The good, the bad and the ugly of Arsenal’s 2019-2020 season
Three managers, our worst league finish since 1995, only 14 league wins, yet still an FA Cup triumph. A topsy-turvy season at Arsenal was one in which, before a ball was kicked, there were high expectations following a successful summer window. Arsenal smashed their transfer record when they signed highly-sought-after winger, Nicolas Pepe for an eye-watering £72million. Kieran Tierney would also come in and prove to be a good signing as would the loan capture of Dani Ceballos from Real Madrid. Other signings included David Luis from London rivals Chelsea, and hot prospects Gabriel Martinelli and William Saliba – the latter being loaned out for the season. It was a window which had Arsenal fans dreaming of a return to the Champions League however it was not to be, but just how bad was this season?
Before I dissect bad it was, there was some high points believe it or not, and where else to start but with the FA Cup. Despite turning in our worst league performance in 25 years, Arsenal prevailed in English Football’s greatest cup competition, winning a record 14th title after coming from behind to beat Frank Lampard‘s Chelsea at Wembley. Fans would have been fearing the worst pre-match due to the striking resemblance of last years Europa League final in Baku. Once again we needed to win to qualify for Europe – albeit the Europa League rather than the Champions League – so it was hard not to let the memories of a year previous rear their ugly head.
This time though Arsenal got the job done and got the win that was so important for a variety of reasons. The hit to Arsenal’s finances, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meant that securing European football was absolutely crucial to our future success. It would also go some way to helping us persuade star man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to stay, which now looks likely.
Most of the good proceeded Mikel Arteta’s appointment with the highlight of the Emery era (2019/20), probably being a 3-2 home win against Aston Villa in September. Arsenal were down to 10 men – courtesy of Ainsley Maitland-Niles being sent off – and trailed by a goal with 10 minutes left to play. Two late goals from Callum Chambers and Aubameyang ensured the win but it just goes to show how bad things were for us at the beginning because, and no disrespect to Aston Villa who played well against us in both games this season, winning at home to Aston Villa is nothing to write home about. Under interim manager Freddie Ljunberg there was one positive in his short stint. Arsenal came from behind to secure a 3-1 win at the Olympic Stadium against West Ham in a game which saw Pepe score one of his best goals in an Arsenal shirt. Once again, however, this win brought minimal joy as it was a win which proceeded a nine-game winless run.
Arteta joined in December and with him came hope. A slow start in games v Bournemouth and Chelsea in the immediate aftermath of his appointment were not ideal, however, on New Year’s Day Arsenal turned in their best performance of the season so far. The 2-0 scoreline against Manchester United didn’t quite tell the full story, Arsenal dominated from start to finish and displayed such relentless pressing that United simply could not live with. It was the first real glimpse of how Arteta wanted our team to play in the long run, with David Luiz admitting the team were ‘not ready’ physically to play this way in the short term. A spirited 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, in which Arsenal twice came from behind with 10 men, saw Arsenal play with a desire which has so often been lacking.
A point at the Bridge was not enough given Arsenal’s current situation, however, Arsenal fought until the very end and despite a point doing Arsenal no favours, it was hard not to be proud of the effort given by the boys that night. This game was part of an 8 game unbeaten run in the League which also included a 4-0 win v Newcastle. Dominant home wins had been few and far between this season however this was an encouraging one. Arsenal’s third goal saw 35 passes in the build-up in which all 11 players touched the ball, this was the type of football that the fans had been bereft of for most of the season.
A last-minute winner against Sheffield United, courtesy of Dani Ceballos, ensured a trip to Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final and a few days later Arsenal comfortably dispatched Norwich City 4-0 in our first home game post lockdown. The following performance was one of our best this season. A trip to the Molineux to play Champions League chasing Wolves awaited Arsenal, in a game that few expected us to win. A very solid defensive display and two wonderful goals courtesy of Alexandre Lacazette and breakthrough star Bukayo Saka would see us leave with all 3 points. 11 days later saw Arsenal play host to newly crowned champions Liverpool. Arsenal had three shots to Liverpool’s 24, yet they were able to secure an unlikely victory. Arsenal fans feared the worst when the champions flew out the blocks, dominating and taking an early lead.
