Norwich City

A Tale of What Might Have Been (Long read) «

Most season reviews are relatively easy to format. You ask, “Was the season a success overall, and if so why, and if not why not?”

I guarantee that if you asked these questions  of most reasonable Arsenal fans about the season just ended,  they would find it hard to answer unequivocally either way. This was a curate’s egg of a season and to be fair it was more good than bad. But I take only moderate satisfaction from it because of what might have been and because I am notoriously picky!

Two years ago I performed the task of reviewing the season during the first pandemic hit campaign. The story was fairly clearcut. Initially we started well, then Emery seemed to lose his mojo and by the time of his departure we were a basket case. Arteta came in and slowly turned the ship around, finally sailing it triumphantly to Wembley where we claimed the FA Cup. Simples —as a Meerkat might say (if he could talk)!

Success, failure or something in between?

But the 2021/22 season is much harder to categorise. I’m left with a huge feeling of disappointment and anti-climax. We qualified for the Europa League very easily. We were 11 points ahead of the sixth team Manchester United who brought in Ronaldo, Varane and Sancho in pre-season! We won 22 games and at times we looked a very good side indeed. We approached the season with a coherent vision of buying young adaptable players with their best years ahead of them and high development ceilings. We’ve consistently fielded the youngest team in the league. Yet, after three games we were apparently (according to the media) in crisis, having lost all of our matches and with a goal difference of minus 9. We didn’t register a goal in any of those games. And yet, all those returning joyfully to The Emirates reported a buoyant and supportive atmosphere. Gone was the toxicity of the late Wenger and Emery years. Our beloved travelling correspondent C100 was by and large loving his trips to far flung parts of the land and reported huge belief, high morale and patience among the away fanbase. That was great to hear! When I returned to watching matches the positivity of the crowd was striking. Curmudgeons were notable by their absence. 

The mismatch between achievement and fan sentiment soon started to adjust itself. After a narrow win against Norwich at home it began to occur to all but Garry Neville that a Covid outbreak had decimated the squad just before the first game against Brentford in their new stadium and with an emotionally charged atmosphere marking Brentford’s return to the top flight after seventy long years, it was a huge challenge to deal with that first game. We then played two of the three best sides in the country with a very weakened side. The City defeat was by 5-0 and many blamed it on a typical Xhaka brain fart which saw him sent off. This is manifestly unfair to Xhaka. We were already 2-0 down when it happened and in six years a Xhaka inspired revival from a position of seeming crisis has been as rare as hen’s teeth …indeed rarer!

We began to climb the table after this awful start and in doing so swept aside the old enemy from the wrong side of Seven Sisters Road with a vibrant performance in a 3-1 win. Belief began to course through the team. New signings like Tomiyasu, White and Ødegaard were increasingly impressive and in goal, Aaron Ramsdale soon dispelled the misgivings generated by his record of successive relegations. He was a galvanising and inspiring presence when he arrived in the side, able to play effectively with his feet and to pull off stunning saves. A save against Leicester, from Maddison’s free-kick was arguably the save of the season.

During this time it was noticeable that Aubameyang who had suffered an injury and illness hit campaign the season before, was not at his best, despite the fact that he still notched goals from time to time. He didn’t fit the style that Arteta wanted to play. He wasn’t a player who could hold the ball up and bring others into play and was more effective playing out wide – but not as effective as he had been and nowhere near as effective as Martinelli or Saka.  One game at home against Watford saw him caught offside for a goal that was chalked off by VAR, block a goal-bound shot on the line, miss a penalty (his second miss in succession), waste several easy chances and generally look very disaffected! The team’s goal scoring burden was being borne by Smith Rowe and Saka but we lacked a consistent goal threat from our designated strikers.

Our revival reached November/ December and then saw us produce two awful away performances at Manchester United and Everton. We lost both games and the Everton defeat was their only victory in a long and otherwise fruitless run which led  to the demise of Rafa Benitez. Everton couldn’t buy a point until they met us …when they looked likely to score every time they attacked and had two goals disallowed by VAR. Demarai Gray gave them a deserved victory. United saw us off with two Ronaldo goals. Clearly our bubble had burst?

