Though we may only be a few weeks into the summer transfer window, that hasn’t stopped the usual flurry of transfer rumours that so make up what fans have dubbed “silly season”. However, this summer seems to have presented a new series of rumours, rumours that will likely bring a wry smile to Arsenal fans.
In the past, Arsenal have always attempted to supplement any incomings with one or two older players, in order to add experience where there may be none.
Back in the 2018/19 season, Unai Emery’s first season in charge, Arsenal signed Lucas Torreira, Mattéo Guendouzi and Bernd Leno, all of whom seemed to fit the younger bill of what Arsenal were looking for, but these signings were also followed by the signings of Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sokratis Papastathopoulos – a means of adding some much needed experience to the team.
The following season, Gabriel Martinelli, Nicolas Pépé and Kieran Tierney were brought in, however, following the departure of Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal, Arsenal added David Luiz to their ranks too. This was also followed bu the signings of Cédric Soares and Pablo Marí in the January window.
Last summer, Arsenal added Gabriel Magalhães, a promising central defender from Lille, but this too was preceeded by the free transfer of Willian from Chelsea and was then followed by the signing of Thomas Partey from Atlético Madrid, though Partey had always been on the Gunners’ list of potential targets as far back as Arsène Wenger’s time with the club. Even Maty Ryan joined in January temporarily, though more to provide cover than anything else.
Though Lichtsteiner, Sokratis, David Luiz, Cédric, Marí and Willian were all ostensibly brought in to cover specific needs and as stop-gap covers to get Arsenal out of a tight jam, it was nevertheless somewhat disheartening to see Arsenal signing older players, when younger players were readily available and at lower prices.
David Luiz, Willian and Cédric especially are transfers that will leave a sour taste in the mouth for Arsenal fans given the fact that all three were part of the shady dealings of super agent Kia Joorabchian, however, all the older signings served their own purposes.
Lichtsteiner, despite how poorly suited to Arsenal he was, was there to offer competitive back-up to Héctor Bellerín, whereas Sokratis was the logicial choice as Arsenal looked to replace the stoic professionalism of the retiring Per Mertesacker. The blatant unprofessionalism of Laurent Koscielny, which left the club in a sticky situation, forced their hands. With a week remaining in the window and finances dwindling, Arsenal couldn’t simply dive into the transfer kitty and bring in Raphaël Varane, so they were forced to buy a defender that most resembled Koscielny – captain material, good in the air, decent tackling and excellent passing out from the back abilities, which led them logically to the £8m rated David Luiz.
However, this summer has seen a rather abrupt change to the club’s transfer priorities. Where before older players were never dismissed and were even admired by the scouting department, it seems now that Arsenal have set their sights firmly on players in the early stages of their career.
Younger players have almost always been the preference of clubs around the world, even before video games like Football Manager came to prominence. Signing youngsters was generally seen as a win-win for the club; they improve, then you have someone who will become a mainstay for years to come and may even fetch a decent transfer sum in a few years time; if they fail, then you can always shift them along fairly easily with no questions asked.
This summer is the first summer without European football for the forthcoming campaign that Arsenal have had for nearly twenty-five years. Normally, this would be the time for the club to double down on the idea of adding experience to their impressive roster of youngsters to get Arsenal back to where they need to be. No doubt, mammoth contracts would have been tabled for Sergio Ramos, Elseid Hysaj and Ryan Bertrand, while the club throws money to other positions, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.
Though the idea of Sergio Ramos in an Arsenal shirt, particularly an Arsenal shirt without European football, would be ludicrous, it seems that Arsenal have decided to go in the opposite direction in terms of a strategy this time around.
Last season is definitely a season that Arsenal and Arsenal fans would do well to forget, but the few bright sparks in the team seemed to come from the club’s youth talent, rather than through the more established internationals. While Willian and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struggled for form, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Kieran Tierney, Nicolas Pépé and Gabriel Martinelli all stepped up to the plate and saved what little of the season there was to save.
It seems that this is something the club wish to lean into more. Miguel Azeez and Folarian Balogun (fresh off signing his new contract) will likely be the latest crop of youngsters to be given a chance int he team next season, however, they will have competition from the youngsters Arsenal look certain to bring through this season.
Ben White of Brighton & Hove Albion is thought to be the club’s first marquee signing this summer, with Anderlecht’s Albert Sambi Lokonga following close behind. Benfica’s Nuno Tavares is the most likely candidate to come in and deputise for Kieran Tierney and other targets seem to enforce this too.
Though signings in midfield will likely be contingent on the departures of Granit Xhaka, Mattéo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira, it is still reassuring to see names such as Rúben Neves, Sander Berge and Yves Bissouma all linked to replace them.
Even in positions that Arsenal are plentiful, players such as Odsonne Edouard at Celtic and André Onana at Ajax are thought to be admired by the Arsenal scouting department.
However, the real problem issues for the club lie in right-back and in attacking midfield. With Héctor Bellerín likely to move and Emile Smith Rowe likely unable to hold down the number ten position on his own, Arsenal will need new targets.
In terms of replacing Bellerín, RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams (a boyhood Arsenal fan) seems to be the most highly-regarded among the technical team, whereas Martin Ødegaard tops the list of potential number tens to come in, following his successful loan spell with the club. Even a homegrown goalkeeper to compete with Bernd Leno has been mooted, with Aaron Ramsdale at Sheffield United under serious consideration. No more elderly players looking for a last shot at glory on a big contract in the capital anymore.
The other thing that will likely please Arsenal fans is the versatility of those that have been linked. Ben White’s main role is as a centre back, however, he has also been known to understudy at right back and in defensive midfield. Tyler Adams is ostensibly a right-back, but has spent most of his time as a holding midfielder, even Tavares has played a right-back before covering at left-back too.
Even some of Arsenal’s midfield targets are exciting too. Bissouma and Neves are both capable of occupying different roles in the midfield and will likely be able to deputise where needed.
The creative players that have been mentioned around Arsenal in recent seasons such as Julian Brandt, Christopher Nkunku, Houssem Aouar, Emiliano Buendía and Martin Ødegaard are all capable of occupying many roles either on the flanks or deeper in midfield if necessary.
Positional versatility is a must in Mikel Arteta’s system, as proven last season. When Kieran Tierney was out injured, it was the role of Cédric Soares, a right back or Granit Xhaka, a central midfielder, to fill-in for the injured Scotsman. Though this bred mixed results, it was nevertheless an example of why Arteta favours certain players. Indeed, the versatility of Calum Chambers and Mohamed Elneny has likely explained why Arteta has persisted with the duo for so long.
Given how Arsenal’s formation changes fluidly when in and out of possession, the need for hybrid players has grown. Under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, Arteta saw first-hand just how important it is to have full-backs drop into the space in midfield when attacking, so as to prevent an overload in midfield in case of a counter-attack.
Given Arsenal’s creative woes for much of last season, Arsenal instead relied on “old faithful” or “19th century football” as José Mourinho once described it in a scathing post-match interview following a 1-1 draw at home to West Ham, which is to try the long ball over the top.
This too seemed to be a smart move. Both Xhaka and Thomas Partey are capable of hitting long passes over long distances with extraordinary precision, so too can David Luiz and Gabriel Magalhães (though not as well as Luiz), these means that the midfielders often drop into the heart of defence to begin an attack that exploits the explosive pace of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Gabriel Martinelli.
Unsurprisingly, this is something that Rúben Neves has done on countless occasions for Wolves and his penchant for a long-ball isn’t too shabby either. Given that Adams has played as a holding midfielder and that Neves can drop deep when needed, it seems to make perfect sense why Arsenal are targeting such players.
It will be a busy summer at the Emirates Stadium, even without the COVID-19 vaccination jabs taking place there. Plenty of deadwood and, regrettably, fan favourites will likely be shifted, but if Arsenal want to make their way back into European football next season, it seems that targeting youth players is the best way to do so, after all, it wasn’t a bad tactic last season, despite their appalling finish.
A first for the Arseache blog is an interview with Chris Wheatley! Chris, is the Arsenal correspondent for football.london, having worked for Goal.com previously.
Chris’ extensive knowledge of transfers has helped a lot of Arsenal fans navigate the various twists and turns that only silly season can bring.
What is happening with Martin Ødegaard? Have Real Madrid decided how they want to use him and Arsenal still interested in him? Arsenal want to sign Ødegaard and talks are ongoing between Real Madrid and Arsenal. My personal view is that a deal can be done this summer, but it is one that could happen towards the end of the transfer window.
What exactly is Richard Garlick’s role at the club at the moment and how does it dovetail with Edu’s role as the Technical Director? Garlick is the Head of Football Operations. His role is similar to Dick Law’s, who used to be the contract negotiator at Arsenal and was responsible for all contract negotiations and involved at the final stage of transfers.
He’s highly respected within the game and has a vast contacts book from his time at West Bromwich Albion and in his role as Premier League Director of Football.
What other targets are there in the creative midfield role besides Ødegaard? Emiliano Buendía was a target earlier in the window before his move to Aston Villa and James Maddison has appeared as a potential option, although his price remains a sticking point.
Arsenal do have a longstanding interest in Lyon’s Houssem Aouar but it remains to be seen whether they come back in for him this summer.
Has anyone made a move for Willian and how likely is it that he will leave? It’s likely that he will leave but not certain by any means. The MLS is an option for Willian but a source told me recently that ‘he’s not finished in Europe’.
One to look out for this summer.
Will Maty Ryan return? If so, what does that mean for Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson, will he be loaned out? There is interest there but it looks like Arsenal are searching for homegrown options right now. Rúnarsson will probably be loaned out.
You mentioned in a tweet recently about Arsenal looking at the leadership team in the squad (Aubameyang, Lacazette, Bellerín et al), does this mean Arsenal will look at appointing a new captain or will they stick with Aubameyang Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the club captain and that is not expected to change for next season.
My prediction would be Kieran Tierney being part of the leadership team along with more experienced players like Pablo Marí and Mohamed Elneny.
