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The 2021/22 Season Review: Arsenal 

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31 mins read
The 2021/22 Season Review: Arsenal 

Is a fifth-place finish a sign of progress or failure for Arsenal? 

Despite having Champions League football within their grasp for so long, Arsenal’s wait to return to Europe’s elite club competition will go on for at least another year. 

The disappointment was evident on the faces of the players and fans following Arsenal 5-1 demolition of Frank Lampard’s Everton on the last of the season, as Tottenham Hotspur’s 5-0 thumping of long-relegated Norwich City made Arsenal’s emphatic win all but irrelevant. 

Mikel Arteta’s young Gunners fell at the final hurdle, with injuries and perhaps inexperience taking their toll at crucial moments. Five defeats in their last seven games and a slew of injuries to key personnel completely derailed Arsenal’s bid for a top-four finish. 

69 points in the last two seasons would’ve secured a top-four finish, but this season it just wasn’t meant to be. Thus, it is difficult to really assess Arsenal’s season, and that is why their fifth-place finish has created such a debate. 

It’s 50-50. While half of the Arsenal fanbase views it as a failure, the other half believes there have been clear signs of progress. At the end of the day, both sides’ arguments hold value. 

Also Read – Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal: Are they the real deal, or is this another false dawn?

The lowest of lows

Last year, Arsenal’s senior men’s team ended their 2020/21 season with clouds of uncertainty looming large over the club, and in particular, their manager Mikel Arteta, who was incharge of the first Arsenal team in 26 years to miss out on European football. Arsenal ended their campaign in eighth place — six points off fourth-placed Chelsea and a point below their north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in seventh. 

Poor squad management meant the Gunners bowed out of the Carabao Cup on a whimper after conceding a 4-1 defeat to Manchester City, while Southampton embarrassed them at St. Mary’s as the defending FA Cup champions were knocked out rather timidly in the Fourth Round. 

The final nail in the coffin, however, was hammered in by Unai Emery’s Villarreal, as an injury-riddled and striker-less Arsenal were humbled by the Yellow Submarine over two legs in the UEFA Europa League semi-final.

Arsenal ended the season with their worst finish in decades, without European football, and with a bloated and disjointed squad that needed immediate cleansing.

Also Read – Arsenal Sponsors 2021-22

Building for future

Cultural reset 

Arsenè Wenger spent more than two decades building an identity for which the club had become known throughout the world. But that identity became fractured during the final days of his reign. There was reported in-fighting behind the scenes over how Wenger’s departure should be handled, while large sections of the fans were becoming increasingly frustrated with the direction in which Arsenal were moving. Unity soon became a thing of the past, and the cracks that surfaced in Wenger’s final days only widened during Unai Emery’s short tenure. 

Emery is a renowned tactician and a hard worker, but that came at a hefty cost. While the team needed more cohesion and time to bond, Unai would usually lock himself away in the office, which was situated near the entrance of the main building at London Colney, as players and staff would go hours without seeing him or hearing from him.

Moreover, it was later found out that Unai had no time to take any sort of interest in the youth teams or attend any of the games which were staged at the training ground. A disconnect appeared among the players, the management and the fans. There was no togetherness and no sense of everyone—or even the majority—pulling in the right direction in an attempt to turn things around. And so, three-and-a-half years after his emotional farewell, former Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta returned to the club as the head coach of their senior men’s team. 

I found an environment, a culture that I wasn’t feeling identified with,” said Arteta in one of his interviews after becoming the Gunners head coach. “It’s about having a feeling of being privileged to represent this club every time you come through that door.

If that is lost, you have to go, get back in your car and drive home because we are not going to move this club the way we want without a purpose. If I have to define our identity, that is one word: Unity. Without unity, you can’t achieve what we want to achieve.

Unity means every person that works in the organisation. It is our way of playing, our way of transmitting our values, our way of connecting with our fans, our ownership.” 

Everybody, uniform, thinking in the same way, with the same purpose, without any individual agendas, without any egos. 

That’s what we want to get, and I’m going to push the boat very, very fast.” 

Shipping out deadwood and toxic personalities

Following Mattéo Guendouzi’s brawl with Brighton & Hove Albion striker Neal Maupay, and the subsequent rebellious behaviour and lack of professionalism shown at London Colney and Arsenal’s January winter camp in the UAE, it was almost certain that the Frenchman would be shown the exit door come summer transfer window. 

As suitors sensed an opportunity, they tried to prize Guendouzi away for cheap. In the end, Olympique de Marseille took the plunge with a one-year loan deal that included an option to buy him on a permanent deal for as low as £12.5 million. 

