Arsenal is one of a handful of clubs aspiring, credibly, to reach the top 4 and stay there. But can this happen, and will it?
The Summer Transfers of 2021
There were three long-term contract extensions alongside totally new signings in the summer of 2021, and these were for Kieran Tierney, Arthur Okonkwo, and Emile Smith Rowe. When it comes to a fresh injection of talent, the Gunners used the 2021 summer transfer window to acquire half a dozen new players. These were keeper Aaron Ramsdale, midfielder Martin Odegaard from Real Madrid (who had previously played for the side on a loan), Portuguese defender Nuno Tavares, English defender Ben White, Japanese defender Takehiro Tomiyasu and midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga.
The clear balance of these transfers have been of a defensive nature, with two-thirds of them in defensive positions (including goal). This is to be expected, as in recent times Arsenal have been pretty good (even against skilled opposition) at scoring, but far less accomplished when it comes to keeping a clean sheet. Looking at results after Tomiyasu’s arrival, Arsenal have managed to beat Spurs, Leicester City (playing away), but could only draw against Crystal Palace, and lost narrowly to Everton (and heavily to Liverpool). Perhaps most painful was a narrow 3-2 away defeat to Manchester United in early December and a 1-2 home loss to Manchester City in January.
However, the general trend has been strong for the Gunners, and while they can’t yet beat the top couple of teams they currently lurk around the 4th place. Only against Liverpool (a 4-0 loss) did the defence make it a one-sided affair, and the forwards fail to make the attack count. Only West Ham and Manchester United (narrowly) have more goals conceded, but things have been getting better of late. Provided this trend continues, it puts Arsenal in a genuine position of contention for 4th this year. Whether that happens or not depends very much on whether the half-dozen primarily defensive signings live up to expectations.
The Bookies’ View
Pundits are paid to talk, to waffle, and, if possible, to be interesting. But getting stuff wrong has never stopped someone from being a commentator or analyst on a TV show or the radio. However, sports bettors are a different breed, the ultimate in pay based on performance. And this means bookies have to be canny, because the same applies to them. The odds, therefore, on sporting outcomes are always worth considering, even if you’re not into sports betting.
The great thing for those yearning for the Gunners to return to the top 4 is that right now they’re joint fourth in the betting to achieve that, behind Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool. The odds are around the 15/8 mark (equal to Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur). In footballing terms, there is a big difference between finishing top 4 and 5th or 6th, but it does show that Arsenal are not far off making that ambition into reality.
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Success Breeds Success
Success and failure can easily become virtuous and vicious circles in English football. The Ridsdale affair at Leeds led to the loss of talent (such as Rio Ferdinand) and the club plunging down to League One, whereas the prolonged golden age of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United helped to attract the best talent because players knew there was a strong chance of winning silverware each and every year. Part of Arsenal’s ambition to be top four is to establish such a virtuous circle, contending for titles and attracting great players who thereby make such titles more likely.
Sound finances are a basic essential, though it’s hard to imagine any club repeating what Ridsdale did to Leeds. Combining a long-term vision (more on this below) with strong short-term performances can bring about success. With the amount of money in the EPL it’s hard to see any single team repeating Manchester United’s glory years, but just getting and staying in the top 4 would be more than enough for most Arsenal fans.
Is Arteta up to the Task?
Mikel Arteta, the former player and current manager of Arsenal, has a tough job on his hands. Wenger’s Invincibles season is a fond memory, and the huge resources that the leading clubs can call on (increasingly due to mega-rich owners) means there’s intense competition for top signings. His career as manager of the side started very nicely, with an FA Cup win in 2019, and he followed this up the next year with the FA Community Shield. However, a permanent position in the top four is a more difficult ask.
A pair of 8th placed finishes did not bode well, but since the end of 2020 Arsenal have been one of the best teams when it comes to amassing points, due in part to both goals scored and assisted by Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka. This and the heavily defensive summer transfer signings indicate that Arteta understands the weakness within Arsenal and is taking active steps to address such shortcomings, in addition to deliberately bringing in as much fresh blood as possible. Again, youth is also reflected in the summer signings. And it seems to have worked, with only Liverpool and Manchester City scoring more points than Arsenal after the summer transfer window.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and while breaking into the top 4 can happen this year a long-term place there will require time. Arteta has shown intelligence in his signings and this has delivered on the pitch, with a deliberate shift towards younger players indicating that he recognises the needs of the long term and is building towards that. Overall, it does look like the manager could be in there for the long haul and has a genuine shot of making the Gunners one of the big boys of the EPL once again.
Arsenal do have a mountain to climb, but right now the club looks geared up for the challenges ahead and stand a good chance of succeeding.