It will be decided closer to the new season, though.
I’d like to thank Chris for his time and I’d also like to extend a personal thank you for everything else. Before starting this blog, Chris was one of the first people I reached out to for help and advice for starting my own blog and Chris, along with the wonderful Andrew over at Arseblog, were always available for help, guidance and general tips and for that I can’t thank them enough.
It also means a lot that he took the time out of his day to answer questions for a fan blog that barely has even 40 followers on Twitter, especially when he has such a busy day himself, so thanks Chris!
The great Hugh Abbot from The Thick of It once said: “Well, that was a fucking disaster”. It’s a quote used by the character after a disastrous press conference in which he is unable to announce the big announcement he had planned and it feels very apt here as well.
This was a season that had a lot of promise. Some good early signings, key players tied down to long-term contracts, away form seemingly improving and the Kroenkes finally putting their hands into their pockets, all coming off the back of a record-extending fourteenth FA Cup for the club, how did it all go so wrong?
Let’s take a look at the individuals and see how they fared.
Name: Mikel Arteta Role: Manager Score: 5/10 In fairness to Mikel Arteta, coming into a management job for the very first time is never an easy task. Taking over one of the top clubs in world football currently going through one of the most turbulent points of it’s long and successful history is pretty much an impossible one.
The lack of a reasonable pre-season in which to prepare and some “internal factors working against us” are all valid reasons to see why Arsenal struggled to land themselves a little higher in the table.
However, Arteta did not make things easy for himself at all. Whether it be the mismanagement of Sokratis, Mesut Özil and William Saliba, massively underpreparing for games that Arsenal should have cakewalked, like Fulham at home or persisting with very out of form players like Willian, it seems that Arteta crafted a rod for his own back.
Poor in-game management has not helped either. A propensity for leaving decisions until far too late in the game to make an actual difference, a total unwillingness to play attacking football and an over-reliance on various players summed up a lot of the season’s main performances. This coupled with decisions such as failing to substitute an already booked Dani Ceballos against Villarreal shortly before his red card, seem to prove the point very well.
His mismanagement of Gabriel Martinelli and Folarian Balogun has also been somewhat baffling as well, especially when considering that the youngsters would have likely been an improvement on what was on the field.
To be fair, Arteta has done his best to try and get Arsenal to where they need to be, but the Spaniard has looked woefully out of his depth on many occasions.
There is plenty to be excited about with Arteta, but there is also a lot to be concerned about. An unwillingness to change an established formula and placing far too much trust in players who haven’t earned it isn’t going to cut the mustard next season.
Name: Bernd Leno Position: Goalkeeper Cleansheets (League): 11 Score: 8/10 Since signing for Arsenal in 2o18, Bernd Leno has fast become one of the best goalkeepers in Europe.
Following the summer’s sale of Emiliano Martínez to Aston Villa, Arsenal looked as though they may be backing the wrong horse. Age was slightly more in favour of Martínez and he was an academy graduate.
However, it is perhaps a testament to Leno’s 11 clean sheets this season that the club were right to stick to their guns. Though Martínez has done a superb job at Aston Villa, Leno has often been one of the main reasons Arsenal have finished as high as they did, which is impressive as well as worrying.
A few mishaps here and there have not done much to sour his overall performance and Arsenal’s lack of a recognisably good cup goalkeeper has meant that Leno has had to play far more than usual.
His ability to play out from the back has been a huge source of help for Arteta and his tactics. With rumours that the German wishes to leave in the summer, it could be very difficult to source a replacement as good as Leno.
Name: Héctor Bellerín Position: Right-back Cleansheets (league): 7 Goals (all comps): 1 Assists (all comps): 4 Score: 4/10 Once thought to be one of the brightest starts to come out of the Arsenal academy in years, Bellerín has been a mainstay in the Arsenal defence.
However, his form this season has been erratic to say the least. While Bellerín has never been one to rely on one trait alone, it is curious to see just how much his pace has dropped off and how little the Spaniard seems willing to use it.
It has been a very disappointing season for Bellerín, unable to keep a nailed-down place in the side and pretty much dropping consistent 3/10 performances throughout the season is only worsened by his love of a foul-throw.
It’s not been a totally poor season however, he has had some good displays here and there, most notably against Leeds at home, but those have been few and far between.
It seems likely that Bellerín will leave Arsenal this summer. PSG are rumoured to be interested and its clear to see that the pace of the Premier League will likely prove far too much for him next season.
If it turns out that this was Bellerín’s final season with Arsenal, then fans can only thank him for the job he has done for the club on and off the field but also likely won’t be too sorry to see his absence from the starting eleven.
Name: Kieran Tierney Position: Left-back Cleansheets (league): 8 Goals (all comps): 2 Assists (all comps): 5 Score: 8/10 Inarguably one of the best signings Arsenal have made in the post-Wenger era, Kieran Tierney once again has shown why Arsenal need to sign him up to a new long-term contract as soon as possible.
Tierney seems to be the kind of player that all managers dream of; quick, sharp, unafraid to tackle and deadly going forward. In fact, it seems that because of Tierney’s outstanding crossing abilities, Arsenal may even look for a more aerial threat in the upcoming transfer window.
The only downside to Tierney, is his propensity for injuries. Tierney missed 9 games this season due to injury and before Arsenal’s ill-fated Europa League campaign, was absent from the matchday squad for four matches towards the end of the campaign.
If Tierney can sort out his injury problems next season, then Arsenal may have a real issue keeping the fan-favourite at the club for much longer.
Name: Sokratis Papastathopoulos Position: Centre-back Cleansheets: N/A Goals (all comps): N/A Assists (all comps): N/A Score: N/A Despite not making a single appearance for Arsenal this season, Sokratis has been a model professional.
Owing to a bloated squad size and an unwillingess on Mikel Arteta’s part to register the Greek defender, Sokratis, like Mesut Özil, was left to train and to make the occasional run-out for the U23s.
Unlike Özil, Sokratis refused to let things get to him and was a professional until the very end of his time with the club.
While he made no appearances for the club this season, his professionalism and guidance to the younger players off the field will not be forgotten and his league title with Olympiacos is well deserved for such a professional.
Name: Gabriel Magalhães Position: Centre-back Cleansheets (league): 6 Goals (all comps): 3 Assists (all comps): 1 Score: 6/10 Arsenal’s first monetary foray into the summer window, Gabriel Magalhães joined Arsenal just as patiences were waring thin. Constant talk about how he was “only a week away” from making a decision and how Manchester United were preparing a late bid for the Brazilian seemed to have Arsenal fans at their collective wit’s end.
However, the Brazilian arrived from Lille for a reported fee of £26m and has so far looked to be worth the money. A brilliant start to the season with a goal on his debut saw Gabriel become a mainstay in the Arsenal defence, especially given how much Mikel Arteta needed a left-footed defender to come in with Pablo Marí injured and Kieran Tierney being preferred at left-back.
Gabriel’s season was cut a little short with an injury, and seemed to suffer the Shkodran Mustafi treatment, whereby he had a very good start and then seemed to come off the boil after returning from injury.
To be fair, Gabriel has been a very important player in the Arsenal defence, but his form has dropped off in recent weeks and the occasional lapse of concentration has probably done very little for his confidence, but he has pushed on well.
His propensity for a long ball is perhaps not as well honed as David Luiz’s, but he is still an option if Arsenal decide to go route one again. It has also got to be said that his aerial presence is second to none and has been an invaluable asset as Arsenal look to calm things down in the air.
A solid campaign from the Brazilian but disappointing considering the blistering start he made, but Arsenal fans will be excited to see what he can bring tot he team next season.
Name: Bukayo Saka Position: Winger Goals (all comps): 7 Assists (all comps): 10 Score: 9/10 Its fair to say that Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood will likely take the majority of the headlines as England’s most exciting youngster, but Bukayo Saka is in with a shout of joining the throng.
Saka burst onto the scene with a flourish last season with an outstanding series of performances in a variety of positions. However, the new season bought a new shirt number and a more refined attacking position.
Since then, Saka has been the first-name on the team sheet. His attacking output, tactical versatility and willingness to work for the team has been an invaluable source of comfort for Mikel Arteta and his team.
The youngster has dropped off a bit in form towards the end of the season, but his performances throughout the season cannot be forgotten and he is more than deserving of his call-up to the England squad for the EUROs this summer.
Name: Dani Ceballos Position: Centre-midfielder Goals (all comps): 0 Assists (all comps): 3 Score: 4/10 Originally signed on loan during the time of Unai Emery, Dani Ceballos soon became a fan favourite. An astounding display at home to Burnley had many feeling that Arsenal had found the new Santi Cazorla.
Although the Spaniard struggled to really kick on initially under Mikel Arteta, Ceballos soon solidified a place in midfield and became one of the manager’s favoured sons, which was further solidified when Arsenal broight Ceballos back on loan for another season.
However, this time, things did not go as smoothly.
Ceballos’ form has been erratic at best and woeful at worst. Constant errors in midfield, a propensity for getting caught in possession and a disasterclass in almost every European game the team played showed just how poor his performances were.
Ceballos’ second-bookable offence against Villarreal was probably one fo the first times that Arsenal fans have actively cheered a red card, as it now meant that Ceballos was unable to play anymore matches in the competition.
Name: Alexandre Lacazette Position: Striker Goals (all comps): 17 Assists (all comps): 3 Score: 8/10 Since making the switch from Lyon nearly four years ago, Alexandre Lacazette has, in many ways, flattered to deceive. Though the Frenchman has regularly given Arsenal fans brief glimpses of his undoubted quality, he has often struggled to reach the dizzying heights that he once displayed when at Lyon.
This season however, Lacazette has looked a totally different animal. While the Andy Cole-esque requirement of four shots for every one goal is still a part of his game, Lacazette’s ability to drop deep and to cover in midfield has meant that Arsenal have had added firepower in more areas.
Lacazette has often been used in a false-none role, similar to Roberto Firmino and while this took him some time to adapt to, it has since looked like a tactical masterstroke, especially when you consider that he has finished as Arsenal’s top scorer in all competitions.