However, Marseille weren’t done yet. After positive talks between their manager Jorge Sampaoli and Mikel Arteta, with promises of regular game-time and a system that would benefit his style of play, Arsenal loaned out young French centre-back William Saliba on a season-long loan. It was a deal that made a lot of sense given Arsenal’s lack of European football, but the fanbase wasn’t happy, the consensus being that Saliba could’ve done a better job than Rob Holding as the third-choice centre-back. 

Let’s consider and compare the two opinions here: Holding played 20 games across all competitions throughout the season, of which only 13 were starts. Saliba, in contrast, started 45 matches for Marseille across all competitions and took home the Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year award for his outstanding performances throughout the season. Imagine how much playing second-fiddle to the “Gabriel Magalhães-Benjamin White” partnership would have hurt his development this season. 

Next up is Joe Willock. The young 22-year-old midfielder had a scintillating loan spell at St. James’ Park during the second half of the 2020/21 season as he bagged seven goals in seven games and played a pivotal role in Newcastle United’s bid for survival last season, which is why the Magpies didn’t hesitate to pluck away the Hale End product from the Emirates for a substantially high fee of around £26.5 million. A deal that has certainly favoured Arsenal if we look at how Joe has fared this season, albeit admittedly under three different managers.

Following Willock out of the door were Lucas Toreira and Ainsley Maitland-Niles: with the former, we are aware of his failure to adapt to British conditions as he moved to Italy with Fiorentina on a reported option-to-buy, £16.5m deal, while the latter made us aware of him having fallen out of favour with Arteta and subsequently forced a move to AS Roma on a simple season-long loan deal for the time being. 

While Arsenal got rid of a lot of the deadwood, they failed to negotiate any reasonable fee for any of those players (barring Joe Willock). They toiled hard to agree to any sort of fee for Héctor Bellérin, but in the end only a straight loan deal could materialise between Real Betis and Arsenal. Similarly, they failed to attract any suitors for their Icelandic goalie Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson as only a loan deal could be agreed between Arsenal and Belgian club OH Leuven. They also loaned out Reiss Nelson and Folarin Balogun to Dutch club Feyenoord and Championship club Middlesborough respectively in a bid to provide them with more game-time and accelerate their growth. 

With the transfers and loan deals out of the way, let’s talk about individuals who couldn’t attract any suitors due to their ridiculously high wages. There were constant murmurings about a possible exit for the likes of Sead Kolašinac and Calum Chambers, but high wages meant suitors were reluctant to match or hear any of their respective agent’s proposals. Pablo Marí’s entourage, meanwhile, only managed to secure for the Brazilian a half-season loan at Udinese. 

The biggest surprise, however, came when, with still two years remaining on his mega-contract, Willian decided to walk away from his £182,000-a-week salary to return to his homeland and spend the final days of his career in Brazil, moving to Corinthians.

The exuberance of youth 

Following the mass exodus, Arsenal were left with a threadbare squad that needed upgrades all around the pitch, while it was evident that the leadership group in the dressing room was also inept, as proven over time. 

The main leadership group ahead of the season-opener consisted of club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Granit Xhaka, Kieran Tierney and Bernd Leno. Now, each one of them has his own traits and drawbacks, and it looked imperative that Arteta must try and bring in new leaders into his dressing room. 

However, bringing in established leaders meant signing players in their prime, which would be hard to attract without European football but not impossible if Arsenal were to pay inflated transfer fees and player salaries. Still, that meant eating into your budget, in some cases even paying double the fees. 

The alternative route was going for young and hungry players with a high ceiling and potential for growth. It’s a more sustainable model and suits a club like Arsenal who have made more blunders in the transfer market than any other club over the last decade. It widens the margin for error and recoups most of the money spent on player acquisition. 

Predictably, the Arsenal hierarchy went for the latter: a sustainable model that, if gone right, would bear fruits for the next decade or so. A long and arduous approach, indeed, but worth the gamble given the two Manchester clubs’ financial clout and Liverpool sticking with Jürgen Klopp at least till 2026, while Chelsea’s position under their new ownership remains unclear. 

Arsenal signed six players in total for a cumulated fee of around £150 million — more than any other club in the summer transfer window. Each one of the six new signings were 23 or under at the time of signing. Moreover, given the lack of leadership and direction from the senior group, a few of the new signings already possessed leadership qualities but needed to be given the responsibility in the first place. 

Martin Ødegaard is an intelligent, creative and technically-gifted player but someone who is also the captain of his national team. Aaron Ramsdale is an easy-going yet commanding presence between the sticks. Benjamin White is a calm and composed ball-playing defender alongside an aggressive centre-back like Gabriel Magalhães: a good piece of business, all things considered. Albert Sambi Lokonga is someone who’ll fill that #6 role in the future and for now is an understudy to Thomas Partey. Following Lokonga through the door is the young Portuguese left-back Nuno Tavares. 

