What were Arsenal’s objectives at the start of the season, and how have they changed now as we approach the end of the January transfer window? Should we still value those early season objectives, and if not, why?
Next Tuesday is the last opportunity Arteta will have to drastically alter his squad before what many consider to be the biggest five months since the club moved to the Emirates in 2006. Even the most optimistic fan would not have foreseen this, with Arsenal gently balanced at the summit of the Premier League with a significant chance of winning it.
The league will not be won or lost on February 15th (a date for your calendars) as Arsenal host Manchester City in the first of their two heavyweight league fixtures but the result will undoubtedly help swing momentum. Trips to Anfield, the Etihad and St. James park all await Arsenal (and all within a month of each other). Grounds they have historically struggled in. Home games to a blooming Chelsea and a spirited Brighton also dovetail the ‘run in’ at the end of the season. There are countless, impossible-to-predict variables that will influence these games – so before we look towards the end of the season, let’s revisit the start.
In July 2022, Arsenal’s idea of success was far more straightforward. Integrate the new signings, compete and compete significantly in the Domestic competitions and secure Champions League football. It would be fair to say that Arsenal have been successful in their objectives and it is only January.
Now? That’s where the fan base is split. Whilst not a guarantee, Arteta and the board must be quietly planning for life in the Champions League next season. Barring a horrific fall from grace, the top four seems very likely. Opta’s supercomputer has Arsenal finishing in 5th at 0.2%. History, current form and the instability of teams around them seem to back this up. Financially alone, this will please the Board.
The European and Domestic competitions are still at their early stages, but needless to say performances or stages reached in those will be of much lower importance the longer Arsenal maintain their league form.
Arsenal have not been close, nor in the conversation for football’s most coveted prize for decades. Mikel Arteta is vying to become the youngest Premier League winning manager ever. This Arsenal squad are vying to become the youngest Premier League winning team ever. Nothing about this is in accordance with the discussions KSE and Edu had in July during pre-season in Florida.
Despite their strong start, in the eyes of the board and the long term project; it would still be seen as a successful season if Arsenal were to finish 2nd. This won’t please fans, because the majority are beginning to believe in the legitimacy not only of a title challenge, but a title success. Fans will rightly ask, how many times will Arsenal find themselves 8 points clear of Manchester City, 11 of Newcastle and Manchester United, 14 of Spurs and 21 of Liverpool and Chelsea?
The answer is not very often. No team ever slips and finds itself 21 points clear of other title contenders. There is no accident in this ascendency. Arsenal deserve to be there and are playing the best football in the league. Are they capitalizing on some major clubs ‘transitioning’? Yes. But isn’t every club transitioning every year? Are Arsenal said to be transitioning due to the introduction of a world class striker brought in during the summer? No. But pundits might say Guardiola’s side are having to learn how to play to new arrival Erling Haaland’s strengths this year because of the radical difference he gives this City team. Arsenal are doing the same with Gabriel Jesus (and his long term injury). There is a ceiling on how sympathetic we can feel for the most dangerous club in the world adding the most dangerous striker on the market to their team.
If Arsenal were to finish 2nd or 3rd would Arsenal fans feel deflated? Yes. This could of course be softened by a European cup final or FA Cup success, but life is never that simple. With the packed schedule ahead of us, it is never clear or easy how to spread one’s eggs into many baskets. If Mikel Arteta is to win Manager Of The Year, it is here that he will do it. Navigating the congestion, knowing when to rotate and also that losing a game isn’t always the worst thing in the world, are crucial if Arsenal are serious about winning the Premier League.
KSE made it clear they supported Mikel Arteta by awarding him an extension on his contract before the end of last season. This is an important detail because the season ultimately resulted in Arsenal switching their season’s objectives in the Spring (to qualify for Champions League football) and then failed. But the primary objective set at the start of the season was to return (in some capacity) to European football, and after that was mathematically secured, he was rewarded. Last year’s slip from 4th to 5th was by no means a disaster. Disappointing, of course, but even then, achieving this was ahead of the Boards long term project. The club were still supported financially and recruited elite level talent in the following summer, regardless of the fact they would be playing in the Europa League not the Champions League. This is because Arsenal were at the level the Board expected them to be at.
Failure to win the league this year is not a failure for Arsenal’s long term project. Similarly to last year, Arteta and the squad are doing better than most people thought. In fact this year they are drastically over-achieving. This type of season would have been penciled in for 2024/25. So should Arsenal let the title slip this season, nothing drastic will happen. Arsenal will continue to be supported financially, Arteta will not be sacked, no riots will happen outside the Emirates – because this is where they are expected to be.
The question that will loom over Arteta and the squad should they fail to win the Premier League this season, is do they have the capacity to go again? Is this intrinsically within them? Liverpool were flying in the Premier League in 2018/19, they went 20 games unbeaten and lost once all season and yet still they were caught by the relentlessness of Manchester City. They were devastated, but that defeat felt all the more sweet when 12 months later they were crowned Champions for the first time in 30 years. Arsenal have seen it happen, on a smaller scale they know how it feels – lets hope this is enough to give them the edge in this thrilling Premier League season.