Question marks will still be raised ahead of the new season and whether or not Lacazette should remain with the club, but this season has proven that the French striker is a valuable part of the team moving forward.
Name: Mesut Özil Position: Central-Attacking Midfielder Goals (all comps): N/A Assists (all comps): N/A Score: N/A Though there were no appearances for Mesut Özil this season, it seems as though many at Arsenal will be glad to see the back of him.
Cryptic Twitter and Instagram posts have plagued the season as Özil seemed to revel in the team’s misfortunes from afar. Having fallen out of favour with the club, most likely over his unwillingness to take a cut to his staggering £350,000-a-week salary, Özil has been happy to watch the team crash and burn.
Arsenal had hoped to move Özil on in the summer, however, the club’s summer did not go fully as planned and Özil, along with Sokratis, remained at the club and were unable to be registered.
Özil’s exile from the team also started to see a strangely timed series of leaks within the club. The notoriously private and confidential club has since had many of its confidences broken as news of David Luiz and Dani Ceballos coming to blows in training and news of disgruntled players also began to leak out.
In a since deleted Twitter post, football.london reporter Chris Wheatley seemed to suggest that the flurry of leaks coming from the club were not necessarily from Özil himself, but from his agent, Dr Erkut Sögüt was responsible for them.
Özil’s time at Arsenal has officially drawn to a close, what should have been a dignified exit through the front door with his arms held aloft as the crowd treats him to one last rendition of “We’ve got Mesut Özil…”, was instead a hurried blanket over the head exit through the back to escape the baying crowd, demanding his exorbitant wages be cut from Arsenal’s rapidly growing wage bill.
Name: Martin Ødegaard Position: Central Attacking Midfielder Goals (all comps): 2 Assists (all comps): 2 Score: 7/10 A wise man once said that there is nothing worse than catching feelings for a loan player and Arsenal fans have experienced that very feeling with Martin Ødegaard.
By the time the January window rolled around, Arsenal were limping on. Their creativity was as spent as the writer’s room for the last three series of The Big Bang Theory and the team looked to be completley out of ideas.
Mesut Özil’s Dante-esque exile and the general lack of capable creative players meant that Arsenal needed to bring someone in in January. A failed summer move for Lyon’s Houssem Aouar, constant links with Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Brandt and the very unlikely move for Christopher Nkunku at RB Leipzig meant that Arsenal began to look a little further afield.
Given Real Madrid’s then-manager Zinedine Zidane seemed unkeen on handing Ødegaard much game time, the Norwegian began to seek a new adventure elsewhere.
His loan to Arsenal was exactly what Arsenal needed. The age profile was the exactly the kind of age that Arsenal’s recruitment team should be coveting and the playmaker’s thirst to prove himself meant that Arsenal may well have a gem on their hand.
And what a gem he proved to be!
Ødegaard’s performances seemed to be the shot in the arm that Arsenal needed. Though he has a slight propensity to go missing in games, it seems to be more indicative of his position, rather than his nature.
Ødegaard’s ability to pick a pass and his confidence to dribble with the ball led many to think that Arsenal had finally seen a suitable replacement for Özil.
Though his stats are hardly eye-watering stuff, they don’t tell the full story of just how important Ødegaard was to the team, and Arsenal fans always tend to have a special place in their hearts for a player who scores against Tottenham.
It remains to be seen what the future holds for Ødegaard this season and whether or not Arsenal can tempt Real Madrid to sell. If he remains in Madrid, then Arsenal will likely push on for Norwich City’s Emiliano Buendía, but it is clear that Ødegaard remains a top priority for the club this summer.
Name: Lucas Torreira Position: Central Defensive Midfielder Goals (all comps): 1 Assists (all comps): 1 Score: 5/10 Lucas Torreira has been a little bit unfortunate not to find himself in the Arsenal side this season. Torreira’s profile clearly does not impress Mikel Arteta as much as other midfielders, but it is still unlucky for Torreira to not remain at Arsenal, though given his season, perhaps not.
Though Torreira has hardly been ever-present for Atlético Madrid this season, he has been a useful member of their squad. Rumour has it that Atlético had planned for their new season with Torreira and Thomas Partey forming a formidable midfield pivot, but after Partey’s departure, that plan was scrapped.
Atlético seemed very upset with Arsenal’s conduct around Partey and seemed hellbent to tank Torreria’s value as a result, meaning the Uruguayan was only able to make 26 appearances in all competitions.
Despite this, Atlético fans seem to have taken a real shine to Torreira, who’s tenacity, hunger and genuine passion for the club, all the qualities that have so endeared him to Arsenal fans, seem to have won Atlético hearts.
A move to Atlético this summer seems unlikely, but it does seem likely that Torreria will be moved on this summer, but to where, remains to be seen.
Name: Willian Position: Winger Goals (all comps): 1 Assists (all comps): 7 Score: 2/10 Quite possibly the worst signing Arsenal have made since Sébastien Squillaci? What’s even harder a question to answer is how on earth Willian finished the season as Arsenal’s leading assist provider.
In fairness to Willian, the Brazilian was always on something of a hiding to nothing. The signing was pretty much universally opposed from the start and his representation in the hands of the notoriously shady Kia Joorabchian, meant that Arsenal fans were against Willian before he even put pen to paper for Arsenal.
And for the start at least, it looked as though Arsenal fans would need to eat their words. An impressive opening day performance against Fulham, which saw Willian rack up a few assists and hit the post in the process, Mikel Arteta looked vindicated.
However, as the season went on, Arteta looked increasingly like he had a rather substantial amount of egg on his face. Willian just never seemed to kick-on for Arsenal and his performances seemed to get worse and worse and worse and worse with every single week.
Much like the great Arsène Wenger, Arteta was sympathetic to a player’s poor run of form and gave Willian a chance to turn it around, much to the detriment of other players such as Reiss Nelson.
Despite the manager’s continued faith in him, Willian simply never managed to repay the manager’s trust. Eventually, Arteta had had enough and Willian was repeatedly benched.
Willian became the usual kitchen sink substitute. Usually, whenever Arsenal found themselves down and needing a goal, Arteta would desperately fling Willian onto the pitch in the hope that the Brazilian would “come good”, however, Willian just seemed on a totally different planet to his teammates.
Despite an absolute peach of a goal against West Brom, Willian failed to score a single goal from open-play for Arsenal, registering less open-play goals than Liverpool goalkepeer Alisson Becker and equalling his tally for the season.
Willian, mercifully, looks set to leave this summer, with interest from Inter Miami reportedly being favoured by Willian. Rumours persist of Arsenal demanding around £15m for the winger, but not only does that seem highly unlikely, but any bid that allows Arsenal to shift the former-Chelsea man is likely to be accepted readily as the club look to be well shot of him.
Name: Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson Position: Goalkeeper Cleansheets (league only): 1 Score: 3/10 The signing of Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson has to go down as one of the most bizarre signings in recent memory.
Tasked with sourcing a substitute goalkeeper to replace Emiliano Martínez in the wake of his £20m move to Aston Villa, Arsenal decided to turn to goalkeeping coach Iñaki Caña Pavón to nudge them in the right direction.
Though the coach initially suggested Brentford’s David Raya, Arsenal were unable to lure the Spaniard away from the Championship side. Instead, Arsenal turned to Pavón’s second suggestion, which turned out to be Rúnarsson, who was currently the out-of-favour second or third choice goalkeeper at Ligue 2 club FC Dijon.
It has been fair to say that Rúnarsson has looked and played very much like the out-of-favour second or third choice goalkeeper at a second division side.
The Iceland goalkeeper has looked shaky on many occasions, beatable and doesn’t exactly seem to spark confidence in his defenders with his somewhat blabbering instructional play, all of which culminated in a humiliating performance for Rúnarsson in Arsenal’s 1-4 defeat to Manchester City in the League Cup.
Though Rúnarsson has reportedly impressed in training, it’s hard to see him having a particularly long or eventful career at the club. The rumopurs are that the club are looking to loan Rúnarsson out, but honestly, a permanent deal may be a better solution.
Name: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang Position: Striker Goals (all comps): 15 Assists (all comps): 4 Score: 3/10 One of the more baffling dips in form has to come in the form of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the club captain. Having been absolutely on fire the previous season, Arsenal were obviously keen to tie their captain down to a new contract, which Aubameyang promptly signed, ending months of speculation and picking up a reported £300,000-a-week in the process.
As seems to be par-for-the-course with those who sign new contracts with Arsenal, Aubameyang’s form took a complete nose dive soon afterwards.
Though his form can likely be assigned to Mikel Arteta’s senseless stubbornness to play Aubameyang out wide rather than through the middle, Aubameyang has not exactly been showing the world why he should be playing there.
Some truly awful displays this season have given Arsenal fans a taste of why bigger contracts can prove an issue for players, as if Mesut Özil’s situation was not warning enough.
However, some elements have been beyond either Arsenal or Aubameyang’s control. The forward’s nose dive in form happened around the same time as the rest of the team’s poor run of results and family issues off the field and a later diagnosis of malaria has perhaps added a few caveats to Aubameyang’s poor season.
What has been in his grasp, is his conduct off it. So bad is his timekeeping, that Mikel Arteta put his foot down and benched the captain for Arsenal’s home match in the North London Derby, which did not paint Aubameyang in a good light, especially as Arsenal showed out comfortable winners on the day.
It’s likely that this season was merely a blip in an otherwise outstanding career for the forward who will undoubtedly look to kick on next season, but this was definitely a season to forget for Aubameyang.
Name: Ainsley Maitland-Niles Position: Central Midfielder Goals (all comps): 0 Assists (all comps): 2 Score: 4/10 After a brilliant ending to the previous season and a decent start in the Community Shield win over Liverpool, Ainsley Maitland-Niles looked like he could become a man reborn under Mikel Arteta.