Now, despite having established himself as one of the leaders and mainstays in his short Arsenal career, Scottish left-back Kieran Tierney has spent nearly 30–40% of his playing time sitting on the bench, leading to players like Granit Xhaka vacating his midfield role to fill in that left-back slot at crunch situations during the 2020/21 season. Thus, bringing in a left-back was always a priority. 

Moreover, the departures of Héctor Bellérin and Ainsley-Maitland Niles on loan deals meant Arsenal were left with only one out-and-out right-back in Cédric Soares. Hence, in came the young Japanese fullback Takehiro Tomiyasu on transfer deadline day. The Japan international is a versatile player who can play anywhere across the backline, while being two-footed gives him an added advantage. He’s an excellent 1v1 defender, intelligent both on and off the ball, and has a playing style similar to that of Manchester City’s João Cancelo. 

While none of the six summer additions were marquee signings or significant upgrades on any position, their acquisition gave Arteta room to bring that inflated wage bill under control, while at the same time bringing in personnel who fit the requirements of the project rather than looking at crowd-pleasing alternatives like James Maddison, for instance. 

What came out of it was the youngest squad in the league. Only four out of the 22-man Arsenal squad were aged 30 or above, while nearly 70% of the players were aged 23 or under, giving way for a young and exciting squad that had nothing to lose but everything to gain. They were an inexperienced bunch, and a top-six finish would be considered as progress made, given the gulf in quality between the top six-to-eight teams (including the likes of West Ham United and Wolverhampton Wanderers) and the rest of the league. 

The storm before the calm 

With an early Friday kick-off for the season-opener scheduled against the newly-promoted Brentford, a day or two before the game, all hell broke loose in the Arsenal camp as there was a COVID outbreak that saw several key personnel test positive ahead of this away fixture. The striker duo of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette both tested positive, and so did Alex Rùnarsson, Willian and Rob Holding, while the likes of Thomas Partey, Gabriel Magalhães and Cédric Soares were all unavailable because of injuries. This resulted in Arteta handing out debuts to new summer signings Benjamin White and Albert Sambi Lokonga with a threadbare squad, while the academy graduate Folarin Balogun also made his first Premier League start. Although the Gunners dominated large spells of possession and had more than 20 shots during the game, they never looked like breaking down the Bees defence. Brentford, on the other hand, were efficient and broke down the Arsenal defence by capitalising on lapses of concentration by an Arsenal team that looked unprepared and under-cooked. Thomas Frank’s men, therefore, celebrated their first match in the top division in 74 years with an opening-day victory against one of the big dogs. 

Following their opening-day defeat, Arsenal had a week’s break before their next clash, which was against Chelsea: another London derby. Before the match, both Rob Holding and Cédric Soares returned to the first team, with new summer signing Benjamin White testing positive for COVID. Thus, Arsenal started the game with a backline of Soares (right-back), Holding and Pablo Màri (centre-backs) and Tierney (left-back). As the match wore on, it became an increasingly difficult watch for the Arsenal faithful as their team got completely outplayed in every department. Furthermore, injuries to Tierney and Gabriel Martinelli midway through the game meant it quickly became a task of damage-limitation rather than going for victory. 

Two matches played, two humiliating defeats, with half the squad injured or down with COVID and no goals scored. The jury was out, and there was hardly any sympathy for the club or the manager. In the meantime, Arsenal completed the signing of Martin Ødegaard from Real Madrid for £25 million but weren’t able to add him into the squad before the Manchester City game: a match majority of the Arsenal fans believed was beyond reach even with a fully-fit playing XI. 

Despite a weakened and second-string XI, Arsenal started the game brightly, but that only lasted for the first five minutes before one of the players imploded on the pitch. İlkay Gündoğan scored the first City goal in the seventh minute and Ferran Torres quickly doubled that lead six minutes later. Alarm bells started ringing in the Arsenal camp. A bizarre two-footed challenge and the subsequent red card for Granit Xhaka meant the game was all but over for Arsenal by the 35th minute, and it was a matter of time before they completely capitulated. 

In the end, it was a 5-0 scoreline in favour of City, with them having produced 25 shots compared to Arsenal’s one effort which had come in the fourth minute. Arsenal also recorded just 20% possession — their lowest in the league since Opta started recording these stats. It was a damning defeat that sucked out every bit of patience, hope and belief the fans had had before the season started. 

Three matches played, zero points on the board, no goals scored but nine conceded; Arsenal were sitting at the bottom of the Premier League table. 

