2019/20 in Review – Arsenal
In a year full of change and new beginnings for the red side of North London, Raph Boyd takes the supporter’s perspective when looking into how good – or bad – Arsenal’s season has been so far.
It’s difficult to know how to write this because so much has happened. With a record signing coming in, a manager being sacked, a captain being stripped of his armband mid-season and a humiliating European exit all coming before a global pandemic effectively ended the season in March, it’s certainly been a roller-coaster. A horrible, awful roller-coaster which was fun and exciting two decades ago but has since become broken, slow and pretty dangerous to ride.
The season started, as all seasons do, with preseason. Arsenal hosted their trademark tournament, the Emirates Cup, in Holloway. For about an hour, Arsenal’s season was off to a flying start – then Lyon scored twice, and Arsenal were knocked out of their own cup, failing to win it for the first time in five years. This, in retrospect, was a fairly accurate forecast for the remainder of Arsenal’s season.
We won our first two games, which was strange, then lost to Liverpool, which wasn’t. The Liverpool loss was followed by two wins and three draws and then a loss to Sheffield United, which was the start of a winless streak which stretched from October to December. In November, with results refusing to improve, Unai Emery was sacked, and Freddie Ljungberg took over as interim manager. Ljungberg, to his credit, managed to end the streak with a win over West Ham, but was clearly not the right man for the job. The right man, according to the board was, and still is, Mikel Arteta, who took the reins just before Christmas. Under Arteta, performances improved but results have not and Arsenal, despite only losing one league game during his tenure, have only managed to win four games, as many as Emery achieved when he was removed.
Domestically, Arsenal have underperformed – but what about abroad? After all, despite the criticism he received last season, Emery, to his credit, was able to take Arsenal to their first European final in 13 years. What about this season? This season has been bad. We’re not in the Europa League anymore and that’s all I’ll say about it right now.
A rare glimmer of light in the abyss that has been this season came in the form of Arsenal’s FA Cup campaign which, miraculously, they remain in, currently at the quarter finals stage. Could we have won it? Absolutely. Would we have won it? Probably not, but during these dark and uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to dream. We are, however, currently top of the league table for number of cards received, so it was good of the lads to get that over the line.
The season has been a mess. There have been obvious highs, but they have been heavily outweighed by some pretty incredible lows. Seriously, even by Arsenals standards there has been some absolute nonsense this season. How much nonsense? Let’s find out.
Player of the Season – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
It couldn’t really be anyone else. Bernd Leno is the only other senior player who had an impressive season, being one of only three goalkeepers to have made over 100 saves thus far and managing to keep seven clean sheets,one more than he kept all of last season, despite the lacklustre defence he has in front of him. Several young players have also impressed, providing a hunger to perform on a weekly basis that many of their more senior teammates seemed to lack.
However, it is Aubameyang who has been Arsenal’s saviour this season. Not only is he responsible for 42.5% of Arsenal’s league goals, contributing 17 of the 40 they’ve managed to score, he has also proved himself as a leader on and off the pitch, seamlessly taking over from Granit Xhaka following his controversial dismissal as captain. He has been one of the best strikers in the world and it upsets me slightly to see him score crucial goals which he believes may win his team points, only for that effort to be rendered pointless by the absolute circus that is Arsenal’s defence. He deserves better and whether it comes from his teammates pulling their weight more or him leaving for greener pastures, I hope he gets it.
Underperformer of the Season – Mesut Özil
Jesus, this was a hard choice, and not due to a lack of candidates. This isn’t a season which the majority of the Arsenal squad will be able to look back on with much pride. It may be the easy choice but I’m not going to put Nicolas Pepe here. Yes, he hasn’t set the Premier League alight like some may have hoped and but 10 goal contributions in the league alone is nothing to be scoffed at. Alexander Lacazette, Lucas Torreira and, to be honest, the entire squad aside from the aforementioned four players could all plausibly be listed as underperformers.
None, however, have underperformed as much as Mesut Özil. Özil is one of the best playmakers of the 21st century. 1 goal and 2 assists from one of the best playmakers of the 21st century is not good enough. I wasn’t expecting the 2013-2016 era Ozil but If he had to do better. Aaron Ramsey’s departure to Juventus left a huge void in the squad that the arrival of Dani Ceballos failed to fill, there was no better time for Özil to step up and silence his critics. Unfortunately, that’s not what has happened. I don’t want to scapegoat Özil as the responsibility of Arsenal’s form rests on far more shoulders than just his own, yet his poor displays shouldn’t be ignored. He is by no means the only underperformer at the club, but he very well may be the biggest.
