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Why Arsenal’s road ahead is tough but the destination will be worth it

That headline is sure to antagonise some Arsenal fans who view qualification for next season’s Champions League or Europa league at the very least, as essential. Maybe that’s the right way to look at it. I choose not to attach too much importance to where we finish in the table. Let me tell you why…

Unai Emery’s end

Emery’s second season at Arsenal was a disaster. People point at off field distractions like Ozil’s place in the team, the captaincy controversy, Xhaka’s incident with the fans that put his future at the club in question. The reality, however, is that Arsenal simply didn’t do enough to convince fans that we were headed in the right direction.

Our summer transfer window was one of the more exciting ones Gooners have seen in recent times. A fancy, new record signing in Nicolas Pepe. A technically gifted Spanish midfielder from Real Madrid in Dani Ceballos. A young, exciting left back in Kieran Tierney. A future superstar centre back in William Saliba even if it meant having to wait another year to see him in action. A David Luiz. 

The squad was deemed by most to be good enough to make it into the top 4. That prediction was way off the mark and Emery’s team struggled week in week out.

The thing that confused me about Emery was that he had declared that Arsenal would be protagonists on the pitch. He said he preferred to win 4-3 as opposed to winning 1-0. Yet, the way he set the team up made me feel like we were never the protagonists and always more likely to just lose 3-0 barring an act of individual brilliance from Pierre Emerick Aubameyang or Alexander Lacazette.

There were moments in his first season when I felt he was exactly what we needed. A deep thinker of the game with a very tactical view. By the start of the second season, my view had changed. I was already questioning the credibility of our unbeaten run in his debut campaign. Were we just lucky to not get beaten earlier? 

Emery’s second season saw Arsenal collapse and it became inevitable that Arsenal would have to relieve the Spaniard of his duties. The club let it go a little longer than I thought they should have but finally, in December, he was given his marching orders.

Arteta’s arrival

I remember being at a friend’s wedding when Arteta got the job. To be honest, I was not the most optimistic about any candidate in the running for the position of Arsenal head coach simply because of how dire the situation was.

I woke up the morning after the wedding, a little hungover from the festivities of the previous night, and decided to watch Arteta’s first press conference as Arsenal head coach. With my cup of coffee in hand, I pressed play. My hangover disappeared and was replaced with sheer excitement and awe as I watched him talk about Arsenal and what he wanted to do at the club.

He engaged me in a way I hadn’t been engaged in a long, long while. One of the things I missed most about Arsene Wenger’s press conferences. By the end of his interview, I was pretty thrilled about what the future looked like for Arsenal. I liked what he said but knew that the key was for his words to be translated into good performances and eventually, results.  

Arteta’s first three months

The former Manchester City assistant manager impressed me in his first three months at the club. We might not have gotten the results we were looking for in games against Bournemouth, Palace and Chelsea but I liked the energy in some of those games, particularly against Chelsea at the Emirates which we ended up losing.

A win against Manchester United and a hard fought point at Stamford Bridge further convinced me that we were headed in the right direction. Less because of the result and more because of the battling performance. Football where we did play like the protagonists but also with a tactical nous that complimented our attacking style and made our defence look like a unit for the first time in the season.

It looked like Arteta was able to get his players to play the way he wanted them to for 60 minutes. The players simply didn’t have the legs to do it his way the whole game. David Luiz admitted as much in one of his post-match interviews. I was okay with that because for 60 minutes, I liked what I saw and knew it would eventually turn into 90 minutes. The Gunners were on a three game winning streak in the Premier League before the season was suspended as a result of the coronavirus. 

Premier League restart

There was a lot of optimism among Arsenal fans heading into the restart of domestic football. We were dreaming of forcing our way into the top 5 and sneaking into next season’s Champions League. We are two games in and have lost both. Away to Manchester City and away to Brighton.