Arsenal resisted the advances of many clubs who looked to sign the player, but in hindsight, Arsenal would perhaps have done well to have accepted the offers that came in.
The old argument of whether or not Maitland-Niles is better suited to the centre of midfield or either side of the defence soon reared its ugly head and in this instance, there would be only one winner out of Maitland-Niles and Arteta and it wouldn’t be Maitland-Niles.
In search of more game time and a more solidified position in the middle of the park, Maitland-Niles left the club in January to join West Bromwich Albion on loan, where his performances hardly faired any better, though to be fair, it was a tall order to stand out in a relegation team.
With the new season ahead, it seems likely that Maitland-Niles will not be at Arsenal next season, whether this is down to a potential loan move or a more permanent solution remains to be seen, but Maitland-Niles will know that there are places to be won in this team, but does he have the patience to wait for them?
Name: Rob Holding Position: Defender Cleansheets (league only): 11 Goals (all comps): 0 Assists (all comps): 1 Score: 7/10 “I’m sorry he did not cost £55m, so he cannot be good”, the words of Arsène Wenger as Rob Holding turned in a performance of the highest order against Leicester City in 2016 had journalists reeling and fans delighted.
Since that time, Holding’s time at Arsenal has been somewhat disappointing and was unfairly interrupted by a serious rupture to his cruciate ligament.
Given Arsenal’s woeful defensive record towards the end of the previous season, Holding, like Maitland-Niles, would need to be patient and wait for a place in the team and unlike Maitland-Niles, Holding seemed prepared to do just that.
Holding has found himself more or less the first choice right-sided defender this season given David Luiz’s absence from the side and has very much looked the part.
Though Holding’s form took a noticeable dip towards the end of the season, he has been one of Arsenal’s better performers this season and has been one of the many reasons for Arsenals brilliant defensive record this season.
Name: Cédric Soares Position: Right-Back Cleansheets (league only): 2 Goals (all comps): 0 Assists (all comps): 2 Score: 5/10 At one point, Cédric Soares looked like he may be the competition for the right-back position that Arsenal have needed for a while.
Given the fact that Héctor Bellerín’s form has been erratic to say the least, Cédric looked to be the potential permanent solution to the problem.
But then, like so many in the Arsenal team this season, Cédric seemed unable to move on from his early promise. His propensity for every single cross to be floated some twenty feet above the tallest attacker’s head and his annoying R1+X passes which often led to midfielders having to chase their own touches, meant that Cédric found himself out of favour.
Cédric still provides useful, if not dependable cover, but if Arsenal are serious about returning to the Champions League next season, then they will need a new right back, as Cédric is almost certainly not up to the task full-time.
Name: Thomas Partey Position: Central Midfielder Goals (all comps): 0 Assists (all comps): 3 Score: 6/10 It was a welcome surprise on Transfer Deadline Day when the elusive and almight ArsenalBell informed the world that Arsenal had met Thomas Partey’s suspiciously low £45m release clause to pry him away from Atlético Madrid.
The football world stood in shock as it seemed bizarre that Arsenal, in their current state, seemed to have tempted away one of the biggest talents in Europe.
Partey’s season has been, much like the rest of the team, hit and miss. Partey struggled initially as frequent and niggling injury problems made it difficult for the Ghanian to really show what he was capable of.
However, there have been glimpses of just how much quality Partey possesses. Performances against Manchester United, Chelsea and Rapid Wien showed just how important Partey could be to the team going forward.
His long-range passing is utterly mesmeric, with even opposition players seeming to watch in awe as many of his passes are drifted a good 60 yards straight to the attacker’s feet.
Going into next season, Arsenal will need to keep Partey fit and will need to work on his shooting, which seems to be alarmingly poor for a professional football player who plays in the Premier League.
Overall, it was a decent season from him and Arsenal fans will be excited to see just what he can bring to the team next season.
Name: Nicolas Pépé Position: Winger Goals (all comps): 16 Assists (all comps): 5 Score: 7/10 Living up to a huge price tag is always a near impossible feat for a player. Regardless of Pépé’s performances, it’s always unfair to judge him as a £72m anything, as the player does not set the price tag, however, Arsenal fans have got a right to demand soemthing of a return on investment.
Since Mikel Arteta has come to the club, Pépé has looked significantly better than he did under Unai Emery, who clearly did not want the player.
The issue for Pépé for a while has been his lack of defensive cover. While fans will always talk about Pépé’s need for a decent right-back to aid him in his attacks, so too do the defenders need his help when the going gets tough.
This is perhaps where Pépé has thrived the most this season and why his form has seen such an upturn.
However, despite the impressive numbers that Pépé has been putting up in his attack, there is still something distinct missing from Pépé’s repertoire. Though he is undoubtedly fearless when it comes to taking on defenders, there is an air of inevitability about seeing his dribbles leading up a blind alleyway which leads to the inevitable and frustrating back pass.
If Pépé can control his need to take on every defender he comes near, then Arsenal have got a real player on their hands. His dribbling is appreciated, but sometimes, there are better options available.
If Arsenal can recruit well this summer, then Pépé may just kick into the next gear next season.
Name: Shkodran Mustafi Position: Central Defender Cleansheets (league only): 0 Goals (all comps): 1 Assists (all comps): 0 Score: 3/10 There was a time when £35m for a defender was considered straight lunacy. Very few defenders ever transfer for such money and to be seen spending such a figure on a defender almost always raised some eyebrows.
But we’re living in a post-Virgil van Dijk and post-Harry Maguire world and large(r) fees for a defender are now considered fairly commonplace. Despite this, the benefit of hindsight will allow most Arsenal fans to consider that any amount of money spent on Shkodran Mustafi was money very badly spent.
Mustafi has cut something of a frustrating figure in his time at Arsenal. While there is clearly bundles of talent, there is also a huge amount of recklessness and brainless moments.
This season was hardly a career high for Mustafi as Arsenal seemed to do their very best to to keep him out of the team where possible. Such was the form of both Rob Holding and David Luiz, Mustafi foudn it tough to break back into the team, but whenever he did, there was hardly much to be excited about.
His obvious ability to play out from the back is almost always usurped by his terrible, often lackadaisical defending and moments of total lapses of concentration.
Mustafi’s poor form saw both player and club seek an early exit for the German World Cup winner and Mustafi soon departed the club for Schalke 04 in Germany, where he has since been released…six months later.
Name: Calum Chambers Position: Central Defender Cleansheets (league only): 2 Goals (all comps): 0 Assists (all comps): 3 Score: 6/10 Despite nearly seven years passing since his £16m switch from Southampton, Calum Chambers has still yet to nail down a starting position and has still yet to nail down just which position is best for him.
Given the topsey-turvey nature of Arsenal’s 2020/21 season, it was natural that Chambers would be given ample opportunities to prove himself and by and large, Chambers did just that.
With Héctor Bellerín’s form erratic and Cédric Soares blowing hot and cold, there was plenty of time for Chambers to show what he could do. Chambers have often found himself deployed at right-back and this season was no different.
With Ainsley Maitland-Niles unwilling to play in the position and Arsenal in near-desperate need for cover, Chambers stepped into the mix and produced some promising performances.
His match against West Ham was one that had Arsenal fans on the edge of their seat as he and Martin Ødegaard really began to punish West Ham’s errors. His link-up play with Nicolas Pépé has proven to be a real God-send for the Ivorian and Chambers looks to have greatly improved in certain areas.
That’s not to say that Chambers is the perfect player, far from it. He still looks a weakness in the team, especially when faced with a competent winger and his crossing, while sometimes brilliant, are often hit with the same technique as Cédric Soares as all his crosses are either perfect or some twenty feet too high.
It’s unlikely that Chambers will be Arsenal’s starting right-back next season, unless Edu really drops the ball in the summer, but he has done enough to give Mikel Arteta and his staff something to think about.
Name: Pablo Marí Position: Central Defender Cleansheets (league only): 4 Goals: 1 Assists: 0 Score: 7/10 Given Mikel Arteta’s penchant for left-footed players, Pablo Marí’s arrival at Arsenal was definitely a sign that Arteta would be backed in his vision. While plenty of names were thrown around, Arteta identified with Marí more than others, no doubt having been familiar with his profile at Manchester City.
However, Marí was injured in the first game back after Project Restart (bizarrely enough, against his former club Manchester City) and Arsenal fans were left to patiently wait and see how he would perform.
Marí made his return this season in the Europa League tie against Rapid Wien. In that time, new boy Gabriel Magalhães had solidified his position at centre-back, so Marí was reduced to Europa League appearances instead.
However, following Gabriel’s injuries and drop in form, Marí was able to nail-down a more prominent role in the team and seemed to repay the manager’s faith. While there is not perhaps enough there to keep Marí playing full-time, he certainly looks to be very very solid back-up for Arsenal moving forward.
His ability in the air is matched only by his ability with the ball at his feet. Marí is an imposing and calculating figure and is perhaps closer to Per Mertesacker than anyone Arsenal have had since. With him and David Luiz at the back, Arsenal were almost guaranteed to never concede from the air.
Name: David Luiz Position: Central Defender Cleansheets (league only): 3 Goals (all comps): 2 Assists (all comps): 0 Score: 6/10 Shrouded in controversy as yet another Kia Joorabchian client, David Luiz has been an unpopularity good signing for Arsenal.
To explain, Arsenal fans have never really been in favour of the defender. While his qualities are undoubted, the fact that he came from Chelsea and the fact that he was more in the mould of Shkodran Mustafi than anything else, Arsenal fans never really took to David Luiz.
Despite this, Arsenal have looked a significantly better outfit with him in the team than out of it. Though there is still the likelihood of a patented Shkodran Mustafi-esque brainfart moment, David Luiz has still been a welcome addition to the team, especially as Arsenal have opted for more long balls over the top and playing out from the back tactics, both of which Luiz suits.
It’s clear to see the impact that he has had off the field as well. The entire Arsenal tram seemed to be genuinely moved to see him leave and gave him a nice send off on the pitch of the Emirates Stadium.
