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Trusting the Process: An Optimistic Deep Dive into Arsenalʻs 21/22 Season

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There have been a lot of hot takes on Arsenal, and rightly so, having lost six of our last twelve fixtures and being pipped to top four by Spurs. I took a bit of time out before writing this and have come to this conclusion: the season was in our hands, and we blew it on multiple occasions. However, and I think this gets lost in the discussion of Arteta/Arsenal amongst fans and in the media, both things can be true at the same time. We bottled hard, and this needs introspection, but we are also progressing nicely and were very good for large periods of the season with the youngest squad in the league. 

Firstly, before we discuss the outcomes of the season, it is important to remember the job that Arteta was tasked with. He has had to stabilise a team that was in free-fall. He came into a club that had recently sacked their longest-serving and most successful manager, whose fingertips ran through the club from top to bottom. At the end of his tenure, we had dropped out of the CL for the first time in nearly 20 years, fans were fighting each other in the stands and outside the stadium, players were actively refusing to celebrate together and we had handed out big contracts to charlatans that were taking advantage of the club.

This wasn’t Wenger’s fault – Gazidis had forced multiple signings on him (Mustafi, Lacazette, Ozil’s ridiculous contract), but this, on top of his outdated tactical methods, meant Arsenal were in dire straits. This got worse with the appointment of Emery, whose conservative methods stripped the good bits that Arsene left (the free-flowing attack and trust in certain players) and made the defence even worse. By the time Emery had left, he had spent £200+ million in three windows on some absolute dross (Sokratis, Lichsteiner, Torreira, Denis Suarez, Pepe to name a few) and we were 11th, with a team that didn’t want to play for him, with mid-table defence and attacking metrics, a huge wage bill and a massively unbalanced squad.

Koscielny our Captain, forced his way out of the club, Xhaka was booed off the pitch and told the fans to fuck off, Lacazette was visibly gutted when he equalised, players mocked Emery’s accent whilst Cazorla, Welbeck and Ramsey all left for free. These issues were made worse by the fact that Emery and later Arteta would have to work under Raul Sanllehi, whose shady deals ultimately saw him leave his post in Arteta’s second season, and saw Arteta, who had never managed before, have to stabilise this club from top to bottom alone. 

So when you ask what Arteta’s job was, or the expectation of him after 2.5 years when analysing this season, it was to stabilise the club. Our wage bill has been nearly halved and will shrink even further with those leaving this summer, the recruitment has improved, we are blooding young players into the team, the support hasn’t been this electric for years and there is no internal in-fighting. We’ve messed up along the way, but the task at hand was enormous.

DÉJA VU

A lot of the football we have played this season has been scintillating, most notably in the period of December-April, where we hit City/Liverpool metrics before losing Partey, Tierney and later White. We won more games than third-placed Chelsea this year, and our net xG is just behind that of Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea without a consistent starting striker, the COVID issues at the start of the season and the injury crisis we found ourselves in at the end of the season (mainly due to squad building issues I will address later). We’ve finished fifth with a points total that would have got us fourth in the last few years, in a league where the quality of every team is getting stronger and stronger.

Yet again, this was a season marred by injuries, and specifically, the same players that got injured last year got injured twice again this year (Tierney and Partey). We lost Xhaka for 3 months and Tomiyasu for even longer, but it was in those full-back positions whereby the disparity in our backups showed itself. We only played our full-strength backline 10 times this season who when starting amounted 2 points per game. Despite the injuries, we still have shed the majority of the dumb mistakes that we were seeing season after season, we allowed the fourth-fewest shots in the league (without Tierney and Tomiyasu for huge swathes of the season, and an injured Ben White for the run-in). Furthermore, 9 of our goals (20% of all goals conceded this season) were conceded in the first three games, 5 of which were scored against a backline of Cedric, Chambers, Holding, Kolasinac and Tierney, with Leno in goal.

I believe that the overall structure of the team is not the problem (it does have its issues) but that we have issues with depth that will hopefully be fixed this summer. In the 25 PL games Arsenal started with at least 3 of our regular back 4 (KT, Gabriel, White, Tomi) this season, we conceded only 22 goals. A rate like that would leave us with the third-best defence in the league. Arteta’s ability to coach a mid and low block and introduce it in games in which we go in front (less said about his tactical ability when we go down) has highlighted the strength of our defence, although it could be argued that this may have affected our attempts to be a more dominant pressing/offensive team.