Young Player of the Season – Bukayo Saka
Many Arsenal fans will have their fingers crossed that the only thing which Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta have in common is their nationality and their love for football. It would be harsh, however, to pretend that Unai Emery isn’t due genuine praise for his commitment to developing youth talents. Arteta seems to share his countryman’s interest in young players and as a result the Arsenal youth pool is the strongest it has been in a long time.
This is probably the only positive category in which there is actually a nice range of candidates with many youngsters having stepped up to the plate this season. Whilst Hale End graduates and England under-21 nationals Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock all had their moments, particularly in cup competitions, the two youngsters who stood out the most were Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli.
Two legitimate children, Saka and Martinelli have not only been the two best young players at Arsenal this season, they have been two of the best young players in Europe. It’s cruel to have to choose one over the other but if I must I think I’ll give the nod to Saka simply for the fact that he performed not only as a winger but also in the forced upon him position of left back. If he is able to further develop his football over the next year, I believe he may very well be in contention for a place in the England squad for the eventual Euro campaign.
Signing of the Season – Gabriel Martinelli
Arsenal didn’t make any bad transfers so to speak this season, but none were red hot. Things are not bad enough for me to name William Saliba, a player who will not appear on the pitch for Arsenal until next season, as the season’s best signing though I was tempted. Though they’ve had some great games, neither Nicolas Pepe nor David Luiz can yet be considered great signings due to their respective inconsistent form. Despite the fact he’s looked excellent when he has played, Kieran Tierney’s unfortunate injury problems, having only made eleven appearances for Arsenal this season, also stop him from being a game changing transfer. Thank God then, for Gabriel Martinelli.
Any player who manages to score ten goals in sixteen starts is already worth £6 million. An 18-year old who can do it is worth ten times that. Martinelli, who managed to be one of the top teenage scorers in the top European leagues this season, looks a truly exceptional capture who undoubtedly has a great future ahead of him. The only question is how much of it he’ll spend at Arsenal before inevitably jetting off to Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Goal of the Season – Joe Willock vs Liverpool (A)
Once again, it’s slim pickings for this one. By Arsenals standards at least. It should go without saying that there were plenty of good goals. This is Arsenal we’re talking about, but there were no Wilshere vs Norwich or Giroud vs Palace level goals. Sure, Pepe and Aubameyang scored some nice free kicks but nothing that’s going to be talked about years from now. Aside, maybe, from Joe Willocks screamer against Liverpool in October.
Collecting the ball just north of the halfway line and driving forward before unleashing from thirty yards out and finding the top corner, it was an absolute thunderbolt. Some may overlook it due to him scoring against a relatively inexperienced keeper, but I feel like Willock’s strike could have beaten some of the world’s best goalies. Willock has had a positive season, netting four goals in all competitions, and this goal will certainly be the highlight of it.
Moment of the Season – Beating United
It’s not too hard to decide as I’m not spoiled for choice. There were good performances here and there; the comebacks against Tottenham and Chelsea in September and January and the 4-0 demolition of Newcastle spring to mind. Impressive though these games were, Arsenal’s best performance came against Manchester United on New Year’s Day.
Arsenal dominated United for the full 90 minutes, probably the only thoroughly impressive performance the side managed to turn in against notable opposition all season. United’s own struggles arguably make the victory more important, proving that as bad as things were at least we could still compete with the other teams we were challenging for Europa League places. It also saw what might have been Nicolas Pepe’s best game for Arsenal up to that point, as he scored Arsenal’s opener, hit the post and delivered the corner which led to Arsenal’s second.
Moment to Forget – The Europa League Travesty
Disappointment, the old friend of Arsenal Football Club. This entire season could be labelled as one to forget for Arsenal but one moment rises above the others; the defeat to Olympiakos. Obviously – it was painful.
The deck was stacked in our favour. We beat them on their own turf in Greece, meaning that all we had to do was not lose. Simple enough, surely? Yes, but Arsenal doesn’t do “simple”. It was a truly woeful performance, a sucker punch to an already poor season, and robbed Mikel Arteta of the chance to end the season unbeaten in 2020. What made it all the more excruciating is the fact that the final blow, Youssef El-Arabi’s 119th minute winner, could have been cancelled out by a chance that fell to Aubameyang in the dying seconds of the game. The cruel irony of the man who had saved Arsenal so many times before from more difficult positions failing to convert from five yards out will probably haunt him and many Arsenal fans for years to come.
It may very well have a place in Arsenals hall of infamy, alongside the League Cup final defeat to Birmingham in 2011 and the 4-1 humiliation sustained at the hands of Chelsea in last year’s Europa League final. It really was that bad, the kind of result that forces you to wonder why you enjoy football, and a pretty apt way of summing up Arsenal’s season in 120 minutes. Uninspiring, careless and, ultimately, no one’s fault but our own.