A short run of success can be extremely misleading. And when you make a few huge decisions based in part on a really short run of success, it can set you back for quite a while.
Last summer during Project Restart, Arsenal beat league champions Liverpool and took down both Manchester City and Chelsea on the way to a surprising FA Cup title. New manager and former Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger protege, Mikel Arteta, hadn't been on the job very long, and his debut season had been interrupted by a once-in-a-century pandemic, but these were openly exciting results, a sign of a plan potentially coming together.
Of course, over a larger sample, there was little evidence of sustained growth. Arsenal averaged 1.6 points per game after the league's restart, only a slight improvement over its 1.43 PPG pre-stoppage average. Liverpool had already clinched the title and taken their foot off the gas at the time of Arsenal's 2-1 win (which came between Arsenal losses to rival Tottenham Hotspur and a relegation-threatened Aston Villa), and while the cup upset of Guardiola's City was particularly exciting, City had beaten the Gunners 3-0 in league play a month earlier.
Heading into an abbreviated but vital offseason, Arsenal was working to get expensive veterans off the books, and younger players like center/left back Kieran Tierney and attackers Nicholas Pepe, Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah had looked impressive late in the season. Plus, veteran Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ended the season on fire (nine goals and six chances created in 12 post-restart matches), offering the club a chance to perhaps sell high on the 30-year old scorer if there were any takers. They appeared to have an opportunity to move on from some veterans and execute a long-term plan a la Liverpool, which over a number of seasons built a core of players of similar age who all peaked in performance around 2019-20.
Instead, the club decided that those three wins were all the proof they needed of an impending breakthrough, and leaned on locking up veterans to put the finishing touches on a contender that didn't actually exist.
This piece I wrote last July ended up both extremely correct in hindsight and extremely incorrect in guessing the actual plan, such as it was, that Arsenal executed.
After pointing out that a lot of Arsenal's "improvement" wasn't backed up by stats, I noted that the Gunners indeed had an opportunity to pull a Liverpool:
"[Liverpool's] general approach was what Arteta and Arsenal will now embark on: slowly unfurl your intended philosophy over time, while stockpiling players who will be in range of their athletic peak in about three years. Generally speaking, that means guys currently between about 21 and 25 years old."
Of the five primary signings Arsenal made last summer, four were for players 27 or older.
They spent £45 million to acquire Partey and signed him for £13 million a year, per Spotrac.
"It will be tricky to make any major roster improvements this offseason, but one astute move could be to sell high on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who scored 22 goals this season but also just turned 31. If Arsenal is contending in a few years, he probably won't be a part of it and his value will never be higher."
They quickly re-signed Aubameyang for three years and £13 million per year, then doubled down on 30-somethings by bringing in former Chelsea winger Willian at £10 million per year for three years. They paid £7.2 million for 27-year old defender Pablo Mari and signed 29-year old former Southampton fullback Cedric Soares to a four-year contract at £3.9 million per year.
Aubameyang, Partey and Willian are easily the three most highly paid players on the team, and they're all under contract for two more seasons. All three struggled with either injury, form or both in 2020-21.
Arsenal did land a decent young defender in Lille's Gabriel Magalhaes, and managed to get some aging players' contracts off of the books -- Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mesut Ozil, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Shkodran Mustafi -- in recent months. But that only benefits you so much when that investment is simply shifted to other players who are either already past their respective peaks or will be the next time Arsenal might be ready to contend (and when you lay off 55 employees while overspending for aging talent).
Making these signings even more frustrating is the way that some of the aging players -- Aubameyang, Willian, 29-year-old forward Alexandre Lacazette -- have prevented us from getting sustained glimpses at exciting younger players. Almost despite itself, Arsenal has one of the most intriguing sets of young attackers in the Premier League, made up of academy products (Saka, Nketiah, attacking midfielder Emile Smith Rowe, forward Folarin Balogun) and cheaper recent acquisitions like winger Gabriel Martinelli. But only Saka has seen major minutes in league play this year. He has scored seven goals with 46 chances created in the Premier League and Europa League this season.
Balogun scored twice in 63 minutes of Europa League play, but has yet to debut in the Premier League, and Nketiah's contract expires next year with the 19-year old having received only a small opportunity to make an impression.
This was simply a poor offseason that misinterpreted and overstated the team's strengths and potentially resulted in the hindered growth of younger players. Oh, and the short-term gains it produced were minimal at best.
An Arsenal 2020-21 scouting report
Despite Arsenal's current place (eighth) in the table, there have indeed been at least a few on-field gains, if not nearly enough to justify last summer's moves.
