Premier League football returned to our screens on June 17th. Since then, the strangest football season of all time has come to a close. There have been many ups and downs along the way. From late drama at the Amex Stadium to securing our fourteenth FA Cup at Wembley, we have seen it all.
In this article, I will examine eight things that we have learned since the Premier League restart, and write a short paragraph on each.
#1. Emiliano Martínez is too good to be restricted to cup games. Bernd Leno’s injury at the Amex Stadium presented Emi Martínez with an opportunity to shine. Despite being at the club for over a decade, the Argentinian had failed to make a real breakthrough into the side. This season, he featured in all of our cup games, including the Europa League group stage, and proved to be a decent backup goalkeeper. However, it is now clear that he offers much more than simply cover. Since his introduction against Brighton, he has been faultless. He managed the best save per shot ratio of any goalkeeper in the Premier League and had the second highest saves per game ratio as well. Emí’s distribution is also very impressive, as is the manner in which he commands his box. Claiming crosses from dangerous situations to relieve defensive pressure has been a common theme in the weeks gone by. Despite these strengths, what has been most impressive is his shot stopping abilities. Notable stops include a fingertip save from Ben Davies in the North London Derby and an injury time stop from from Trent Alexander-Arnold at the Emirates. There have been countless other saves, and he is yet to let us down whatsoever. In 11 starts, he has conceded just 9 goals. For a side with a reputation for being leaky at the back, this is a very respectable return. Bernd Leno has recently returned to full training, and he will be available for selection from the offset of the 2020/21 campaign. The German has also been fantastic since arriving in London in the summer of 2018. We are really blessed to have two top class goalkeepers in our ranks. For so long, the position has proven to be problematic, but now it appears to be in safe hands. The battle for the number one spot will prove to be very interesting, and I hope that the competition will bring out the best in both players.
#2. Extending Dani Ceballos’ stay must be a priority. The 2019 summer transfer window saw the arrival of Dani Ceballos on loan from Real Madrid. The Spaniard arrived following a superb individual campaign at the U21 European Championship for Spain. Despite a sensational debut against Burnley, the creative midfielder struggled for form under Unai Emery. His run of sub-par displays was interrupted by an injury, which ensured that he missed the beginning of Mikel Arteta’s tenure. During that period, Granit Xhaka performed well alongside Lucas Torreira, and the pairing appeared to be our pivot for the foreseeable future. Dani’s future seemed to lie elsewhere. However, Arteta restored Ceballos to the side, in an altered role. Rather than asking the Spaniard to be our most forward-thinking midfielder, Mikel dropped him into the pivot - alongside Xhaka. Here, his role relied more around recycling the ball, bringing others into play and winning the ball back for his side. This change of expectation appeared to be benefitting the player prior to lockdown, but we only has a small sample of games on which to judge him. Lockdown seemed to come at the wrong time for Ceballos, as he was starting to show just why we acquired him in the first place. Upon the return of the Premier League, Dani initially struggled once more. However, this was not to last. Our number eight netted just his second goal in Arsenal colours in injury time at Bramall Lane, and he has not looked back. Since that moment, one could argue that he has been our best performer. Bringing the best out of his teammates, creating chances, recovering possession, dribbling through the lines, showing defensive discipline. He has done it all. In July, Ceballos topped the club’s stats for touches, passes, key passes, successful dribbles, ground duels won and tackles won. He also recorded the second highest number of interceptions in the squad. These stats really do emphasise just how well he performed in all areas of the pitch. Prior to the restart, I wasn’t overly keen on signing him permanently. Now, I feel like it should be one of our main priorities. His future is very much in the balance, but he does genuinely seem happy at the club, which certainly strengthens our position. He also has a great relationship with Mikel Arteta, which works in our favour too. Hopefully all parties can come to an agreement to see him return to London for next season at the very least.