People had had enough; they wanted Arteta gone. The lack of fight and resilience shown by the team in those fixtures made people question whether the players were even playing for the manager, let alone the badge. Moreover, with a two-week international break coming before the next run of fixtures, the fanbase wanted a new manager to come in and implement his plans to at least give the team a shot at Europa or Conference League football. But the Arsenal hierarchy decided to stick with Arteta and ride the process. 

Building identity and style of play 

After initially implementing an overly rigid possession-based 3-4-3 system, which led to restrictive football to some degree but delivered an FA Cup nonetheless, throughout the 2020/21 campaign, Arteta had to loosen the shackles bit by bit to accommodate directness and individualism. Pandemic football had burnt the team out, and this brought its own chaos. But after a successful summer transfer window, Arteta was able to establish an identity and a brand of play that seemingly has the potential of getting better with every season as the core group has an average age of just 23 years and 4 months. 

Following their horrific start, Arsenal were able to slowly settle into a consistent playing XI and displayed a style of play that resembled some degree of Guardiola’s positional play but with an Arteta twist that has developed overtime on the job: a possession-centric play that is built on intricate positional coaching but less aggressive in the press and more emphasis on counter-attacking verticality. 

Let’s begin with the defensive foundation, which was established early but only found stability and consistency throughout this season. 

On paper, Arsenal are a team that like to press high up the pitch to win the ball in dangerous situations. Only Liverpool and Manchester City have applied more pressure in the final third than Arsenal, who rank fourth for shot-ending high turnovers. Yet, surprisingly, their PPDA* is the eleventh-lowest in the league, while they are also fifth-bottom for pressed sequences. 

(*PPDA is an advanced metric used to measure the pressure that the defending team puts on the opposition players when they are in possession of the ball. The lesser the number, the better the pressing structure. 
PPDA is calculated by dividing the number of passes allowed by the defending team by the total number of defensive actions, where a defensive action can be: possession-winning duels, tackles, interceptions, and fouls.)

The explanation for these contrasting metrics is that Arsenal pick their moments: instead of applying a Man City- or Liverpool-style hard press, they prefer to keep things in a compressed shape for sustained periods. That compact structure is one of the reasons why their players as a collective have been dribbled past less often than any other team in the league. 

This solid defensive wall, with timed and calculated pressing triggers, is highlighted best in the fact that Arsenal rank eleventh for team presses but first for average press duration, and third—behind Man City and Liverpool—for the average number of pressures per team press. 

When it comes to their build-up play, once again there are traces of Guardiola’s play in Arteta’s Arsenal, albeit with many stark differences. Arteta’s side are fourth for build-up attacks (a passing sequence that contains ten or more passes and either ends in a shot or touch inside the box), reflecting a calculated possession-based game. 

However, unlike Guardiola who believes in recycling the ball to restore absolute balance to his team’s shape before attacking, Arteta is more open to taking advantage of attacking transitions, with his side recording more shot-ending high turnovers than Pep’s City. Arsenal have also scored seven goals from counter-attacks; only Man United, Leicester City and Spurs have managed more. 

This tactical loosening of his mentor’s ideas came from the period in 2020/21 when Arteta went for a trial-and-error approach to solve his team’s poor run of form. It was here where he really found his own voice, becoming more open to letting his players’ natural flair show even when it contradicted the near-immaculate positional structure he would coach in training. 

Yet, most of the time it is about slow build-up play from the back these days, benefiting largely from the fact that Martin Ødegaard has seamlessly eased into his role and taken up leadership while linking up beautifully with the ever-improving duo of Thomas Partey and Bukayo Saka to create intricate passing triangles through the centre of the pitch. 

Indeed, Arsenal’s “absolute width” — the horizontal width with which they usually construct their build-up play — is the fourth-lowest in the division at 24.5 m, which is exceptionally narrow for a top side. However, by bunching their key players together through the central column, Arsenal have plenty of progressive passing options through the lines, with players positioned close enough in between the lines to play the quick one-twos we have been seeing of late. 

As a result, no side has created more chances in the central third of the attacking half than Arsenal this season. The Gunners created more than 45% of their total chances in the Premier League through the middle, which is a league best and a big contrast to their attacking preferences from the season before, where they created the second-lowest (32%) proportion through the middle third of the attacking half, only ahead of the ultimately-relegated Sheffield United (30%). 

With youth comes inexperience 

Arsenal’s 2021/22 season has been a story of highs and lows. On one hand, the team picked up impressive results throughout the season, including registering impressive wins against Chelsea, Man United and West Ham on the bounce in April, guaranteeing an improved showing on last season’s eighth-place finish. On the other hand, there were some less than impressive results and the pain of missing out on Champions League football yet again. 

However, one consistent positive coming out of this season has been the development of a core of young and exciting players. The Gunners’ top performers this season include the 20-year-olds Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli and the 21-year-old Emile Smith Rowe, while the 23-year-old Martin Ødegaard who looks like the future captain is in company with the now-number-one goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale and the current club vice-captain Kieran Tierney, both of whom are 24. 

