How Arsenal can improve next year, part 2

On Saturday I took the fewest notes of any football match I’ve watched this season, just 10 lines. Over half of those were from the first 19 minutes. After that, it was pretty clear what I was watching: the death gurgle of Arsenal’s season.

Before I start this, I’m going to warn you: some of you reflexively get mad at any criticism of Arsenal and go after any writer who has the temerity to point out any fault or slip. I get it, this is our tribe, some writer is attacking our tribe, let’s defend the tribe.

But I’m not an outsider, I’ve been writing nearly daily about Arsenal since 2008. I’ve been following Arsenal for over 24 years. When I criticize Arsenal it’s because I want more, I want us to win, I want us to play better football. In essence it comes from a place of love for the club, not hatred.

I also know the reality of the task: this season “ahead of schedule” Arsenal tried to defeat the state of Abu Dhabi and their club. A club which has been charged with 115 counts of financial doping and could still be expelled from the Premier League. They have the greatest players, the greatest manager, endless lawyers, a desire to make their cruel state look less evil than it is, and bottomless resources. That’s what Arsenal were up against. And we failed. In a pretty spectacularly bad way.

We were probably going to lose the title anyway. For most of the season I didn’t have that intense hopeful feeling that we were going to win the league like I felt in 2016, 2008, and 2003. Those were seasons which I thought we would do it but failed at the final hurdle. So it didn’t hurt me as much as it probably could have to lose this title. But it still hurts the way that we crashed and burned.

In the run in (these last 9 matches) where we needed to essentially win every match, we have taken 12/27 points. IF we win the last match of the season, and that’s a pretty big if at this point, we will have taken 15 of the final 30 points of the season. Meanwhile, City have taken 24/24 points – which includes two 4-1 wins over both Liverpool and Arsenal. And who would bet against them winning all their remaining games?

But weirdly, even with that in mind, I didn’t think of yesterday’s match as a dead rubber. I went into yesterday’s match thinking that Arsenal would want to win every match, that we’d want to get the best possible point tally. To really push City and let them know that we were serious title contenders, that we’d be back next year even better than before. And yet, Arteta’s lineup was the proverbial towel thrown into the ring and because I didn’t get it, it pissed me off to no end.

Arteta started with Trossard on the left, Kiwior as left back, Xhaka in the LCM, and Thomas Partey in the RB/DM role. I complained on twitter and was duly shut down: this was the manager experimenting with a dead rubber match. See, if I had been at all attuned to the myriad Arsenal blogs/media I would have known this. I also would have known that apparently we are selling Smith Rowe (who I wanted to start instead of Trossard) and Kieran Tierney (who I wanted to start instead of Kiwior). And worse: we are apparently keeping Thomas Partey (who I have wanted Arsenal to sell since last summer, a desire which has only grown stronger since he pulled his Denilson act in this run-in).

I was frustrated from the start, because I wanted us to win and not play the match as if it was a dead rubber, watching Partey have absolutely no clue what he was doing at RB. He was constantly running into the middle and not at all in the way that Arteta’s FB to DM system works. You could see Arteta screaming at him, because he would look back at Arteta and then book it back to where he was supposed to be – just before jetting off to the wrong place again. He did eventually figure it out, but I think it was because Arteta told him to play almost entirely RB.

And because Kiwior is not even remotely a LB, the entire left side of Arsenal’s attack was utterly impotent. No amount of special blue pills was going to save that. Xhaka had 16 touches in the first half and I didn’t even bother to check how many of them were from set plays. Everything ran through Saka and for a club like Forest, who want to sit deep and absorb pressure, that was perfect.

It was a bold plan from Arteta: play no one on the left who can advance the ball and play a DM in an unfamiliar RB position. But again, why am I complaining? This was a dead rubber match. To quote Bill Paxton in Aliens “Game over man, GAME OVER. Now what the fuck are we supposed to do?”*

Now what the fuck are we supposed to do is the question of the decade isn’t it? I wrote about how we could get better the other day and here I am after watching that performance against Forest thinking that maybe we can’t actually challenge City. I mean, won’t they all be better next season? Won’t City be better, Chelsea, Liverpool, Newcastle, and Man U?

When people would go on the national podcasts (you know the ones) and boldly proclaim that Arsenal were the favorites for the title I would shake my head. No we weren’t. I may have repeated it but I never felt it. I’m sorry.