But no, we rebounded back with a  series of very impressive wins putting Southampton, West Ham , Leeds and Norwich to the sword. Running into Liverpool we were ultimately outclassed but our momentum was growing and we were scoring goals. ESR was particularly effective but tended to appear from the subs bench as Arteta tried to manage his questionable fitness. Our game on New Year’s Day against Manchester City was massively  encouraging. Ahead through a beautifully worked goal by Saka and with Martinelli and Saka running riot on the flanks it was hard to remember any side outplaying Citeh so comprehensively in the first half. VAR refused to review a highly dubious challenge by Ederson on Ødegaard which was a clear penalty. Then in the second half, a series of horror moments followed one after the other. Xhaka gave a stupid penalty away, Martinelli missed a completely open goal and Gabriel collected two yellow cards for naive challenges. We even looked as good as them with ten men but Rodri’s very late goal gave City victory.  Aymeric Laporte thought it was the toughest game City had played this season because they rarely get as comprehensively outplayed as they were in large parts of that game.

Covid was biting hard. We postponed the home fixture with Wolves and saw the order of our Carabao Cup semi-final legs with Liverpool reversed. The away game came up first and for once Xhaka’s early sending off didn’t cost us and wasn’t a product of his stupidity like most of his red cards.  Buoyant Gooners suspected that the initial cancellation of the first tie at Arsenal was a piece of subterfuge by Liverpool who subsequently claimed they had registered an inordinate number of false positives. Oh yeah! It seemed to us that they wanted to defer a tricky tie with Salah and Mane away at the AFCON.

To buy or not to buy ….or loan?

As the most successful team in FA Cup history we expected an away tie at Nottingham Forest would be well within our compass but we were overwhelmed in a very disappointing third round tie. Shortly afterwards Liverpool outthought us in a cagey semi-final second leg after we had emerged at 0-0 from the first leg despite Xhaka’s dismissal. We therefore only had the League to focus on for the rest of the season and this may have informed our approach to the window.

We shipped out a lot of players. We negotiated loans: Maitland-Niles went to Roma, Balogun to Middlesbrough, Saliba and Guendouzi were already at Marseille and Torreira was with Fiorentina. Kolasinac left permanently as did Chambers and on the last day of the window, Aubameyang departed to join Barcelona. If ever a deal can be shown to work for both parties Auba’s was it. His subsequent goalscoring burst for Barca was notable  but at the same time Arsenal had seemed to play with more attacking zest and freedom after he was dropped. Arsenal made no immediate purchases and took a deliberate decision that if they could not sign the Fiorentina striker, Vlahovic they would sign no one. It was a big and divisive call and one they possibly had subsequent cause to regret although it was widely supported by a lot of the fanbase, including many Goonerholics. I disagreed with it strongly at the time and while I accept good strikers do not grow on trees a top Director of Football would have found a better solution than continuing with Laca and Eddie up front. Arteta exacerbated the problem by continuing to pick Laca ahead of Eddie as a starter. Eddie contributed five goals after his introduction against Southampton. Laca notched two goals from open play all season!

By now the contenders for European places were emerging. There were effectively two Champions League places up for grabs and two Europa League spots.  Added to that there was likely to be a Europa Conference League spot for the seventh placed team. At this stage it was probably fair to say that Arsenal were more focused on Europa League qualification than anything else but a double success  against Wolves pushed them up the League and the more optimistic supporters started to feel that Champions League qualification was a possibility. We went through a couple of interminable interlulls and then headed for the run-in fresh from a solid and convincing win at Aston Villa. 

Well placed as we were we then suffered three hugely disappointing defeats in succession to Palace, Brighton and Southampton, who like Everton a few months before couldn’t buy a win (and had just lost 6-0 at home to Chelsea in their previous fixture) …until they met us. We scored one goal in those three games and Gooners prepared for a bleak end to the season given a stiff upcoming series of fixtures against rivals challenging us for European places. To compound our anxiety, Partey and Tierney were ruled out for the season. 

