Many moons ago, after spending a day shadowing a coach on match day, a former player poured himself an oversized glass of wine and got to the heart of management: “When we win, I’m a tactical genius and when we lose I’m an asshole, he shrugged.Judgment tends not to exist in shades of grey.
In today’s even more high-profile instant opinion era, managers are used to being scrutinized on a game-by-game basis. But in assessing what went wrong for Arsenal against Newcastle or Tottenham, or lamenting last month’s destabilizing hat-trick of defeats to Southampton, Brighton and Crystal Palace, the biggest factor in Arsenal’s top four has its roots in deep conversations and big decisions. performed at the London Colney offices in January.
Mikel Arteta and the Arsenal hierarchy made a series of critical appeals which led directly to this point. If his team had managed another victory somewhere along the line since then, perceptions would be vastly different from how they feel today. One defeat too many leaves Arsenal clinging to Champions League aspirations by a half-torn fingernail, with the manager’s choices firmly under the microscope. The likely return to the Europa League is still a definite step forward, but with emotions still raw it’s hard to shake off the feeling that it could have been more.
January was fundamental. When it comes to the Premier League, winter was generally a promising time. From December 11 to March 13, Arsenal won nine times, had arguably their most fascinating performance in a last-minute loss to Manchester City and drew once with Burnley. A run of 28 of 33 points gave them reason to believe.
But January was also full of pitfalls and red flags. Arsenal fell out of both domestic cups, overloaded the squad and, at the same time, made a hugely significant change to the squad with their approach to the transfer window. It seemed like the obvious time to step up and they tried. In the end though, Arsenal cleared up instead. That calculated risk, unless a Norwich miracle ultimately stumbles Tottenham, seems to have cost them the top four they aspired to.
Arsenal chased a dominant striker in January, including courting Dusan Vlahovic, before the striker stormed into the arms of Juventus. They also tried for an experienced midfielder in Arthur Melo, which never happened. Meanwhile, they controversially parted ways with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who rediscovered his Barcelona mojo, and allowed a handful of fringe players to move on. Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ loan to Roma and the sale of Calum Chambers to Aston Villa have been sanctioned. Sead Kolasinac and Pablo Mari, a pair of defenders Arteta didn’t want to rely on, were contracted out and unlikely to return.
Aubameyang’s situation was obviously the most likely to sting. But overall, the inability to strengthen as desired in attack and midfield, along with a reduction in defensive options, has left Arsenal with a slim squad. Too thin on quality as well as quantity, obviously. Even if it was not the right time, purchases, or a loan or two that might have increased their options, or achieved certain goals, were to be welcomed.
Arteta basically bet on a whole bunch of factors. He needed key personnel to stay in shape. In key positions, especially at the back and in the anchor midfield, this has not happened. He needed his attacking players to score regularly. Given the composition of the team, they couldn’t.
The extent of the over-reliance on reserve players during the break-in was too much to handle. Each club has to make do with deputies here and there, and the challenge can sometimes be the making of a player. But the decline in quality at full-back is evident, and a look at the number of games played by players in that position shows just how damaging it has been: Kieran Tierney made 22 Premier League appearances, Takehiro Tomiyasu 21, Nuno Tavares 21, Cedric Soares 20.
Moving on to midfield, the Premier League minutes played by Sambi Lokonga and Mohamed Elneny together aren’t too far short of the total managed by Thomas Partey.
Up front, the centre-forward’s difficulty in scoring has been a problem all season. This loaded Arsenal’s talented but young attacking group. Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli have all stolen the show at times in this campaign, but whatever the ins and outs of Aubameyang’s downfall, expect the kids to put Arsenal above of the front-four line without a significant contribution from the centre-forward was a gamble and a half. Saka in particular looked like he had hit the wall in the last two games, which isn’t a huge surprise given the cumulative effects of the intense two years of his young career.
In the first half of the Premier League campaign, before January, Arsenal scored 32 times in 19 games. In the second half it fell to 24 as Alex Lacazette looked for goals and Eddie Nketiah came on and contributed – but not enough.
Overall, in January, Arsenal took the bet on the bet on the bet – in defence, in midfield and in attack. The principle of betting on a light team could have been a stroke of inspiration but it required luck in terms of injuries and form. There was no room for error or misfortune. Now, as it stands, unless there is a terribly unexpected twist on the final day of the season, it has to – be generous – be something Arsenal and Arteta learn from. Arsenal have backed Arteta with a new contract and they won’t be revising the wisdom anytime soon. But they can all be sure to learn team management over an entire season.
The strategic move in January, part of the long-term rebuilding required, was agreed by director, managers, line management and staff – these things tend to be done in a spirit of collaboration. If there is one change in strategy that emerges from this experience, it is the dilemma between calculated bets and speculation to accumulate.
Arsenal are likely to miss the top four by a healthy margin – a single game with a higher score almost any time this season could have done it. Arteta valued unity and the collective desire for a small team together and a tight dressing room. But in the end, they lacked legs, steam, fitness, mental and physical resilience.
Arsenal’s young players in particular have made huge progress this season, and the club must do their best to reward that this summer by growing stronger around them.
(Top photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)