Ten games with our first choice backline is hugely frustrating but what team consistently has its first choice eleven? If we take out Liverpool and City for the equation, Spurs have had Romero, Dier and Doherty out for long spells, and Chelsea have had to completely reshape their attack with injuries to Chilwell and James. It will be interesting to see Arteta develop as a coach and hopefully he can become more adaptable when he hasn’t got his full squad available to him (and stop people like me spinning around backwards trying to make excuses for him). Once we raise the floor of the squad, with better full back options than Tavares and Cedric and better replacements to Partey than Elneny, then Arteta will have nowhere to hide.

HALE END BEAUTIES

Having missed the penalty which lost England the Euros (and Harry Kane his first trophy), Saka bounced back this season as our player of the season for the second year running and I was surprised Foden got the nod for YPOTY over him. Saka’s improved output and ball striking alongside his close control, dribbling ability and link-up play – especially with Odegaard, has seen him elevate his game even further. He was always a mature player, but his ability to influence games has upgraded to an ability to control games. At points this season opposition defences were tripling up on him to try and nullify him. It is hard to believe that he is still only 20, is our top scorer and assister, created the 6th most chances in the league and can play comfortably on both wings and operate as a wing-back on both sides.

It is essential that we supplement this right-hand side in the transfer window, as he has played in every game in the PL this season and has had to ride out some pretty disgusting challenges. Those genuinely disgraceful (and unpunished) challenges from Mings and McArthur spring to mind but it has been a pretty consistent theme of the season. It is an incredible testament to a 20-year-old to be our most important and influential attacker whilst simultaneously boiling so much piss when asked for protection from referees. He is young and as we have seen from Wilshere it is important to not burn out these young players before they hit their prime. Our most pressing issue this summer is getting him tied down to a deal as inevitably the vultures will circle. Saka is the franchise and future of Arsenal and epitomises everything pure and beautiful about this sport.

On the other flank to Saka, since his return from injury which saw him out of action for nearly a year, Martinelli returned with restraint to his game which has increased his efficiency in front of goal and allowed him to move interchangeably with the front three. I think he fits more into the mould of what Arteta wants from his left-hand forward than Aubameyang ever did, and whilst he needs to work on his G/A, you can sense that we have a special, special talent on our hands. Just look at what he did to City and Liverpool’s back lines, he had both their full-backs (and Van Dijk) in knots and looked like our biggest spark. However, he came out of those games with absolutely nothing, so hopefully next season he can start to add more numbers to his game. He has been rewarded with his first call-up to the Brazilian national team (outside of the Olympics) and hopefully, he will have the jump next season that Saka has had this season.

Both Gabi and ESR have been wildly inconsistent but hopefully, a few more kinks get ironed out next season. You can split ESR’s season directly in two this year, on one side the blistering start with nearly 10 goals, and then the second which tailed off as COVID and injuries hampered his ability to play consecutively and effectively. By the end of the year, he seemed off the pace and ineffectual, which was very frustrating considering the impact his goal threat and ball retention had on our play at the start of the season. Hopefully we can see him fit for a whole season next year.

Another impressive player has been Eddie Nketiah. Following the treatment we gave him, having failed to give him barely any minutes despite the failures of both our main strikers, many players would sulk with one eye on the wages they would get as a free transfer. The only reason he even got a shot in the team was due to Lacazette getting COVID, so who knows what would’ve happened had this not been the case. To still be motivated, and to continue to develop his game despite little to no playing time (he was also hamstrung by the fact we had no Europe) I think is a testament to his mindset. I would love him to stay as our second-choice striker, but I wouldn’t blame him and would completely understand his desire to play more regularly and be the star man somewhere else. Whoever ends up with him will be a very lucky team. If it was me? Just chuck him £100k and emphasise his increased minutes due to Laca and Auba leaving, Europa and the five sub-rule.

The best thing about these players being young is that you can guarantee with a level of certainty that they will continue to improve for the next few years. When these youngsters’ goals are complemented by an actual striker (Nketiah was our joint top-scoring striker in the league with five goals), who knows where we will end up. Ultimately, these youngsters have done their job, and we shouldn’t have been forced to be so over-reliant on them to carry us into top four. Just look at their stats this season in the PL compared with last:

SAKA
20/21: 5 GOALS AND 3 ASSISTS
21/22: 11 GOALS 7 ASSISTS

ESR
20/21: 2 GOALS 4 ASSISTS
21/22: 10 GOALS 2 ASSISTS

MARTINELLI
20/21: 2 GOALS 1 ASSIST
21/22: 6 GOALS 6 ASSISTS

NKETIAH
20/21: 2 GOALS 1 ASSIST
21/22: 5 GOALS 1 ASSIST 

BLOWING IT UP 

Despite people claiming that Arsenal spent more than anyone else in Europe at the start of the season (transfer fees and net spend are a Fugazi as they conveniently exclude the wages and signing-on bonuses that are getting bigger and bigger each season), we still went big and brought in six players, four of whom went straight into the starting line up. Edu managed to sell just the one player in the window once he learnt that you are allowed to sell players for money, with Willock joining Newcastle for £25m, Luiz left on a free to Brazil and mercifully took Willian with him, whilst Bellerin, Guendouzi, Torreira, Saliba and Nelson all left on loan. These signings all pointed to a new recruitment process from Arsenal: signing young, hungry players on low(er) wages with huge upside and re-sell value. 

