2023/24 Season Review: the rattlesnake

For the last five years I have kept a hand-written diary of every Arsenal football match that I watch. Each year I buy a new notebook and in it I keep notes on what went well, what went wrong, the joys and failures, and any observations I might have. I’ve found these journals useful for long-term archiving my impressions – ones that I didn’t always share here – but also as a quick way to remind myself of how Arsenal played and some of the weird shit that happened during the season.

I used to put a quote from Arsene Wenger on the first page, something like “I am the thunder protector”, or “an Island called Arsenal”, but this year, in keeping with our less poetic and more prosaic manager, I simply put “options.”

Options was what I felt Arteta was looking for when he splurged on Declan Rice, Kai Havertz, Jurrien Timber, and even David Raya in the summer before the season started. Rice can play the 4 and the 8. Havertz can play the 9, 11, 7, and the 8. Timber can play both as a fullback and as a midfielder. And David Raya.. uhh.. he kicks better? He does kick better. He also saves better. So I guess not really an option but if we go back to Arteta’s statements about why we bought him, it was for competition and that is sort of like an option?

Under “options” I also wrote two questions: “will Martinelli get an assist from a corner?” (spoiler, he wouldn’t) and “how do we replace Xhaka’s goal contributions?” (spoiler, from Kai Havertz. But also from Declan Rice.) The questions aren’t meant to be taken seriously (though I do, a bit). I don’t really care if Nelli gets an assist off a corner or if we directly replace Xhaka’s goal contributions with another player’s exact numbers. The more important thing is winning games and playing well. These questions are merely there to make me smile, because they are the questions people sometimes ask me in earnest, and with all of the belief that they do have deep meaning when they usually do not.

August 6 – The FA Emirates Cup Community Shield presented by Climate Change

The season started in the sun at Wembley and for the next two months, 10 matches, Arsenal would go undefeated in all competitions.

To kick off the season, the referees were instructed to pay special attention to time wasting and managers leaving their box but NOT professional fouls which Manchester City used on the opening day to stop Arsenal from counter attacking. In what will be a theme this season, Saka was kicked ruthlessly for the next two months and refs do little to nothing about it. Saka was forced off twice with minor injuries from August to September; on opening day after concerted foul play by City and then he also needed to be rested after the Spurs match where Udogie fouled him multiple times (eventually falling on Saka’s leg and forcing the England player to be subbed off) and he was also fouled late in the game against Bournemouth.

The other dumb-ass idea that the Premier League came up with at the start of the season was to hand out more yellow cards for… violent conduct? No. Professional fouls? Nope. Taking two seconds on a throw in!

This idea of handing out yellow cards for slow throws-ins will eventually get dropped after Tomiyasu is famously sent off in the match against Palace. This highlights a problem with the Laws of the game; they are almost all just vibes-based laws (refs have to judge intent and so on) and as a result when football’s zeitgeist picks up on some new offence that pundits feel is “killing the game” the refs are told to watch that more closely and punish it more often. This leads to crazy referee decisions, like sending off a player for holding on to the ball for 3 seconds, or how the start of the 2020-21 season they decided to call any contact (below the waist) in the box a foul and award a penalty kick. The laws of the game aren’t perfect but this constant tinkering with their interpretation in order to appease whiney Gammons is actually, literally, killing my enjoyment of the game. How anyone could watch the Tomiyasu red card on a throw in and enjoy the game is beyond comprehension. You can hate-watch it and I totally get that. But that’s not the same as enjoying the football.

What I enjoyed about the first 10 matches of the season was how Arteta brought Rice and Havertz into his system. Folks who complained from the start or who thought that these two players weren’t good enough must have really enjoyed the transformation of these two players over the course of the season.

At the 40th minute of the opening match (Charity Shield) against Man City I notice that Arsenal are controlling possession in the City half and muse that “this is where we are going to be good”. Partly informed by some videos I’d watched earlier in the summer about Declan Rice’s playing style, I feel like Arsenal are going to keep Rice in the 4, let him sweep up any counters and hem the opposition in so that we can dance around and eventually score.