While they're on pace for nearly the same Premier League point total this season (58) as last (56), their goal differential has improved slightly, from +0.2 goals per match to +0.3, and their expected goal (xG) differential has improved by quite a bit from -0.3 per match to +0.2. They've gone from being lucky to finish eighth to being slightly unlucky to rank eighth. That's not something you celebrate, but slight improvement is still improvement.
Most of the gains have come on the defensive side: the Gunners are fourth in goals per match allowed (1.06, down from 1.26 last season) and fifth in xG allowed (1.27, down from a ghastly 1.67). Part of this comes from the fact that they keep the overall tempo so low -- they average just 82.7 possessions per match, lowest in the league, and they possess the ball 53% of the time. That they rank just 10th in shots allowed per possession (0.13) and seventh in xG allowed per shot (0.12) hints that the defense maybe isn't quite as good as its goals allowed, but the trend is a healthy one.
They're much better at defending set pieces, too, giving up just 0.14 set piece goals per 90 minutes, second-fewest in the league and way down from last year's 0.39.
When Arsenal is lucky enough to go ahead, few in the Premier League protect leads better. Their scoring margin while ahead is +1.3 goals per 90 possessions, fourth in the league. They maintain solid possession, limit opponents' shot attempts and counter-attack well. Once ahead, they are more likely than their opponents to score next.
The problem: they're rarely ahead. Their scoring margin when tied is -0.1 goals per 90 possessions, 11th in the league. Their defense is leakier in these situations, their attack mediocre.
Actually, the attack is just mediocre, period. They're 10th in goals scored (1.4 per match) and 11th in xG (1.5). They had a serious shot volume problem last season and early in this season, and while they've addressed it (they're currently sixth in shots per possession), they did so mostly with low-quality shots (14th in xG per shot). Unless they're creating rare counter-attacking opportunities, they don't create many clean looks -- 84% of their shots have come with at least two defenders between the shot and the goal. It's an improvement from last year's 83%, but it still ranks 13th in the EPL.
When you're great at building on leads, but you're falling behind a lot, you're a pretty poor performer in close games. Even with Wednesday's 1-0 win over Chelsea, Arsenal average a paltry 1.05 points per game in matches decided by 0-1 goals, good for 15th in the league. At the same time, they've won 10 matches by 2+ goals, mostly against bad teams -- four against teams that have been relegated, two against Newcastle, one against Southampton.
There is luck and randomness in close-game performance, and Arsenal's terrible average will likely improve next season. But mediocrity in attack will still probably keep said average low.
Their biggest issue: no easy chances
Under Arteta, Arsenal have done well to establish some of the basics of the possession game: they average 6.4 passes per possession (fourth in the league) and 27.0 seconds per possession (second). Their direct speed (the average meters the ball progresses vertically in a given sequence) is the fourth-lowest behind possession-dominant Manchester City, Chelsea and Southampton. (Southampton is more possession-aspirant than possession-dominant under Ralph Hasenhuttl, but you get the idea.)
Arsenal also finish 42% of their possessions in the attacking third, fifth-best and up from 39% last season. But they've gotten to this point without creating any of the easy chances that the best teams in the league create. They begin only 6.8 possessions per match in the attacking third (11th), allow 14.2 passes per defensive action (12th) and allow 5.4 passes per opponent possession (13th). This is another way in which the aging core of attackers has not helped.
Even possession teams can occasionally spring scoring opportunities by completing a well-placed "long ball," but Arsenal rarely does that. They don't attempt many, like most possession-heavy teams (9% of their passes go 25+ yards, fifth-fewest in the league), but they also don't complete many of the ones they try either (46%, 10th). Granit Xhaka has been brilliant in this regard, completing 121 of 171 long balls this season (71%) -- among EPL players with at least 150 longball attempts, only Manchester City's Rodri (73%) has been more accurate -- but that only highlights how poor everyone else on the team has been.
One way or another, the best teams create easy scoring chances for themselves. Arsenal don't, and they would do it far less without Xhaka, who has likely been the team's most valuable player. He not only completes the most long balls, but he's also recorded by far the most ball recoveries and won more than 50% of his duels and aerials on a team that desperately needs all of those things. They are averaging 1.55 points per game in league play with him and 1.43 without. Their goal differential is +0.52 per match with him and -0.43 without. His absence in the meek, scoreless second leg of the Europa League semifinals against Villarreal -- he suffered a pre-match injury -- was clearly felt.