Whatever his flaws, it’s fair to say that Arsenal got more than the £8m they spent on him last summer.
Name: Reiss Nelson Position: Winger Goals (all comps): 1 Assists (all comps): 1 Score: 2/10 Arsenal fans have every right to enquire as to what has happened to Reiss Nelson this season.
Very few wingers have broken into the Arsenal team with as much promise as Nelson did, however, it’s fair to say that nelson has never truly delivered on that promise.
The odd thing has been how Nelson has still been unable to make his way into the Arsenal side this season, despite the woeful attacking output from the team.
Granted, much of his path has been blocked by the hapless Willian, but Nelson is often nowhere to be seen in the Arsenal matchday squad.
Rumours of a falling out with Mikel Arteta have plagued the /r/Gunners subreddit and Twitter alike, but the true reason for his alienation is not widely known. Quite why Arteta refuses to play Nelson is unknown to us.
Despite this, in the few games that Nelson has played, there has been very little to be truly excited about. While there is still the undoubted promise that he showed early in his career, he seems very unlikely to really push on much further and it would be very surprising to see him at the club next season.
Name: Mohamed Elneny Position: Central Midfielder Goals (all comps): 3 Assists (all comps): 0 Score: 6/10 With Arsenal’s stagnant midfield, it’s not totally surprising to see Mohamed Elneny return to the team. With Dani Ceballos falling out of favour and Thomas Partey’s injury woes, Elneny has been a useful back-up option for Arsenal.
Elneny is hardly the most exciting player on the field, but he’s a solid addition to the midfield if needed. His propensity for passing either sideways or backwards is a concerning aspect to his play, as is his penchant for screaming at the top of his lungs for the ball, only to either be marked or mis-control the pass and lose possession.
All in all, Elneny has been very useful to the team, his goals have been welcomed and his tactical versatility is certainly more useful than Arsenal fans would likely care to admit.
Name: Joe Willock Position: Central Midfielder Goals (all comps): 3 (8 on loan) Assists (all comps): 3 Score: 5/10 What happens next? That is the immortal question for Joe Willock.
His performances at Arsenal were fairly impressive early on. Three goals in the Europa League and a number of useful showings would have likely caused a selection headache for Mikel Arteta and his team, but for whatever reason, Willock’s form never truly translated to the Premier League.
At a loss for game time, Willock was hastily loaned out to Newcastle United in January, where he seemed to set the league alight. With more game time and more freedom, Willock has thrived under Steve Bruce, grabbing eight goals in eight games and shattering various records along the way.
While Willock’s impressive form has no doubt raised some eyebrows at London Colney, it seems that Arsenal may look to cash in on Willock sooner rather than later.
Newcastle are reported to be circling, but whether they can raise the necessary funds, remains to be seen.
Name: Mattéo Guendouzi Position: Central Midfielder Goals (all comps): 2 Assists (all comps): 3 Score: 4/10 It’s fair to say that Mattéo Guendouzi’s time at Arsenal is up. A total breakdown in the relationship between player, manager and club means that Guendouzi will likely be looking for an exit this summer.
Though Mikel Arteta said that Guendouzi would be able to make his way back into the team, that has not been the case. No sooner had the transfer window opened, than Guendouzi was whisked away to Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga. While the official line may be that Guendouzi needs to earn back some match practice, in reality, Arteta wanted him gone long ago.
His performances in the Bundesliga don’t seem to have clubs clamouring at the door either. While 2 goals and 3 assists is a decent return for a player in his position, his attitude problems appear to have persisted at Hertha Berlin.
It’s thought that Guendouzi will be sold this summer, with Marsellie reportedly interested in a £15m fee for the midfielder, but it seems that both club and player cannot wait to be shot of one-another.
Name: Eddie Nketiah Position: Striker Goals (all comps): 6 Assists (all comps): 1 Score: 4/10 Eddie Nketiah’s season has been a somewhat bizarre tale. While his talent is undoubted and his goal returns are fairly promising, there seems to be a real lack of edge about Nketiah. It’s a conundrum.
Nketiah has looked to be an important player to bring on when chasing a goal, especially if his goals against West Ham and Fulham are anything to go by, but there seems to be an air of inevitability about his coming onto the field. You almost always feel that he will have very little impact.
Perhaps this is a little harsh on Nketiah because there are plenty of things to be excited about, but he clearly doesn’t fit Mikel Arteta’s style of play.
It has also got to be said that Nketiah’s trademark finger to the ear celebration at home to Fulham after equalising in the dying embers of the match in an empty stadium perhaps showed a little more arrogance than he is warranted.
West Ham United and Brighton & Hove Albion are rumoured to be the player’s biggest admirers and Arsenal are likely to want upwards of £15m for Nketiah and it seems unlikely that he will be at the Emirates next season.
Name: Sead Kolašinac Position: Left Back Cleansheets (Premier League only): 0 Goals: 0 (1 on loan) Assists: 0 (1 on loan) Score: 3/10 Sead Kolašinac’s Arsenal career has taken something of a nose-dive in recent years. Signed initially under Arsène Wenger to play in the back-three system that Arsenal were playing at the time, Arsenal have since switched from this formation and Kolašinac has found himself out of position very often.
With Kieran Tierney’s repeated injury woes, Kolašinac looked to be a dead cert to cover for the Scotsman, but so poor has his form been, that Mikel Arteta seems totally unwilling to throw him into any match that Arsenal are not already winning or guaranteed to win (which is not very much these days).
A mid-season loan back to his favourite club of Schalke did not seem to end particularly well as he and Shokdran Mustafi (who also joined him at the club) were both chased from the stadium by angry fans.
While it was thought that he would be able to revitalise his career at Schalke, the club recently announced that he would not be remaining. With one year remaining on his Arsenal deal, he will return to the club as Arsenal look to find a new home for the Bosnian left-back, unless they can agree on a mutual termination, as they did with Sokratis and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Name: Emile Smith Rowe Position: Central Attacking Midfielder Goals (all comps): 4 Assists (all comps): 7 Score: 9/10 In terms of a debut season, there are probably few as impressive as Emile Smith Rowe’s.
While “debut season” is perhaps something of a misnomer as he had made 12 appearances for the Arsenal first team prior to this season, it’s not inaccurate to say that this was the season were he was more prominently featured.
Following a fairly humiliating and tepid defeat away to Everton, Arsenal headed into their match against Chelsea with trepidation. The team had looked very uncreative in recent weeks and the lack of Mesut Özil-esque creators in the team was a worry for everyone. However, Emile Smith Rowe was given a surprising start ahead of the match and turned in one of the best performances by a player seen a long time.
From there, Smith Rowe has been nothing short of incredible. It is perhaps a shame that Martin Ødegaard’s apperance meant that he was pushed out wide, but still, Smith Rowe rose to the challenge magnificently.
With Arsenal’s rumoured pursuit of Norwich’s Emiliano Buendía, Smith Rowe will be hoping that he doesn’t see more of his game time affected, but with hopes of a new deal being signed, it’s clear to see that Arsenal have got a bonafide gem on their hands and one who can and is complimenting Bukayo Saka beautifully.
Name: Mathew Ryan Position: Goalkeeper Cleansheets (league only): 1 Score: 5/10 It’s always lovely to see a genuine Arsenal fan join the club. While he may only have been brought in to save Arsenal from having to watch Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson for much longer, it was genuinely heart-warming to see Maty Ryan line up in the Arsenal team.
He seemed to have a good command of his box and a very good understanding of languages, which made things a lot easier for his teammates, regularly flitting between English and Portuguese when needed.
He does not quite command the same trust from fans that Leno does or Martínez before him, but he was a solid enough back-up for the time he was there and if Arsenal can sign him permanently in the summer as back up to Leno or whomever may come in to replace him should the German shotstopper leave, then it would be even better.
Name: Granit Xhaka Position: Central Midfielder Goals (all comps): 1 Assists (all comps): 2 Score: 8/10 This season was perhaps the real showing of the Granit Xhaka Arsenal have needed for a while now.
Perhaps it’s the fact that he had a midfield partner who genuinely complimented him as well as Santi Cazorla had for a few months or maybe it was the fact that he seemed to mature somewhat, but this season showed just how important Xhaka can be.
Though the experiment of playing him at left-back in Kieran Tierney’s absence was always going to end in tears, he has been a rock in midfield. His short-range passing is perhaps not the level of the aforementioned Santi Cazorla, but his ability to play a ball to feet from long-range is complimented as well by Thomas Partey and is near unrivalled.
There are still moments of petulance and hotheadedness that have earned him a lower mark than he perhaps deserves, but he has been outstanding for Arsenal this season and his ability to coach the players through the game has been a truly brilliant asset to the team.
Rumour has it that he will be leaving for Roma in the summer and Arsenal may find it difficult to replace the Xhaka we’ve just seen.
Name: Gabriel Martinelli Position: Attacker Goals (all comps): 2 Assists (all comps): 1 Score: 7/10 Gabriel Martinelli’s comparatively poor season from last year is perhaps down more to mismanagement than anything else. After such a bright start to his Arsenal career, it was cruelly silenced by a long-term injury.
Martinelli has since returned to the side and has looked every bit the player Arsenal had from the get-go. His tenacity and his seemingly never-ending bursts of speed and agility make him one of the biggest assets to the team in recent memory.
All the more baffling, is why on earth Mikel Arteta doesn’t start him more often. Perhaps the form of Bukayo Saka, Nicolas Pépé and Emile Smith Rowe has been too much to tamper with, but the mismanagement of the teenager has been cruel to watch.
It is though that Arsenal see his long-term future through the middle and while he didn’t particularly flourish in the role against Fulham, he has shown glimpses that he can play anywhere.
Arsenal fans will be hoping to see more of the talented teen next season.
Name: Folarian Balogun Position: Striker Goals (all comps): 2 Assists (all comps): 1 Score: 6/10 While his above stats may read two goals, that’s only for the senior team. In the Academy team, Folarian Balogun has a whopping 9 goals and 3 assists.
