While many Arsenal fans will have some warm and fuzzy feelings about the season just passed, there were plenty of regrets too. I think most of us felt the hot breath of Manchester City on our necks for the majority of the season, particularly with that April excursion to the Etihad always lurking on the horizon. Arsenal have to aim to improve next season regardless of Manchester City. Here are two key improvements I think Arteta and his staff will be considering over the summer.
Having enough in the tank come April
While the overall target changed, Arsenal have ended each of the last two seasons in much the same manner. By the time of the March international break, the team have been in a good position to achieve their end of season objective. Each of the last two seasons have been punctuated by the feeling that the team has run out of steam and cursing injuries to key players.
In 2022, the absences of Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney became terminal bleeds, while the loss of William Saliba and Takehiro Tomiyasu in the spring of 2023 likewise disturbed the team’s rhythm in a fatal manner. After springtime daylight savings, the temperature and the light on games changes in both a literal and figurative manner. It just does.
We cannot entirely discount the impact of psychological pressure on the players and we can but hope the experiences of the last two seasons will have made them stronger. We had Lee Dixon on the Arsenal Vision Podcast between the consecutive two-goal lead giveaways at Liverpool and West Ham https://www.arsenalvisionpodcast.com/episodes/episode-676 and, drawing on his own experience, he said, rather presciently, ‘these boys have no idea what is coming. It’s different in April.’
However, there are two main ways of mitigating the difficulty of the ‘playoff’ part of the season. Firstly, increasing the number of trusted players in the squad. Better use of short rotation earlier in the campaign is one way to preserve the energy of key players into the latter weeks of the season and, clearly, to do that, the squad needs to be bigger. Arsenal had no cup distractions in either of the last two run-ins and that can’t be allowed to continue if the club is to progress.
I am confident that Arteta will be well aware of this and will have been aware of it for a while. The summer market will be key not just in identifying a few more Jorginho / Trossard type signings that can rotate into the team without too many conniptions but in perhaps turning established players into trusted squad players.
For example, the emergence of William Saliba and the signing of Alex Zinchenko turned Tomiyasu and Tierney from first choice players to high quality squad players last summer. Let’s say Arsenal do secure the signature of Declan Rice, perhaps Thomas Partey becomes more of an Elneny type figure in a squad sense. At the end of last season, Arteta also referred to getting more out of some of his existing squad players as a KPI for 2023-24.
Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah and Kieran Tierney were all used very sparingly, even when available. Fabio Vieira will need to show improvement in his second season too. Arsenal either need to extract more from these players and trust them with those October / November games in particular, or else move them on and replace them with players the coach does trust to share that burden.
Arsenal played nine games in October 2022. The final game of that marathon month was a home game against Nottingham Forest, who won seven points on the road all season. Gabriel Jesus still started over Eddie Nketiah and a few weeks later, the Brazilian required knee surgery. Next season, the minutes need to be distributed more evenly to help retain some freshness in the pressure months.
Arteta might also have to figure out some different ways to play to aid and abet this. The approach was very high energy last season and that probably took its toll. Arsenal might have to find ways to win that don’t draw so much lactic acid and emotional energy. This was one of Klopp’s great successes as he slowly built a formidable Liverpool team.
He was able to tailor his approach in about 2017 so that his team weren’t gegenpressing their opponents to death in every single game. Muscle memory takes time to form and the experience of the last two campaigns ought to help next year, but Arteta and his staff will be working on pacing themselves a little better ahead of next season.
Last season, Arsenal scored 88 Premier League goals, which is incredibly respectable and exceeds the total achieved by the eventual champions in 15 of the last 20 seasons. However, they conceded 43 goals. The highest number of goals conceded by the league champions in the last 20 seasons is 37. It is obvious where the team’s most drastic improvement is required next season.
The twin losses of Saliba and Tomiyasu had a big impact on this and one of the reasons that Arsenal’s games sapped so much energy during the run-in is because they kept conceding the first goal. As the season wore on, teams figured out where Arsenal are likely to leave space. Opponents have become more direct and are more comfortable with relying on transitions to hurt the Gunners.
The price that Arsenal are reportedly willing to pay for Declan Rice points to an awareness of this fact. The team needs to exert better control off the ball. When he is fit, Thomas Partey is excellent at stepping away from the centre circle to pounce on any looseness of touch from an opponent, swallow the ball up and set the team back on attack.
This keeps teams pinned back into their own half as well as protecting Arsenal’s defence. The trouble is that Partey is not fit enough for long enough to sustain those attributes over a whole season. The loss of Saliba to injury exacerbated something that had already become an issue, that opponents were able to find space when they played through or over the first line of pressure.
Leaving space is just something a big team has to do in pursuit of domination but the team needs to get better and sharper at getting the ball back in the middle of the field and in front of the defensive line. I think the team selections towards the end of last season also pointed to a coach who wants to bring greater variety to the way his team plays.
I don’t think fielding Jesus in wider areas or Partey as an inverted right-back were idle experiments. I don’t think Arteta does anything for shits and giggles, he wanted to look at some proper alternatives and perhaps discover what type of defender, for example, he might want to buy to complete the rearguard.
The interest in Rice and Caicedo points not just to an attempt to fix the age profile of the midfield but to look to two of the best ball magnets in the division. A common trait between Rice and Caicedo is how they are able to stride into central space and gobble the ball up, so it’s very clear that Arteta sees this as a priority for 2023-24.
Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator