Arsenal’s Annus Horribilis: How Bad Was It Really?
For a whole generation of Arsenal fans, this will have been the worst Premier League season that they have ever seen. The last time Arsenal finished outside of the top six was the 1994-95 season, in which the Gunners finished 12th. Since then, the club has seen a long and relatively successful twenty-five years, largely under the guidance of legendary manager Arsene Wenger.
Managerial Merry-go-round and record-breaking Gunners
By comparison to Wenger’s 22-year reign, this season the Gunners have gone through three different managers – a testament to the complete lack of stability, performance, and joined-up thinking that has plagued the club since ‘Le Prof’s’ departure. Unai Emery was appointed at the beginning of the 2018/19 season and offered many bright sparks in his first season in charge. However, he left the club in eighth place when he was sacked in November of the following season after a 2-1 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt proved to be one poor result too many for the Spaniard. Freddie Ljungberg was promoted from within the club to oversee a limbo period.
Whilst no-one expected Ljungberg to pull up trees as a manager, the complete lack of managerial “bounce” that he could affect on the squad was severely concerning. Speculation surrounded his every move, and the board’s refusal to add to his backroom staff left the ex-Arsenal star a lonely figure amongst disappointing results.
Ljungberg’s six games in interim charge yielded just one victory, in the form of a 3-1 win against West Ham. After never really looking comfortable in his new position, the board made the decision to appoint former captain Mikel Arteta, a decision which some fans felt should have been taken 18 months earlier. Amid a pandemic-lengthened end to the season, Arteta has pumped a breath of fresh air, bringing back honesty and high standards into the club off the pitch, and despite some indifferent results on the pitch, has led the Gunners to another FA cup final to be played against Chelsea next week.
The record books
The 56 goals scored this season is the worst return since 1995/1996, despite star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ending the season with 22 goals, just 1 goal behind golden boot winner Jamie Vardy. Perhaps obviously, alongside poor goal returns come poor assist returns. Nicolas Pepe provided the most assists in the Premier League for Arsenal this season, but even he could muster only 6. This was the lowest number to top the Arsenal assists chart since the 1993/94 campaign, when Kevin Campbell, Ray Parlour, and Alan Smith shared the top spot with 4 apiece.
Arsenal have also drawn the most games in the league, joint with Wolves and Brighton and Hove Albion on 14 for the season. It is these draws that have proven costly, as the Gunners have lost fewer games than three of the sides above them.
Perhaps surprisingly to many, Arsenal’s “uncoachable” defence has not been as disastrously porous as has been suggested. The 48 goals conceded is three fewer than both of the last two seasons and only four more than the 2016/17 season. While it will be taking home no prizes, the defence improved under Arteta and finished the season having conceded fewer than Chelsea and just one more than Tottenham. It needs significant work, of course, to make it anything better than average, but it was certainly not the worst in the league as it was often painted to be.
A season of individuals and off the pitch antics
Arsenal cannot seem to go a season without off-the-pitch drama at the moment. In 2018, it was Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez’s potential new contracts, whilst in 2019 it was the freezing out of Mesut Ozil by Emery. 2020 began with the same theme, but attention quickly switched to the contract situations of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and breakthrough talent Bukayo Saka. With both players’ contracts expiring in 2021, there was understandable frustration over a potential repeat of the Ozil and Sanchez situation.
Frustrations came to a head at the Emirates stadium in October when then captain Granit Xhaka was booed off by his own fans as he was substituted in the second half. His expletive-ridden response was one which summed up the disconnect between the fans and the club staff perfectly, and one which antagonised both sides further. Since his return to the side, Xhaka has been pivotal in many of Arsenal’s wins, and a notable absence in draws and losses.
More recently, there has been speculation over the future of Matteo Guendouzi, frozen out of the squad and forced to train alone since his aggressive outburst at Neal Maupay in a 2-1 defeat to Brighton. Compound these two with the Mesut Ozil shaped cloud which lingers over the club, and it is clear that this season has had as much woe off the pitch as it has put fans through on it.
Seeds of Hope
Despite the terrible season that Arsenal have had over the last 12 months, there are certainly shoots of promise which fans can cling to. Firstly and most importantly, in Mikel Arteta the board seem to have picked a man who cares deeply about the club and holds everyone around him to his own high standards, not to mention a coach that appears tactically astute.
In Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, Arsenal appear to have found two future stars who fans can look forward to developing in North London for years to come. With Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, and Joe Willock all also having seen plenty of first-team action, there is suggestion that they may not be the only youth prospects to get excited about in the not so distant future.
Amidst the disappointment, it is easy to forget that Arsenal still have a massive chance at silverware with an FA cup final next weekend. Whilst this would in no way redeem an awful season, it would go some distance to erasing it from the memory of Arsenal fans if they can somehow come out victorious against Chelsea.
Finally, there are the summer signings. Kieran Tierney at £25m suffered an injury-plagued first campaign but looks a bargain if he can maintain his end-of-season form. Nicolas Pepe has also had a difficult first season, struggling to adjust to the pace of the Premier League. However, whilst 11 goal contributions in the league is not anything to write home about, he is consistently improving and Arsenal fans can expect this to continue into next season.
One to forget
2019/20 was undoubtedly a season which Arsenal and Gooners alike will want to consign to the history books as soon as possible and move on. However, there are enough promising signs going forward that they may soon be able to do just that. The summer transfer window is now one which is perhaps the most important to this football club in a long time, and it is imperative that smart signings are made to take this club forward and continue the transformation that Arteta is trying to carry out. If this is done right, then this could be the rock bottom, meaning that things can only go up from here.
Words by Ben Browning