Arsenal pounced on rare mistakes from Virgil Van-Dijk and Allison to clinically score a couple of goals. In the second half Arsenal once again showed real resilience and defended excellently as they clung on to beat Liverpool for the first time in five years. The weekend that followed saw us face Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley in what was our biggest game of the season, which once again few had little hope for Arsenal’s chances. A tactical masterclass saw the student outwit the master as Mikel got the better of his former mentor and friend, Pep Guardiola. Arsenal left with a 2-0 win and restricted City to just one shot on target, their lowest in a game in over two years. A poor result away at Aston Villa meant that European qualification depended on us winning a record 14th FA Cup and we were able to do just that. A 2-1 victory at Wembley, against Chelsea, ensured we finished off the season on a high with a trophy.
Honourable mentions go to youngsters Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli as Arsenal secured the two youngsters to new long-term deals. At the ages of 18 and 19, both were shining lights in our season with Saka even finishing third in Arsenal’s player of the season vote. Martinelli finished the season with 10 goals and four assists, despite not playing towards the end of the season due to injury. Both players had brilliant breakthrough seasons and hopefully will continue their success in years to come.
The bad and the ugly
We won our first two games of the season – however unconvincingly – and things didn’t start off too bad. We suffered our first defeat at Anfield where we were beaten 3-1. Only Burnley went to Anfield this season and didn’t lose so losing to this Liverpool side is no embarrassment, however, this game was the start of a record-breaking season for David Luiz. A sloppy shirt pull on Mohammed Salah was the first of five penalties that he conceded this season, a new Premier League record. A week later followed the North London Derby against a Tottenham side who had just been beaten at home by Newcastle. We were widely expected to beat our rivals however we quickly found ourselves 2-0 down. A spirited comeback saw us snatch a point and deny Tottenham local bragging rights, however, it was a disappointing day overall.
A trip to Vicarage Road to play eventually relegated Watford saw us turn in one of our most embarrassing performances of the season. We led 2-0 at half time thanks to Aubameyang doing what he does best, however the second-half collapse was of gargantuan proportion. Watford recorded 24 second-half shots, courtesy of some horrific Arsenal defending, and were very unlucky to only leave with only a point.
A 6 game unbeaten streak followed including some convincing cup wins against Frankfurt, Standard Liege and Nottingham Forest, as well as a point at Old Trafford, however, we were soon back to our usual selves. A poor performance at newly-promoted Sheffield United saw us slump to a 1-0 defeat and it took two late brilliant Pepe free kicks to scrape past Vitoria at home. A nine-game winless run was to follow starting at home to Crystal Palace. The gunners raced into a 2-0 lead before drawing 2-2, no thanks to VAR. VAR ruled out a late Callum Chambers winner and later admitted that there was nothing wrong with the goal and it should have stood.
A penalty loss to Liverpool’s kids at Anfield following a sensational 5-5 draw at Anfield saw us unceremoniously dumped out of the Carabao Cup, whilst another late goal saw us blow another lead at home to Wolves. A stoppage-time equaliser for Vitoria in the Europa League the next week meant that we had thrown away leads in our last four games without winning a single one. The next weekend we were outclassed by high-flying Leicester and following an international break, it took a 96th-minute equaliser against Southampton to secure a point. The Southampton game was a real defining moment for me as despite us equalising with the last kick of the game there was minimal amounts of relief or joy.
When Alexandre Lacazette scored he looked angry, perplexed at what we had become and the fans felt the same way. People were calling for Emery’s head and their wish was granted when a Daichi Kamada brace for Frankfurt saw us once again beaten at home. Bernd Leno had made the most saves in the league because we were conceding so many shots every single game and our defence were non-existent. The board had seen enough and Emery was relieved from his duties, much to the overwhelming relief from Arsenal fans.
Arsenal legend and invincible Freddie Ljungberg took the reigns as interim manager, and despite everyone dying for him to succeed, the task at hand proved too much to do in such a short space of time. A draw away at Norwich, who would eventually finish rock-bottom preceded an abysmal 2-1 home defeat against Brighton, in which once again we conceded 20 shots on our goal. Arsenal’s winless run came to an end at West Ham’s London Stadium as they ran out 3-1 winners, including a belter of a goal from Pepe, and there was a huge sense of relief amongst fans who were genuinely wondering where our next win could possibly come from, the relief was once again short-lived.
