Three years since Arsene Wenger has departed Arsenal the question still remains, are they a club on the rise or in decline? If we look at the evidence in terms of points, in Arsene Wenger’s final season, Arsenal finished the season in sixth place on 63 points, 12 points away from the top 4 and in the following three seasons getting a total of 70 points, 56 points and 61 points respectively under Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta, this shows that excluding the first season post-Wenger, Arsenal has declined, although it isn’t as simple as that, as Arsenal were in a huge decline in Wenger’s final years as their points total has decreased in his final three years at the helm.
Some fans no doubt will seem to think that sacking Unai Emery was the wrong move after watching him knock out Arsenal and current boss Mikel Arteta, then subsequently go on to win the Europa League. However, Emery simply wasn’t a good fit for Arsenal and was rightfully sacked after a dire end to his first season after failing to achieve Champions League football despite being third with five games to go. This, as well as defeat in the Europa League final and a disappointing start to the season with Arsenal a mass 8 points off the top 4 and having conceded 19 goals in 13 games. This was a big concern in the final years of Wenger and was something Emery didn’t improve.
Arsenals miserable defensive record, especially in away games resulting in a 3-0 defeat at Leicester, a flattering 3-1 reverse at Wolves, and an all too familiar 5-1 thrashing at Anfield.
One of Arteta’s first mission was to fix this shaky defence and at first, a more conservative approach which resulted in a much-improved showing at the back conceding only 9 goals in 11 Premier League games pre-lockdown. What will have no doubt helped the defence and team in general improve was a consistent formation of 4-2-3-1 followed by a 3-4-3 post lockdown. This slow improvement brought Arsenal up the table and there was finally a bit of optimism for Arsenal fans for the start of the post lockdown system.
After defeat in the opening two games post lockdown to Manchester City and Brighton a switch to a more solid 3 at the back and a substance over style attitude led Arsenal all the way to a record 14th FA Cup triumph including impressive victories over Manchester City and Chelsea with Arteta seemingly proving himself tactically astute in the big games and Arsenal finally looked able too hold their own against the bigger teams.
This brought optimism going into Arteta’s first full season in charge and after an encouraging opening to the season including a thrashing of fulham and a rare but always welcome victory at Old Trafford, a run of seven games without a win including five defeats left Arsenal languishing in 15th place with just 14 points in as many games. A big problem was that during the whole season only once did Arteta keep the same team and a lack of consistency meant it was hard for Arsenal to build any sort of momentum.
As well as this poor recruitment including an ageing uninterested Willian, an obsession with playing strongest finisher Aubameyang, as hugging the touchline style winger and still after all these years not having a natural holding midfielder after Mateo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira being shipped out on loan.
Mikel Arteta was probably fortunate to keep his job at this stage, however, it seems justified with Arsenal sitting in second place in a modified 2021 only premier league table, demonstrating the improvement since Christmas and having the third-best defence in the Premier League, including a better defensive record than runners up Manchester United and third-place Liverpool, certainly cause for optimism for Arsenal.
The integration of younger players as key players such as Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka, the return from injury for young star Gabriel Martinelli and Nicolas Pepe looking like he is finally starting to show some consistent form are more than enough reasons for optimism for the season ahead. However, the manager must be backed with Arsenal crying out for some more depth so the young players aren’t forced to show up and perform every single week. However a season without Europe could prove to be a blessing in disguise as Arteta will have more time on the training pitch, he barely would have had a full week to work with his players.
Ultimately, the third-best defence in the league, a lot of promising young players coming through and being the second-best team in 2021 including winning their final five games are enough reasons for confidence going into the coming season and to show slowly but surely Arsenal are progressing, however, a third successive 8th place finish simply won’t cut it and this season seems make or break for Arteta.
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