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Arsenal Top Four Finish: “Ahead of Schedule” or “Overachieving”? Expectation burns.

arteta-wenger

It would be an understatement to say that Arsenal fans are divided over almost every issue pertaining to the club. I haven’t tracked any long-term social media trends, but it’s fair to say that things have stayed relatively flammable on ‘Arsenal twitter’ since the rabid, vitriolic days of #WengerOut (typing that hashtag made me vomit a little bit in my mouth).

In more recent times, the overwhelmingly dominant issue at Arsenal has been current manager Mikel Arteta’s performance, which headlines a myriad of subplots. The one that has caught my attention lately is the debate about expectations for this season.

What IS the expectation for this season? 

Let’s start at the end of last season. The 8th place finish confirmed that the club will have no European competition for the first time in a quarter of a century. The reaction to this was varied.

There are those who felt this was an abject failure given how accustomed we’ve become to seeing Arsenal traverse the European continent every season for the better part of 3 consecutive decades.

Other fans saw this as a blessing in disguise – with the “distractions” of European football gone, the young manager would have precious training pitch time to drill his philosophy into the squad, a proper pre-season that he hadn’t had thus far, and a fresher line-up to choose from given the travel and playing time eliminated by dropping out of Europe.

Skip over to this season, Arsenal started 2021/22 in the worst way possible – statistically, the worst for over 60 years, apparently. Despite many fans giving Arteta, Edu and Co. full marks for the summer transfer window, it seemed The Blessing In Disguise season was looking cursed – losing 2-0 to a team playing their first ever Premier League match didn’t help.

Loss to Brentford

Fast forward to now where Arsenal have flirted with Champions League positions, and the expectations debate roars once again.

There is the camp that feels the most reasonable expectation for this season was a top 6 finish from the very start, and many people would be “happy” to at least get back into Europa League. The rationale has included the fact that Arsenal has the youngest squad in the league; how Mikel is still embedding his philosophy and principles into the team (many have heralded his handling of Aubameyang, for instance); and that top 4 was not yet the target for now, so getting it would be ahead of schedule.

Those who say top 4 should be the expectation have been accused of shifting goalposts given that at the start of the season they supposedly believed that Arsenal wouldn’t even compete for Europa League positions. It is held that many of these fans are Arteta haters and not genuine fans etc.

My take is that top 4 is a reasonable expectation, for a few reasons. 

Quite simply, Champions League positions should be the minimum expectation for a club the size of Arsenal, in any given season. Arsene Wenger worked his fingers to the bone to create this legacy. He was ultimately derided for “top 4 is not a trophy,” and his failure to achieve it for the second time also spelled the end of his tenure. So, for other coaches and managers to come after him and be allowed to miss this target every season without expectation seems like lowering of standards.

It’s been well documented how Arsenal earned the third most points in the “since Christmas” league table to the end of last season, and also pipped Manchester United by one point to finish the 2021 calendar year with the 4th most points. If this team can average 3rd to 4th place over these hybrid league tables, why is it unreasonable to expect the same over a football season? Why is the expectation dialled down even as the team is showing that they are capable?

The Arsenal hierarchy had made Champions League football the mandate for last season when Arteta was appointed, according to David Ornstein’s reporting at the time. Since then, the club has promoted the former captain from head coach to manager, and have generously supported him financially, not only with funds for new signings, but also in millions paid to release various players – quite unprecedented one could say. So, I think even they (the club’s owners and board) will be expecting to see a return for the faith and money they’ve placed in him.

Arteta Rejoices

Mikel Arteta himself has high expectations of his own performance. At the start of last season, he was quoted as saying, “It doesn’t matter who we have, we will challenge for the top, 100 per cent” after signing Willian on a free and with the Aubameyang renewal and Gabriel deal on the horizon. So, the man himself expects to challenge despite the mitigations made on his behalf by others.

Earlier, I mentioned how this was the “no distractions” season. After being knocked out of the League Cup by Liverpool, this confirmed that the league would really be the sole focus now, much earlier than has been the case for a long time. With nothing else to play for, it would be disappointing for this team to be satisfied with aiming for less than top 4.

In general, I don’t think shifting expectations can always be labelled as moving goalposts. Expectations are created with the reality of that moment in mind, and they often change as the context of the season changes. For instance, at the start of the season of Leicester’s league title, I don’t think too many Arsenal fans were genuinely expecting to be challenging. But, once it was clear that Arsenal was in the race (who can forget Welbeck’s last gasp glance of a winning header) with Leicester, it was considered a failure that we eventually fell off and didn’t grasp the chance. So, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to tweak what you expect once you’ve seen a clearer picture. As they say, opinions change.

Wherever you stand on this, it will be interesting to see where the team finds itself at the end of this season. Attaining top 4 will be successfully achieving what I think should be the minimum for this football club. A finish in Europa League would be a disappointing second best, but at least the culture of European football would be restored. A similar 8th position finish would feel like the stagnancy has well and truly made itself feel at home. Let’s see how it all pans out.

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2 Responses to Arsenal Top Four Finish: “Ahead of Schedule” or “Overachieving”? Expectation burns.

  1. Felix February 17, 2022 at 11:36 pm #

    Lovely article. Hope the below isn’t too problematic.