A late comeback against Liege saw us scrape top spot in our Europa League group but the weekend that followed showed everyone at Arsenal just how far off we were. Manchester City led from the 2nd minute until the end at the Emirates and outclassed us from start to finish as Kevin De Bruyne lit up a dark winter night at the Emirates. Freddie Ljungerg was to end his short reign as boss with a boring 0-0 draw away at Everton and despite our fortunes remaining unchanged, most fans were grateful to Freddie and are pleased he still remains at the club.
In stepped Mikel Arteta for his first role in management with everyone was aware that patience would be required. The job Mikel had and still has, on his hands is huge and he was able to grasp that as Arsenal made a slow start under his tenure. A 1-1 draw away at Bournemouth, who would eventually go down, was not a great result and followed that was Arsenal’s biggest game of the season to date. A London derby at home to Chelsea provided Arsenal with what was looking like the last chance to haul themselves back into the top 4 race, despite this being just our 20th league game.
The gap to Chelsea in fourth was 8 points, a win would reduce it to a surmountable 5 with a defeat widening it to a significant 11 point gap. Arsenal flew out the blocks and went in at half time 1-0 having played out of their skins in the first half, legs started to look in the second half however and Chelsea went from strength to strength. Jorginho, who should have been sent off for a second yellow previously, was the beneficiary of a rare Leno mistake to level the scoring with 6 minutes to go and just 3 minutes later Abraham landed the finishing blow. Two late goals saw Chelsea snatch the points and Arsenal’s league season lay in tatters.
Arsenal’s hopes of Champions League football next season solely rested on our Europa League campaign. A 1-0 win in Greece saw us well placed to see past Olympiakos in the second leg however they had other ideas. After taking the tie to extra time Aubameyang looked to have saved Arsenal’s bacon once more as he slammed in a magnificent overhead kick in the 113th minute. With just one minute of extra time to spare, Olympiakos stole a lead on the night which would go on to see them through on away goals. That goal was arguably not as heartbreaking as the fact that Aubameyang missed a chance that he scores 99 times out of 100, with what was practically the final kick of the game.
A couple of wins against Portsmouth in the Fa Cup and West Ham would then see Arsenal not kick a ball for over 3 months. In what is very much the ugliest part of this section, the COVID-19 pandemic tore through the world having claimed over 740,000 lives at the time of writing. Football was grounded to a halt and the virus impacted everyone in one way or another, whether that meant getting the virus, losing loved ones or suffering financially.
Arsenal controversially, yet understandably, let go of 55 staff members including well-respected scout Francis Cagigao, who had served the club for over 2 decades. The impact of the virus will be felt for years to come and with no end in sight, parts of the world have learned to minimise the virus and various parts of society are slowly getting back to their feet. The football was to resume in June behind closed doors with it being deemed to dangerous to have fans in stadiums.
Arsenal resumed the season In doom and gloom fashion as a 95th-minute goal saw Brighton complete the double over Arsenal at the Amex, 3 days after the Gunners slumped to a predictable 3-0 loss away at City. Matteo Guendouzi was involved in a bust-up with match-winner Neal Maupay, and his conduct would eventually see him thrown out of the first team with his sale looking inevitable. Arsenal managed to turn their form around and finish the season relatively strongly despite a defeat in the North London Derby and in our penultimate game at Aston Villa ending our hopes of qualifying for Europe via the league. Arsenal went on to finish 8th, rounding off their worst campaign in 25 years.
The Good Part II
To end on a positive note however, performances and results have improved under Mikel. He was able to lead us to FA Cup glory in his inaugural season in management, despite us being underdogs against City and Chelsea in the semi-final and final. According to various sources, a significant overhaul of the squad is planned and Aubameyang is poised to sign a new deal which will see him stay at the club for 3 more years. The transfer window ahead is vital but with strong links to top players like Thomas Party, Phillipe Coutinho and Gabriel Magalhaes, it could prove to be a fruitful window for us. Mikel has once again instilled hope amongst the fan base, and there is genuine optimism about Arsenal’s future for the first time in years. Long may Mikel’s success continue and hopefully ‘the bad and the ugly’ section won’t be half as long next season.