How The UCL Dream Collapsed – and where Arsenal go from here…

So here we are, at the end of another long campaign. Arsenal will be playing Europa League football next season after a fifth placed finish in, to put it mildly, a disappointing end to the season. Our young team folded under the pressure, as injuries to key players held us in a chokehold, coughing, spluttering and stumbling over the finish line.

We’ve read this book before.

And while I have to say I feel partly responsible considering the subjects of my previous two articles… (Holding & Tomiyasu) maybe there were other factors at play. I wrote this script before the game against Everton. You never know.

Narratives dominate football. No matter how lazy or cliched, the good stories seem to stick. And even those who try to understand football from a more deep, analytical angle hang on to the particular ones they connect with. Zero to hero. Rags to riches. The comeback. We are all attached to that centralised storytelling, weaved in different ways from week to week. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that narratives are football.

In psychology, there is a phenomenon known as sublimation – where perceived “unacceptable” or “negative” thoughts or feelings are channeled into something society deems more acceptable — like football. Frustration, joy and heartbreak get thrust upon and understood through that competitive prism and those narratives we love to believe in. There is always space for that emotional investment; I’d argue it’s the bedrock of football. Care, even love. But at times, these attachments can cloud our judgment and analysis — myself included. 

So to really understand this particular story, we have to go back. We have to understand the context and try not to flick forward to its emotional ending. To understand the denouement, you must first read the prologue.

Chapter One: Goals Matter

It’s the summer of 2020, and Arsenal are basking in the glow of an FA Cup win. It’s all thanks to heroics from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, his starring role the perfect end to a season that featured an impressive 29 goals in 44 appearances. At the time, Arsenal heavily relied on Aubameyang’s output. But there was a problem. He was the club captain, our talisman, but his contract was expiring at the end of the following season. Though there were a few question marks about the nature of the contract, very few Arsenal people could see an immediate future without him there. At 31 years of age, Arsenal handed him a 3 year extension at a hefty price.

Aubameyang’s output halved the following season for a number of possible reasons, scoring 15 goals in 39 appearances as Arsenal slumped to 8th for the second consecutive season. As Arsenal headed into the summer window of 2021, the centre forward position was an area of concern. They had 3 senior strikers in Eddie Nketiah, Alexandre Lacazette & Aubameyang, as well as promising youngster Folarin Balogun – but none of these guys were the guy. However, with 4 players vying for that position, including two whose contracts would soon be up, it was widely accepted that the centre forward position would be addressed in the summer of 2022. Other positions required more urgent financial surgery.

But the situation soured further. Aubameyang had just 9 goals by January, 3 of which were against a weak West Brom side, and his behaviour continued to be less than appropriate for an Arsenal club captain. Tardiness, missed team meetings and absences for Covid tests as well as a late return from a specially sanctioned visit saw him stripped of the captaincy in December 2021. He began to train on his own before leaving for Barcelona.

Arsenal tried to get a striker. They recognised there may be an opportunity for Top 4, and their January pursuit of Fiorentina’s Dusan Vlahovic was widely publicised; he chose Juventus in the end. But other than Vlahovic, Arsenal’s January options for quality centre forwards were limited. Alexander Isak’s £76m release clause didn’t represent value for a player who has scored 2 league goals since January, and other options like Dominic Calvert-Lewin were never going to be sold mid season as Everton headed for a relegation scrap. 

From a financial perspective, January is never a good time to sign players — clubs don’t want to lose their assets without significant recompense and replacement, and players will demand higher wages and signing on fees for desperate teams. Arsenal were quoted £62m for Espanyol’s 27 year old striker Raul de Tomas. I’d never even heard of him. For a club who have consistently given out unintelligent contracts, long-term health is always the priority. Edu & Arteta would start their  new striking chapter in the summer.

Begrudgingly, Arsenal soldiered on, and we are where we are. Despite Eddie Nketiah’s best and commendable efforts, Arsenal were never going to have enough firepower to get them over the line against the likes of Harry Kane & Heung-Min Son. Goals matter, and the data tells us we are bang average at converting the chances that we do get. Lacazette has no open play goals since Boxing Day against Norwich. Considering the context, you can see the trail that leads us here, even if it’s frustrating.

Could Arteta have been less ruthless with Aubameyang? Could we have pushed harder for Vlahovic and offered more money, even if his heart was set on Juventus? It’s possible. But when you’re trying to change the culture and financial model at the club, there’s not much room for desperation and panic.

Chapter Two: The Squad

Chasing top four with a misfiring Lacazette and steady-but-midtable-Eddie wasn’t the only issue — the story doesn’t end there.

Arsenal also decided to allow Pablo Marí, Calum Chambers, Sead Kolasinac & Ainsley Maitland-Niles to leave in the January window. Arsenal wanted to create a tight group to see them through to the end of the season, focusing on the players that they want to build around. This is where I think the club could and probably should take more flack. These aren’t players Arsenal are relying on for the long term, but having those players around to keep the squad fresh could have helped us — the likes of Bukayo Saka & Benjamin White looked dead on their feet against Newcastle. There can’t be an Arsenal fan on the planet who would have preferred Cedric up against Son over Chambers or Maitland-Niles.