This is something I sort of got right and sort of wrong. Rice does play this role sometimes (and he is crazy good at it) but Arteta also played him in a more advanced role on the left (“options!). In that way, Rice is a lot like Arsenal’s feisty former captain, Patrick Vieira. He’s a powerhouse of a midfielder who can get forward and score or assist but also is just about inch perfect in almost every physical challenge.

Oh, and as an aside “who will replace Xhaka’s goal contributions???” Well, it turns out that Rice did that (Xhaka had 7 goals and 7 assists with us in his last year) and Kai Havertz added 20 (13 goals, 7 assists). So, I have to give credit to the recruitment and management at Arsenal: they fucking nailed those two transfers.

My other observation from these first 10 matches is about Kai Havertz. At the start of the season he looked lost in the Arsenal system. Against Fulham I wrote “Do Havertz and Martinelli even practice together? He’s been actively bad today. Turnovers, bad passes, offsides, missing easy shots. He’s just often in the wrong place, making the wrong pass, or even not shooting when he should. It’s weird.”

As the season went on, however, his class and intelligence shone through and he started clicking with Martinelli and literally anyone else who played on that side of the pitch. It may have helped that Arteta also put Rice in the 8 or maybe Havertz just started “getting it”. But whatever the reason, he started to really shine in the Arsenal system and as the fans like to point out, was definitely not money down the drain.

October to December, Arsenal’s fall

Arsenal kicked off October with a 1-2 loss to Lens. I have no notes from this game because I watched while at work. I remember that Lens made it difficult for us to get our game going and that they scored two goals from virtually nothing. Perhaps the problem with match against Lens is that the Arsenal were mentally preparing for the next two matches: City and Chelsea.

The City match was largely uneventful. Arteta, I believe, intentionally set up in a way to limit what City could do and unfortunately, that meant that Arsenal were also limited. The xG for that match bears that out: 0.4 for Arsenal and 0.5 for City. We kept Man City to just 4 shots. That is a masterclass in pressure from the Arsenal. In my notes, I put “looking great in pressure but nervous in possession.”

I also mention the referees again. This time Kovacic hits Odegaard with a studs up tackle from behind which was reviewed by VAR and decided that it wasn’t red-card worthy. When I first started watching football this type of tackle was actually legal but was banned in about 2002 if I recall. Memory is hazy this far back!

The Premier League made a big deal of banning this kind of tackle from behind and all of the commentators at the time mentioned how it would be an automatic red card because of how dangerous it is to tackle someone’s achilles. But I guess that 22 years later, it’s AOK to rake someone’s achilles.

Six minutes later Kovacic flew in and crunched Rice’s ankle. It was a sign of frustration from City, Arsenal were stifling them and they wanted to push the limit physically in response. Referee Michael Oliver decided that it wasn’t worthy of a 2nd yellow and the on-air commentators backed him up saying “he doesn’t want to decide the game.” The logic of this statement is completely bonkers: Kovacic is the one deciding the game by flying in crazily while on a yellow card. The referee, by NOT giving a yellow, is actually now “deciding the game” because he is giving one team a huge break for their foul play. Michael Oliver and the VAR crew would have further say in the game when Kyle Walker was caught punching Eddie Nketiah in the back and did nothing about it. Walker also tried to punch Arsenal’s set piece coach after the match because he’d tried to shake his hand. City were rattled by Arsenal.

After the match, Arteta was BEAMING. He’s a defense-first coach. He wants his teams to be solid defensively first and then to attack and I’d argue that Guardiola is the same way. Which is 99% of the reason why they both play “juego de posicion” and why they have such a great press. But Arteta was the happier of the two because I think Arsenal did more to control that match than City did. The student had outfoxed the old master.

After a good win over City where we controlled their game plan, we then went to Chelsea and got what looked to be a bit of a lucky draw, snatching two goals late after a dominant Chelsea performance. I put down that Poch had totally outcoached Arteta in the first half; blocking off Arsenal’s wide play and then pressuring us in the middle. Arteta made a change – subbing off Zin for Tomi – and unfortunately we didn’t get the immediate boost we needed because Mudryk scored a lucky chip to make it 2-0. But Arsenal clawed their way back in and started to take control of the game, especially after Arteta took off Jesus – who I said looked like he was playing with a hangover – and put on the more energetic Eddie Nketiah. Rice got one and Trossard another. In what would become a bit of a theme: Trossard popped up with a crucial goal.