Lo and behold, we triumphed 4-2 at Stamford Bridge, beat United 3-1 and triumphed away against West Ham 2-1. Elneny and Xhaka did a very serviceable job in midfield but the left back position was a concern as Nuno Tavares began to show his deficiencies as a defender while driving forwards to good effect. Our win against Leeds saw us go into the North London Derby four points ahead of Tottnumb with three games left. 

The 3-0 defeat was a bitter blow exacerbated as it was by highly dubious refereeing (of which more anon). Arteta’s tactics at the Toilet Bowl felt as if they were as misguided as those he adopted at Villareal home and away, almost exactly a year before. It was a hugely disappointing result but victories against Newcastle away and Everton would still secure a Champions League place. The pathetic 2-0 capitulation at St. James Park was as poor a performance as any of us can remember and represented our thirteenth defeat this season. That is a colossal number of defeats for a team with serious pretensions to a Champions League place and was the same number we sustained in the previous season when we finished eighth. Somehow the 5-1 win against Everton in the last game just seemed to underline our status as flat-track bullies rather than suggested we were a hairsbreadth away from glory. Big teams win when it matters like at the Toilet Bowl..and Newcastle ..or at least they don’t lose ..and if they do they at least turn up!

So should we be content with what we’ve achieved?

The Goonerholic bar is, generally speaking a wise and measured place. No AFTV -style rants, no toys thrown out of prams but there are clearly contrary positions on how good this season was. Serendipity plays a part in football. If Tottnumb had lost at Norwich while we  prevailed against Everton we would have been in the Champions League but it would have come about because of one of the shocks of the season. That vague hope lasted about fifteen minutes. 

The general view (but definitely not mine) was that had we been offered fifth place in August we would have accepted it gratefully. My view is harsher. We bottled an incredible opportunity to transform the club and in so doing helped our biggest rivals to rejuvenate themselves despite a flawed strategy, because they have a very driven and experienced coach. The arrogant drivel I’ve had spouted at me by various Spuds is tough to take and so, so avoidable.

There were huge positives and signs of progress this season compared with the two profoundly disappointing league seasons preceding it. The team can compete (at times) with the very best. But we still took zero points from our games with the top two so that an ability to compete needs to become much more deeply ingrained. We are hugely inconsistent and we can lose to anybody in the league. Last season we lost to Brentford, Everton, Palace, Southampton (all away) and Brighton at home. Of the top six we beat Chelsea, Spurs and West Ham. Twelve points from a possible thirty. Spurs took fourteen from those games, but tellingly eight points more than us from games with the top two. 

Perhaps one of the most worrying statistics is that only once all season have Arsenal come from behind to win a game – against Wolves at home,  and only once have they saved a game with an equaliser after being behind – Palace at home. That points  perhaps to a style of play that makes  it difficult to chase a game but more worryingly does it suggest that the team lacks the resilience to recover from losing situations? Apart from those games we only equalised once after going behind all season – against Manchester United away, a game which we subsequently lost. That is an astonishing statistic and is something that should challenge Arteta. Has the side got enough character? After folding like a tent in the last week of the season I suspect a number of us would answer in the negative. Perhaps it is an indication of the problems you encounter with young sides. Do we need more experience in the team? Granit Xhaka is often praised for the impact he has on the side as the older hand steering the young players through. As many regulars here will expect, I don’t see much sign of this and these astonishing statistics bear me out. If Granit is truly the heartbeat of our side, I suggest we need cardiac surgery. Six seasons at the club and six seasons without qualifying for the Champions League. A statistical anomaly or a glaring indication of a problem? Go figure! Perhaps what we need as much as a prolific striker and a top box to box midfielder are some players with balls. Certainly, if Partey’s first choice partner in midfield is still Xhaka next season it is hard to imagine us moving to the next level. 

