Arsenal’s season before the Liverpool game had looked like it could end quite rosy. During the early weeks, questions were asked of Mikel Arteta’s suitability for the long-term Arsenal project. Performances were inconsistent. When they were good, they were good; when they were bad, they were bad. By Christmas, it looked like they’d settled on a system and a core of twelve or thirteen players which could be relied upon to get them better results, reducing the goal scoring chances they gave up, and increasing the chances they created. It had led them to progressing into the Europa League Quarter Finals and competing for European qualification places in the Premier League, and, importantly, it looked as if Arteta had the team on a sustainably upward trajectory.
Game week 30: Liverpool
Liverpool came to the Emirates after a recent resurgence. Their season started strongly, looking like the champions they were. Then the injuries came. Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez, and finally Joel Matip – all starting centre-backs – went down with season-enders which caused Klopp some headaches. Finding a suitable pairing took months. They’d used twenty-two pairings over the course of the season before the Arsenal game. Defensively, they were more susceptible to through balls in set-defence and transition, a part of their game they’d previously had absolutely no issues with before. Ozcan Kabak signing from Schalke in January meant Klopp could settle on one centre back and, after some rotation, Phillips found himself as the preferred partner, with Fabinho moved back into the six-position, where he excels, aiding them in pressing high, defending deeper, and in transition. Arsenal knew they were facing a Liverpool side who were playing at a level closer to where they were expected to be, how those who bet on football would’ve wanted them to play all season.
Arsenal’s performance was tepid. They were incapable of transitioning effectively, or penetrating Liverpool’s set-defence when the Gunners finally established possession. The Reds dominated, totally – moving the ball into the final-third consistently, retaining the ball with ease, and sustaining attacks with their trademark counter pressing – and they were only missing that final action – pass, dribble, touch – to take advantage of very promising situations before scoring in the sixty-fourth minute with a header from Jota, who’d only been on the pitch a matter of minutes, and then going on to bag two more to end the game 3-0 winners.
If Arsenal had won the match against Liverpool, their season would be far more open and optimistic than it looks now, from a league-table perspective. They would’ve been on forty-five points with eight games to go, six points behind Chelsea in fourth (an unlikely finish as it’d have required at least three or four teams, including Chelsea, to lose two or three of their last eight) and four points behind Tottenham in fifth. Finishing top-six would’ve been possible, and a genuinely successful season. Arsenal can now only accumulate sixty-six points if they win all their remaining fixtures, which would only be enough to finish top-four in two of the last eight seasons, and, despite this being a low point-scoring year, will likely not see them finish top-six this season. Now, they are a team fighting for eighth-through-eleventh, which is a wasteland for Arsenal, a place of no reward.
Arsenal won’t give up on the league, of course. Their final games consist of teams who still have a number of things to play for: Fulham, West Brom, Newcastle, and possibly Brighton, should they not be safe by the last day, are battling relegation; Chelsea and Everton are battling for top-four and -six. Crystal Palace are the only team whose last eight are, arguably, dead-rubbers. There’s still plenty which can be experimented with and tested within the squad, but the Europa League is largely where competitive attention will be placed. Winning the competition will get them into the Champions League, which would provide an unprecedented and surprising injection into the club.
What comes of this season has a huge impact on next season, of course. There’s still a chance Arsenal end up in the Champions League and there’s a good chance they end just playing for domestic competitions. Regardless, though, the squad is where the real problems lie.
Arteta’s performance as coach – as a young coach – seems to be defined by overcompensating defensively while players still continue to make mistakes that cost goals. Offensively, there are pieces who don’t quite have a clear role to make a functional unit. Aubameyang is a key player to consider, as his wages and influence within the team mean he should be a starter, but the system is not getting the most out of him. There is talk Odegaard’s loan deal could be made permanent, which would be a wonderful coup for the club and will give them a great talent, who can improve, to build their team around. Partey is twenty-eight and, despite overperforming expectations, will mean his value to the team will be limited to the next couple of seasons.
This season, next, and foreseeable ones all suggest that one question seems to remain: can Arsenal become coherent?