Arsenal then went and won at Sevilla – despite them virtually constantly fouling – and followed that up with a huge win over Sheffield United (5-0) which my notes say “Chill”. The Sheffield United match is notable for Tomiyasu’s first Arsenal goal and for Nketiah’s first hat trick! It also saw Vieira tackled from behind, on the achilles, and again the Premier League decided that was only worth a yellow.

Then there’s the Newcastle match.

Newcastle didn’t come to play a football match, they came to box. Joelinton, Wilson, and Guimares all just punched, shoved, or elbowed Arsenal. And the referee Stuart Attwell and VAR Andy Madley were either too afraid to make the right calls or there is something more sinister at play. Bruno Guimares literally elbowed Jorginho in the head. There was no “accident” here. He looked, he saw Jorginho, he raised his elbow, and elbowed him in the head – intentionally. There are no “vibes-based” ways to make that an innocent action. It’s a red card. There should be no question and the League even later admitted that Guimares should have been sent off.

And that isn’t even discussing how, the fuck, Newcastle were allowed to score. Where the ball clearly went out of play, Joelinton clearly fouled Gabriel, and then handled the ball over to an offside Anthony Gordon. This was a travishamockery of a set of decisions. And again, I want to point out that the referees – who so often say “they don’t want to decide the games” – literally decided this game by awarding the cheating team a goal. All that I write in the notes after the 65th minute is “fuck the Premier League.”

How to cleanse the palate after that? Well, Arsenal beat Sevilla 2-0 in North London thanks to goals from Trossard and Saka. The first goal was an old-school Wengerball goal – splitting pass (throughball, which have gone out of favor these days, sadly) from Jorginho to Saka, who rolled it to Trossard who had no choice but to score. A delightful set of “caviar” passes as Thierry Henry would have called them back in my day.

Next up, Arsenal defeated Burnley at home 3-1 in a match which was notable for a few things. First, Trossard opened the Arsenal accounts with a goal. It was the 1000th Arsenal home goal in the Premier League. The 1st was scored by none other than Gilberto and the 500th was scored by Arteta. So, there you go, a trivia answer! Trossard also added an assist from the left side corner. Arsenal hadn’t had an assist from the left side for several years (not an exaggeration, Martinelli used to take them and rarely even generated a shot much less an assist) and funnily enough I had in my opening notes for this match “over 50% of goals from set plays???” and “will Nelli get an assist from a corner?” The answer to the first is yes, the second is no. Trossard’s assist went to William Saliba who scored his 4th Arsenal goal on his 50th appearance for the club.

As November came to a close and the Christmas season loomed in the future, Arsenal traveled to Brentford and pulled out a 1-0 win thanks to a Saka cross for a Havertz header. Highlights of this match were David Raya on the bench eating a candy bar and one of the coaches showing Neal Maupay some pictures. We don’t know for sure what was in the photographs but I did speculate that they were images of other people scoring goals. “This is how you do it Neal! Put your foot through the ball, aim it for the area of the pitch with the net!”

To close out the month, Arsenal beat Lens 6-0. I stopped taking notes at half-time when we were up 5-0.


It’s an oddity of the movement of the planets that winter doesn’t officially start in the Northern hemisphere until December 21st. And yet, if you ask most folks “when does Winter start” they’d say late November. We do the same with spring and summer: with most folks confusing “summer” for late May when it’s actually late June. Of course solstice only measures the earth’s position relative to the sun. In Winter we are closest to the sun but the northern hemisphere points away. Thus, darkness and cold. At the solstice (the 20th) we reach the shortest day of the year and one way to look at it is that as we get closer to the solstice we plunge further into darkness but once we come out the other side, the days start to get longer and warmer.