Arteta (having yet to buy an actual attacker) sent the always calm Arsenal fanbase into raptures when he sent Saliba to France and bought in Benjamin White for £50m from Brighton. Having lived near Brighton all my life, and having a lot of friends with season tickets there, I was somewhat privy to the player and saw it as a smart bit of business. Ben White has had a brilliant season, forming a brilliant partnership with Gabriel that was only brought to its knees when both players had to cover Cedric and Tavares. I would say I was more impressed by White’s defensive and aerial ability than his ball-playing ability. Lots was made of his technical levels and ability to stride out of the back, which whilst very high, we only really saw in glimpses and flashes (maybe that’s just because I had grown accustomed to David Luiz’s OTT glory balls every three seconds).

I think maybe this is just perception and the fact that he looks like a contestant on Love Island, as I saw him as a modern-day, nice to look at CB who may get bullied on the ball. It was the other way round, he has been an ever-present stalwart of our back line. White is imposing, influential, strong in the tackle, has held up the majority of attackers in the league with comfort and is the first CB I can remember us having who hasn’t terrified me 1v1 with the opposition. He still does tend to back off a bit and struggles on the back foot but overall he has been a success. He will hopefully raise his game another 10% if Arteta is to be believed about his comments regarding the return of French YPOTY William Saliba. 

Ramsdale was another smart bit of business, much maligned by pundits and myself, he was a revelation in the first half of the season. Replacing Leno, a once POTS under Emery and a German international, was no mean feat, but it was only once Ramsdale came in that we realised what we had been missing. Whilst not an improvement on Leno with regards to shot-stopping, his incredibly penetrative long balls, bravery and ability to claim crosses is hugely impressive and has had a big influence on our ability to play out of the back and beat the press. His ability to consistently pick out Aubameyang, Martinelli and Saka allowed us to relieve pressure and aided our attack immeasurably.

Despite this, like a few of the youngsters, he tailed off at the end of the season and his erratic side started coming out. As big a personality he is, he wasn’t immune to the pressure at the end of the season, but will hopefully kick on next season and try and stay consistent for a whole season. (It is worth the caveat, that for a keeper he is very, very young). Many pointed to him being a confidence keeper during his stints at Bournemouth and Sheffield United and this has been demonstrably true during his first season at Arsenal. 

Another impressive bit of business was re-signing Odegaard from Madrid following his previous loan. Arteta clearly fancied him, and held out all summer to retain his services. Since the Auba departure, it has been fascinating to watch Arteta move to this 4–3–3 with Partey sitting at the anchor of our midfield, with Xhaka as a left #8 and Odegaard as our right #8. This helped us sustain attacks, and box teams in their halves, shutting off passing lanes more easily, a big switch up from even 3/4 months ago when we would score and then retreat into our own half. This season, despite his slow start, Odegaard has slowly morphed into our technical leader in the team. Whilst he is not the natural #10 Ozil was, and it seems almost lazy to compare the two but the way Odegaard dictates and glides through that right-hand channel is reminiscent of prime Ozil. He leads the press, dictates the play on that right-hand side, has unbelievable close control and dribbling skills and as a result is our highest chance creator. He is the spearhead of every attack we have and I am optimistic that his output will increase with decent strikers in front of him.

Hopefully, he will become a more dominant and assertive player next season, he is slightly lightweight in duels and this can lead to him disappearing in certain games. When you compare him to other similar technical players in the league, he doesn’t have the burst or athleticism that they possess. He has been seen already this summer working on some resistance training, so hopefully, we will see an improved and more dominant Odegaard in his third season with us. It will also be interesting to see what midfielders we sign in the Summer, as Arteta has raised the technical level of the back line, and this will now progress further forward. If the Tielemans rumours are to be believed, Odegaard will finally have some competition in that right #8 position which may give Arteta a bit of scope to move Odegaard around the pitch as we will finally have someone who can mimic this role. 

