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Silver Linings

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Not all hope is lost

Arsenal FC v Olympiacos FC - UEFA Europa League Round of 32: Second Leg Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

At the risk of conjuring the ghost of The Barenaked Ladies’ late 90s earworm, it’s been one week since Arsenal’s unceremonious early exit from the Europa League at the hands of a scrappy Olympiakos side. After weeks of promising play gave way to apprehensive optimism, the carriage turned back into a pumpkin as quickly as it took for Arsenal to concede a late match winner, and Arsenal fans were sent back into the miserable downward spiral that they spent so much time clawing their way out of.

The loss has already taken its place among the pantheon of historic Arsenal losses. Despite a week elapsing, the result still sucks and has been predictably thrown back into Arsenal’s face at every available interval by rival fans, not that anyone could blame them. The match is a walking wound on a planet made of salt with plenty of people available to rub it in. It will continue to sting for a long, long time. But time, as they say, heals cures all.

That match was many things. Frustrating. Embarrassing. Laughable. Rage-inducing. And yet, no matter how bad that loss may look, I still can’t help but feel optimistic about this team.

Now before you write this off as some bold-faced revisionist homerism, hear me out. Losses are an inevitable aspect of the game, and odds are that Arsenal were due for a regression after their upward trajectory over the last few weeks. That the regression happened against Olympiakos at home in the knockouts of the Europa League certainly makes it feel far worse, but Arteta’s revolution would not happen without a few growing pains.

So, if you’ll indulge me, here are reasons to stay excited about Arsenal.

Still Invincible

Thanks, Watford.

Identity

If one thing has been apparent, it’s that Mikel Arteta has a clear cut vision for how he wants Arsenal to play. While it took some time before the results began to emerge, the product on the pitch showed an almost immediate night and day shift between the plodding, redundant build up play from the past regime and the more energetic, aggressive style that is currently being implemented. Players are pressing higher, shooting more, and defending better.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, though. Players are still adapting to the work rate and lofty expectations, as has been evidenced by dips in energy and performance. Arteta has also spoken publicly about certain players needing to step up, grow up, and work harder if they want a place on the roster. The process is only beginning and has a considerable ways to go, but it already feels like the vision is clear and the expectations are known.

Player performance

One of the unforeseen side effects of Arteta’s coaching has been the redemption arc for both Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi. While neither are playing at all-world levels, they both have enjoyed renaissance periods of solid productive play, a far cry from their unnervingly unpredictable play over the past several seasons.

Mesut Ozil, while certainly no longer the dynamic creator he once was, is seeing the pitch more often and playing more aggressively. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is back to being a league-leading scorer, and Nicolas Pepe has started to come good on the lofty expectations fans and pundits have been calling for.

Let us not also forget about the incredibly promising performance from Arsenal’s youth core. Bukayo Saka, a dark horse for Arsenal Player of the Year, Gabriel Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson have all stepped up when called upon and made strong cases for being consistent Arsenal first team players.

Things to play for

At the end of the day, Arsenal are still capable of ending the season on a high note. Champions League qualification is still the prime objective, and with the top four within touching distance (or top five, depending on the results of Manchester City’s inevitable appeal of their European ban), Arsenal have everything to play for. With a match against West Ham at the Emirates on Saturday on deck, Arsenal have a chance to make up lost ground in their quest for a Champions League place.

There is also the matter of the FA Cup, which Arsenal are still in contention for after taking care of business at Portsmouth on Monday. After Liverpool’s defeat at Chelsea on Tuesday and Tottenham’s penalty shootout loss against Norwich on Wednesday, the field has opened up considerably. With a little luck, Arsenal could make a late run at some silverware, which would certainly cap off what has been a tumultuous season with the best kind of silver lining.

There is a very real chance that Arsenal could be bounced from the FA Cup and fail to get the results necessary to finish in a CL spot, but those are possibilities for every team that plays the game, and I’m not going to let it keep me from seeing the bright future ahead of this club.

Now that the loss is behind us, what’s got you positive on Arsenal going forward?