For the Arsenal, the month of December was dark indeed. Arsenal went into December on top of the table on 30 points. They played 8 times and won just three matches, losing three and drawing a further two. Ten points from a possible 27 (9 of the matches were Premier League, 1 was a draw in the Champions League) and dropping points to Aston Villa, West Ham, and Fulham pretty much sealed Arsenal’s fate for the season. Arsenal had dropped down to 4th place, leapfrogged by a resurgent Liverpool and by Unai Emery’s claret and blue army.

It was at this point that I decided, for my own mental health, that Arsenal were out of the title race. It would end up much closer than I expected because of the fight that Arteta and the players showed – coming roaring back from a mid-season break to win 8 in a row and to win those games by absolutely crushing margins.* But despite this insanely good showing, I never let myself believe that Arsenal were in the title race. If, somehow, we were ahead of City on the last day of the season, I would allow myself the nerves (as a treat), I told myself, but for the rest of the season I just watched the football and enjoyed what Arteta’s team were trying to do.

I was sort of difficult to just enjoy the football, however, when it looked to me like Arsenal were being punished week in and week out for the criticism we leveled at the referees after the Newcastle match.

In the Luton game (we won 4-3 thanks to late heroics by Rice) Gabriel was fouled on a corner, 100% no doubt. Referee’s call: no pen.

Against Villa (we lost 1-0) there was another nailed on pen for a foul on Jesus. Referee’s call: no pen.

Against West Ham at home(Arsenal lost 2-0), Peacock showed that their first goal was clearly out of play and shouldn’t have stood. Arsenal were also denied another clear penalty (when the score was 1-0) for a foul/trip on Saka. Referee’s call: no pen.

Things did loosen up after that and Arsenal got a few penalty calls but that was damage done, Arsenal’s title race was over (in my opinion) and Manchester City – the club which have 115 charges of corruption and cheating to answer for and which are suing the Premier League to force the League to allow them to cheat even more – were back in the driver’s seat.

New year

Where I slipped up (mentally) was in allowing myself to believe that we were going to go far in the Champions League. At the start of the season I predicted that Arsenal wouldn’t win the Premier League but could do some real damage in the Champions League.

The argument I had against Arsenal winning the Premier League was fairly simple. Just look at the Liverpool team that Klopp assembled and how they played three years in a row of nearly flawless football and won just once. That happens because Man City will play nearly flawless football every year and you not only have to match them, you actually have to one up them. Arsenal came close to matching them in 2022/23 but fell off toward the end of the season. We came back this year and this time played a bit better but still dropped points to West Ham, Fulham (twice), and Villa (twice).

I’m not trying to undersell how close this title race was. In the opening 19 matches, Arsenal went toe to toe with City with both teams getting a record of W12 D4 L3 for 40 points. But in the final 19 matches of the 2023/24 PL season (December 31-May 19) Arsenal W16 D1 L2 for 49 points. Meanwhile City W16 D3 L0 for 51 points. So, it’s literally just the difference of losing to Fulham on the 31st of December and to Aston Villa on 14th of April. I know that emotionally many fans point to the loss to Villa in April but the damage was actually done before Arsenal went on their sunshine sabbatical: losing to Fulham – which was one of our worst performances of the season – on the last day of 2023.

I think that Arsenal will challenge City again next season. But in order to win the League next year, Arsenal need a final 19 performance over the full 38. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s possible that Man City could finish a season with fewer than 90 points but you cannot bank on it. Instead you need your team to be aiming for 95 points in order to win the League. And with that as the goal there can be very few to no slip-ups against lower teams like Fulham, West Ham, and Villa. And I mean that with the utmost disrespect** to those teams.

But while I had lowered my expectations for Arsenal in the Premier League I had done quite the opposite in the Champions League.

Because of the way Arteta sets his teams up, and how fastidious he is about preparation, plus how much he’s a defense-first coach, I had high hopes for Arsenal in the Champions League. I actually thought that we might win it. I had all the usual caveats in there but felt like it was our best chance at a huge trophy and one which I am desperate for Arsenal to win in my lifetime.