I am a fan of Arsenal partly because of its classy values. These players weren’t playing, and I like us doing right by them, allowing them to leave to pursue their profession where they will have the opportunity to show their qualities. But that just isn’t what a top club would do. The players are under contract, and it’s a shame that Arteta didn’t think it possible or didn’t want to manage those situations. Sure, we got their wages off the books, but Jurgen Klopp often talks up the players who don’t play for him and hails their attitude and ability — they are clearly valued and included, and it pays dividends for Liverpool. Something to develop for Arteta.

Chapter Three: Injuries

Possibly the most important factor in all this was the injuries to two key players, and, more specifically, the knock on effect that had. Thomas Partey pulling up against Crystal Palace may be the defining moment of our season – he is that important. His ability to progress the ball, get past players to move us through the thirds, retrieve the ball and provide a solid anchor for receiving and distributing means players like Ødegaard and Xhaka feel the freedom to shift that bit further forward and play their football, knowing they have reliability behind them. Thomas Partey is also one of the only players in our team to have played Champions League football. He knows the level, he knows what it takes, and at just 28, is one of the oldest and most experienced players in our team.

In Kieran Tierney’s case, the knock on effect is even more significant from a structural and tactical point of view as Nuno Tavares’ defensive deficiencies do a few things to us. Firstly, they focus attacks on one side of the pitch and drag defenders over, creating space elsewhere on the pitch. Watch the league game against Liverpool at Anfield from this season, and you will see how virtually every attack goes down Nuno’s side. Not only does that create tired legs and space elsewhere, it’s an obvious weak point that can’t sustain for 90 mins no matter how many players you pack in that zone.

Secondly, they require a personnel shift. With Tavares’ best qualities coming in the final third, you can’t allow your other full back to push on too much. They may be able to invert into the midfield in some places, or roll around into a 3 in build up, and when it’s Tomiyasu or even Benjamin White – no problem. They can do that, and we saw earlier in the season that Tomiyasu on one side and Nuno on the other gave us a different dynamic. When those players aren’t available, you are asking Nuno either to do something he is uncomfortable with, sitting further back, or allowing him to bomb on and asking someone like Cedric to sit further back and do a job he is less suited to. Neither are ideal.

In the end, certain players provide stability. Turning around in the dressing room and seeing the players you are going out to battle with are experienced international footballers breeds confidence. When they’re out of the team, cracks begin to form.

So. Where do we go from here? What’s the next chapter?

Here’s the thing — Arsenal never planned to be in that race in the first place. Clubs do all sorts of financial modelling, with entire teams dedicated to analysing every data point they can get their hands on to decide best practise. To think that Arsenal never considered they might be in this situation is frankly laughable. They would have always known it’s an option, but dependent on internal expectation it may have informed something like the amount they pushed for Vlahovic in January. They will have had all sorts of plans and scenarios mapped out, including differing lists of player targets dependent on league position — that’s why, if reports are to be believed, the Kroenkes are ready to invest this summer regardless of our finishing place. They know this is long term.

You can lose a 50/50, misplace a pass or concede a goal. You can have key injuries and lose games. It’s the patterns that should be the focus, the long term, measurable data and what your eyes see.

We’re spending more time in the opposition’s final third year on year, as this graph shows, measuring field tilt (where the team spends their time), even performing at a title winning level at some points this season.

 

 

We’re taking more shots, as this graph shows, increasing year on year from 2 seasons ago, this time performing above title winning form at times.

 

 

And finally our non-penalty xG differential, where we subtract expected goals against from expected goals for, looks better than it’s been for a long, long time.

 

 

Data, as always, with credit to Scott Willis. There are, however, data points where we look like we’ve stagnated and some where we look worse too. There’s room to improve. But the trends are good.

I don’t like lazy analysis. Where every problem is solved by the market. Every game we lose is because the players aren’t good enough, or the manager needs to go. Occasionally that’s true, but most of the answers you’re looking for are there on the pitch, in the intricacies, the tactics, the trends. For this particular tale, however, I think it all led back to squad building. We know the deficiencies we have — and this one, in my view, is fixed in the market.

A point made by my podcast co-host Bradley springs to mind. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We put out the first 20 youngest first XIs in the league in terms of average age, ranging from 23.8 to 24.7. To then chastise them for not having the experience to see this through seems bizarre to me, especially with the age and experience level of the manager. To even be in this race was an achievement — I myself said at the beginning of the season that 6th represented progress at expectation. The players are going through their growing pains, gaining the much fabled and sometimes over-indexed ‘experience’ – the particular sword we lived by inevitably had another edge.

Here’s the thing. Disappointment and failure are not the same thing. I am disappointed that Arsenal didn’t get top four. I would love to have seen the smile wiped off Sp*rs faces. But did we fail this season? Not for me.

Let’s not cloud our judgment with emotionally-charged narrative.

It hurts, of course, to lose out to them. But it’s just another chapter in our story. A necessary one to establish plot. And as we turn the page and meet some new characters, the pain of this chapter might just dissipate.

Alexander Moneypenny, The Different Knock

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