“You know, as an Arsenal fan, it’s the hope that kills you”- Arsenal proverb
Heading into the summer of 2020 even the most pessimistic Arsenal fan would have felt some hope for the season ahead.
The FA Cup had just been clinched in spectacular fashion, all the signs were that top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was about to put pen to paper on a new contract, ending months of speculation, and to top it all, Adidas had created another beautiful home shirt for the season.
There was a real fever of optimism around the Arsenal faithful that this FA Cup triumph was a seminal moment, the end of the beginning in Mikel Arteta’s ‘process’ of turning around the fortunes of a side that had slumped to eighth in the Premier League.
How foolish we all were.
Ending the season a dismal 8th in the league, thus missing out on European football altogether for the first time since 1997, along with being knocked out of all cup competitions in varying degrees of embarrassment, the campaign will live in infamy for all the wrong reasons.
Still confined to their sofas, fans have been forced to watch a catalogue of poor performances, with examples of tactical ineptitude along with infamous individual errors almost too frequent to distinguish.
To describe the side as inconsistent would almost be generous, with the good performances being vastly outweighed by the underwhelming ones.
Yet perhaps at this point some context would be useful.
Comedian, broadcaster, and host of The Athletic’s Handbrake Off podcast, Ian Stone has witnessed his fair share of poor Arsenal seasons over the years, so where does this one rank?
“Overall, this one does have to rank as one of the two or three worst seasons I’ve ever witnessed.
“In the mid 70’s we were bad, I mean we finished 16th one year (1975), but back then we didn’t have any expectations, whereas now…”
For the Evening Standard’s Arsenal correspondent Simon Collings, it’s a similar story: “It’s one of the worst seasons since the turn of the century. It won’t be remembered in a good light by both fans and Arteta.”
The lowest of the lows
Both on and off the pitch there is seemingly an endless supply of low moments to pick from this season.
From small scale ones such as the defeat to Aston Villa in February, in which Villa gleefully capitalised on a lacklustre back pass by Cedric to score in the opening minute (an act that Arteta has clearly still not forgiven him for).
To the grander in scale, such as the Super League fiasco and the fallout from it.
The Arsenal faithful make their feelings known to absentee owner Stan Kronke ahead of that evenings clash with Everton
But for Stone, his low light should have been his highlight: “I was at the Burnley game, and honestly it was a brilliant, brilliant day. We sat outside a pub and had a few beers, and it was a really brilliant day, right up until the moment we got inside the stadium.
“I remember Ashley Barns celebrating after Aubameyang’s own goal right in front of us. My glasses were steamed up because of the mask and it was grim in every way possible, and I just thought ‘what am I doing here?’’
The 1-0 defeat to Burnley that Stone witnessed is definitely in contention for the low point of the season.
It contained all the hallmarks of the campaign so far; a red card (in this case another for Granit Xhaka), a non-existent attack and an own goal.
The continuation of an appalling run that stretched back to October, the result fuelled the concern that Arteta simply lacked the managerial qualities to dig the side out of their rut.
And then came Boxing Day.
All hail Hale End FC
The clash against Chelsea on Boxing Day was make or break for Arteta.
All the talk in the build-up was that, if the worst did happen, the Spanish coach would be packing his bags.
So out of either a tactical brainwave or simply desperation, Arteta called up Emile Smith Rowe for his first start in the league that season.
Smith Rowe’s game time up until that point had been largely confined to the Europa League, where he had put in a succession of highly impressive performances (even if the same could not be said for the opposition).
His inclusion seemed to be just what the side needed. A creative presence like his was something that had been desperately lacking from the side, and consequently enabled the team to pick up its first three points since the beginning of November.
“Since December the narrative around the club has been either ‘Arsenal have been poor, but the young players have been good’ or ‘Arsenal have been good because the young players have really stepped up’”, says Collings, “they deserve to be at the heart of the club’s re-build over the next few years.”
Two rare bright lights in an otherwise bleak campaign for the Gunners
Without question the likes of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Kieran Tierney and Gabriel Martinelli have all spared the blushes of both their manager and older teammates numerous times.
But as good as these young players have been, this somewhat over-reliance on youth does shed light on just how far below par some of their more senior counterparts have been.
The case in point has been Willian. Signed on a three-year (and reportedly highly lucrative) deal to bring a touch of experience to the right side of attack, his succession of woeful performance saw Saka once again parachuted into an unknown role.
The fact that Saka went onto to make that position his own over the second half of the season highlights just how mind-boggling a decision it was to bring him to the Emirates.
The tragedy is that the level of mediocrity displayed by Willian was not so far from the level many in the squad were performing at. As such, talk of a cataclysmic squad overhaul this summer is rife in north London.
Buy one get five free
Whilst most sides in the Premier League could make a good case for needing a seismic squad rebuild this summer, Arsenal’s is certainly one of the most convincing.
Indeed, such is the scale of the task, that Arteta already started back in January with the removal of Mesut Özil, Sead Kolašinac, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis off the wage bill for good.
The next out of the door at the end of the season is David Luiz, a defender whose relationship with Arsenal fans has been complicated to say the least.
Then there are the maybes like Hector Bellerin, Granit Xhaka and Bern Leno, all of whom could be following Luiz to pastures new.
Always something of a marmite figure among Arsenal fans, Luiz will still undoubtedly be missed next season
But then where does that leave the squad?
Take Bellerin for example. “You can criticise his performances on the pitch this season, but off it he’s a very big personality,” says Collings. “He was the one negotiating the pay cuts last year, and he was the one at the captain’s meeting with Jordan Henderson discussing player safety when going back to play.”
On the one hand it is clear that moving on those players who have underwhelmed this season is a must for Arteta, if his ‘process’ is ever going to come to fruition.
But whilst the younger players have shown themselves as leaders on the pitch, only time will tell if they can fill that void, or if this is another problem that can only be fixed by the lottery of the transfer window.
However, whilst talk of a squad rebuild is all well and good, there are still question marks over the man in the dugout that have yet to be answered.
Trust the process?
Thursday the 6th of May was the nail in the coffin for Arsenals season.
There was an atmosphere of defiant optimism among supporters leading up the second leg of the crucial second leg tie Europa League tie against Villarreal, with the side only 2-1 down on aggregate, and only needing a 1-0 win to progress to the final, and then, potentially, back to the Champions League.
But it was not to be.
The Gunners failed in spectacular fashion to even lay a glove on Uni Emery’s side, putting in an attacking display that was at best unimaginative, and at worse, cowardly.
“That one’s on the manager for me,” says Stone. “The tactics were weird, and the team was weird.
“We’ve seen the gradual decline, but this seemed wrong in so many ways. There was a lot of wrong headedness. There was an insipid nature to our performance.”
Arteta attempting in vain to marshal some response from his tropes against Villarreal
Many fans felt the same way, with the result again raising questions over the wisdom of entrusting such a monumental job as Arsenal to a previously untested manager.
For many months Arteta has been imploring fans to ‘trust in the process’, but that trust is, without question, at its lowest level.
With supporters set to return to the Emirates stadium next season, it will soon become abundantly clear to Arteta just how many of the faithful he has to win back.
There’s always next season…
So, at the end of a campaign like no other, what kind of hopes and expectations are we dealing with for next season?
With fans back, a decent transfer window, a good pre-season, and our star striker not getting malaria, who knows where this team can go.
For Stone, it is simple: “Hopefully we’ll be less shit. That’s the best I can hope for. Slightly less shit than this season anyway.”
And with that in mind, bring on 2021/22!