There are lots of clichés that develop during a season and they don’t always stand up to scrutiny. One is that our defence is significantly improved. Strange then that we have conceded nine more goals this season than last. Until the very end of the season we did not concede from a set piece which was clearly due to the efforts of our set piece coach. Another is that we ‘share our goals around’. Son and Kane, the Tottnumb strikers scored almost forty league goals between them. Auba scored four, Nketiah five and Lacazette six but three of those were penalties. Martinelli is a great talent but over the season he scored once every 389 minutes. Son scored every 146 minutes, Kane every 167. Nketiah notched a goal every 122 minutes but didn’t start a game until 16th April. Saka and ESR had impressive campaigns but there was a massive hole in the centre of our attack for most of the season. If we do share our goals around we need to score another twenty five of them next season to be anywhere near contention for the league.

Several players took big leaps forward. Saka is a star and a durable one. He played in all our League games despite being kicked from pillar to post all season. Martinelli reclaimed a regular starting spot and showed huge potential but needs a more consistent end product. Hardly anyone in football doubts that he will become a top-class player. ESR was the standout player in the side in the late autumn but we’ve been managing his fitness since Christmas. He is nowhere near as durable as Saka but like him is hugely talented. Partey began to show around Christmas just how good he can be and his loss was the biggest blow we suffered last season. His creeping fragility may just be a reaction to the intensity of the Premier League.

We bought well in the summer but not flawlessly.

Ben White is a Rolls Royce of a player who may be the best English centre back around in two years time. He had a fine season. Tomiyasu arrived with very little fanfare and for half the season was superb with the very odd blip (eg, Brighton away). Ødegaard looks likely to be our next club captain. He is mature beyond his years, hard-working, subtle and creative in his passing but he disappears from some games almost completely. Sambi Lokonga had a first season that was intermittently promising but nothing more. The jury is still out but he is clearly a talent. I’m one of the few fans who hasn’t embraced Ramsdale as a goalkeeping superstar. He began incredibly well but I think his handling is sloppy, his judgement on crosses highly flawed and the macho element of his goalkeeping can alienate defenders. But his distribution is excellent. Tavares arrived after a poll among Benfica supporters suggested that they were delighted he was leaving them.  His attacking sorties in his early games confounded this but defensively he is a disaster…and he can’t take throw ins!

Four of our finest players – Tomiyasu , Tierney, ESR  and Partey are very injury prone and we need to have contingency plans in place as they all may miss at least a third of our games . If we have a successful Europa League campaign (and this trophy has been won in the last four seasons by Chelsea, Seville, Villarreal and Eintracht Frankfurt so why not us?) it will stretch our resources. Young tyros often emerge stratospherically but at the moment while there are high hopes for Hein, Norton- Cuffy, Awe, Rekik, Patino, Salah Oueddine, Hutchinson, Flores, Balogun and Biereth there is of course no guarantee that any will make it as a regular first-team player. Patino ramped up expectations with a scoring cameo in the Carabao Cup quarter final a few minutes after coming on. But playing regularly for Arsenal in the Premier League is a challengIng endeavour. We may need to bring in half a dozen players to be able to sustain challenges in the Europa League and the Premier League. That is in addition to our new American keeper. We may need to part company with around nine players. That’s a lot of disruption during a close season.  

You’re bent ref!!

In keeping with the traditions established by the Guvna, debate in the Holic bar is generally civilised and restrained but the one topic that does cause passions to rise is that of refereeing decisions. To be honest, I eschew conspiracy theories and just can’t accept that there is an agenda based on trying to discredit Arsenal and reduce any success we might have BUT there have been some extraordinarily poor decisions visited on Arsenal this season. In our home game against Palace we were leading 1-0 when McArthur kicked Saka’s thigh violently with the ball nowhere nearby. Mike Dean refused to refer the decision to VAR. It had to be a red card if he had done so. A month or so later Ben Godfrey of Everton launched an out of control studs up challenge into Tomiyasu’s head and amazingly stayed on the field. The inconsistencies in the game against Man City have already been mentioned but surely the most extraordinary decision was taken by Michael Oliver in the game at Molineux where he gave Martinelli two yellow cards within five seconds of each other. It felt vindictive but failed to derail us on the night as we held on to win 1-0. 