This focus on youth and commitment to blooding young players is making the club an exciting prospect for other players. The balance of a young group guided by the experienced players has spurred the team on through difficult patches over the last year, including a rocky start to the season, or the two league defeats to Manchester United and Everton in December, and the three defeats on the bounce against Brighton & Hove Albion, Crystal Palace and Southampton. Despite the manner of those defeats, this young group of players have shown the mentality and resilience that many experienced players lack and have bounced back from these experiences with more steel and determination. 

Let’s talk about January 

There would have been few managers left more frustrated than Arteta after the club failed to land several key players. Although the Spaniard enjoyed a very productive summer transfer window, with £150 million spent on bringing in six signings, it was widely known that the Gunners would need to make more signings in January if they were to continue their push for a top-four finish. 

The north London club kept tabs on Fiorentina’s Serbian striker Dušan Vlahović throughout the January window but failed to reach an agreement on the personal front, and the Serb eventually secured a move to Juventus for a reported fee of £63 million. Mikel also saw deals for Real Sociedad striker Alexander Isak and Espanyol’s Raúl de Tomás fall through late in the window, while Juve’s Brazilian playmaker Arthur Melo was just a signature away from donning the Arsenal jersey, but the club yet again failed to seal the deal. Things then became really complicated when, following Aubameyang’s departure to Barça, Arsenal failed to bring in any suitable replacement(s). 

Therefore, after a disappointing deadline day for the Gunners, Arteta returned from the warm-weather training camp in Dubai with his squad looking a lot lighter. 

In terms of signings, the Gunners made the surprise acquisition of USMNT regular Auston Trusty for an undisclosed fee. The young 23-year-old is currently on loan at Colorado Rapids, his previous club, and is set to join Arsenal this summer. They also took care of their second-goalkeeper conundrum—with talks of Bernd Leno leaving for Germany come summer—as New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner signed on the dotted line to become an Arsenal player for a reported fee of £7 million plus add-ons. That was all as far as first-team signings go. The only other signing was of the 17-year-old starlet Lino Sousa from Championship club West Bromwich Albion. 

On the clearing-out front, there were some on high wages who were shown the axe. Bosnian left-back Sead Kolašinac, who was on £100,000 per week, left the club the same way he signed: on a free, having fallen out of favour under Arteta. 24-year-old versatile midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who can operate on either flank as well, left in search of regular game-time after making just two starts under Arteta. Pablo Marí, too, opted for a new challenge in Italy with Serie A outfit Udinese on loan, while Calum Chambers was the other first-team player to leave the club on a free as he signed for Aston Villa. 

While Arsenal were able to significantly reduce their wage bill and balance the books ahead of another spending spree this summer, they certainly left themselves short on a couple of positions and needed an injury-free run-in for the end-of-season fixtures in order to maintain or even strengthen their chances of a top-four finish. 

Thinning the herd and its consequences 

Fans in this current footballing landscape want their teams to have some intrinsic identity. In actuality, the DNA of a football club lies more with the infrastructure and community rather than an ever-lasting style of play. This task of sifting through the gumbo of talent is something that has plagued the club since Wenger’s final years. 

Arsenal’s recent resurgence into a top-four-challenging club is indicative of Arteta’s success in “finding” Arsenal. But how did they fix the problem? 

Well, they threw money at it, but not in the traditional sense. 

Throwing money or splashing the cash in modern football usually equates to shiny new signings for the fans to fawn over, but the practicality of it is often just an afterthought. However, for Arsenal, it meant paying players—sometimes fan favourites—to go away. This philosophy was rather evident and in full swing during the 2022 January transfer window, during which an already-thin Arsenal team gave up a further five players (Maitland-Niles, Chambers, Kolašinac and Pablo Marí), including club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Three of these players (Kolašinac, Chambers and Aubameyang) had their contracts cancelled. 

While Arsenal’s lack of meat on the bone became a source of anxiety for the fans, the same allowed Arteta to hone in on his team’s identity and solidify his philosophy. 

However, some of the steps taken to arrive at this point have been rather questionable. Freezing out and subsequently cancelling Mesut Özil’s contract left Arsenal with a dearth of creativity. Loaning out a trouble-maker in Ainsley Maitland-Niles restored harmony, but during AFCON when Thomas Partey was away, Arsenal were left with only two options in midfield. Furthermore, cancelling Aubameyang’s contract meant a significant burden was put on the goal-shy duo of Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah for the remainder of the season. 

These decisions have hindered Arsenal, some to a great extent. However, the large-scale benefits outweigh the hits taken now. 

