There was a lot of pessimism around Arsenal after the Europa League final. And for very good reasons, a 4-1 loss to Chelsea meant a third season in the Europa League and restricted funds going into a key summer window. Yet, no one could have predicted the course of this season, especially not the global pandemic part.
However, pessimism was soon replaced by cautious excitement as Arsenal put in the millions to give Unai Emery the tools to succeed, whether he should have been the man at the head of the club throughout that window remains debatable, what was clear though, was the backing of the club, he needed players, and players he got.
A total of around £138M was spent on players in various positions, 3 in defence (David Luiz at CB for £8M, William Saliba at CB for £27M and Kieran Tierney at LB for £25M), 1 in midfield (Dani Ceballos on loan from Real Madrid) and 2 in attack (Gabriel Martinelli for £6M and Nicolas Pépé at RW for £72M). On top of that, a lot of players were shipped out, most notably club captain Laurent Koscielny, but also long-standing figures such as Alex Iwobi and Nacho Monreal as well as Emery lieutenant Henrikh Mkhitaryan. All of this action led to a lot of anticipation around the club throughout pre-season. The question is, after all this investment and optimism, how did it go so wrong so quickly ?
Unai Emery and the broken USB
As much as people hoped it would turn out right, Unai Emery and Arsenal had always been a strange match, which is something that really showed at the start of the season. The early wins and good results were promising to some, for others they were something we saw too many times last season : underwhelming performances bailed out by individual brillance, notably Aubameyang. As the games went on, so did the confirmation that not much had changed apart from personnel. A coach that looked set on a 4-2-3-1 ended up switching to a conservative 4-3-3, then a diamond 4-4-2, then 3 at the back once again, with none giving the team the upper hand either offensively nor defensively.
The trip to Watford was the biggest symbol of that period, Arsenal went with a diamond in midfield, against a Watford side that intended on deserting central areas in order to create overloads out wide. This led to Ainsley Maitland-Niles being constantly in a 1v2 while also facing Gerard Deulofeu. Yet, Arsenal took a 2-goal lead courtesy of Aubameyang and smart play from a Mesut Özil once again brought in from the cold. What followed is what can be branded as “typical Emery” : the team dropped deeper and deeper, until the pressure became unbearable, Arsenal conceded 31 shots to their 7, and mistake from under pressure CBs Sokratis and David Luiz gave Watford a point that felt like a loss to them given the performance. Granit Xhaka saying that they were “afraid” led to lots of abuse directed towards the then-captain but it was also a clear sign of Emery’s influence : an irrational fear of whatever the opponent could do.
This is just one example but many more followed, and it became clear very quickly that things were just not working, the team was finally Emery’s, the issue being that this meant a team devoid of ideas, scared whatever the scoreline, and more focused on hardworking players to give the opponent a relatively hard time rather than taking the game to the opposition. Kieran Tierney was back, Rob Holding was back, Hector Bellerin was back, Emery quickly went out of excuses to justify the level of performance, which has always going to end up bringing nothing more than a winless run as it did at the back-end of last season.
The club could, and should have acted earlier, it was clear very soon that Emery was the wrong man for the job, and that it wasn’t a fluke, most of the numbers were very similar to what he produced at his previous clubs, yet Raul Sanllehi waited, even after the dismal display away at Leicester before the international break in November, nothing came out bar a half-hearted show of faith. The two-week break could have been the perfect time for the new coach to build his staff and meet the squad yet the club waited, ultimately opting to sack Emery the day after the first game after the break, another weak performance in a 2-2 draw against Southampton. The timing remains very questionable, like the fact that the club waited 4 weeks to make its move for Arteta, a coach that has been on their radar since his retirement as a player in 2016.
It all seemed like too little too late though, a 10-point and 6-team margin was built between Arsenal and the Champions League spots, and after a few weeks under Freddie Ljungberg came the man to lead Arsenal into a new era.
Mikel Arteta, 19 months later
Just like when he arrived as a player in 2011, Mikel re-joined as head coach a club in turmoil, 19 months after the club opted for the “safer option” that was supposed to be Unai Emery. with a long-term contract, it is clear Arteta isn’t just there to try and get Arsenal back into the next edition of the Champions League but rather to build a side capable of competing on the long run.
While there is still a whole lot of work ahead whenever football returns, Arteta’s arrival has already done wonders to a squad that looked broken under Emery. Players like Mustafi and Xhaka have rebuilt a connection with the fans while Lacazette and Aubameyang are fully behind the new man in charge, which wasn’t the case under Emery. On the pitch, the results haven’t been great themselves but 8 wins, 5 draws and 2 losses is a solid return for a novice coach thrown into the lion’s den in the busiest period of the season.
