Arsenal 2019/20 Review: Gunners on the right path under Arteta
With the Premier League suspended, Alex Keble reviews each club's 2019/20 season, assessing the highs, the lows, and what the future holds. First up, Arsenal...
When Unai Emery was sacked on November 19, with Arsenal in eighth and a mere four points above 16th-place Everton, few supporters expected any semblance of hope to come out of the 2019/20 campaign.
That Mikel Arteta has so drastically changed the mood at the Emirates in a few short months, and has done so despite Arsenal's points-per-game ratio merely shifting from 1.38 under Emery to 1.43, tells us a lot about the psychological impact of hiring a manager with a clear plan.
Season so far
Where Arsenal woefully lacked direction during Emery's 18 months, now they play with an organisation and clear identity to match the most disciplined clubs in England (for short bursts, at least). Automations are already forming in the Gunners' attack, via some blossoming combinations on each flank, and - perhaps most impressive of all - Arteta is finding solutions to problems that appeared unsolvable at the start of the year.
Bukayo Saka has been a revelation at left-back, for example, while Granit Xhaka looks reborn as a deeper central midfielder and even Mesut Ozil seems to know what he's supposed to be doing. By creating a complexly tessellating 3-2-5 in possession, maximising the talents of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe, and bringing through young players, Arteta has already shown why he was Pep Guardiola's protégé.
There are far too many draws, of course, and even their latest eight-match unbeaten run included dodgy performances, but overall this has proven to be a transitional year to leave fans optimistic about the future.
Given that results have been consistently underwhelming (aside from a 2-0 victory over Manchester United on New Year's Day), fans will mostly remember the 2019/20 season for how Eddie Nketiah, Saka, Pepe, and Gabriel Martinelli broke into the first team and, in doing so, swept away the sluggishness of the Emery era.
The energy and purpose with which these young players have burst onto the scene has been a joy to watch, potentially ushering in a golden generation of Arsenal academy graduates to match anything seen under Arsene Wenger.
But the biggest highlight of all is the manager. Arteta's ability to imprint his tactical philosophy on a club that had spent a decade drifting is a minor miracle.
The club crashing out of the Europa League to Olympiacos was a major low point for Arteta, whose team ranked among the favourites to lift the trophy and gain passage to the Champions League. That result was a stark reminder of how much work is still to be done. Arsenal remain fragile when under pressure.
Prior to the managerial change, the whole Freddie Ljungberg phase was disappointing, while the final few months of Emery were a miserable affair. The 3-1 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield in August particularly stands out, not least because Emery's diamond 4-4-2 disastrously left the Liverpool full-backs free to dominate. It was final confirmation his tactics were not up to scratch. Shortly after was the infamous 2-2 draw with Watford, when they conceded 31 shots to the rock-bottom club. That one is best left alone.
And then there's Xhaka's outburst that led to his captaincy being stripped, a terrible moment for the club from which the Swiss has surprisingly recovered. Outside the limelight, Kieran Tierney's season-long injury and Matteo Guendouzi's stalled development have also been disappointments.
What they can achieve in 19/20
Should the current season recommence then Arsenal, eight points off the top five, will only be fighting for Europa League qualification. That is certainly attainable, particularly given the number of issues at rival clubs and the way the fixture have fallen for the Gunners. They have five matches against bottom half clubs remaining, and only two 'Big Six' games away from the Emirates. Finishing in the top six, priced at3.40 with Betfair Exchange, is the primary goal.
Arteta's side are also competing in the FA Cup and are due to play Sheffield United in the last eight should the tournament go ahead. Man City and Chelsea are the only two 'Big Six' clubs left alongside Arsenal, and with so many recent FA Cup wins at Wembley under their belt it would be wise to bet on Arsenal, at10.50.
What next: summer transfers & 2020/21
The campaign was suspended just when Arsenal were clicking into gear, but whatever happens next they must build on this momentum with a big summer. First and foremost, Arteta badly needs two top quality centre-backs to cut out the needless mistakes and add some calm to a team now playing with a risky high line.
Should Dani Ceballos return to Real Madrid then Arsenal will need to replace his dynamism in the middle, plus their attack could do with a bit more guile. Diogo Jota would add link-play to a front line currently overstocked with pacey dribblers.
Arsenal aren't far away from being back among the contenders, not with Arteta at the helm. Sign those defenders and keep Ceballos and the Gunners could even be outsiders to challenge for the title, should the required points tally drop from the 97+ of the last couple of years.
That is perhaps a bit fanciful, although it is easy to get carried away when you look beneath the surface at the hard work and intelligent progress made by Arteta. Whenever the football gets up and running again it is fair to say Arsenal will continue to climb, the Premier League title a long-term goal that suddenly feels attainable.
After so much stagnation, that renewal of hope alone makes 2019/20 a good year for the club.