Ok, that’s not entirely true. I felt it briefly in the first half against Liverpool. When we were 2-0 up.

I will never forget, sitting there in Seattle at Sakuracon, while Clyde was doing some kind of panel, looking out over a misty Seattle morning and thinking that we could actually do this thing. I thought we were going to beat Liverpool and beat them handily and that that would be the spark which we needed to challenge City. I felt that right up to the point where Xhaka elbowed Trent in the head. Then they went down and scored and I thought “oh fuck”.

And from that point on, you have to admit, this has been a mental collapse by this team. “Two-nil and we fucked it up.”

I guess the post I wrote the other day was my logical brian speaking: do these things, improve the depth of the team, and you will improve the team and possibly challenge for the League again next year. But this post is my emotional brain speaking: unless we find a way to be more ruthless and to stay emotionally mature throughout the entire season, there is no chance we will win the League.

So, while the post the other day had a prescription of “buy this, do that and you’ll challenge for the League” this post has a very different prescription: learn from this season. Learn how it felt when we were on the verge of doing it and next time don’t give in to that wave of emotion. Don’t elbow Trent in the head needlessly. Don’t lose your shit three games before the big showdown with City (twice).

You have to have the personnel to beat City, that is true. But you also have to have the belief that you can beat City, without it, all is lost.


*In the background the corporate slime ball is suggesting we “build a fire, sing a couple of songs”.


  1. I am slightly heartened by the learning we seemed to do from last season’s disappointing finish to be much better this season. The nature of collapse was similar but not as bad. Maybe the team is just better this year so the losses are draws now but I really think adding Declan Rice will make a big difference – he does seem to be a leader in a positive way and not a fight you way like Xhaka.

    Also, if we add 3 starting-level players to this team like we did last year, we will be very good again.

    Last thing, our starting 11 hasn’t had much practice in “big games” bc they don’t come around that often in the league and we have been tanking the cups the past 2 season. Hopefully, champions league games provide some of that “big game experience” we seem to be lacking.

    1. I think that’s a great point as to “big game experience” and tanking the cups. I suspect the answer to this problem, like the answer to many of this side’s problems this season, is greater depth.

  2. “I felt it briefly in the first half against Liverpool”
    I connect with this statement sooo much. I’m the optimist in my little group of arsenal supporters so i had been saying for weeks prior we would win it or see you at the parade but I never really believed it until 2-0 at anfield.

    For the first time it really seemed to open up and I felt like we could do it. After the game all the rationalizations of it being Anfield etc. felt hollow. We didnt believe them and I don’t think the players did either. They’ve looked different since then.

    Don’t know that I believe even with a great summer we close that gap but I guess it’s up to the team to make us believe and hopefully convince themselves along the way. They did it once eh?

  3. I’m very happy with where we finished. Not at all happy with how we’ve finished, particularly in these last two matches.
    I get it, the Forest match was basically a dead rubber for us, and Forest were always going to be more motivated, being at home and wanting to avoid relegation.
    But that was a weird lineup and it honestly looked like they hadn’t even practiced it. The fact that Xhaka barely had a sniff was a good barometer. Normally even if there’s not an end product, he at least helps keep things moving.
    Not a bad time to experiment, but not sure why if he was going to experiment, he didn’t give some time to players such as ESR and Tierney that haven’t had much, rather than shuffling the usual suspects into unfamiliar roles. I think that combined with the dead rubber match ended up with us looking like we weren’t putting in a lot of effort.
    Hoping for something a little more positive against Wolves at home rather than looking like two teams already on the beach.
    Then looks to me like a pretty major clear out. We need to get Saliba signed, sort the midfield, get a backup to Saka, and an alternative to Jesus.

    1. Replace Xhaka, sell Thomas, get a CDM who isn’t being investigated for three rapes, get a backup for Tomi, get a replacement for Tierney, get in a backup keeper.

      1. I agree with the first part. Scuttlebutt linking us with Gundogan…he’s sort of a possible replacement for where Xhaka has been playing. But he’s older than Xhaka, not sure that makes sense even on a free.
        I might be willing to gamble on Tomi staying healthy given our other needs and the fact that he’s pretty good and versatile when healthy.
        I’m not sure I think Tierney needs replacing, but it’s apparent Arteta thinks he does.
        I’d put Saka backup and Jesus alternative as much higher than a different backup keeper. I’m not convinced that Nketiah is good enough at getting in behind or holdup play to provide the needed alternative. Balogun might be, but he also might demand to be #1 starter somewhere.