#3. Granit Xhaka is our most important midfielder. The struggles of Granit Xhaka under Unai Emery this season were well documented. Tensions peaked in our home fixture against Crystal Palace as tempers flared and Xhaka’s future appeared to lie elsewhere. Not only was he stripped of the armband, he was frozen out of the squad by the head coach at the time, and wasn’t restored to the side until Freddie Ljungberg arrived. Even during this period, Xhaka seemed destined for a January exit. All of this changed upon the arrival of Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard put his arm around our former captain and backed him publicly to the press. This had an instant impact, and Xhaka’s performances improved dramatically. The newfound team spirit seemed to benefit all of the squad, but none more so than Granit. This trend was also visible post-lockdown. In our first two games, Xhaka only featured for 8 minutes due to injury. We lost both games. Following this, he returned to the XI against Southampton. We won this game quite comfortably, and went on to follow this up with wins against Norwich, Sheffield United and Wolves. During this spell, we only conceded one goal. We have only lost one game since the restart where Xhaka completed 60+ minutes, and he actually provided an assist in the game in question. The only other game that he didn’t start was against Aston Villa. Yet again, we lost the game in his absence, and didn’t even manage a single shot on target. Overall, he has been a key figure in our rebuild to far under Mikel Arteta. He brings out the best in his teammates and allows the team to tick. His absence is always notable when he is omitted from the XI. I personally feel like he is our most important midfielder right now.
#4. The board must financially back Mikel Arteta. Similarly to Xhaka’s personal struggles, Arsenal’s financial shortcomings have also been well documented by the media. Thankfully, Saturday’s FA Cup triumph improves our position, but having funds and spending funds are two extremely different matters. So far this summer, Chelsea have signed Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner. Rumours are also ongoing regarding the potential recruitment of Kai Havertz. On the other hand, fellow European rivals Manchester United are supposedly closing in on a deal for Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund, which could surpass £100m. Both of these sides finished above us last season, and they are certainly not resting on their laurels. If we want to compete next season - even for a place in the top four - investment in the squad is a necessity. Although Arteta has improved the majority of the players that he inherited, it is essentially still Unai Emery’s squad. Eight months ago, we had written off the majority of the current crop. Whilst many have proven us wrong, I still can’t help but feel like others simply are not good enough to take us to the next level - certainly not as starters. This is where we need the Arsenal hierarchy to step up. Arteta has proven that he deserves their backing. He inherited a squad that sat in 12th place with no confidence. After just 28 games, the mood around the club is much improved, as are the performances and results. He has beaten Klopp’s Liverpool, Guardiola’s Manchester City, Lampard’s Chelsea, Solskjær’s Manchester United and Nuno’s Wolves along the way. This is with numerous injuries to key players too. Mikel has brought the best out of the likes of Luiz, Xhaka and Mustafi. All of whom were struggling under his predecessor. If he can have a significant impact on those who were written off, then I can’t wait to see how he performs once he begins to build his ideal XI. It is the board’s duty to ensure that happens.
#5. Kieran Tierney is a future Arsenal captain. Kieran Tierney’s first season at Arsenal has been plagued by injury. He arrived following an operation on an existing issue from last season, and wasn’t available for selection until mid-September. He was then eased back in by Unai Emery, featuring largely in cup games. Freddie Ljungberg eventually provided him with Premier League opportunities, but these were short lived, as the 22-year old dislocated his shoulder in our visit to the London Stadium in December. Following this, he spent roughly four months on the sideline once more. Almost as soon as he returned to full fitness, Premier League football was suspended indefinitely due to the unforeseen impacts of the Corona Virus. During this stoppage, some media publications linked the Scot with a move away from the Emirates, but Mikel Arteta always reiterated that he had great belief in the player. Since football has returned, it has been pretty easy to see why. Tierney has undoubtedly been one of our standout performers over the past month or so. He has played in numerous positions: as a left-wingback, as a left-back and as a centre back. He has also adapted to many different systems, and performed well regardless of our overall setup. The left-back position has been troublesome at Arsenal since Nacho Monreal reached his thirties, but it now appears that the future of the position is in safe hands. Tierney is strong in the tackle, incredibly disciplined and more than capable in possession too. He struck a bond with the fans almost immediately due to his down-to-earth attitude off the field. While many members of the squad turned up to Bramall Lane with designer suitcases carrying their gear, Tierney showed up with a Tesco carrier bag. It has since been revealed that he spent much of lockdown delivering supplies to his elderly neighbours. Overall, he just seems like an ordinary man living his dream, and this resonates with many fans. Tierney was voted as the Arsenal Player of the Month for July, and his performances only improved in August. He provided the assist for Aubameyang’s second goal against Manchester City at Wembley, scored his first Arsenal goal against Watford on the final weekend of Premier League action and played a key role in winning the penalty for our opening goal in the FA Cup final. These are solely attacking instances, but his defensive work has been equally impressive. Overall, the £24.3m fee is looking more reasonable with each passing game, and the 23-year old has all the necessary qualities to wear the armband in years to come.