And so when we drew Bayern Munich, I lost my shit. All my defenses came down and I let the hope wash over me. I’d watched Bayern Munich for most of their Bundesliga season – because A) I fucking hate them. B) I hate Harry Kane even more and wanted to see him fail – I want him to go his entire career without a major trophy. C) Bayer Leverkusen were running away with the Bundesliga and it was fun to hate-watch Bayern as Leverkusen ran away with it. D) Granit Xhaka played for Leverkusen. And E) did I mention how much I hate Bayern? I fucking hate them.

And what I’d seen from Bayern Munich was a mentally weak team. I’m not normally one to get into football psychology but when it’s slapping you in the face – because Bayern drop points nearly every match due to some sort of crazy collapse – I think you might want to pay attention to it.

But football, man, football, rarely delivers on its promises.

The promise of a bright, young coach who’s obsessed with defense met up with the reality of a bitter, middle-aged coach who’d been humiliated all season, who’d spent several seasons as the butt of many jokes, and whose abilities had been questioned. The promise of a team which has the best press in Europe met up against the reality of a team that cynically abandoned their principles and played without the ball. And the promise of a young team with great futures ahead of them met up with the reality of former players and an old nemesis.

We drew the first leg and lost the second. And while it was a far sight better than the last time we played Bayern Munich in the Champions League – a time when the results were so consistently bad at the knockout stage that people groaned about “what’s the point of Arsenal in the Champions League?” – I still felt hollowed out by the results.

I’ve felt hollowed out by football now for a few years: an overwhelming sense of “what’s the point?” What’s the point of all of this if Man City are just destined to win again? What’s the point of football if the same few clubs always win it? Is it to get close to winning? To “win the lottery” and have your team be the one club that is able to just pip the always-winner to a single trophy? To finish top four and get to go on away days to Munich and watch your team bomb out? To have the hope that “next year! Next year we will get them?” Or is it just to enjoy the very small things, the great individual goals by Bukayo Saka? the redemption arc of Kai Havertz? A pint and a smoke (don’t smoke, kids) with friends? A good day out, ruined by the football?

I’ve been following Arsenal for over 25 years now. Unfortunately for me, I was one of those “plastic” fans who tagged along when we were in our pomp. Since we won the League (at White Hart Lane) I’ve seen the Arsenal get close to the a major trophy four times: the Champions League final in 2006, 2007/08 (Fabregas’ best season and the year we lost Eduardo to that horrifying tackle), 2015/16 (the year we should have won the League but for injury to Santi Cazorla***), and these last two seasons.

The 2007/08 and 2015/16 seasons were more “holy shit, we might accidentally do this!” while these last two seasons have felt like much more of a concerted push, a real effort on the part of the club and everyone at the club to get a major trophy. It is completely different. So, while I’m a bitter middle-aged man who’s been hollowed out by 20 years of cynicism, I can understand why so many of you are hopeful. It is different this time around. Arsenal are more competitive and, most importantly, more competitive over a longer period of time, not just “oops, we are in the title race!”

Like the rattlesnake’s tail, maybe there’s a little piece of hope rattling around inside my hollowed out old chest.


*I think the xG to xGA for that period for Arsenal was in the realm of 20 for Arsenal to 3 for the opponents. THREE.
**I’m not doing that English bullshit of “no disrespect” when they are clearly utterly disrespecting a team.
***I’m not interested in arguing about the following: whether it was Giroud who blew the League for us or whether we were even “supposed to win the League”. The data all points to Arsenal as the team that should have won the League that year and a huge amount of the blame for losing that title actually falls on Arsene Wenger – who played Cazorla when he was literally gravely injured, who dropped Giroud for months, and who failed to reinforce the team properly when there was a chance for us to win the League and when he knew that Cazorla was probably never going to play for Arsenal at the highest level again. That stubborn ass old man fucked it.

One comment

  1. Welcome back…at least for a little bit. I’m not unhappy with the season. Progress was made, both in the league and in CL. We did get a little lucky with injuries in that none of our key folks was out for very long. We don’t have great backups for Odegaard or Rice in particular. I think Kiwior, Tomi or White can all stand in at CB if needed.
    And yes, that late December period killed us. For me it was the West Ham match at home. We had 30 shots and 8 on target and yet lost 2-0. Far more frustrating than the Villa matches.

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