Gunner Thoughts

What was, what could have been, what could still be

As Arsenal fans celebrate Invincibles Day, we take a look at that season, what could have happened this season, and what still could happen. Happy Invincibles Day, Gooners!

It would be impossible for any Arsenal blog to write a piece today and not mention the completion of a campaign that immortalized an Arsenal squad, and saw them go from league title winners into Invincibles. 26 wins, 12 draws, 0 losses – the only team to complete this feat in the Premier League era.

It’s a fitting year to talk about this and celebrate after Liverpool threatened for the longest time to repeat the act, although, I wonder what would have happened had they beat Watford and the season would have reached this suspended point. If the season was curtailed and Liverpool were still undefeated, you can imagine their fans would have declared themselves invincible as well, asterisk or not. Many have already spent a good bit of their season comparing the two teams in an attempt to declare Arsenal’s feat, and how they accomplished it, unimpressive.

Yet here we are, at what would have been the end of another season and no team has repeated the feat. Arsenal fans across the world can remember Thierry Henry’s 30 goals, the team’s impressive 21 clean sheets, Arsene Wenger being named Manager of the Year, and a full season without a bad result in the Premier League in peace for another season.

Everton2:1 W
Middlesbrough FC4:0 W
Aston Villa2:0 W
Manchester City2:1 W
Portsmouth FC1:1 D
Manchester United0:0 D
Newcastle United3:2 W
Liverpool FC2:1 W
Chelsea FC2:1 W
Charlton Athletic1:1 D
Leeds United4:1 W
Tottenham Hotspur2:1 W
Birmingham City3:0 W
Fulham FC0:0 D
Leicester City1:1 D
Blackburn Rovers1:0 W
Bolton Wanderers1:1 D
Wolverhampton Wanderers3:0 W
Southampton FC1:0 W
Everton FC1:1D
Middlesbrough FC4:1W
Aston Villa2:0W
Manchester City2:1W
Wolverhampton Wanderers3:1 W
Southampton FC2:0 W
Chelsea FC2:1 W
Charlton Athletic2:1W
Blackburn Rovers2:0 W
Bolton Wanderers2:1 W
Manchester United1:1 D
Liverpool FC4:2 W
Newcastle United0:0 D
Leeds United5:0 W
Tottenham Hotspur2:2 D
Birmingham City0:0 D
Portsmouth FC1:1 D
Fulham FC1:0 W
Leicester City2:1 W

Today also marks, what would have been, the end of this tumultuous 2019/20 season for the Gunners. But as poor as it has been – and it HAS been poor – it leaves this optimistic Arsenal fan with things to look forward to. Arsenal made the right choice in moving on from Emery, even if it was much later than many would have liked, and brought in Mikel Arteta, who has given life back to the Emirates.

In his short time here, Arsenal have seen a manager that says all the right things, is capable of conveying the message he wants to the team and fans, is steadfast in his beliefs around how a team and club should operate, and is reaping the benefits early on. There is still a long, long way to go in this rebuilding project, as Olympiacos so painfully reminded the North London club, but early signs of success have seen Arteta rise up and become a leader of the pack.

Almost immediately, despite having only a few inconsistent training sessions, the Arsenal side picked up the pace, moved the ball faster, looked to attack with it, pressed without it, and pushed the game into the opposition’s half. It was something supporters hadn’t seen in a long time and was an identity that everyone could get behind. It’s far from a finished product, but no fan will turn their nose up at being unbeaten in the Premier League since the beginning of 2020.

Play was better, results were consistently better despite a large amount of draws, the bleeding had stopped, and the atmosphere was starting to return – until the suspension. I think it is hard to argue that this suspension will have taken the wind from Arsenal’s sails. I cannot predict if that will be the case if things return, but it stopped a team that was going places.

In a breakdown of Arteta’s impact, Arsenal talked about the team covering more distance – 109km/90 compared to 107.6 under Emery – which may seem small, but has shown what that extra effort can create. They have 7 clean sheets under Arteta, have only conceded 12 goals, face 5 or more shots on goal in only 30% of their matches versus 60% under Emery. To add to all of that, there is a clear identity and pattern of play within the side that flows relatively smoothly with the ebb and flow of the game. Transitioning from defending to attacking is smooth, although I would like to see someone in the midfield step up as a ball carrier capable of driving at the defense and through the middle section of the field. Guendouzi? Joe Willock next year as an eight? I’ll let Mikel work on that.

All in all, it is fair to be a little disappointed in the timing of this suspension. In a conversation with Ian Wright, Arteta has assured fans this period of time has been anything but a break for him and the players. Team meetings, group meetings, individual meetings – Arteta is using this time to understand his players and staff better. It’s something he didn’t have the chance to do when he was hired and immediately launched into having a game every 3 days.

The optimism we draw form that initial period can still carry forward as we look to what could be coming. With Arsenal currently in 9th place in the table and 5 points back from 5th place, there is a chance to make a late run should games resume, but much of the damage to Arsenal’s chances this year has already been done. Not to mention, the road to the finish is far from easy:

  • Manchester City
  • Brighton Hove & Albion
  • Southampton
  • Norwich
  • Wolverhampton Wolves
  • Leicester
  • Tottenham
  • Liverpool
  • Aston Villa
  • Watford

There are certainly games there to be won, and certainly some daunting fixtures that will test this team, but the pressure should be off. The season is what it is from the perspective of ‘sporting integrity’ and the switching of managers, that Arteta should feel the freedom to test his team in the right places. Continuing to give youth players a chance, looking to get more from players like Pepe, Ozil, and Lacazette, fine tuning the backline, and testing out Pablo Mari.

The best chance at getting back into the Europa League would be through the FA Cup and what a symbolic cup win that would be. Not only to salvage the season to a minor extent, but to allow Arteta to get a piece of silverware under his belt this early would do wonders for him and the supporters.

Should we be allowed to continue, there is no saying what “Arsenal” will take the field. Rusty and out of form seems most likely for every team, but the ability to continue to give Arteta game experience before next year when his test truly begins, can’t be undervalued.

We may not get the chance to be Invincible this year, or the next, or the ones after those, but we can still celebrate the feat our club once achieved while looking forward to the growing pains ahead. It will be filled with ups and downs, but there is plenty to hold onto for hope. Enjoy the day, all you Invincibles.

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