      2. Hello Tim, I don’t have any information on the investigation led against Partey. You seem to have little doubt about his guilt. The Mendy affair showed us that sometimes those cases are emptier than we think. And it is a well known fact that those footballers are easy preys for sex based scams. I hurry to say that those young, rich, mostly uneducated footballers are not unlikely to think that any woman they fancy is theirs. Anyway, did you reach a level of certainty about Partey’s behaviour? Or would you rather dismiss him just because he is “tainted”?

        1. I’ve heard all this, I understand your position. I disagree with it strongly. I want him out of the club. I don’t think I have to justify my position or argue it because just like I’ve heard your arguments from hundreds of people, you’ve heard mine.

          Even if he was a world class DM I’d want him out of the club, but he’s isn’t and there is literally nothing I want more than for Arsenal to either sell him or buy him out of his contract.

    2. I was really disappointed in Arteta’s lineup. For many of the reasons Tim pointed to: No ESR?! More Partey?! Playing Xhaka in an away match if we are going to sell him? I feel pretty confident we will sell Tierney, so less disappointed in that particular no-play. I wanted to see the side play like the pre-Liverpool Arsenal, and this was a great opportunity to restore that confidence in the team. It went missing.

      It’s hard to not to view it as questionable management by Arteta, but maybe Arteta and the supporters have divergent interests in a dead-rubber match presenting an opportunity to try something new. It didn’t come off though – at all. I agree that it didn’t look like the team was really invested in MA’s experiment – either because they didn’t practice, or because Arteta couldn’t motivate them and the late season collapse had sapped them of purpose and motivation.

  4. Excellent post, Tim. I can sign off on every. single. word. 82% ball possession, and what exactly did we do with it? Extremely frustrating game (well, the last few weeks really with the exception of the game against Newcastle), and the season for me went from “I fell in love with Arsenal all over again” to “F this, why do I even care?”. I never liked Arteta, and I was always vocal about it. I couldn’t stand him as a player (back and sideway passes is all I remember from his Arsenal days) but I despised him even more as a manager in the first 2.5 years with the club. This season I thought he finally proved me wrong. But as it turns out, it was all smoke and mirrors. As someone else said, the title is lost in the first 8 games of the season (think Liverpool), and won in the last 8 (think City). Very true. We definitely overachieved, and were somewhat lucky early in the season. But complacency, lack of plan B, and weak mentality finally caught up with us. Some of it could be attributed to injuries (e.g. Saliba). Some of it to underperforming players (e.g. Vieira). But most of it is on the manager. He’s the one who puts the starting XI out on the pitch. He’s the one who should be rotating the squad properly. He’s the one who decided to crash out of all comps to concentrate on the league. He’s the one who should be motivating the players when they are down. Well, guess what? There are no trophies for having the youngest squad in the league. There are no trophies for spending the most days at the top of the table. So in the end, we had our dreams and hopes crushed because of arrogance and incompetence of our own Mikel Arteta. Some may disagree but I feel like this was our “Leicester City moment/season”. Tim is right in that teams like Chelsea, Spurs, ManU, Newcastle, and even Villa and Brighton are only gonna get better, and it will be tougher to get points off of them. We got 6 pts from Chelsea, 6 from Spurs, and 4 from Pool this season. When was the last time it happened, and will it ever happen again? I don’t know. But it sure does feel like this was our golden opportunity, and we blew it.

    1. I’m going to take a bit more nuanced position on Arteta.

      1. Loved him as a player
      2. I hated his first 18 months at Arsenal and I was pretty vocal about it.
      3. I think he is still kind of an a-hole but I also know that he LOVES the club and is working his ass off to improve himself, his staff, and the players.
      4. My take right now on Arteta is that he’s actually quite a good coach who know how to play juego de posicion and Arsenal have blossomed under that tutelage. We have the best high press in the League and he does stuff that no other coach does right now.
      5. What we are suffering from a bit is the “new coach tax” in which he makes errors and we end up paying the price. If Pep was Arsenal’s coach in the ruin in, I think we would have won the League. He would have made it happen.
      6. The question for me is can he improve tactically? Can he find a way to beat City? I believe he can.
      7. The other question is that given how emotional he is, is that infecting the team? And more importantly, can he learn to scale his own emotions back and bring more stability to the team? That one I’m less sure about.