However, for my money, the best piece of business Arsenal made all season was their deadline deal signing of Takehiro Tomiyasu from Bologna for £15m. The Japanese international missed our first three games of the season but started almost days after signing. A technical leader who slotted in at RB but mainly operated as RCB so that Tierney could push up, he is able to play anywhere across the back line comfortably. He is two-footed (45% of his touches are with his left foot), impossible to beat, great in the air and has an unbelievable range of passes. Quiet and unassuming, Tomi was a huge loss at the half-way point of the season and an absolute bargain for what he has brought to the team.

RESOURCE ALLOCATION 

The summer wasn’t all great, however, as we failed to sign a striker we were crying out for and despite having spent money on Lokonga and Tavares as backups, Arteta instead favoured Elneny in midfield, Xhaka at LB and then Tomiyasu at LB (whom himself got injured when covering for our injured LB). This questions why they were signed, and whether the £25m+ spent could have been best placed elsewhere (this is around the sort of fee Spurs paid for Kulusevski – who got 13 G/A in 18 games). For instance, if Partey (like Tierney) is only able to play half a season, and we shape our entire 4-3-3 around him at the base of the midfield, then surely we should have got a suitable replacement rather than a project in the form of Sambi, whom it appears is more suited to that left #8 role than the ‘Partey’ role. 

A failure to bring in an attacker in the summer can somewhat be attributed to having Lacazette and Aubameyang in the team, on over half a million in combined wages a week, but this cannot be said for the January window when it was apparent that Auba was off and Laca wasn’t signing. The money was available, as per our bid for Vlahovic, but a failure to bolster the attack in this window like our rivals cost us top four in multiple ways. Our finishing problem was evident: we were 4th on expected goals, 4th on shots, 4th on touches in the opposition box, however, we were 6th on goals scored and our shot conversion rate (excluding blocks) found us in 12th!

acazette-alexandre

Not to dismiss his performances in Auba’s absence, but Arteta’s insistence on Lacazette when it was apparent he could no longer finish, link play or keep up with the pace of the PL cost us immeasurably. The fact that he couldn’t put games to bed due to his woeful finishing ability or lack of actual shots, meant that we would often have to keep our youngest players like Saka and Martinelli on for too long as games would resultantly go down to such fine margins. This would lead to them looking knackered and out of ideas by the end of the season with the added pressure of having never been in such a high pressured situation before.

Failing to strengthen in January, when it was clear we were arguably one or two signings away from clinching top four was negligent. It was clear the money was there with the bids for Vlahovic, but yet we allowed for Spurs to nab Kulusevski, Newcastle moved on Guimarães whose goal sealed our fate behind Spurs, whilst instead, we spent all of January clearing the wage bill letting go of Mari, Chambers, Kolasinac, AMN, Balogun and Aubameyang. I don’t believe for one second that Arteta didn’t want more signings, but he was hamstrung from not getting an attacker in the Summer, and the board refusing anymore funds unless they were the perfect replacement (Vlahovic). Our problem wasn’t letting all these players go, but failing to bring in any replacements. 

A consistent issue with Arteta seems to be crumbling under pressure, he lost his head in the Europa last season and seems a similar issue cropped up this year. We had Champions League football in our hands, we then preceded to lose three in a row, and pulled it back, only to lose away at Spurs and away at Newcastle. Spurs won the last 8 of 11 PL games, highlighting the strength and consistency needed to make the final push. That is with the caveat that they have two world class attackers (one who won the golden boot without penalties). Kane, who didn’t score for months, ended up with comfortably more than our PL top scorer. This firepower in the front line again asks questions about allocation the of resources in the summer and whether we could have strengthened differently. Hopefully, with Laca gone and the wages we freed up in January, we can add some firepower up top, as currently, our highest scorer is Pepe with 27 goals in all competitions. 

Furthermore, much like Arteta’s struggles without his main eleven, the same can be said for his in-game management. It has become a running theme this season that if Arsenal do not start well, then there is little chance that we will get a result. I think we came back from behind to win ONCE this season, against Wolves. We got four points from behind all season, which is the worst in the whole of the league, whereas our main rivals Spurs ended up with 14, most notably scoring two against Leicester in the 94th and 97th minutes, which you could point to being the result that secured them top four. I think this highlights just how much this young team and young manager are a confidence team.

THOMAS PARTEY

In his second season with the club, Partey finally lived up to the expectations we had when we signed him on deadline day in 2020. Having played in a double pivot for pretty much his entire Arsenal career, and started this season next to Lokonga whilst Xhaka was out, it wasn’t until Xhaka returned that we saw Partey hit world-class levels. Having rated his career at Arsenal as a 4/10, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would disagree, having only seen brief flashes of brilliance before he would get injured again. Finally back in the side at the base of our midfield as a sole #6, Partey was given free rein, flanked by Odegaard and Xhaka, and it is almost as if this added responsibility has unlocked him. Incredibly comfortable on the ball, technically our best midfielder by miles, his ability to win back the ball, beat the press and spray balls either to Odegaard or out wide was unmatched. I think only Frankie De Jong (85%) had a better take-on success rate in Europe than Partey (81%) in Europe.  