Tipped to be the next big thing at Arsenal, Balogun showed just what he was capable of with goals against both Molde and Dundalk in the Europa League.
It’s baffling that Balogun has not been given more chances ot shine in the team, especially when goals were thin on the ground for a while and towards the end of the campaign as Arsenal began to prioritise the Europa League.
It is thought that Arteta was not overtly keen on playing Balogun until he signed a new contract with the club. When he did finally put pen to paper, he was still nowhere to be seen.
Rumours around the club suggest that Balogun will be given a more enhanced role next season, and considering the lacklustre firepower on show this season, he may not have much in the way of competition.
Best game: West Bromwich Albion 0-4 Arsenal Worst game: Arsenal 0-3 Aston Villa Best player: Emile Smith Rowe Worst player: Willian Most immediate attention: Creative midfield Grade: E
Thank God, the season is over. A truly disappointing campaign can only be offset by the news that Arsenal, for the first time since 1995, will not play any kind of European football next season.
A truly drab campaign did have the silver lining of allowing fans back into stadiums to watch the final two games of the season and for once, Arsenal fans were treated to a display of the highest quality from Mikel Arteta’s side.
Sunday’s match was seen as a farewell for some players, whether they were picked or not and as a chance to start next season off with a good win at the end of the season.
Arsenal started the match at a truly blistering pace. Attacks flew in from all around and Brighton were unable to hold back the tide. The free-flowing movements of Emile Smith Rowe, Martin Ødegaard and Nicolas Pépé proved to be too much.
In fact, Arsenal were exceedingly unlucky not to have a goal in the first-half. Rob Holding managed to scramble the ball over the line, but the goal was disallowed owing to a foul in the build-up.
From there, Arsenal seemed to lack a little more intensity and seemed happy to play the game at a walking pace, which is perhaps why half-time beckoned with the score at 0-0.
However, the second-half saw a more resurgent Arsenal as they began to finally put Brighton to the sword. A low, but powerful cross from Calum Chambers was deftly controlled with the left foot of Nicolas Pépé, before being fired home with his powerful right to give Arsenal a well-deserved lead.
It didn’t take too much longer before they added a second. A brilliant move from Arsenal saw Pépé once again in an advanced position and ignoring the cries of his colleagues for him to pass, the Ivorian hitman placed his shot into the far corner to cap off an impressive Arsenal performance in style.
However, the result was dampened by the news that Tottenham Hotspur had managed to overcome their result at Leicester and had won, which left Arsenal without European football.
It was a tough pill to swallow, but Arsenal will now have a summer to prepare the players, sign some exciting new ones, jettison some unwanted ones and to really try and make a push for next season.
Thank God the season is over.
Arsenal team: 1.) Bernd Leno 21.) Calum Chambers 16.) Rob Holding 6.) Gabriel Magalhães 3.) Kieran Tierney 34.) Granit Xhaka 18.) Thomas Partey 19.) Nicolas Pépé 11.) Martin Ødegaard (Martinelli 86’) 32.) Emile Smith Rowe (Saka 74’) 14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c) (Lacazette 79’)
Arsenal subs: 13.) Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson 22.) Pablo Marí 17.) Cédric Soares 25.) Mohamed Elneny 8.) Dani Ceballos 7.) Bukayo Saka 35.) Gabriel Martinelli 9.) Alexandre Lacazette 30.) Eddie Nketiah
Brighton & Hove Albion team: 26.) Robert Sánchez 3.) Ben White 4.) Adam Webster 5.) Lewis Dunk (c) 33.) Dan Burn 13.) Pascal Groß 8.) Yves Bissouma 15.) Jakub Moder 16.) Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Lallana 45’) 10.) Alexis Mac Allister (Alzate 66’) 11.) Leandro Trossard (Connolly 45’)
Brighton & Hove Albion subs: 23.) Jason Steele 61.) Tom McGill 6.) Michał Karbownik 25.) Moisés Caicedo 17.) Steven Alzate 14.) Adam Lallana 22.) Percy Tau 7.) Aaron Connolly 29.) Andi Zeqiri
Before we get into the match report here, there’s something that needs to be said. Last night’s match was the last home game of Roy Hodgson’s career and Sunday will be his final time as manager in the modern game after he announced his retirement.
It’s rare to come across men who have impacted football the way that Roy Hodgson has. While Arsenal’s very own Arsène Wenger normalised the idea of a foreign coach in the Premier League, Hodgson normalised the idea of an Englishman abroad and his legacy as a coach is as undisputed as his class and as great as it was that fans can be back in stadiums, it’s a shame that so few were allowed to wave goodbye to one of the greatest managers football has ever known.
Now, back to the action.
On the back of an entirely undeserved victory over Chelsea, Arsenal encountered their second London derby in as many weeks. While Arsenal fans are all scrambling for this season to be over, there is still a certain amount of pride left to play for and the chance to possibly leapfrog their great rivals, Tottenham Hotspur.
Arsenal started well. A number of quick and precise attacks seemed to show Palace what Arsenal were capable of. Though Palace had a few chances of their own, it was Arsenal who looked the more likely to score, dominating possession and keeping the midfield as tight and compact as possible.
It therefore came as no surprise to see Arsenal take the lead. Quick play down the left-hand side by Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney saw an intricately mesmeric move come to a flourishing end as Nicolas Pépé latched onto Tierney’s cross to bundle Arsenal into a deserved lead.
It was a stunning Arsenal move that had everyone off their feet and seemed to dispell the notion that Arsenal were unable to create.
The second half however, brought a very different story. Arsenal completely took their foot off the gas and Palace hit them hard. With the added bonus of having their fans back in the stadium, Crystal Palace fought hard to pin Arsenal back. Their efforts were soon rewarded as Andros Townsend’s cross found its way into the box and Christian Benteke headed the ball home for a Palace equaliser in the Ian Wright derby.
It will be a controversial decision for Arsenal fans, who would argue that Benteke was lucky to remain on the pitch following a controversial tussle with Mohamed Elneny in the first-half which Var inexplicably failed to turn over.
VAR decisions aside, Arsenal looked decidedly run through. Wilfried Zaha’s tendency to fall to the ground in the box was starting to give Arsenal a route back into the game as the Ivorian focused more on pantomime theatrics than actual goals.
A few sweeping changes by Mikel Arteta saw Arsenal regain a slight foothold. The pace and power of Gabriel Martinelli, the intricacy of Martin Ødegaard and the firm approach of Granit Xhaka appeared to be exactly what Arsenal needed.
The former two combined beautifully in the dying embers of the match as Ødegaard drifted in a sumptuous ball that would have had Mesut Özil on his feet, which was met by Martinelli who scrambled the ball in to give Arsenal a not entirely deserved would-be winner.
Palace heads dropped and Arsenal were able to round off the scoring nicely with a superb run from Nicolas Pépé, who rounded thee Palace players before doubling his tally for the game.
It was hardly a vintage Arsenal performance, but the three points are all that matters and Arsenal have those.
VAR was once again shrouded in controversy as Crystal Palace were granted two VAR reprieves. The aforementioned incident with Christian Benteke and Mohamed Elneny was matched by an earlier incident wherein Cheikhou Kouyaté crushed Calum Chambers’ ankle in an early tackle which was bizarelly not given a red card by VAR or on-pitch referee Anthony Taylor.
It was an infuriating call, especially as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had been dismissed for the same tackle at the same ground last season.
It was another promising showing for Arsenal’s youngsters. While Bukayo Saka was perhaps not at his very best on Wednesday night, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli more than made up for it, combining well and creating chances galore for Arsenal.
Thankfully, the season draws to a merciful end on Sunday and Mikel Arteta will be glad to know that Arsenal fans are back in the stadium for Sunday’s match against Brighton & Hove Albion, but more importantly, that focus can begin for next season as Arsenal look to right the wrongs of this unacceptable season.
Arsenal team: 1.) Bernd Leno 21.) Calum Chambers 16.) Rob Holding 6.) Gabriel Magalhães 3.) Kieran Tierney (Xhaka 78’) 25.) Mohamed Elneny 18.) Thomas Partey (Martinelli 78’) 19.) Nicolas Pépé 32.) Emile Smith Rowe 7.) Bukayo Saka (Ødegaard 65’) 14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
Arsenal subs: 33.) Maty Ryan 22.) Pablo Marí 17.) Cédric Soares 34.) Granit Xhaka 8.) Dani Ceballos 11.) Martin Ødegaard 12.) Willian 35.) Gabriel Martinelli 9.) Alexandre Lacazette
Crystal Palace team: 31.) Vincente Guaita 2.) Joel Ward 5.) James Tomkins 24.) Gary Cahill 27.) Tyrick Mitchell 8.) Cheikhou Kouyaté 22.) James McCarthy (Riedewald 82’) 15.) Jeffery Schlupp 10.) Andros Townsend 11.) Wilfried Zaha 20.) Christian Benteke (Ayew 79’)
Crystal Palace subs: 1.) Jack Butland 34.) Martin Kelly 17.) Nathaniel Clyne 3.) Patrick van Aanholt 39.) Jesurun Rak-Sakyi 44.) Jaïro Riedewald 14.) Jean-Philippe Mateta 23.) Michy Batshuayi 9.) Jordan Ayew
Arsenal have in recent years seemed to reverse the trend of Chelsea being their bogey team. Gone are the days when Didier Drogba would taunt the Arsenal defence for fun or when José Mourinho would make it his personal mission to unsettle Arsène Wenger before a match.
Nowadays, it’s Chelsea who struggle with Arsenal. Arsenal do seem to grind a result out when they least deserve it, but they usually have something on the line to scrap for.
Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea side happen to be in utterly blistering form of late, having reached both an FA Cup final and a UEFA Champions League final in a short space of time since Tuchel’s arrival in the wake of Frank Lampard’s subsequent (but utterly telegraphed) sacking.
Arsenal’s set up saw them revert to the back three formation that won them an FA Cup last season. It seemed as though Mikel Arteta was more interested in frustrating Chelsea than relying on his team’s doubtless attacking qualities.
