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Season review: Traces of an Arsenal revival under Arteta

After worst league season for 25 years, new boss shows signs of ending Gunners’ inconsistency

30 July, 2020 — By Richard Osley

Mikel Arteta speaks to the players during a drinks break against Watford

IT’S been a year in which the question has had to be asked: Did they act soon enough? Were they quick enough to respond to a situation rapidly developing into a crisis?

Probably not, seems to be the likely answer.

More damage was endured than necessary and the recovery will now be slow and uncertain. Things will not snap back to normal overnight.

But that’s Arsenal.

Their trouble can possibly be traced back to being slow in drawing a line under Arsene Wenger’s flagging late-stage leadership of the club – they surely could have got Jurgen Klopp before the summer of 2015 if they had been ruthless about his retirement date.

This season they were slow again, this time to realise they had appointed an unworthy successor.

Unai Emery’s fingerprints can be found on Arsenal’s worst league campaign for 25 years, and it should not have taken until the end of November to take decisive action.

Empty stands without Gunners fans at Emirates

Seven matches had whizzed by without a victory, but, worse, some of the performances were rotten. The away defeat to Sheffield United was devoid of all energy and imagination, and the day they needed a last-minute goal to scrape a home point against Southampton was painful.

It went on.

There was a tell-tale moment at the Emirates Stadium against Wolves on November 2. Emery was bopping around, animated on the sidelines as Arsenal let slip another lead and ended up drawing a match they could have won. He appeared to indicate how he wanted Kieran Tierney to kick the ball. The defender motioned back for him to calm down.

When the Spaniard was relieved of his duties, there were no tears. It’s been a long season, but his time at the club is fading fast from the memory.

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta

And so to Mikel Arteta, whose start to life in the hot-seat has been frustrating too.

There is still that feeling of taking a couple of steps forward but then taking a big one back.

But it’s unfolding under a wave of hope that things will not always be like this.

Of course, we have had to take him on trust that he has seen something that has yet to come alive on the pitch when he grants generous playing time to Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock.Neither has come close to the excitement generated by the club’s homegrown new number seven Bukayo Saka.

Then there was the reaction to David Luiz’s shocking performance at Manchester City after the coronavirus lockdown had been broken. It led most to believe he would only be used sparingly in future.

But again, we are being asked to keep the faith in Arteta’s view that Luiz should continue – it is Sokratis who is watching from the stands.

If Luiz, who was granted a new contract amid a fair few groans, concedes a penalty against Chelsea or sees a red card in the FA Cup final on Saturday – which let’s face it are not unthinkable scenarios – then this trust will be strained.

New Journal reporter Richard Osley at the Emirates

Arteta also owns the decision to persevere with Granit Xhaka, who at one point this season was rudely gesturing at the club’s hectoring fans.

And to make Matteo Guendouzi disappear. Guendouzi had been heralded back in October as the man who inspired Arsenal’s comeback in the north London derby against Spurs. So much has changed.

But the reason why glitchy performances against Brighton and Aston Villa are tolerated more than Emery’s disappointments is that Arteta seems more capable of responding to them.

He has drawn far better performances out of Dani Ceballos, Nicolas Pepe and Tierney, his confidence in Emi Martinez has been rewarded, and he has had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang smiling.

If only he can get the striker to extend his time at Arsenal, his job going into his first proper season in charge will be much easier. He must reinforce: a centre-back who can have a Van Dijk-style influence would be a dream.

You can see why he wants some creativity in midfield, too. Against Watford on Sunday, we saw the best and worst of this season’s tale: an electric race to a three-goal lead, followed by some snooze-button defending.

Many will judge Arteta on the outcome of one match – Chelsea on Saturday – but his ability to resolve this inconsistency, or not, will be the true gauge of where Arsenal will be when the masks finally come off.

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