Xhaka is 28 years old, and his contract runs another two years. He is said to have a strong relationship with Arteta (it wouldn't be hard to see why), but his future with the club is murky.
But really, whose isn't?
How's this offseason going to go?
Despite middling results, financial losses, the embarrassing stink of the failed Super League venture and growing fan outrage, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, the club's owner, appears uninterested in selling the club anytime soon. They could do with a PR coup or two -- usually accomplished via some big-name talent acquisition -- but it's unclear how that might come about. They don't have as much spending power as some other big clubs, and Arsenal need to skew younger than most "big names" in their acquisitions anyway.
The best outcome of this offseason, then, would be the creation and execution of an actual plan. Conceiving of such a thing will likely require answering the following questions.
1. Who's leaving?
Various rumors suggest that 29-year-old goalkeeper Bernd Leno, 34-year-old center-back David Luiz (whose contract is finally expiring), 26-year-old right-back Hector Bellerin and perhaps some combination of Xhaka, Lacazette and Willian could either ask, or be asked, to leave. Loanees like midfielders Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Joe Willock, Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira could all end up making permanent moves away.
Moving Xhaka with two years left on his contract -- especially with the value he's created and the lack of midfield depth on the roster -- would probably be a mistake, but none of the others above are particularly irreplaceable. Lacazette, whose contract expires next year, has been productive this season, but not at a level that developing players like Nketiah (if retained), Balogun and Martinelli couldn't replace to some degree with more playing time.
1a. What about the Madrid duo?
Midfielders Dani Ceballos and mid-year addition Martin Odegaard are both on loan from Real Madrid; Ceballos, 24, has easily been one of the team's better players in his second year with the club, with an 87% pass completion rate and 27 chances created. Odegaard, 22, has alternated between inconsistency and moments of wonder.
Ceballos has declared his desire to move back to Spain and while Odegaard appears more open-minded, Real Madrid has declared they have no intention of selling him. The asking price would likely be far beyond Arsenal's range. Losing either or both of them, however, would further diminish depth in the midfield and assure that the club would need to acquire at least one possession-friendly midfielder.
2. Who's actually going to be part of the next great Arsenal team?
Last offseason, I said that it appeared Arsenal was at least three years from reaching any sort of Liverpool-esque peak window. It's safe to say that after a lost season, they're still three years away at the least, which means any sort of core they build needs to be made up of guys who will be within their generally accepted peak age (25 to 29, generally) three years or so from now.
Tierney and center-backs Rob Holding and Gabriel fit within that range; so does Nicolas Pepe, the perpetually tantalizing, 25-year-old winger whom Arsenal paid way too much for in 2019. Pablo Mari and Partey will both be 30 three years from now, but could obviously still be of use. Plus any number of the group of exciting young attackers -- Saka and Smith Rowe in particular -- could be in brilliant form despite still being short of their peak.
That's Arsenal's core if it chooses to accept it.
Is it good enough to compete for a Premier League title if the players involved develop properly? Probably not, but it wouldn't be too far off the pace.
4. Where are the biggest holes in creating that team?
There is a short-term hole to be addressed at goalkeeper if Leno leaves, and while Soares or perhaps Calum Chambers could take over at right-back if Bellerin leaves, they don't seem like long-term solutions.
The biggest holes, however, come in midfield. Arsenal needs at least one more high-quality passer to likely replace Ceballos and at 28, Xhaka likely isn't a long-term building block even if he does remain at the club next season. The academy has produced some exciting attackers, which could help Arsenal's high press and pressure numbers over time, but progressing the ball into dangerous areas is still a requirement, and it's unclear who would be particularly good at that. This should be priority number one.
To the club's credit, they seem to understand this. The Gunners have been linked to midfielders like Rennes' Eduardo Camavinga (18 years old), Brighton's Yves Bissouma (24) and Fulham's Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa in the transfer rumor mill. Camavinga would come with a massive price tag, but if you're looking to make a bold, PR-friendly gesture, that would be about the best place in the world to start.
Regardless of the names involved, simply showing the fruits of an actual plan would be a step in the right direction. We're used to Arsenal being seen as one of Europe's most progressive clubs, from the Gunners' push for more of a televised presence in the 1980s to the hiring of ultra-progressive Arsene Wenger in 1990s to the building of Emirates Stadium in the 2000s. But as they prepare for a fifth consecutive year without Champions League play -- and a first without any European play since 1996 -- the club's total lack of direction has never been more clear.