Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Lessons

As the dust settles on the 2021-22 season and we pick up the pieces of the campaign that was in our own minds, Arsenal will not have time to blow away the cobwebs. The review of the season will have, hopefully, been on ongoing process the way any performance appraisal ought to be. In pure recruitment terms, what Arsenal have to do is reasonably straightforward.

The credible reporting tells us that the club have already been pouring honey into the respective ears of Gabriel Jesus and Youri Tielemans. Whatever you think of those individual players, I don’t think too many people doubt that the positions in which they play are big recruitment priorities for the team- especially upfront where the lack of numbers alone demands urgent attention. Tielemans and Gabriel Jesus have Premier League experience and have both just turned 25, which will probably confuse the fuck out of Gary Neville as he tries to wrap his cranium around what is going on.

It’s quite incredible really, as it currently stands, on July 1st Folarin Balogun will be the most senior striker at the club. I am certain that will not be the case come August. In many respects, Arsenal’s leap from 8th place to 5th place in the Premier League table is easy enough to parse. Last summer, they had a big recruitment drive, bringing in a total of six players.

Four of those players (Ramsdale, White, Tomiyasu and Odegaard) went straight into the starting line-up and offered improvement on their predecessors. Arsenal’s improvement in 2021-22 was largely down to the quality (and cost) of their recruitment last summer. They will need to attempt a similar level of investment this summer- maybe even more given the cost of goal scorers on the market.

While Arsenal undoubtedly improved, the improvement needs to be put into context. The two eighth placed finishes represented underperformance, they have the fifth largest wage bill and finished 5th on this occasion. However, the club also cannot ignore the fact that they had 4th place in their hands to the extent that 3rd looked like a reasonable target going into May.

Arsenal lost six of their last twelve Premier League fixtures. Only the first in that series, at home to Liverpool, was totally expected. They lost too many games in blocks this season, which suggests an emotional fragility that the manager will need to fix. They lost the first three games of the campaign and were well beaten on each occasion.

They then lost back-to-back away games at Everton and Manchester United in December with a pair of below par performances. In previous seasons, facing United and Everton away within five days of one another might have been considered brutal but in 2021-22, they were both places where Arsenal should have been expected to mine more points.

Then they lost three games on the bounce in April at Crystal Palace and Southampton with a home defeat to Brighton sandwiched in between. Defeats in back-to-back away games at Spurs and Newcastle in May ended their Champions League dreams. I happen to think a lot of those issues will vanish with the acquisition of greater firepower in the team.

Arsenal only lost one game this season in which they scored the first goal (at home to Manchester City) and won only one game in which they conceded the first goal (at home to Wolves). Arsenal need greater resilience, especially away from home, to be able to get results on days where the sun isn’t shining (metaphorically speaking) or they are not at their best or the referee is a prick. I think a more threatening attack will solve many of those ills.

I do think, however, that in the cold light of day, the pressure told on the players too when it came to the crunch at Spurs and Newcastle. Arsenal were not even competitive in either game, they didn’t lose particularly valiantly, they just kind of crumbled on both occasions. In ‘home game’ table, Arsenal were 3rd behind only City and Liverpool.

In the away table, Arsenal were sixth, behind Brighton. Tottenham were 4th in both aspects. There was too much ‘noise’ in performance levels and results but I don’t necessarily think Spurs are a clearly better, or even particularly more mature team. They have an elite coach, in fairness, while Arsenal’s is still learning on the job. But the main differential is in attack, which I think everyone knows.

It’s not just the volume of goals that threatening forwards bring, they change the way teams play against you. I really don’t think Newcastle, for example, would have felt so confident in stepping onto Arsenal in the way they did if they had been truly scared by what might come at them in the other direction.

Arteta will have to honestly re-litigate decisions made in January. Obviously, we cannot see the alternative timelines where different decisions are made. I happen to think Aubameyang’s Arsenal goose was cooked, wherever the fault lines lay, he had not been producing in front of goal for a good 18 months before he left.

The decision not to bring a striker in on loan, for example (assuming that opportunity was available to any degree) needs to be broached honestly by Arteta, Edu and Josh Kroenke. Ultimately Arsenal missed out on the Champions League by two points. Turning one defeat into a victory would have been enough. Though when assessing the hypothetical impact of individuals you have to assume that all of the positive results would have stayed the same, which is not a given.

You could relitigate the decisions to exile Maitland-Niles and Chambers for literally no financial gain when Arteta struggled to trust players like Cedric and Nuno Tavares to do their jobs. Not every single decision has to 100% conform to “The Project TM”, sometimes a little expediency is necessary. Tottenham added in January and Arsenal didn’t and it would be stubborn of the club not to at least analyse that decision and learn from it.

That said, given Arteta’s mid-season rendezvous with the Kroenkes in Denver, I am open to the idea that keeping the January powder dry might not have been entirely Arteta’s idea (I don’t know, I can only speculate). Having inked a new deal in April, I can only imagine that he is satisfied with the purse he has been promised for the summer. The fans will expect further outlay too.

I think the pretty drastic swings in Arteta’s assessment of squad players are also reason for concern. Arsenal started the season with Chambers as their first-choice right-back and before August was out, it was decided that he was totally unusable. Elneny went from making the tea to bagging himself a new contract in the blink of an eye.

Eddie Nketiah transitioned from barely being trusted as a time-wasting sub to the spearhead of the attack in a matter of weeks. Nuno Tavares was keeping Kieran Tierney out of the starting eleven in October and when Tierney was injured in the spring, Tavares was barely trusted to play. Arteta brought in Lokonga and Tavares but at the business end of the season, trusted neither. There needs to be far less noise in the status of the players beneath the starting eleven.

It’s quite possible that it creates the sort of uncertain environment that causes a team to experience adversity in bulk. I happen to think that Arteta is a fantastic coach, Arsenal looks like a well-coached team to me- but he is still learning the ropes when it comes to management. People management, resource management, the fact that you cannot have 25 players that will all absolutely die for you.

Next season, the squad will pretty much entirely be his, assuming some of the loan players move on and Nicolas Pepe is shifted to whichever club has the magic combination of money and inclination. It is actually quite remarkable that Arsenal nearly got over the line into 4th with such a ragtag team.

Injuries are the other aspect that the club needs to look carefully at. With Shad Forsythe moving on, there will be some upheaval in that department. Arsenal had a succession of muscular injuries to important players in the least demanding schedule they have faced in the modern era. It bears examination.

Not every issue will be solved by recruitment and, hopefully, Arteta and co are self-critical enough to identify those issues. The manager certainly does not look or sound happy to be finishing in 5th place, which augurs well. I hope that his surliness translates into lessons learned ahead of next season.

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