Let’s put aside yesterday’s loss to Aston Villa and return to happier times. Let’s continue to bask in the glow of the team’s recent victories over Liverpool and Manchester City. Doesn’t it feel nice to be happy for a change? Dare I say even proud?
It’s true that this season has been Arsenal’s poorest in 25 years. Arsenal finished the 1994-1995 season in 12th position with just 51 points. If Arsenal beat Watford on Championship Sunday, they’ll earn 54, which still isn’t anything to write home about.
But it’s been a turbulent, strange season for the club. The Unai Emery experience, Freddie Ljungberg’s interim stint, Mikel Arteta learning on the fly, the Granit Xhaka soap opera (and Mesut Ozil, and Matteo Guendouzi), and of course the Coronavirus that caused a three-month shutdown of matches. Tere has not been a lot of joy for Arsenal supporters this season.
However, in addition to the FA Cup Final on August 1st, there’s actually a reason for optimism in North London. So instead of focusing on the negatives (like the Aston Villa match and the club’s inability to break down the low block), here are some of the positives at Arsenal heading in to the 2020-2021 season.
Youth in midfield and up front
Five different players aged 20 or younger scored Premier League goals for the Gunners this season. This includes Reiss Nelson 20, Gabriel Martinelli, 19, Joe Willock, 20, Bukayo Saka, 18 and Eddie Nketiah (he has since turned 21, but was 20 when he scored against Everton in February. Equally impressive is the fact that all but Martinelli are products of Arsenal’s Academy. The Hale End boys have done well.
Both Saka and Martinelli recently signed new contracts that will keep them in North London as they continue to develop.
Another academy graduate who may yet play a role for the first team is Emile Smith Rowe. The striker had a successful loan spell with Championship side Huddersfield and will turn 20 this summer. I’m, perhaps, most excited about Smith Rowe because he could play that midfield creator role that the side desperately needs; it’s where he has been lining up for Huddersfield.
Youth on defense
We all know the defensive problems Arsenal have had in recent years. The manager is keen to correct this. While the club look to sign solid reinforcements, Mikel Arteta will have some youthful options at his disposal next season.
First there is Kieran Tierney who is only 23. Tierney had a rough start to his Arsenal career as he arrived nursing an injury. Then he suffered a dislocated shoulder in December which required surgery and kept him out of action until the restart in June. Since then, he’s been a rock defensively and showed what he is capable of offensively, special shoutout to the pass he provided for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s decisive second goal in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley.
Arsenal also have William Saliba (finally) arriving from Saint-Étienne. The Gunners acquired the centerback last summer, but the terms of the sale required loaning him back to the French club for this season. Saliba, 19, looks to have all the tools to become a successful centerback and can play in a back-4 as well as a back-3.
Depth in goal
Emiliano Martinez has been a revelation since Bernd Leno went down with an injury soon after the restart. He exudes confidence and has been called upon many times to save Arsenal’s defense. In nine matches, he’s kept four clean sheets and has not allowed more than two goals in any match. Martinez has the highest save percentage among all PL backups at 81.8%.
When healthy Leno has been one of Arsenal’s players of the season. He will probably reclaim his starting role when he returns, but Arsenal may have a genuine keeper competition on their hands heading into next season. That’s not a bad problem to have.
In Arteta, Arsenal have found a promising young successor to Arsene Wenger. He has already made an impact with the piecemeal squad that he inherited. As a former Arsenal captain, Arteta understands the culture and history of the club and wants to compete at the highest level. If he is given the support he is asking for from the board, the future looks bright.
Arteta is committed to installing the culture and standards he wants at the club. Just look at Matteo Guendouzi. He’s a talented player to be sure, but he has not lived up to Arteta’s standards, and Mikel has stood firm. Whether a system and stance so rigid that a talented young player might leave the club is a good thing, but there is no question Mikel stands by his principles.
The Spaniard is also a realist, which is refreshing. In his post-match interview following Arsenal’s surprise 2-1 win against Liverpool he said
You only need to look at the difference between the two teams, the gap is enormous. But the energy, commitment, and fight between the two teams is equal – and the rest will come. It will take time, but we can create something.
Sit tight Arsenal fans and keep the faith. Better times will come.