A missed opportunity? 

Well, not really. 

The last couple of decades have taught us that, to compete at the highest level in football is to be in a contest of who is willing to be the bigger spender. Today, many teams have the financial muscle to win titles off brand recognition alone. And while not every transfer window should look like the one Arsenal just had, it was a smart, necessary exorcism of the expectations of the modern game. While their rivals are relying on 36-year-old stars with fading powers and players approaching their twilight years, Arsenal have gone about their business with a core group of 24-year-olds, none of whom are recognised stars. 

For most parts, this has seemed to work. This path that Arsenal have chosen, of cutting out competition for places in each position, has been a necessary evil to develop on-field partnerships and chemistry that they have lacked for years. 

One of the major reasons for Unai Emery’s downfall was his inability to stick to a style, a lineup, or even a midfield partnership. Indecision was his biggest failure, as the lack of cohesion between the players and the management led to both Premier League and Europa League collapses. His successor seems to have struck gold in this department, however. The centre-back pairing of Benjamin White and Gabriel Magalhães has looked like the making of an iconic duo, while the understanding among the creative trio of Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard and Gabriel Martinelli looks to be getting better week after week, and the presence of two free #8s in front of Thomas Partey as the single pivot has brought out the best in him. 

As always, this idea is not risk-averse. While a small ecosystem forces players together who might otherwise have had limited contact had the group been bigger, a couple of major injuries or a falling-out can destabilise the entire squad, sending the group into turmoil. 

As evident from the final run-in of games, the former of the above-mentioned did catch up with Arsenal when it really mattered. Injuries to Tierney, Partey and White, with the likes of Bukayo Saka and Martin Ødegaard running out of gas at the final hurdle, saw Arsenal miss out on top four on the final day of the season, just a couple of points behind rivals Tottenham Hotspur. 

The last transfer window was used in quite a non-traditional way by Arsenal, with player contract situations and holes in certain areas of the pitch making it unquestionable that signings will need to be made the summer after, but the foundation that Arteta has built among his small group means that the integration of new players will be smooth. 

Indeed, when the best coaches sign new players, it is merely a natural expansion of their footballing philosophies. 

Also Read – Arsenal’s garden is ready to bloom, but is Arteta the best gardener for the job?

Challenges 

The final clear-out

Before we talk about the potential incomings and areas that need addressing, it is important to look at the bigger picture and identify those who are on the fringes or need to be moved on. 

Arsenal’s record signing Nicolas Pépé has been linked with a move away from the Emirates. It seems that the Ivorian has fallen out of favour and/or hasn’t been able to execute what Arteta demands of him, given his playing time kept reducing as the season wore on. Moreover, we have to be resigned to the fact that the club might have to take a heavy hit on the transfer fee after paying in excess of £72 million for him. Greek centre-back Konstantinos Mavropanos has already made his switch to Stuttgart permanent for a fee close to £3 million, while Mattéo Guendouzi’s loan to Marseille and Lucas Toreira’s loan to Fiorentina could be made permanent over the summer. Meanwhile, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who is on loan at AS Roma, and Pablo Marí, who is on loan at Udinese, could both be sold to provide additional funds.  

These departures could provide Arsenal with as much as £60–80 million of extra transfer funds to further strengthen their squad.

Reinforcement 

Taking the time to get rid of the deadwood and strengthen the core relationships at Arsenal has defined what an Arsenal player looks like; it has given birth to a new identity.

Mikel was quick to identify who either did not respond to his ideas or lacked the ability to carry them out. Though it looks harsh when you factor in certain individuals, this was an important distinction the Spaniard and the club had to make. 

Given that Arsenal have Europa League football to look forward to next season, it is paramount that the owners and the recruitment team focus on strengthening key areas of the first team ahead of the new season. 

Backup left-back

Despite his consistent performances, Kieran Tierney has been the subject of regular injury setbacks. He recently underwent surgery on his left knee. Although many believe and want to see the 25-year-old as the next Arsenal captain, his frequent injuries and Nuno Tavares’ inconsistency (who is also seemingly losing Arteta’s trust), has resulted in Arsenal requiring a backup left-back. The requirement, as it seems, is to find a young, exciting and versatile left-back who can operate on the right flank as well, two-footedness being a specific requirement. 

Reports have been linking Arsenal heavily with 19-year-old Scottish fullback Aaron Hickey, who fits the bill to the tee: his directness and dribbling would make him a great exponent of Arteta’s style, while his two-footedness would give Mikel the versatility he is looking for. It is believed that the teenager could be available for as little as €20–25 million, though in recent weeks other Premier League clubs like Brentford and Newcastle United have also joined the race for his signature. 