I also think Partey’s defensive capabilities were overlooked due to progressive qualities. He is an all-action #6 and we missed him just sitting in front of that back line, winning headers, duels and interceptions before starting attacks. Arteta fumbled the bag trying to mimic him with Lokonga and then Elneny, as what he does is so hard to replicate. Following Partey’s injury away at Palace, Arteta put Lokonga (who hadn’t started a PL game since that 0-0 draw at home with Burnley three months prior) in his position and he was too lightweight and didn’t have even close to the influence Partey has. This wasn’t his fault, but purely the manager who failed to realise you can’t just magic up another Partey, and was made worse by not giving him the protection of Xhaka, who he stupidly decided to shoehorn in at LB despite it not working in the exact same circumstances last season. Arteta has failed to protect his players in key moments this season, for example sticking with Lacazette for too long, putting Holding/Cedric up against Son/Kane, and rushing Tomiyasu back.

Partey’s incredible performances as a lone #6 allowed for Xhaka to push further forward as a left #8 and helped us continually sustain attacks, and also meant that he wasn’t being forced to track back and defend which isn’t exactly the Swiss internationals strength. I do have a sneaky feeling however that this will be his last season with Arsenal if the Tielemans links are to be believed. Xhaka is a stalwart and likes to lead, I cannot imagine him spending the majority of the season on the bench, especially due to his lack of mobility operating further forward in a 4-3-3. I just can’t see him not playing every second (or maybe this is just because Wenger/Emery/Arteta have all viewed him as undroppable and I can’t move on). But maybe he is banking on Partey to get injured again…

MANAGING EXPECTATIONS?

The EPL is harder than it has ever been – with broadcast revenues in the PL growing exponentially, clubs are not only getting the best players across Europe but investing in the best coaches, analysts, scouts and physios. I mean just look at the managers heading to clubs further down the league or look how much money teams like Villa are spending and they finished fourteenth. Leeds removed Bielsa for former RB Leipzig manager Jesse Marsch, Crystal Palace spent nearly £100m this season whilst newly-promoted Brentford managed to attract Christian Eriksen. At the other end of the table, Spurs are about to splurge huge on a Conte war chest, City have just bought Haaland in a deal supposedly totalling £190m, sustainable Liverpool are about to sign Darwin Nunez in a €100m deal and Chelsea have just been bought by Todd Boehly in a deal worth up to £4.25bn. Whether the Kroneke’s have been good owners (look at the correlation between our league position/trophies and the start of their takeover) is another debate, but we cannot compete with the spending of City/Newcastle/Man United/Chelsea. I think with the state of the league, Arsenal may have to slowly recalibrate what they see as success, and I think that is evident in the celebrations this season that many mocked us for. 

It is clear how to improve this team, and that the process is working (even if it is taking longer than some fans would like), unlike under Emery who got his singings and saw us get progressively worse. At the bare minimum we should be in the market for a striker, a wide forward and a left #8, three starters who hopefully will automatically lift the quality of the starting eleven. Whereas in previous years where you would look at Arsenal and think we could upgrade almost every position, the team is slowly becoming more defined and you can isolate exactly where we can improve. The previous window aimed to reshape the starting eleven, and this summer it is to supplement this.

There’s been progress but also mistakes that come with a young manager and young squad. It is all about narratives – if we had been consistently 5th all season the narrative would be different. Look at Liverpool for example. They played every game possible this year, with half their team out during AFCON, finished one point off City in the league (from 14 points behind earlier in the season) and lost to serial winners Madrid in the CL final, yet everyone has deemed their season a disaster (despite them finishing 4th last season and only bringing in Konaté in the Summer). 

We started playing some consistently excellent football and the expectations changed. I’m excited about the future because I love the way that this team has been built and is continuing to grow. You get a real sense that the club is getting smarter on and off the field, with regards to recruitment, the academy, the stadium and supporters, the links between the men and women’s team and the relationship the club has with the local community. If we are talking about intangibles, this has been the most exciting time to be an Arsenal fan in recent memory, and the support home and away (no matter the result) has reflected that. This team has brought (most of) the fanbase together after a very toxic period and Arsenal is unified in a way that they have not been in a very long time. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t those with legitimate concerns about the manager or the board, but it is clear we are improving year on year, the next question is just about how far Arteta can go. 

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