VAR has not been a great friend to Arsenal and the recent game at The Toilet Bowl was tilted strongly to the Marshdwellers by the gift of an exceptionally soft penalty , followed by a (justified) sending off for Holding ignoring the fact that Son had gone completely unpunished for an elbow on Holding a few minutes before . 

A study produced by Untold Arsenal (what has the world come to when I am quoting them?) in January this year showed that Arsenal had committed far fewer fouls than any other team in the Premier League yet our tally of cards particularly red cards, does not remotely reflect this. 

What conclusions do we draw? GSD has a pithy phrase that encapsulates his feelings towards Mike Dean succinctly but Dean is thankfully leaving us at the end of the season together with Jon Moss (who unbelievably is becoming a refereeing mentor – akin to Herod taking over as CEO of Mothercare) and Martin Atkinson. The next generation of referees like Tierney, Kavanagh and Gillett are every bit as  awful as their predecessors and unless the quality and consistency of refereeing is addressed the game will continue to be mired in controversy – but isn’t that  what Sky secretly want? The best English referee I saw last season was Craig Pawson. But if we bring in top foreign players and coaches, why not bring in the best referees from abroad? And put a proper organisation in charge not the unfit for purpose PGMOL.

Arteta – is he the answer?

Arteta has definitely justified the faith that this bar showed in him pre-season but has yet to exceed those hopes. Occasionally, as in the recent Tottnumb game and the match against Palace he can look like a rookie coach. Some doubt his man management despite the fact that he has had to face several major personnel issues and has ducked none of them. The club is undoubtedly better off financially and moreover in terms of dressing room morale without the likes of Ozil, Mustafi and Aubameyang. Some criticise Arteta for lack of proactivity in tight or difficult matches, others for our generally slow starts to matches. Last season we were 6th in the League for goals scored (4th for expected goals), 4th for shots at goal and touches in the opposition box but 12th for shot conversion. We were also 17th for big chances created despite the fact that statistically Ødegaard and Saka were two of the most creative players in the league. Clearly we have to improve our shot conversion but possibly our creativity needs to be spread across a wider number of players. Some blame Arteta’s preferred style of play with its emphasis on creating overloads on the opposite flank but I genuinely see us as a work in progress and expect those statistics to improve. 

Whatever criticisms there are of Arteta, there can be no doubting his ability to improve players, some of whom have been around for years. Examples that come to mind are Elneny, Ødegaard, Partey, Saka, ESR, Martinelli and most recently Nketiah. He has much to prove but Arsenal (who have just given him a new three year contract) would be ill-advised to give up on him as he now has a squad which is authentically his own and a feasible replacement who would outperform him would be hard to find (Vieira and Potter are largely unproven too).

The forthcoming transfer window is extremely important and we need to scale up in terms of quality and numbers in several positions. Amazingly, as I edited this article on a mid-morning train to London a group of quite unconnected Gooners coalesced in my carriage and began to discuss the season just ended. They were generally happier than I was and seemed to harbour high hopes for a number of the emerging stars. Fifth place is not a major let-down unless viewed in the context of what lay before us a fortnight ago. Our big choke might be entirely explicable but it does suggest to me that while this squad is indeed a work in progress it has a big job ahead of it to emulate some of its predecessors. It is also the second time recently that we have blown up when clearly in sight of a return to the Champions League. I share the concern of many fans that choking may become a very costly and frustrating habit. We need stronger characters, the much vaunted ‘leaders’ so often referenced by old Gooner legends. If you look at our great sides and look at this one, the deficit in character is fairly obvious. That is my big takeaway from the season. 

So, 2021/22 is over in a flash, it seems. It could certainly have been a lot worse and there is much cause for optimism next season, but when I look back to that blissful moment after the Leeds victory when Louis Dunford’s anthem rang out exultantly over the ground and Champions League qualification looked almost assured, I realise that it could also have been a great deal better!

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