Backup right-back

Much like Tierney, Takehiro Tomiyasu has also been on the wrong side of injuries since joining the Gunners. And while Cédric Soares staying put gives Arteta depth, the Portugal international has shown this season that he isn’t up to the standard required to take the club to the next level. 

Djed Spence caught the eye of Mikel Arteta with his scintillating performance in Nottingham Forest’s FA Cup tie against Arsenal, and the young Englishman has ever since been linked with the Gunners, especially given his skill set, which would allow Mikel to create similar attacks down the right flank that we’ve become accustomed to down the left flank with Tierney. 

Another potential option for the backup role is Nahuel Molina of Udinese. He is a young fullback whose playing style compliments Arteta’s system and can be a decent fit and able competition for Tomiyasu. While it is reported that any team would have to fork out close to €15–20 million for him, Arsenal will try to use Pablo Marí as makeweight to lower the price. 

Backup defensive midfielder

While the Gunners’ confidence has been boosted by the improved form of Thomas Partey in his defensive midfielder role this season, his recurring injuries ever since joining the club and Albert Sambi Lokonga’s inability to operate as a lone pivot mean Arsenal could be in the market for a new defensive midfielder, someone who could either cover for Partey or play alongside him in a double-pivot system. 

Some of the names that have been linked with the club are Kalvin Phillips of Leeds United, Yves Bissouma of Brighton, Aston Villa’s Douglas Luiz, and Napoli’s Fabián Ruiz. 

Now, a move for Bissouma is unlikely at this stage given his ongoing case (after Bissouma and a man in his forties were arrested on suspicion of sexual assault in October 2021. The player was filmed being led out of a club in King’s Road Arches by Sussex police officers. The footage made headlines after it was shared on social media. Bissouma, who was previously on police bail, was released under investigation before the start of the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, which started in January earlier this year). Given that the case isn’t solved yet, it is highly unlikely that Arsenal would make a move for him this summer, though he is definitely the best fit out of all the options. 

Phillips, who is another Arsenal target, is also being chased by Man United and Liverpool, therefore the Gunners may look to back out of this deal as well given the excessive funds they would have to shell out to fend off both Man United and Liverpool. Besides, both Douglas Luiz and Fabián Ruiz have also been linked with a move to the Emirates for some time now. 

However, Austria international Florian Grillitsch, who becomes a free agent this summer, could be a great addition to the squad. The 26-year-old fits the requirements and is just entering his peak years, and since Arsenal already have Partey and Lokonga for that #6 role, it makes more sense to rope in someone experienced like Grillistch on a free and spend the funds on strengthening other key areas of the pitch. 

Central midfielder

Although Arsenal could make do with reasonable backups for each of the above-mentioned positions, central midfield is one area where they need to significantly strengthen. Ever since the January transfer window closed, Rúben Neves and Youri Tielemans have been constantly linked with a move to the Emirates, particularly as an upgrade on Granit Xhaka. While the Switzerland international has been a trusted deputy of Mikel Arteta, Arsenal have been on the lookout for a more mobile and dynamic central midfielder. 

Based on those specific requirements, it is the 25-year-old Belgium international, Youri Tielemans, who fits the bill as an upgrade alongside Martin Ødegaard as one of the free #8s. Moreover, with his contract running out, Tielemans could be available for as low as £25 million, while rumours have been circulating that personal terms between the club and player have already been agreed, and it’s now just a matter of agreeing on a fee with Leicester. 

Backup wide forward (preferably versatile)

With Nicolas Pépé almost certain of leaving the club, Arsenal will need a versatile wide forward ahead of the new season. Given Arsenal already have a trio of youngsters fighting for two spots, the general understanding is that Mikel and Edu would like to bring in someone who could compete with them, especially for the right-winger role with Bukayo Saka, and operate from the left flank as well.  

The end to the 2021/22 season has shown us that Bukayo Saka needs more rotation. He looked exhausted and out of ideas as Arsenal approached the final stretch of fixtures. While Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe were smartly managed and rotated with one another, Pépé’s lack of tactical awareness meant Arteta had to time and again put all his eggs in the Saka basket; in the long run, this could to lead to extended periods of burnout and fatigue as seen with someone like Marcus Rashford at Man United. Thus, it is important that Arsenal bring in a backup for him.

Now, Arsenal have two options they could go all in for: Luis Sinisterra and Ismaïla Sarr. Sinisterra (22) is an exciting prospect from Colombia who has shown incredible technical and finishing abilities playing for Dutch club Feyenoord. Primarily operating as a left-winger, Sinisterra bagged 12 goals and 7 assists in 31 league appearances this season, but he can also operate down the right. His vision, technical ability, composure, and temperament hold him in good stead for years to come and, like his compatriot Luis Díaz, he has the potential to become one of the most exciting wingers in world football. 