In terms of tactics, the main changes have been the reintroduction of Mesut Özil in the number 10 role and the very offensive 2-3-5 formation used when Arsenal are attacking, with Saka joining Pépé, Özil, Lacazette and Aubameyang while Xhaka shifts to the left creating a 3-man line with the right-back and his midfield partner. Off the ball, Arsenal are pressing with a lot more intensity when losing possession, in order to either recover possession or put the ball in a wide position with the passing lanes closed for the opponent. Arsenal still struggles to create quality chances but there seems to be a lot more to the team’s game that “give it to Kolasinac”.
Defensively, Arteta’s Gunners have conceded 12 goals in 15 games, while scoring 23, a big improvement from the 21 goals conceded in the last 15 games of Emery’s reign. Whilst Arsenal still concede a lot of shots, although less than under Emery, more of them are speculative shots rather than clear-cut chances, all of this with the same squad minus natural full-backs, with Bellerin nursing a torn groin and Tierney recovering from his shoulder injury. The biggest change has been the return from the depths of hell of Shkodran Mustafi, replacing Sokratis next to David Luiz, as his passing is a lot more varied and precise than that of the Greek. Sokratis has deputised on the right on occasions while Saka has played nearly every game at left-back with Kolasinac and Tierney unavailable.
So far the intent has been set on changing pieces inside the system rather than the system itself, with Bellerin replacing Maitland-Niles, Pépé replacing Nelson, Ceballos replacing Torreira and Nketiah replacing the horrendously out-of-form Lacazette. On the other hand, the absentees in defence do mean that the system might well change once Arteta has all the players fit and ready. Having the left-back join the attack makes sense when your left-back is a winger like Saka, not so much when Kieran Tierney will play, which suggests that there could be some tweaks and that Xhaka and Aubameyang’s positions on the left aren’t set in stone.
Although the squad is in better shape now, there are still question marks over a number of areas, especially central defence and midfield. In defence, Arsenal do have options at CB, maybe too many in fact, it is more a question of quality than quantity. Mustafi and Sokratis will only have a year left on their contract next summer and should be moved on, a decision will have to be made on Mavropanos and Holding as well, with the latter struggling to recover his form after his ACL injury and with question marks over his very patchy record of games played in his 4 seasons at the club.
Pablo Mari arrived in january from Flamengo but with 2 games played, it is hard to know whether he’ll be a permanent acquisition or not. William Saliba is coming in with a lot of hype and expectations, David Luiz looks set to stay and potentially mentor him, as his experience will be of great help. Calum Chambers is still recovering from his knee injury, which leaves a place for one more arrival, one that could well be Dayot Upamecano, a player Arsenal have been very publicly pursuing and who has been playing like one of Europe’s best centre-backs this season. He is set to leave RB Leipzig for 60M€ this summer.
In midfield, the problem is different, Arsenal have Xhaka, Guendouzi and Torreira, three players very good at many things but players that you don’t want on the pitch at the same time, especially the 3 of them as games against Huddersfield last season and Tottenham in september showed, with a flat midfield three and loads of empty space between them and Arsenal’s front three.
The issue is that they’re good at many of the same things and have similar flaws too. Xhaka and Torreira suffer from a lack of mobility while the more mobile Guendouzi has a very poor sense of positioning. Xhaka and Guendouzi share a very solid passing range while Torreira plays it more simple. What they all share is the fact that they’re midfielders operating in the same areas of the pitch, which is around the centre circle, and that don’t bring any sort of impact on the opponent’s goal apart from the odd shot or rush forward. Ceballos has been brought in as a more attacking option but he’s also a player more comfortable in deeper areas as proved by his recent performances next to Granit Xhaka.
Arsenal miss Aaron Ramsey, Dani Ceballos was always very likely to flop at 10 under Emery and Joe Willock has been a prime example as to why building a core of young players takes time and quite a few dreadful cameos, the Gunners miss a midfielder able to create and score, especially when playing a conservative pairing in midfield which leaves a 31-year old Mesut Özil with more creative responsability than he’s ever had. There’s a chance than second-season Nicolas Pépé will carry some of that creative burden but Arsenal remain in dire need of creativity and physicality and midfield. This could come via Emile Smith-Rowe, who has been enjoying a good loan at Huddersfield Town, and who remains very highly rated in and around the club.
As if the season wasn’t rocky enough, a global pandemic found his way into English football and leaves the Premier League in limbo. There’s no solution now and with each day passing, the possibility that the season finishes naturally after 38 games looks more and more remote. Not finishing the season would of course be a big financial him for all the clubs, making the transfer plans detailed above much more difficult to bring to life but lives come first, cases at Arsenal, Leicester, West Ham and Brighton showed that football cannot escape the virus.
Regarding Arsenal, Mikel Arteta has thankfully recovered and the whole squad remains in isolation. This would be a peculiar end to a very strange season, one that many would rather forget but it could also be the start of something great in North London, under a tactician forged by Guardiola and Wenger, but determined to make a name for himself as a coach.