Three of our players have succumbed to injury and two of those players will miss the remainder of the season. David Luiz had a stinker at the Etihad and has thrust himself back into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. With that, our hopes of rejoining Europe’s elite club is as good as over. What’s worse is, Arsenal look to be in full blown crisis. 

Should this warrant a full blown crisis?

I believed our hopes of getting back into the Champions League were over before Arteta even joined the club. We simply weren’t good enough. People talk about our defence being in disarray and they are absolutely spot on. Not enough is said, however, about the team’s attack. Arsenal have scored less goals than seven out of the top eight sides in the Premier League this season. Just to give you context, last season, Arsenal were the top scorers in the league behind Manchester City and Liverpool who were both gunning for the title and far superior to the rest of the league.

Our problems run deep and fixing them overnight was never going to be possible. Qualifying for this season’s champions league would only be possible if we either did fix our problems overnight or if the other teams vying for a spot in the top 5 absolutely collapsed. 

Our focus shouldn’t be on where we finish in the table this season. It should be on the quality of performances and what Arteta’s vision for this team is. Do we like the football Arteta is trying to get Arsenal to play? Can he make us the protagonists on the pitch? Can he make our team defend as a unit and improve our defensive record? Prior to these two games, he was showing positive signs on all these fronts.

Four of Arsenal’s seven clean sheets this season have been kept in the 12 games since Arteta became head coach. Arsenal’s goal scoring output is up since he took over as manager. It has gone from 1.33 goals to 1.42 goals per game. There is a need for further improvement on both fronts but this is a start. 

The Manchester City game was a disaster and left a sour taste in the mouth. We have to remember though, that we have been perennially second best at the Etihad. To expect that to change drastically so soon into Arteta’s tenure was hopeful to be kind and naive to be real.

The game couldn’t have started any worse with both Mari and Xhaka succumbing to injury. On top of that, Luiz’s intervention to seal the outcome of the result made the game not worth dissecting. Like Arteta said, it should be deleted from the club’s hard drive. 

I did not like the Brighton game. I see people including Arteta saying we played well enough to seal all three points but I disagree. We created a few good chances but nowhere near enough. Our defence exuded an aura of looking secure predominantly because Brighton didn’t attack us too much. Every time they did attack though, I felt unsafe.

We relied on individual brilliance for our goal and came apart because of a set-piece. We conceded a last minute goal. All very classic Arsenal things to do. The performance wasn’t good enough. On top of that, we lost our fantastic goalkeeper for the remainder of the season. 

That kind of showing will garner criticism and it should. But it’s one game. It doesn’t mean Arsenal are spiralling. It just means we need to go back to the basics and play the way we were playing before the pandemic. I hope to see that at Southampton later this week. 

Conclusion

Jurgen Klopp finished outside the top four in his first full season. Mauricio Pochettino finished outside the top four in his first full season. Pep Guardiola finished a career-worst third in his first full season. All these managers spent their first seasons getting their message across to the team and beginning the process of moulding the squad in their image – both in terms of personnel and style of play. They also all spent their first season failing based on their club’s objectives. 

If we want to build a successful project, we need to give it the time it needs and the time we should want it to take so that we get it right. No cutting corners.

Arsenal will need to spend money to rebuild a squad that is in dire need of change. They will have to make brutal decisions that not all of us will agree with. Arteta will need time to coach his players and get his team playing the way he wants them to play. The team will often alternate between failing and succeeding from now until what we hope will be the eventual success of this project. Let it happen. 

Failure isn’t always a bad thing if the pieces of the bigger picture are coming together just that little bit better. 

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1 month ago

Nice write up & realistic.The Hysteria Thats greeted these two defeats is unbelievable.None of it takes into account that there will be steps back in this “ progression “& as long as there’s refs like Atkinson to do there damndest to ensure teams are allowed to get away with murder it will be more difficult.Once Arteta is able to add some physicality & craft with a few additions.I believe you’ll see a much different Arsenal.But that may take another whole season.Patience.

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