Well, it’s back. After three months, Arsenal are returning to play competitive fixtures and finish the 2019-20 season, one of the oddest seasons in club history. With the FA Cup final, which the Gunners hope to be in, taking place on August 1, there will be a fast turnaround to the 2020-21 season, which will likely kick off in September, almost certainly behind closed doors.
For those of you who have forgotten, Arsenal actually won the last three Premier League fixtures before the pandemic, and are unbeaten in eight; indeed, Arsenal haven’t lost a Premier League game in nearly six months. Although in ninth place, Arsenal have an outside shot at Champions League qualification, with a gap of eight points between Chelsea, in fourth, and Arsenal. Those chances would go up if Manchester City’s ban from the Champions League is upheld by CAS, which would result in the 5th placed Premier League team gaining qualification. Arsenal are currently only five points behind Manchester United who are in 5th. Qualifying for elite European football must be the goal, but it could become very apparent that qualification will be beyond Arsenal should they drop points to begin the restart.
That, though, doesn’t render matches a pointless exercise as they might otherwise be for clubs in Arsenal’s mid-table position (or indeed, Liverpool’s position once they win the league next week). The specter of next season looms, especially if Arsenal slip up in the league. Thus, there is the possibility that this becomes an extended pre-season, and allows Arsenal to try to create some momentum before next season.
There is also the reality that Arteta is still a rookie manager. While he seems to have been exemplary in his communication during lockdown, especially compared to his predecessor, he is still in a position of trying to mold Arsenal into something that reflects his ideas. We have seen elements of his: the advanced left back with the tucked in right back, and a front five occupying the entire width of the pitch.
There is much unknown, and we probably won’t know more until Arsenal have played 4 or 5 games after the restart. The players aren’t match fit, and the weirdness of empty stadiums will likely take some time to get used to. Given Arsenal’s precarious position in terms of European qualification, it may be better to focus on the FA Cup, and use other matches to keep players fit and figure out permutations and options for next season, especially in midfield, which may not get the re-build that Arteta may desire. In this sense, Arsenal have the possibility of creating an advantage for themselves. Given the likely paucity of movement during the summer transfer market, it is likely that squads will need to be augmented with academy prospects. In Bukayo Saka (should he re-sign), Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock, Gabriel Martinelli, and Reiss Nelson, Arsenal have already begun to do that this campaign, and giving players meaningful minutes in the run-in during this season could give Arsenal and Arteta an advantage to begin next.