare. In fact we have just 2 players in the PL’s top 65 for the ‘most key passes per 90 minutes’ department.
I struggle to put it in a different way, but not just the numbers, the displays – especially in games with superior ball possession stats – also show as if we don’t know what to do with the ball, how to drive a decent attack, how to translate ball possession into promising shots on goal. The home game against Leeds is the perfect example, but there are countless others, as after scoring twice in the first 10 minutes and Leeds being reduced to ten men, we were expected to massacre them. But we didn’t score and we didn’t even create major chances yet managed to concede a goal in the ‘last’ 70 minutes. And not because the boys went lazy and waited for the final whistle. I won’t be shy to criticize them for the lack of trying. But they did; just didn’t seem to know how to break down a proper and desperately defending team.
For the lack of better words: while it seems we have a world class member in the coaching staff responsible for defending against set pieces and attacking corners (maybe 2 different persons, I don’t know), we don’t have experience or proper competency in the “how to lead an attack?” course. We like to believe that Arsenal is full of top dibblers (Pepe, Tierney, Saka), but even our best, Martinelli is only #27 on the dribbles per 90 minutes list. We often revert to the ‘crosses from the byline’ strategy, which is not simply boring and unattractive, but apparently inefficient, too. Maybe a tall striker like Isak or Scamacca would help, but Jesus wouldn’t, unless we bring back the creative spark to our game, which is painfully missing. Arsenal scored 61 goals this season. 6 of them were penalties, 1 own goal, but the 41 assists are alarmingly low. On one hand it is great that we can force the opponent to make that many mistakes in their own third, but we really should be more conscious when developing attacks, resulting in more key passes, more attempts, more shots on target, scoring more goals, and ultimately winning more games by gathering more points.
I hope I could support the mixed bag metaphor with facts and arguments. The picture is rarely black or white, therefore insisting on a biased and extreme narrative is seldom wise, and unbecoming to such a decent blog. Yet you have the luxury to interpret the shade of grey: whether it was great year, and albeit could have been better it was still beyond – your very own expectation, or, that the missed opportunities overshadow the undeniable progress on some fronts, and you had higher expectations which generally left you disappointed.
It doesn’t make much sense to squawk about Arteta’s new contract as the decision has been made. Sorry to say though, but currently Arsenal has the weakest manager among the top 6 teams (no disrespect here, it’s a quite exclusive group), but Mikel is improving month by month, so he will hopefully close the gap.
Let’s also hope for a productive and fruitful transfer window where we buy quality players to those positions where we truly need (external) reinforcements, and for a reasonable price. Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham are expected to spend heavy – probably Newcastle too – so let’s not compete with them on overpaying primadonnas, but resort to smart spending, and integrate the new players into the team during an effective and entertaining pre-season. I happen to disagree with our last transfer window being the obvious success everybody believes it to be, but maybe this time… Anyway let’s hope that despite other top 6 clubs having bigger budgets and higher fan pressure for crazy transfer spending, we are supposed to be ahead of Spurs, Mancs and the Chevskies in building the foundation of the next golden generation.
Yet, I hope that Saliba, Nketiah and Ballard stay – but you may have different aspirations.