Monday, December 11, 2023

Arsenal 2-0 Brighton: Thank goodness this season is over

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So that’s it. The 2020-21 season is over. We finished with a win, which was nice. We actually won our last five Premier League games, and with 61 points it’s very difficult not to feel some serious regret about what happened earlier in the campaign.

61 points got us 8th; Chelsea finished 4th with 67. You can’t help but think of the games against Burnley; of that run in November/December when we were dreadful; the stupid red cards we picked up which had such an impact on performances and results; and I guess you can go two ways with those thoughts.

If you’re an optimist, you think if we can not do that stupid stuff, you’ve seen enough in the second half of the season to be encouraged about next season. If you’re not that way inclined, you look at a club without any European football for the first time in 25 years, and what improvement there was since Christmas doesn’t offset what preceded it.

Nicolas Pepe scored two fantastic goals yesterday. The first a brilliant touch before he banged it home with his right foot; the second a nutmeg on Lewis Dunk to pass it into the far corner of the net. In between those strikes, there were moments when he lost the ball easily, at times with no real pressure, and it felt emblematic of our season in a way. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think what more he might have contributed this season if he’d been played more regularly in the first half of the season.

The minutes we gave to Willian ahead of him were hugely unproductive, and while I don’t want to make this another referendum on his signing, not only did he under-perform, it was damaging beyond that. Pepe finished the season with 16 goals in all competitions, 10 in the Premier League, and maybe a couple more in those early months might have changed the complexion of the final table. Ifs and Maybes, I realise, but in the post-season analysis carried out by the manager and his staff, let’s hope this is a lesson learned.

Fans were back, and there’s clearly a direct correlation between their presence and the quality of Thomas Partey’s shooting. He spent most of the season knocking match ball after match ball into orbit (I like to think he was taking pot-shots at that super-villain’s array of satellites) but yesterday he curled one just wide, forced the keeper into a good save, then hit the bar. It felt like the goal was coming, in the end it didn’t, but hopefully with even more supporters in the stands next season, we’ll see better from him.

Martin Odegaard played his first game in an Arsenal shirt in front of fans, and I thought he was very good. Afterwards, Mikel Arteta was asked about the possibility of us making the deal permanent, and said:

We have a very clear and strong opinion on what we’d like to do. He’s not our player, we will have discussions in the next few weeks. We respect he’s a Real Madrid player and will have those communications.

So, it sounds like we’d like to do a deal. The question is, will Real Madrid sell, and if so at what price? And also, does he want to join a club which won’t have European football next season? Personally, I’d do it. I know he had an indifferent spell, but I really think he was playing through that ankle problem he picked up on international duty. I’ve seen enough quality in the way he plays to feel positive about what he can bring to the team, and I think the fact he’s been with us makes it an easier sell to him as a player. If you’re building around a new core of Tierney, Saka, Smith Rowe, Martinelli, Odegaard etc, you could see how exciting that might be.

As we assumed control of the Brighton game, it looked for a while like we might finish 7th, but it all depended on what happened between Leicester and Sp*rs. Is Brendan Rodgers allergic to the top four? I got some grief (weirdly from a lot of Stoke fans) about the Tweet below, but I meant ‘incredible’ in the very literal sense of the word (and perhaps bottle is a little harsh):

They lost five of their last nine games, it looked more difficult NOT to finish in the Champions League places, but they somehow managed it. Yesterday, they led a manager-less Sp*rs twice, but still got beaten. The FA Cup was fantastic for them, but to slip away from the top four like that two years in a row must be hugely frustrating. My brother – The Mugsmasher – told me that in one of his Liverpool WhatsApp groups, this phenomenon is known as ‘The Brodgening’.

Anyway, the point is that Sp*rs win meant they finished 7th, and while it’s a shame we didn’t finish ahead of them, I’m not going to shed any tears that we’re not in the Europa Conference List Of Crappy Things I Can’t Be Arsed To Do Anymore League next season. It’s not that I think we’re too good for it, and I will miss not having midweek action, but it provides clarity for what has to happen this summer, and for next season too.

Without the distractions of preparation, travel, fatigue and all the rest, the focus is 100% on the Premier League. Arteta will have all week to work with his players to then produce performances and results, and if they’re not up to scratch, there is absolutely no hiding place. It means that this summer we have to be ruthless and smart with the squad. It needs to be smaller, tighter, no bloat, and with that concentration, versatility may be an important factor.

There will be plenty to say and write about squad building in the days and weeks to come, but when you look at who is there now and some of the contractual situations, I expect quite a few departures. As for what’s to come in, much will depend on who we sell and for how much, and how far the club’s ownership will go to support recruitment.

Josh Kroenke was there yesterday, sitting alongside Vinai and Tim Lewis. He heard Kroenke out chants, he saw Kroenke out signs, banners and balloons. How much this bothered him is anybody’s guess. He was reportedly at the training ground over the weekend to address the players and staff. That is involvement, I suppose, and that’s what people have been seeking, but we’ve been here before with him, and it’s been little more than a false dawn, so let’s see what happens this summer. Holding a negative view about how much KSE care could be seen as cynical, but until they prove otherwise, it just seems realistic to me.

It’s done. Finished. Over. Thank you. Ciao. Au revoir, and good riddance to the 2020-21 season. For all kinds of reasons it’s been unpleasant and difficult. It never really felt like a real season. Yesterday’s game was enjoyable not just because we won, in essence it was a meaningless fixture, but simply because fans were there. I missed the ‘WHOOOOO?!’ when an opposition substitution is made. The sound of a goal being cheered. It’s why the Palace game the other night was fun too. It might well be an old cliche, but football without fans means the experience is missing something so fundamental it’s just not the same. Hopefully the stands are full again from August.

I can’t say this is one I’ll look back on with any fondness. Arseblog is into its 20th year now, and I’ve never liked a season less than this one. It felt like something to endure rather than enjoy, and it’s not as if we haven’t had years when things have gone wrong, been bad, and we’ve thrown away chances to win things which is one of the most painful things about being an Arsenal/football fan.

So, if you’ve been here throughout, reading the blog, listening the podcasts, reading the news, thank you. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. A special thanks to our Patreon Members too who support everything we do on the site. All of it will carry on throughout the summer, as it always does, but now that this season is over, I really do want to say thank you. More than any other time I can think of, I’ve needed the distraction of football, the interaction with all of you, and it’s helped during some hard times ‘off the pitch’, if you like.

Here’s to a good summer, and to a much more successful 2021-22 ❤️.

There will be Arsecast Extra today, but for various reasons we won’t be able to record until about 7.30 this evening, so it’ll be out a bit later than usual. Keep an eye out for the call for questions in the usual places. On Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

For now, take it easy.

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