      1. Pep got a lot of crap for trying weird formations in critical matches. Arteta mostly has avoided that, except when forced into change by injuries, or in this last match. But it’s also meant that since we went out of all the non PL comps reasonably early, most of the non first string got little time. Pep has rotated a lot with the exception of the Goal Viking, who has stayed healthy (take away even half of his goals and City are behind us on GD). We need more depth, and the depth needs to play. Otherwise we’ll keep having this risk of injuries derailing the season, regardless of the tactics.

        What I really worry about is the motivation issue. The Arsenal women have had far worse injuries and have still competed at a very high level. If McCabe makes the PK yesterday, they could have gone on to beat Chelsea. And they lost out on making the CL final by a goal in the last minute of extra time. Arteta needs to get the men to play like that, which seldom seems to be the case.

  5. “I also know the reality of the task: this season “ahead of schedule” Arsenal tried to defeat the state of Abu Dhabi and their club. A club which has been charged with 115 counts of financial doping and could still be expelled from the Premier League.”

    Amidst the disappointment let’s not forget this. If any team is going to beat this financially doped and morally bankrupt City team, they will have to have extraordinary luck, lots of experience, and major depth. We have none of these. City has been built over 10 years to get to that level. Full of established players and tons of depth. Last summer, Artedu didn’t sit down and say, “Let’s win the title this year.” Instead, they wanted to build a team that would return to the Champion’s League. Those are completely different propositions. To win the league vs the City juggernaut, you need more experience and more depth than we have. It’s that simple. When the stars aligned and we were leading the league, we took our shot, but the odds were always long. It’s like planning for a dinner for 4 people. You buy a small chicken to roast and some vegetables and maybe some potatoes. Then you get a call after you put the chicken in the oven saying that 4 more people are coming. You run to the store and buy another chicken that’s already cooked. It’s seasoned differently, and maybe some grab some stuff to make a salad, but it’s a bit of a hodgepodge and if everything goes perfectly you can pull it off. But you don’t have quite enough potatoes to go around and the two chickens taste different and the salad doesn’t quite feel like it was meant to be part of the meal. And everyone eats, but it’s not the elegant meal that was meant for 4. This is what happened to Arsenal.

    We ran out of right CB’s. Our top guy and his backup both got hurt. What team other than City can weather that? We even managed to survive without our starting striker for a long time. To be fair, it was amazing we didn’t fade earlier. I got sucked in and started to believe, but always had that nagging doubt.

    This season was never supposed to be about winning the title. We need another 5-6 players to do that, and we need everyone to stay healthy, and we need City to struggle a bit. That’s a tall order – and it wasn’t the goal we had in mind when we built this team. Next season’s team should have those additional players and it will be built with the objective to contend for the title in PL and CL. And we’ll probably need another season or two to have a real shot. But maybe – with a lot of luck – we’ll be in position to fight City till the final week of the season, because we’ll be building with that in mind.

    1. “This season was never supposed to be about winning the title.”

      This is the kind of attitude/view that annoys the crap out of me. Do you think that Leicester City players woke up the next day after barely escaping relegation, and said to themselves “We’re gonna win Premier League title next season?” They’d be happy with top 10 finish. They’d probably kill to just be in the top 4. But they won. They did it. So it wasn’t their goal until it became their goal. They saw an opportunity, and they seized it. Grabbed it with their arms, legs, and teeth. We? We blew it. Plain and simple.

      1. This is the kind of nuanced “We bottled it!” analysis that annoys me. Unicorn did it so we should have too! Please. Everything that could have gone LCFC’s way in terms of player health pretty much happened when they won the title. We lost our top CB and his backup. Without Saliba’s legs to cover the ground and make goal saving interventions, we were vulnerable. And LCFC didn’t have City’s team of 25,000 to contend with. But yeah, we bottled it.

        1. Yeah, LCFC overperformed xG and xPTS by one of the largest margins since we’ve been keeping those metrics. It’s also important to note that Arsenal lost Cazorla to a foot rotting infection which absolutely derailed us that season. And Giroud was benched by Wenger at a critical time of the year and Arsenal had one of the biggest underperformances since we’ve been keeping those stats as well.

          Leicester overperformed xGA by +9, and points by -12!
          Arsenal underperformed xG by +9 and xPTS by +6.

          It was truly a miracle season for them.