Sarr, on the other hand, who had a decent season for the relegated Watford side, is direct, plays on the last defender’s shoulder, and takes on his man just like Saka does. Moreover, he will be a much cheaper alternative to someone like Sinisterra, who could cost as much as £30–40 million. 

A couple of centre-forwards

After Aubameyang’s contract termination, and Alexandre Lacazette running down his contract Arsenal are in the market for at least two centre-forwards ahead of the 2022/23 season. 

Now, Gabriel Jesus has been touted as the No. 1 target for the Gunners, and this association makes a lot more sense given Arteta and Jesus’ history together at Man City. The Brazilian is one of the more suited options to fill that #9 role with his technical ability and physicality after spending so many seasons under Pep Guardiola. Moreover, a figure close to around £40–50 million would be a great bit of business given Arsenal will be securing a Premier League-proven talent. His acquisition would also solve Arteta’s problems, given Jesus is a versatile forward. He is adept at playing both as a centre-forward and on the right side, providing more than decent cover for someone like Bukayo Saka. 

The second player that Arsenal would like to add to their ranks is Cody Gakpo of PSV Eindhoven. The 23-year-old forward is a serious talent. He is tall (6’2″), physically imposing, has outstanding dribbling ability, and boasts frightening pace. Most of this has been demonstrated by him playing down the left flank, which is why there is some intrigue regarding Arsenal’s interest in him. Furthermore, the Dutchman idolises Thierry Henry, so if Arsenal come calling, there is every chance Gakpo could be donning the red and white of Arsenal when the 2022/23 season starts. However, one important factor to consider is that there will be some serious competition for him, with clubs like Real Madrid, Liverpool and Barcelona all looking for alternatives after missing out on both Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappé. He’ll definitely command a fee north of £55–60 million. 

The final verdict

From the board, the target for Mikel Arteta at the start of the season was clear: to get Arsenal back into Europe by securing a top-six finish. The club backed him in doing so with a vast outlay (£145m) targeting youth and unproven talent, as they emphasised potential rather than proven quality. They also went hardcore on getting rid of players who didn’t fit in or were considered bad apples, slashing the wage bill considerably, but trimming the squad so thin that Arsenal were always just two or more injuries away from complete disarray. 

It was rather ironic when Newcastle United’s Bruno Guimarães of all people scored the goal that all but killed off Arsenal’s Champions League dreams for at least another season. He could have been the type of signing to help push Arsenal over the line in the race for a top-four spot (after being heavily linked with the club for over a year), but they allowed the Magpies to seal a deal for him instead, while Spurs went and secured Dejan Kuluveski and Rodrigo Bentancur, both of whom proved exceptional and pivotal to Spurs securing fourth in the league. 

Arsenal, in fact, weakened their squad further when they decided against signing makeshift alternatives when their main targets weren’t available in the January transfer window. In some ways that is an admirable stance and, understandably, Mikel and Edu didn’t want to sign anyone just for the sake of it in the middle of the season. 

However, there are a lot of positives to take into next season. The final clear-out and subsequent incomings will finally give this squad its full shape, or at least close to it. Arteta has worked hard to rebuild a connection between the team and the fans, a connection that became more and more evident as the season progressed. 

Arsenal are back in Europe next season, and they have done it with the youngest team in the Premier League. Furthermore, they have done it while overhauling their squad and removing several big names on astronomical wages. So, there are many reasons why Arsenal’s season can be viewed as a successful one. 

They have substantially slashed their wage bill, drastically reduced the age of the squad, and established a connection with the match-going fans, which was almost entirely lost. They’ve also picked up more points and scored more goals, that too without any of their strikers scoring more than five goals this season. 

And with the club set to spend big again this summer, with reports of a budget north of £150 million, one would expect the Gunners to improve on their showing from this season and Champions League qualification becoming a must for next season. 

Despite the clear positives and signs of improvement shown over the season, it’s also difficult to not look at Arsenal’s fifth-place finish as a failure. Yes, no one would have given them a chance of making the top four when things kicked off in August, but the fact is, with four games remaining they were just one win away from securing a top-four finish. 

They got themselves into a position where they had their destiny in their own hands, and they threw it all away just before the finish line. 

Arsenal’s lack of activity in January was always a risk given what was at stake and, ultimately, it looks like a gamble that backfired massively. So overall, it is difficult to really define Arsenal’s season. Ultimately, it may not be until the end of next season that the current season could truly be defined. 

If Arsenal go on to build on the foundations that have been put in place over the past ten months, people will look back on this as the period during which the project under Mikel Arteta really started to take shape. However, if they fall away and struggle to keep up with their rivals, this will surely be remembered as the season they let their one massive chance slip away. 

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