And that seemed to be the tactic for a long while. Chelsea were all over Arsenal for the majority of the game, with Arsenal’s only real attacking promise coming down Kieran Tierney’s left-hand side.
Despite this, Chelsea were undone by an utterly gifted goal. While Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has copped a lot of flak in his time with the club, he wasn’t to blame as Chelsea midfielder Jorginho rolled a pass back to the goalkeeper that was scrambled off the goal line, fell to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who promptly squared it for Emile Smith Rowe who gave an Arsenal a surprising and utterly undeserved lead.
It was a comedy of errors and the kind of goal that Arsenal usually give away not this season’s Champions League finalists.
From there, it was one-way traffic. Arsenal struggled to even get out of their own half, such was Chelsea’s dominance. Though Chelsea did have the ball in the back of the net through Christian Pulisic, it was rightly ruled out by VAR for an offside, with the American himself seemingly aware even as he was reluctantly celebrating.
Chelsea came close a few more times with a lopping header from Kurt Zouma being tipped onto the crossbar from Bernd Leno and former-Gunner Olivier Giroud smashing the subsequent rebound against the post.
The final whistle was perhaps the most welcome sound in the world for Arsenal fans as the team staggered to a very undeserved three points to keep their Europa League tilt alive.
It was a very poor performance from Arsenal. Though a clean sheet is always a welcome bonus to a win, it has to be said that the team really did not play well at all. Exceptions can be made for Thomas Partey, Rob Holding, Bernd Leno and Emile Smith Rowe, however, the rest looked either tired or poor.
A win was very much against the odds and the fire shown by Mikel Arteta in his post-match interview with Sky Sports seemed to serve up something his team would have been good to show in the match.
It was however, a very uncharacteristically solid performance from the Arsenal defence. Rob Holding was solid, while Pablo Marí and Gabriel Magalhães struggled early on, they soon grew into the game. It’s clear that the defensive improvements this season are palpable from Unai Emery’s tumultuous teure at the club, however, it may not be enough to rely on defence over attack alone moving forward.
Arsenal will need to be better as they face Crystal Palace on Wednesday night.
Arsenal team: 1.) Bernd Leno 16.) Rob Holding 22.) Pablo Marí 6.) Gabriel Magalhães 7.) Bukayo Saka (Bellerín 66’ (Chambers 88’)) 25.) Mohamed Elneny 18.) Thomas Partey 3.) Kieran Tierney 11.) Martin Ødegaard 32.) Emile Smith Rowe 14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c) (Lacazette 79’)
Arsenal subs: 33.) Maty Ryan 21.) Calum Chambers 2.) Héctor Bellerín 17.) Cédric Soares 8.) Dani Ceballos 12.) Willian 19.) Nicolas Pépé 35.) Gabriel Martinelli 9.) Alexandre Lacazette
Chelsea team: 1.) Kepa Arrizabalaga 28.) César Azpilicueta (c) (Ziyech 78’) 6.) Thiago Silva 15.) Kurt Zouma 24.) Reece James 23.) Billy Gilmour (Hudson-Odoi 45’) 5.) Jorginho 21.) Ben Chilwell 19.) Mason Mount 10.) Christian Pulisic 29.) Kai Havertz (Giroud 65’)
Chelsea subs: 16.) Edouard Mendy 57.) Tino Livramento 3.) Marcos Alonso 33.) Emerson Palmieri 55.) Tino Anjorin 22.) Hakim Ziyech 20.) Callum Hudson-Odoi 11.) Timo Werner 18.) Olivier Giroud
With their European fate all but sealed, Arsenal entered Sunday’s match with Wes Brom with an air of failure ripe in the air.
Crashed out of the FA Cup fairly early on, a humiliating exit to Manchester City in the League Cup and a humbling defeat from former-manager Unai Emery, it’s no real surprise that Arsenal fans want this season over and done with.
This would seem to be the ideal time for Mikel Arteta to start shaking things up a little bit, try some youngsters out and stop giving game time to those on loan. However, while the absence of Folarian Balogun and Miguel Azeez were offset against the continued selection of both Dani Ceballos and Willian, there were still some bright choices in the selection. Bukayo Saka was returned to left-back, Emile Smith Rowe was given an unencumbered look at a central creative role and Gabriel Martinelli was started as the lone-forward.
Arsenal started off fairly slowly. West Brom had the majority of possession and continued to create chances as they continued their fight for Premier League survival.
It therefore came as a hammer blow to the Baggies as Arsenal took the lead throigh a stunning goal from Emile Smith Rowe. A brilliant ball down the line from Willian was met by Bukayo Saka, who’s quick cross into the box was volleyed home in superb fashion by Smith Rowe for his first-ever Premier League goal.
West Brom seemed to accept their fate from there as Nicolas Pépé sprung forth barely six minutes later, cut onto his left-foot in Arjen Robben-like fashion and curled an unstoppable effort into the far corner to double the home-side’s advantage.
Half-time seemed to give West Brom new life however, with Sam Allardyce clearly reminding the players that relegation met anything other than a win that night. A brilliant and mazy run from Matheus Pereira gave West Brom a lifeline and led to some nervy moments from Arsenal, with former-Gunner Kyle Bartley reportedly shouting to his teammates “Come on boys, one goal and they’ll shit themselves!”
Thankfully, Arsenal did no such thing and despite some nervy moments, Arsenal kept control of the game well. West Brom’s fate was sealed when Willian stepped up to curl home his first-ever Arsenal goal from a free-kick in his 37th apperance for the club(!).
It was a decent win for Arsenal all things considered and was probably a good sign for Arsenal’s continued (albeit unlikely) push for a Europa League place next season.
The questions were still there though, why was this performance not replicated a few days ago against Villarreal? Why was it that Dani Ceballos was only able to provide this kind of performance against relegation fodder and why has it taken Willian so long to score a goal?
Questions that will likely never have a definitive answer to them any time soon and questions that most likely stay long dormant into next season as a summer of upheaval beckons.
Arsenal team: 1.) Bernd Leno 21.) Calum Chambers 16.) Rob Holding 6.) Gabriel Magalhães 7.) Bukayo Saka 25.) Mohamed Elneny 8.) Dani Ceballos (Partey 76’) 12.) Willian 32.) Emile Smith Rowe (Tierney 63’) 19.) Nicolas Pépé 35.) Gabriel Martinelli (Lacazette 60’)
Arsenal subs: 13.) Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson 2.) Héctor Bellerín 17.) Cédric Soares 3.) Kieran Tierney 18.) Thomas Partey 11.) Martin Ødegaard 14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 30.) Eddie Nketiah 9.) Alexandre Lacazette
West Bromwich Albion subs: 25.) David Button 45.) Taylor Gardner-Hickman 22.) Lee Peltier 49.) Caleb Taylor 27.) Dara O’Shea 8.) Jake Livermore 11.) Grady Diangana 29.) Karlan Grant 4.) Hal Robson-Kanu
The last chance Arsenal had of achieving European football next season has evaporated after the team slumped to a 0-0 home draw to Unai Emery’s Villarreal.
It was a disappointing tie for Arsenal, who seemed to treat the first-half of football as an exercise in fear. Too scared to get forward and work the shaky Gerónimo Rulli, Arsenal seemed to be offering a sense of what playing the new Resident Evil Village will be like, rather than what a game of football should be like.
In fairness, Arsenal came close on a few occasions, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hitting the post twice and Emile Smith Rowe’s cute little chip just glancing past the post in the second-half.
Other than that, Arsenal were utterly bereft of ideas. At a time when the team needed their best players to show up, they seemed to recoil. Héctor Bellerín was once again average at best and terrible at worst, Thomas Partey seemed to be on a different planet, Martin Ødegaard seemed totally uninterested and Alexandre Lacazette was completley isolated.
The game management of Mikel Arteta once again seemed to expose the manager’s total lack of game management experience. Bellerín was hooked off with four minutes to go rather than forty-five, Gabriel Martinelli wasn’t started from the get-go and was then brought on too late to have a meaningful impact and the hapless and totally useless Willian was thrown on for reasons probably best kept to himself.
It was a total masterclass in cluelessness. Mikel Arteta and co. have spoken at length about Arsenal needing to be daring in the transfer market this summer, but it begs the question of who would even want to join this mess of an Arsenal side?
The team looks highly unlikely to qualify even for the qualifying rounds of the Europa League, they are likely to be hit with a pretty huge fine from UEFA for their part in the proposed European Super League, which will likely have a further impact on signings and available funds and it also begs the question of who on earth would want to buy these players?
Unless there are some serious changes in the team’s tactics moving forward, Arsenal look dead in the water and their match against Villarreal was just a microcosm of that.
Arsenal team: 1.) Bernd Leno 2.) Héctor Bellerín (Nketiah 91’) 16.) Rob Holding 22.) Pablo Marí 3.) Kieran Tierney (Willian 80’) 18.) Thomas Partey 32.) Emile Smith Rowe 7.) Bukayo Saka 11.) Martin Ødegaard (Martinelli 66’) 19.) Nicolas Pépé 14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c) (Lacazette 80’)
Arsenal subs: 33.) Maty Ryan 53.) Arthur Okonkwo 6.) Gabriel Magalhães 21.) Calum Chambers 17.) Cédric Soares 25.) Mohamed Elneny 12.) Willian 24.) Reiss Nelson 35.) Gabriel Martinelli 9.) Alexandre Lacazette 30.) Eddie Nketiah
Villarreal team: 13.) Gerónimo Rulli 2.) Mario Gaspar 3.) Raúl Albiol (c) 4.) Pau Torres 24.) Alfonso Pedraza (Moreno 91’) 11.) Samuel Chukwueze (Pino ’30 (Moi Gómez 91′)) 19.) Francis Coquelin 5.) Dani Parejo 14.) Manuel Trigueros 7.) Gerard Moreno 17.) Paco Alcácer (Bacca 72′)
Villarreal subs: 1.) Sergio Asenjo 21.) Jaume Costa 6.) Ramiro Funes Mori 20.) Rubén Peña 15.) Pervis Estupiñán 18.) Alberto Moreno 30.) Yeremi Pino 32.) Álex Baena 23.) Moi Gómez 34.) Fer Niño 9.) Carlos Bacca 12.) Dani Raba
Heading into Sunday’s game against Newcastle, it’s clear to see where Mikel Arteta’s priorities are at the moment. After naming a fairly understrengthed side against Fulham, it seems Mikel Arteta has once again placed all his eggs in the Europa League basket.
