The second half of the 2020/21 Premier League season is underway. The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at Arsenal and what beckons them for the rest of the season.
The 2020/21 campaign in the Premier League has served us with plenty of amazing stories throughout the campaign. Arsenal’s adventures under Mikel Arteta, for one, has witnessed a roller-coaster of emotions, with certain dark undertones after an initial burst of optimism at the start of the campaign.
The club’s triumph in the FA Cup followed by an eventful summer transfer window sparked hopes of an Arsenal comeback into the top four scene following a frantic few years that ensued after the departure of Arsene Wenger. It was going to be the return of the old Arsenal, though, perhaps with a slightly different tactical ideology – one tethered towards a more balanced defensive approach rather than delightful, attacking football.
After all, the majestic defensive improvement under Mikel Arteta during the second half of last season was unmissable for any Arsenal fan. The Gunners continued on that path during the early stages of the campaign, notably adding a further crown to their FA Cup triumph by securing the FA Community Shield with a win over Liverpool.
Arsenal’s 16th Community Shield win was the first career title for:
— Cannon Insider (@CannonInsider) August 31, 2020
Three wins in their first four Premier League matches further exceeded the expectations as very few fans had actually hoped that the club would actually go on to compete for a top four finish. However, the early performances perhaps undermined the problems that started to surface in Arsenal’s tactical game as there was an evident lack of creativity.
Arteta’s approach of defensive solidity came at the expense of consistencies in the offensive unit. It was evident in the defeat to Manchester City and Leicester City that slowly kick-started their rapid fall in the Premier League table. While an excellent victory over Manchester United did minimise the damage, it was followed by a horrific run of seven league games without a win.
The poor run of form saw the Gunners tumble down to the wrong end of the league table, with the club even flirting with relegation at one point. During this period, Arsenal’s lack of creativity made them one of the most ineffective teams in the division in terms of offensive threat, which coincided with the terrible form of star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
It piled the pressure on Mikel Arteta, who, in an attempt of desperation, started to drift away from his defence-oriented setup by adopting a more attacking approach. He allowed the full-backs more freedom going forward while even installing a number ten by reverting to a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The move finally paid dividends against Chelsea on Boxing Day as Arsenal secured a famous 3-1 victory against Frank Lampard’s men. The win would go on to spark a sensational comeback that would see the Gunners register four wins in the next five league matches and a draw with Manchester United at the end of January.
Arsenal’s run has been derailed in recent weeks thanks to two back-to-back defeats against Wolves and Aston Villa. In addition, they have been knocked out of the FA Cup as well as the League Cup and are expected to face a strong challenge against SL Benfica in the Round of 32 of the UEFA Europa League later this month.
Despite their inconsistencies in the league, Arsenal have been quite competent in Europe, notably being the only side to register a hundred percent winning record in the group stages. Even during their poor run of form, the club managed to pull off convincing wins, although it is fair to point out they were not exactly dealt with stronger opposition and things could get much trickier when they take on Benfica next week.
It all adds up to a campaign that can be largely deemed as mediocre. While Arteta’s job remains safe for now, it will be up to him to repay the faith put on by the board by sparking a major comeback during the second half of the campaign.
In a season wherein experienced players in the likes of Granit Xhaka, Willian and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were supposed to propel Arsenal into the top, it is the youngsters who have carried the club’s hopes and objectives thus far.
Indeed, Arsenal do have one of the most successful academies in the league and there was already a lot of optimism surrounding Bukayo Saka heading into the campaign. But the way the Englishman has stepped up to the plate, offering the rare spark and creativity, is truly commendable.
In addition to Saka, Emile Smith Rowe is another player who has enjoyed his breakthrough into the first-team. A problem-solver in the number ten position, the youngster has linked up remarkably well with Saka, playing a key role in Arsenal’s recent renaissance.
Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli have come into the Arsenal side devoid of creativity & had a direct impact in 2 back to back wins in the #PL. I looked at what they offer in terms of movement & awareness. pic.twitter.com/aaT8KMffeo
— M (@watmanAFC) January 2, 2021
The two are set to become the face of the Arsenal side for years to come, especially as the Gunners brace themselves for the new era that has been catalyzed by the departure of Mesut Ozil.
Arsenal have found another unlikely hero in the shape of Alexandre Lacazette. A seemingly forgotten figure at the Emirates, the Frenchman has stepped up to the plate in recent months, making up for Aubameyang’s lack of form. He is, in fact, one of Arsenal’s main protagonists during the recovery period that started with a 3-1 win at Chelsea – a game that saw him score for the first time since September.
The forward would then go on to play a part in seven goals for Arsenal in the league and is currently their top scorer with eight league goals so far this campaign. Lacazette’s overall work-ethic and the desire to find the back of the net have made him a revelation under Arteta, with the former Lyon star even appearing as a better option than Aubameyang in the number nine role.
The Big Challenge
Amid all the positives, especially surrounding the influx of talented youngsters from the academy, Mikel Arteta has a long way to go before he can restore the club’s lost glory.
Addressing some of the problems, particularly from a tactical perspective, could go a long way in helping to build a foundation of a proper transition. The departure of fringe players like Mesut Ozil, Sead Kolasinac, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis certainly helped in reshaping the squad.
However, Arteta now needs to find an ideal harmony in the first-team. His biggest objective will be to help star players like Willian, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Hector Bellerin to find their best form. The team has thrived, at times, on the shoulders of youngsters like Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, so the return of form of these individuals could further strengthen the core of the Arsenal squad going forward.
From a tactical perspective, Arsenal have still lacked creativity and have not quite probed the opposition defences all too often. A bit more directness in the offensive play could, therefore, be imperative if they are to earn more consistent results, especially against relatively weaker sides.
In addition, the Gunners need to improve from set-pieces. They often fail to properly lay down their markers during a corner nick, leading to a shamble inside the box, ultimately allowing the opposition to have a lot of freedom to find the back of the net. This needs to be rectified if Arsenal are to further improve their defensive record.
Predicted Finish in 2020/21 Season: 10th
The reversal to a traditional 4-2-3-1 formation, coupled with the breakthrough of Emile Smith Rowe has sure helped become a more complete outfit. They can now create chances in the final third, but still remain one of the most ineffective offensive teams in the division, which is not helped by the fact that their star striker has scored just five goals in 19 matches.
Arsenal’s competitors in the Premier League are no slouch, with Leeds United, in particular, starting to find their mojo after a disappointing start to the year. The north London giants are currently 11th in the league and while we do expect them to finish ahead of the Whites in the final league table, they are unlikely to pip the likes of Aston Villa, Tottenham or Everton, who are far more complete teams.
Arsenal are still yet to face a bunch of top-quality teams which could further make it difficult for Arteta to guide his team into a top-eight finish during the second half of the campaign. As such, it won’t be surprising to see the club shift their attention towards the UEFA Europa League as they look to remain in Europe next season.