#6. Bukayo Saka’s versatility could prove to be invaluable next season. Although Saka hasn’t featured as much in recent weeks, he has certainly been one of our best performers post-lockdown. Thankfully, the club managed to tie the teenager down with a long-term contract. Not only is he a fantastic asset to have in terms of his ability, his versatility is also indispensable. In years gone by, we have always struggled with a lengthy injury list. I fear that this may become even more evident in the upcoming season for all clubs. Not only is the summer break significantly shorter than usual, the season will be forced to end early due to EURO 2021. As a result, fixture congestion will presumably result in more injuries. Since the restart, Saka has demonstrated his versatility. In our first game back, he played on the right wing against Manchester City. Following this, he played in central midfield against Brighton. Next up, he was at left-wingback against Southampton. He then played left wing at Bramall Lane in the FA Cup. Not only did he pull his weight in these games, he managed to perform well for the most part. The only questionable display was at the Etihad, but he had very little service and has since put in top displays from the right hand side against Wolves and Leicester City. Ainsley Maitland-Niles is another player who has performed in various different positions throughout his Arsenal career, and it has arguably hindered his ability to nail down a starting spot. Hopefully this is not the case with Bukayo, and he features regularly in the upcoming season and into the future. Regardless, given the strange circumstances, I feel like his versatility will prove to be very, very useful throughout the 2020/21 campaign.
#7. The best signing we can make this summer is extending Aubameyang’s deal. To say that we only learned about just how crucial Aubameyang is to the side since lockdown would be a gross exaggeration. However, it would be wrong to write an article about our fortunes over the past two months without mentioning our skipper. Aubameyang’s goal tally has always spoken for itself. However, some critics claim that his goals come against the so-called smaller teams. It is safe to say that the Gabonese captain has put these claims to rest once and for all. A brace against both Manchester City and Chelsea earned us our record 14th FA Cup. In terms of domestic performances, he finished just one goal off the Premier League top scorer, Jamie Vardy. Aubameyang’s contract situation has been in the limelight for months, and it could still go either way. Initially, some Arsenal fans were skeptical about offering a lucrative, long-term deal to a player who is over 30-years old. However, this is another claim that Aubameyang has silenced throughout the season. Despite Arsenal being the 5th lowest chance creators in the Premier League, Aubameyang finished as the league’s second top scorer, as mentioned earlier. He managed 32 G/A throughout the campaign, even though the majority of his performances were out wide. He doesn’t appear to be physically wilting whatsoever. He is just as sharp and quick as he has ever been, and his defensive contribution has improved if anything. Regarding fitness, he missed next to no games with injury. On the rare occasions that he was omitted from the XI, it was down to either squad rotation or tactical decisions. The upcoming transfer window is huge for so many reasons. In all honesty, it could determine our future beyond this season. Our rivals are in danger of leaving us behind in terms of acquisitions, so we need to keep up and, if possible, reduce the existing gap. The first step towards this is undeniably extending the deal of our captain and leading goalscorer.
#8. Nicolas Pépé is a star. The break certainly came at the wrong time for Nicolas Pépé. Our record signing was starting to find his feet under Mikel Arteta after a slow start to life in England. However, since the restart he has continued from where he left off. Since shifting our system to a 3-4-3 variant, Mikel Arteta has successfully brought out the best of the Ivorian. Alexandre Lacazette drops deep - almost playing as a traditional number ten - and allows both Aubameyang and Pépé to venture infield. The width is then provided by the wingbacks. Pépé was crucial in our FA Cup success. He scored the opener at Bramall Lane in the quarter final. He set up the opener against Manchester City in the semi final. He set up the winner against Chelsea in the final. He finished the season with 18 G/A. Whilst we all know that he is capable of more, it is certainly a respectable tally given the strange circumstances surrounding the club throughout the campaign. The trophy celebrations would indicate that he feels much more at home than he did six months ago. Admittedly, it is easier to see this after winning your first piece of career silverware, but his general mood off the field also appears to have improved since the restart. He appears to have grown closer to Aubameyang and Lacazette, and hopefully this can impact Aubameyang’s future. Overall, I am eager to see what he has to offer next season.