    You gave 4 reasons why Arsenal should be expected to finish fourth. First, that a club of our standing should be in the top 4, that Arteta set himself this expectation, that our performance over the last year shows that we are top 4, and lastly, that these were the expectations of the management at the time of Arteta’s appointment.

    One of the reasons we dug the hole deeper than we needed to was this obsession with past glories over present realities. We are a big team historically. But we have declined. No one falls and rises that quickly. In fact, the majority don’t rise back at all. So, we need to work, based on present realities targeting a return to past glories. The painful write-off and pay-offs of players was a necessary pain for the reboot, not a basis for demanding immediate returns. We are not the Arsenal of the Invincibles which had Henry, Wiltord & Bergkamp. We have PEA , Nketia & Laca. Ashley Cole, Campbell & Viera were replaced by Sokratis, Tierny and Xhaka. We have to do the hard work and pay the price to get back to the top.

    The managements expectation that Arsenal would get back into the top 4 at the time of appointing Arteta was clearly wrong. History has shown this. Per Mertesacker, BFG, came out and acknowledged as much expounding how the false assessment had led to bad short term recruitments. Fact is, a total tear down and rebuild was needed and this takes time and money. If the leadership could acknowledge this and revise their expectations on the face of evidence, why don’t we?

    Arteta’s words are to be taken with a pinch of salt. They are not so much objectives as aspirations. A manager shouldn’t be expected to publicly lower the bar for his team even if he believes the bar to be low. It just wouldn’t be wise.

    I agree with you are on your last point, and the argument you made regarding expectations being transient, based on the realities at the time. As you argued, we have shown that we are top four performers over the last 12 months, why not expect this over the next 6 months? Second, although the expectations in August were righty at top 6, we have shown that we can do better and that our competition is poorer than expected. We therefore are justified to raise the goal to top 4 and to be disappointed if we fail to attain this. The context will always remain relevant even as it shifts. At this moment in time, context says Arsenal should get top 4.

    Lastly, your article ignores the one factor that has distorted this debate. The tribalism of the Arteta-in and Arteta-out camps. Those illogically against Arteta want to judge him so harshly devoid of context or logic. This has caused those who are pro Arteta(if there are) to adopt a hardline defense that at times can be equally illogical. These two extremes nor only drive discourse, they distort it.

    Most fans are logical. When Arteta arrived, it was fair to back him and give him time. The collapse at the start of last season was logical basis for a case to dismiss him. However, the turn around post Christmas 2020 shows a clear upward trend in favor of Arteta. This season too, apart from the FA cup, is a plus on Arteta. If we fail to get top 4, and the context shows a failure by Arteta, I would back his sacking. As things stand, the probable reason for failing to get top 4 is the failure to strengthen at center forward. This appears to be a decision jointly by the club, not just Arteta.

    If there was ever evidence needed as to why fans shouldn’t run clubs, Arsenal Twitter is it. Context is key as to where Arsenal should finish and how Arteta should be handled.

    • Zwi Ramsey February 18, 2022 at 6:13 pm #

      Thank you, Felix, for your comprehensive and balanced response. I agree with most of what you say. I’ll just respond to a few things.

      I understand it’s easy to see the top 4 expectation as holding on to past glories. You’ve compared the Invincibles generation to our current crop, but that comparison is a bit unfair. In between these two periods, we’ve assembled squads of kids – Fabregas, Nasri, Walcotts, Denilsons etc. who consistently took us to Europe, consistently punched above their weight, to the point where they made us believe they could deliver a league title and overcome the constant UCL draws against European superpowers. That’s the more recent history I’m drawing us back to, which I’ve called a legacy of Arsene Wenger. He set the blueprint, and fair enough eventually was dismissed for not meeting his own minimum standards.

      I don’t expect immediate returns in terms of trophies and titles, but a club of Arsenal’s stature has to always put pressure on whoever is in charge to deliver UCL at minimum. Aside from their obvious cash resources, this is the kind of mentality that ensures clubs like Chelsea experience only short term drops. It’s a mentality that in the past the club has been accused of not displaying enough of, especially during this “top 4 is not a trophy” ridiculing of Arsene. We are now realising that perhaps even that feat was not as easy as it seemed. This is why I don’t feel that the boad’s top 4 mandate when Arteta came in was misguided – Mikel himself would have accepted this mandate because he believed it was possible. If you don’t want a drop in standards, you have to keep the standards consistent – any coach taking the job should accept this reality from the off.

      As an aside, but still relevant, I have always felt that the main problem at Arsenal is not so much the coach, but rather a “football person” who links the board with thte technical team. We have needed someone who can carry out the mid- to long-term vision of the club, such that whoever the coach is, that central figure provides the stability, consistency and accountability to realise that club vision across a multiple number of coaches. Contrary to popular opinion, I felt Arsene was perfect for the role. I won’t go further into it, but I think that role had his name written on it.

      Regarding the tribalism, I didn’t want to necessarily spell it out because I think it’s clear that from the WengerOut days, club support has had a binary element to it. I try to find a middle ground and reason things out, but people will always lump you into a camp. I don’t think this will ever change again, until we have a manager simply winning everything in sight.

      Otherwise, thanks for the debate. Appreciate being able to have exchanges that are respectful even where there’s disagreement.

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