  6. This is such a great post. Congratulations!

    I believe this this year’s PL was lost, given away, to Man City, due to our giving up 9 points in April, forget about what happened this month, forget about financial doping. We beat financial doping back in February. All we had to was NOT lose our $h!t. Which we did. Spectacularly.

    I’ve read the comments. Sensible, cogent tactically, but ultimately irrelevant to reality. We could not keep our $h!t together in the run in.

    Despite injury, we had more than enough talent NOT to lose.

    End of.

    1. Not sure what you mean about beating them in Feb…we played them more closely in Jan and Feb, but still lost both matches.
      And they have turned it up a notch since then. We had an 8 point lead, but assuming they beat us and win their game in hand, we only have a 2 pt lead. That was always going to be a pretty narrow margin, and mean that we had to be pretty much perfect. Granted, we have kind of lost our $h!t, and I hate it as it means we didn’t really push them. But I’m also not sure that this team was going to finish things nearly perfectly, as seems to be what would have been called for. In some ways, I’d say the real problem was the loss at Everton, well before this end of the season slump. Win that and we would have been way ahead before facing City.

  7. What we are supposed to do is hand Ripley some duct tape, a flamethrower and a pulse rifle.
    And if that doesn’t stop City, get her onto a Loader.

  8. City went from formidable but a bit boring and a bit erratic to magnificent, creative, ruthless and hyper committed. We went from creative, unexpected, fluid, fearless to destabilised, disorganised, lacking belief but still talented. Our lines crossed: they went up, we went down because of our lack of depth. What we achieved was extraordinary. We almost built enough lead to keep them at bay. It was a question of a couple of referee decisions, a couple of wounds.
    We can build further. By design or by luck, we have four 100 mil euros + guys in Martinelli, Saka, Odegaard and Saliba. We need to surround them with more talent and all will be well. Arteta learnt from his many mistakes and I guess he will keep doing that. He has my trust until he proves me wrong.
    I look forward to seeing the next season unfold.

  9. Last year I had said that it was 3rd or bust for me. While we were a lot better than 3rd, the sad whimper in the end and crashing out of all cup competitions still feels quite like a bust.

    Nevertheless, it does feel like the jury’s still out on Arteta. So I’ll go out on a limb and say that next year we should be AT LEAST within 5 points of top of the table, if not at the top of the table.

    Given it’s been such a big hoodoo for this club over the years, progression beyond last 16 in Champions league combined with a finish within 5 points of the top would be enough for me next year.

    Beyond that, things are indeed fine margins of refereeing, weather, injuries, etc. The thing about CIty is that they have absolutely minimised the bollix out of any inherent randomness in their performances, which frankly as a stats guy i find scary. It’s one of those rare things that almost never happen by spontaneous chance but rather by (cruel) design.

  10. Lot of good football this season, some of it was otherworldly. Can’t help but feel that the last few ‘shocking’ losses are a result of the balloon of expectation being pricked. They team can be better for it, if the club spends even more money. Which is a pretty dumb un-inspiring solution if you grew up on the ‘build smart’ myth like I did, but pretty much the only one in this league, until it gets a CBA.

    Seems like we might have to spend even more than anticipated, if we’re effectively replacing 66% of our starting midfield. Expectations are entering the stratosphere. I think Arteta can handle it, let’s hope the Kroenkes can.

  11. listen, the world have never seen a team with the depth of man city. they have two players who are good enough to be starters on a championship-winning team in each position. however, man city’s depth compared to arsenal’s is not the reason arsenal failed to win the league; only 2 of arsenal’s 38 league games were against man city. arsenal failed because they didn’t win the games that champions are supposed to win.

    man city’s quality depth make them seem super-human as a team. it’s why i’ve given them titles like the terminator or the borg. they’re only part human. the rest of that team are like machines. their ability to go on a run at the end of the season is unreal. arsenal just needed to maintain their consistency.

    leicester city didn’t have a deep team when they won the league. the 2 games they lost to arsenal that season didn’t matter as they only played arsenal in 2 of their 38 league games. the difference between leicester city in 2016 and arsenal in 2023 is that leicester city were consistent; they won the games they were expected to win. they didn’t drop 4 of 6 points to the bottom team like arsenal did this season. at crunch time, they didn’t lose to a team like everton or nottingham forest; two teams scratching to survive relegation. they won the games they were supposed to win and arseanl drew or lost some of those games.

    1. I believe leicester had all their important players fit all tru the season.tho I see your point @joshuad but what could be if we had Saliba all tru and Jesus never missing 3months

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