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.
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.
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.
I first encountered Arsenal when I got exposed to English football around 2004 (that champagne football sold it for me), but only learnt of the Invincible season much later on. I used to think the club is named after Arsene – a bit silly in retrospect. Appreciate the perspective and stories of older Gooners who’ve supported the club longer than I’ve been alive. Market researcher with a keen interest in photography (David Price and Stuart McFarlane have the best job in the world).
Oh, almost bought a Man United shirt as a youngster because I saw a friend of mine, who was the cool kid, wearing one. So glad I didn’t go down that road!