The team saw a number of key changes to the side, including Maty Ryan once again displacing Bernd Leno.
Arsenal started off well, creating chances and giving Newcastle plenty to be concerned about. Usually, in these instances, Arsenal start well and create plenty and then slump to an early and entirely preventable goal, but this was not the case this time around.
Clever work from David Luiz to find Héctor Bellerín meant that the Spaniard could easily pick out Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the middle of the park, only for the Gabon captain to inexplicably miss the chance. It made no difference though as Mohamed Elneny was on hand to smash the ball home from outside the box to mark his first-ever Premier League goal.
It was a well-worked goal that would have likely been even better had the initial chance converted. Arsenal continued to create but never really tested Martin Dúbravka very much, but for a speculative effort from Granit Xhaka, which nevertheless forced the Slovakian goalkeeper into action.
The second-half saw more of the same. Newcastle seemed utterly uninterested and Arsenal never really needed to push out of second gear.
It wasn’t before long that Arsenal added their inevitable second. Good work on the left-hand side from Gabriel Martinelli allowed him to fizz a tantalising ball across the box and this time Aubameyang made no mistake with an acrobatic effort making its way into the back of the net to double Arsenal’s tally and round-off the scoring.
The rest of the game passed without incident, until the dying embers of the match, when Newcastle defender and former teammate of Mohamed Elneny, Fabian Schär needlessly threw himself into a tackle from behind on Gabriel Martinelli, ensuring that Mike Dean didn’t end a game without brandishing a red card.
It was a stupid, needless tackle and seemed to sum up the home side’s performance on the day.
Many have said that it was a stunning performance from Arsenal, but that feels like hyperbole. That’s not to say that Arsenal played badly, because they didn’t, but it did feel like Arsenal never really got out of second-gear and didn’t need to. Newcastle were so lethargic and so uninterested in the match that it was surprising that the even found their way onto the pitch.
In terms of performances, it was a good day for Mohamed Elneny. Though the midfielder is often maligned for his lack of ingenuity or his propensity to play the ball sideways or backwards, the Egyptian was virtually unplayable against Newcastle and his importance to the team was noticeable in the club’s recent Open Mic YouTube video.
It was yet another bravura performance from young Gabriel Martinelli as well. His assist for Aubameyang’s goal was simply stunning and a sign of just how talented Martinelli really is and it seems essential that the Brazilian simply must start against Villarreal on Thursday.
Thursday beckons now for what will be a season-defining game. Is Arsenal’s European fate sealed or are they about to bring off an unprecedented comeback against Europe’s perennial Europa League specialist who will be out for blood at his old stomping ground?
Arsenal team: 33.) Maty Ryan 2.) Héctor Bellerín 23.) David Luiz (Chambers 53’) 6.) Gabriel Magalhães 34.) Granit Xhaka 25.) Mohamed Elneny 8.) Dani Ceballos 12.) Willian 11.) Martin Ødegaard (Partey 85’) 35.) Gabriel Martinelli 14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c) (Pépé 78’)
Arsenal subs: 1.) Bernd Leno 22.) Pablo Marí 21.) Calum Chambers 17.) Cédric Soares 18.) Thomas Partey 32.) Emile Smith Rowe 7.) Bukayo Saka 19.) Nicolas Pépé 30.) Eddie Nketiah
Newcastle United team: 1.) Martin Dúbravka 23.) Jacob Murphy 18.) Federico Fernández (Schär 72’ 🔴) 2.) Ciaran Clark (Gayle 84’) 3.) Paul Dummett 11.) Matt Ritchie 36.) Sean Longstaff 8.) Jonjo Shelvey (c) 24.) Miguel Almirón (Joelinton 73’) 10.) Allan Saint-Maximin 13.) Callum Wilson
Newcastle United subs: 29.) Mark Gillespie 17.) Emil Krafth 5.) Fabian Schär 15.) Jamal Lewis 57.) Elliot Anderson 16.) Jeff Hendrick 4.) Matty Longstaff 9.) Joelinton 12.) Dwight Gayle
The Europa League seems to represent the last possible chance for Arsenal to qualify for the Champions League next season, and barring some miraculous upturn in form in the league, any European competition at all.
The chance to see former manager Unai Emery in the dugout will likely have piqued most people’s interest, but the sideshow was to take a back seat as Arsenal looked to push forward.
In reality, Arsenal couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start if they had tried. The same lackadaisical defending that so often permeated in Emery’s days at the club were once again exposed.
Granit Xhaka, deputising at left-back, had been relatively untested in the position, but Villarreal began to attack with real gusto. Xhaka pointed to teammate Dani Ceballos to pick up Manuel Trigueros, who found himself free in the box, only for Ceballos to totally ignore the instruction and stare in horror as Trigueros fired a stunning effort into the bottom corner.
A nightmare start that could be easily rectified if Arsenal just kept their heads. But then again, this is Arsenal we’re talking about, a team that doesn’t “keep their heads” and roughly 24 minutes later, poor defending from a corner led to Villarreal doubling their advantage. No one picking up the back-post and the same shambolic defending that had been shown up earlier was again exposed as former Real Madrid defender Raúl Albiol turned in an unencumbered effort.
Nicolas Pépé was brought down for a penalty, but VAR turned the decision over after a handball in the build-up.
Half-time could not come soon enough, with Villarreal looking like they were going to score with every single attack.
The second-half saw a drastic improvement in performance from Arsenal, who began to create more chances and began to keep the ball more. Anyone who saw Arsenal under Emery, knew that his Villarreal side were due the same fate.
But before Arsenal could do much more, their situation went from bad to worse as Dani Ceballos, already on a yellow card, was given a second (somewhat harsh) booking and was dismissed from the field of play. Though former Tottenham and Watford midfielder Étienne Capoue met the same fate later in the game, it was of small comfort, especially when Ceballos should have been withdrawn much earlier.
Bukayo Saka burst into the penalty area and was tripped by goalscorer Manuel Trigueros, to hand Arsenal a lifeline. VAR checked the decision and was upheld, and Pépé, Arsenal’s only bright spot on the night calmly dispatched his penalty. Arsenal fans who were dreading a reverse of the Juan Román Riquelme situation from 2006 were spared that particular indignity.
Arsenal had a chance to draw level in the dying embers of the match as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s shot was blocked by Gerónimo Rulli, though the Gabonese hitman had slipped as he shot, which likely didn’t help matters.
The final whistle would have been welcome for both managers, who will leave the Estadio de la Cerámica feeling their team should have done more.
The performance of Dani Ceballos once again sent Arsenal fans into a frenzy as the Spaniard once again cost Arsenal a European tie. His poor marking, terrible zonal play, inability to make basic passes and his subsequent yellow card pretty much made the minds of Mikel Arteta and Edu up that the Spaniard will not be back at Arsenal next season.
His performance was arguably one of the worst, but the decision to keep him on was yet another baffling one. Arteta has met criticism in recent weeks for leaving his substitutions far too late and his game management was again under scrutiny here. Though Arteta told CBS reporter James Benge that he was “planning to take Dani off“, it was still bafflinf that such a poor performance in the first-half hadn’t brought about his removal earlier still.
Emery, for all his faults, knew when to change things and when the tactics weren’t working and was not averse to making halftime subs (as was also shown on Thursday night).
The performance falls squarely on Arteta. It felt, once again, that the Spaniard was too smart for his own good. Poor selection in the draw at home to Fulham, had very much been his downfall and Thursday was no different.
Seeming to take heart from Pep Guardiola’s constant “revolving false-nine” tactic, Arteta decided to start the game without a recognised forward, meaning that Emile Smith Rowe started through the middle, and Nicolas Pépé, the obvious choice, was shunted out wide.
Yet another baffling tactic was why Arteta refused to pick Gabriel Martinelli. Martin Ødegaard having just come back from injury seemed like a poor suit to Arsenal’s gameplan, who needed a far more frenetic press. Though the Norwegian is no stranger to a high press when needed, having only just come back rom injury, he seemed to be a risk not worth taking.
Arsenal have been granted an impossible lifeline in the tie now, but they will need to perform much better than this if they are to stand a chance of reaching the final and given the blistering form of Manchester United on Thursday night and the likelihood of them reaching the final, Arsenal will not hold up if indeed they reach there.
Arsenal team: 1.) Bernd Leno 21.) Calum Chambers 16.) Rob Holding (c) 22.) Pablo Marí 34.) Granit Xhaka 18.) Thomas Party 8.) Dani Ceballos 🔴 7.) Bukayo Saka (Aubameyang 85’) 11.) Martin Ødegaard (Martinelli 63’) 19.) Nicolas Pépé (Willian 95’) 32.) Emile Smith Rowe (Elneny 95’)
Arsenal subs: 33.) Maty Ryan 53.) Arthut Okonkwo 23.) David Luiz 6.) Gabriel Magalhães 2.) Héctor Bellerín 17.) Cédric Soares 25.) Mohamed Elneny 12.) Willian 24.) Reiss Nelson 14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 35.) Gabriel Martinelli 30.) Eddie Nketiah
Villarreal subs: 1.) Sergio Asenjo 2.) Mario Gaspar 21.) Jaume Costa 6.) Ramiro Funes Mori 15.) Pervis Estupiñán 18.) Alberto Moreno 30.) Yeremi Pino 19.) Francis Coquelin 32.) Álex Baena 23.) Moi Gómez 34.) Fer Niño 9.) Carlos Bacca