One thing I didn’t mention yesterday is that beating West Ham ensures European football for next season. When this campaign began, I think the general consensus was that qualification for the Europa League was a minimum requirement to demonstrate progress and to show we’re going in the right direction, and we’ve done that.
I have to admit that after the first three games of the season I wasn’t confident we could do it. I’ll be perfectly honest and say that after the games against Palace, Brighton and Southampton I was a bit worried that we weren’t going to do it either, but the wins over Chelsea, Man Utd and West Ham have turned things around – as well as demonstrating that football is a bit mad sometimes.
I’m not hugely interested in the discussion over points because it’s more about where you finish in the table at the end of the day. I remember any suggestion that we were doing better after ‘Boxing Day 2020’ was usually dismissed with ‘Yeah, but we finished 8th’, which is fair enough. A season runs from August to May, and you can be very good for half of it, but if the first 50% was well below par, you’re always playing catch up, and you can’t simply ignore that. We finished with 61 points last season, we have 63 so far this time around, there are 12 more to play for.
Obviously Europa League qualification isn’t the be-all and end-all of this season, there is a bigger prize to play for: Champions League qualification. We all know what’s at stake, and what we have to do, and I thought it was interesting to hear Aaron Ramsdale on Sky Sports reference the possibility of finishing as high as third. I don’t think the players will view Europa League as an achievement or something to rest their laurels upon, especially when you take into account who we’re scrapping with for the Champions League, but maybe as fans we can take a moment to acknowledge this is the kind of progress that pretty much everyone wanted to see.
It has come about in somewhat remarkable fashion. Like any season there have been ups and downs, but Arteta used the word roller-coaster in his press conference last to describe what’s still to come and I think it applies well to what has already happened. That fateful opening to the season; the end of window spending and very obvious changing of the profile of the team; recovering form and confidence; the Aubameyang drama; a dreadful January which was rooted in this weird sense of injustice after what happened against Man City because it showed how the team and its style of play was developing; trimming almost all the fat from the squad in that month too and gambling by not bringing anyone in; another good run; a bad run with those three games I already mentioned; this latest good run; and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface there’s still more to come.
Some of the issues we’ve had to contend with have been of our own making, some of them out of our control. That’s just how football goes. And there will be people saying ‘Well Arsenal spent more than any other team last summer, so we SHOULD see progress’, and that’s a fair point, but also excludes context. I do think the last few years for Arsenal have been messy and Mikel Arteta’s job as manager has been nearly as much about off-pitch stuff as on-pitch.
Maybe people don’t want to hear it, but I believe there are similarities between Man Utd and Arsenal and how they coped after they both lost powerful, figurehead managers. They are still in a dreadful mess, getting worse in fact, and Alex Ferguson retired in 2013! It’s not for the lack of money, is it? They’ve spent a fortune so it’s a clear demonstration that spending doesn’t guarantee progress.
Another key aspect of this is the fact we have a team that we like. Young lads with good personalities and decent character who, over the course of this season, have forged a real connection with the fans and vice versa. Personally, I think that’s an under-reported aspect of the work Arteta has done, but he has deliberately and carefully helped cultivate it with what he has said and done – even as far back as the lockdown days when supporters were absent completely.
There are still going to be skeptics and again, that’s entirely fair. However, what I think is interesting is that many who still have some doubts about the manager will acknowledge they like the team and the players. Some off-pitch stuff has helped in that regard too. The nonsense over the postponement of the North London derby when Arsenal were castigated in the press for doing the exact same thing as almost every other club in the Premier League had at some point. The same rules applied to us, we didn’t break them, but you’d swear we’d pulled off some kind of nefarious heist.
Not to mention to emergence of this season’s biggest weirdos: the celebration police. People who should know better being critical of a football team celebrating the fact they won important games of football. Former pros who really should know better trying to justify their stance and failing miserably because it’s so facile and stupid that it’s simply not possible to do it. Maybe they are doing this at the whim of radio station/newspaper column bosses to drive ‘engagement’, but in the end they simply look and sound like complete idiots and an unintended consequence of that is the further unification of the Arsenal fanbase.
It’s sort of like: ‘We can say what we want about our team and our players, but we’re not having it when you do it, you imbeciles, you morons.’
It’s been quite the ride, and there’s still plenty more to come. I am pleased with that Europa League ‘safety net’, but when you look at where we are, I want more, as I’m sure most of you do too. The thing is, I’m convinced the players, the manager, his staff and everyone else at the club wants the same thing, and that singular focus – as opposed to external and internal nonsense of the not-too-distant past – is a really positive thing.
For some extra reading this morning, Lewis has a good look at Eddie Nketiah’s performance against West Ham in the latest tactics column, and over on Patreon we have a brand new Poorly Drawn Month, looking back at April with words and funny pictures as always. There’s a fresh Arsecast Extra for you below as well.