The worldwide issue of the Corona Virus has had countless impacts on day-to-day life. While football is certainly not the most severe of these, many questions still have to be answered in the weeks and months to come. There is uncertainty regarding whether or not the remainder of domestic games will be held and, if not, whether the season will become void, the current standings will become the final league table or an alternative corrective measure. This is new territory for all involved, and there is no obvious solution.
Due to the circumstances, there isn’t much recent news to report regarding the club we love. In this article, I will presume that all Premier League sides are unable to complete their remaining fixtures, and I will give out our end of season awards. The criteria for these awards are Overall Player of the Season, Signing of the Season, Young Player of the Season, Most Improved Player of the Season and Unsung Hero.
Overall Player of the Season - Bernd Leno.
Unfortunately, I think most if not all fans will agree that it has been an underwhelming season overall. While we have certainly shown signs of significant progress under Mikel Arteta, these displays don’t eradicate the shambolic performances which we became accustomed to for the vast majority of the first half of the campaign.
Many players struggled to perform to the best of their ability and standout performers were at a minimum. For me, there have only been two players who have remained consistent throughout the entire campaign. These are Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bernd Leno.
Firstly, our skipper has been our most dependable goalscorer, regardless of service or the lack there of. His eye for goal has won us numerous games almost singlehandedly at times. Leno, on the other hand, has also won us several points where the vast majority of his teammates were not up to the level required. In a season where our defence has largely been non-existent, he has been one of the best performers in the country.
The German’s clean sheet total does not do his performances justice in the slightest. The frail defense in front of him has often left him exposed and over-worked in games, yet he has remained very dependable. He has made the second most saves in the English top flight - behind only Martin Dubravka - and errors have been at a minimum.
Generally, there have only been two notable errors from our number one throughout the entire campaign. While this is still frustrating - as both came at very important moments - it is also applicable to every goalkeeper on the planet. Nobody is perfect. Everyone has occasional lapses in concentration. However, one thing is for sure, Leno more than made up for these two misjudgements with his general performance level. Notable games include our trip to Carrow Road and our home wins against both Everton and West Ham United. Although I could certainly understand the argument for giving this award to Aubameyang, I personally feel like Leno warrants it more. For this reason, my Overall Arsenal Player of the Season is Bernd Leno.
Signing of the Season - Gabriel Martinelli
The 2019/20 summer transfer window was one that filled most Arsenal fans with optimism for the future. Not only did we break our transfer record in order to sign Nicolas Pépé, we also strengthened in various positions that had proven to be problematic in the years gone by. However, our signing of the season certainly arrived with the lowest reputation of any of our acquisitions. Brazilian teenager Gabriel Martinelli was our first signing of the window - from Ituano, a side in the fourth tier in Brazil.
Initially, fans presumed that Martinelli would be used sparingly in the upcoming campaign, but that he may prove to be a very useful asset in the years to come. To say that the youngster has surpassed the expectations that he was set in July would be a drastic understatement.
While his opportunities were initially limited, he made sure to seize every opportunity that came his way. He did not feature in our opening Europa League tie against Eintracht Frankfurt. In the time between this fixture and our second group-stage game, he was given a start against Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup. Although the teenager has claimed that he views himself as a winger, he was used as a traditional number nine in this game, and he set the game alight. He opened the scoring with a very impressive header before doubling his tally in second half injury time. Admittedly, this display was at the expense of a heavily-rotated Championship side, but you can only beat what is put in front of you.
This display earned Gabi a place in our starting XI against Standard Liège in our next European game. Yet again, he took full advantage. He opened the scoring once more, before adding a second in quick succession. He also provided an inch-perfect assist after the interval to open Dani Ceballos’ account for the club.
After this game, the Brazilian went from strength to strength. In the following round of the League Cup, he scored a brace at Anfield. Unfortunately, we were eliminated on penalties, but it was certainly a performance to be proud of from some of our youngsters. Gradually, his performances became too good to ignore, regardless of the level of opposition, and he began to be given opportunities to perform in the Premier League itself. His first domestic assist for the club came against Southampton at The Emirates and his first goal came at the London Stadium. Unfortunately, he picked up an injury shortly afterwards, so he missed the early games of Mikel Arteta’s reign. Nonetheless, when he returned to the side, he was impressive yet again. He got on the scoresheet against Sheffield United and at Stamford Bridge, following a memorable solo run. It is important to keep everything in perspective regarding his development. He will face dips in form along the way, and we will have to remain patient during these periods, but there is certainly a player in there. The £6m transfer fee looks more and more like a steal with every passing week.
Young Player of the Season - Bukayo Saka.
Our Young Player of the Season award is a tricky one. There are two players who you could make great arguments for - namely Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka. However, seeing as I have already written about Martinelli’s season above, I will write about Saka in this section. If I had to choose, I probably would opt for Bukayo regardless - due to his adaptability to playing in a position that he isn’t entirely accustomed to.
Although the English teenager featured during some of last season’s Europa League group games, he was a rare inclusion in matchday XIs throughout the 2018/19 campaign. His first opportunity of this season came against Eintracht Frankfurt. The German side were narrowly defeated on penalties in the semi-finals of last season’s Europa League, and many believed that they would pose a great threat to an out-of-form Arsenal side - regardless of numerous key departures during the summer transfer window. This was the game that Bukayo Saka made the world take note. He set up the opener before scoring himself to secure the three points. He also added a second impressive assist before the full-time whistle was blown. Three goal contributions away from home at the age of 18 made fans take notice, and it was certainly a sign of what was to come.
Soon after, he provided an assist at Old Trafford. Again, he was impressive throughout the game and looked a constant threat. His inclusion in games such as these was aided by an injury to last season’s Player of the Year - Alexandre Lacazette. A mixture of a dip in form and Lacazette’s return to full fitness saw Saka back on the fringes of first team Premier League football - but he continued to impress in the cup competitions. He was lively during our Carabao Cup game against Liverpool and provided an assist for Gabriel Martinelli.
Following Unai Emery’s dismissal, opportunities started to become more frequent. This was yet again influenced by injuries - as both Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolašinac suffered setbacks in quick succession. This resulted in Bukayo playing out of position at left-back. Although the teenager had featured there for his national team at youth level, it is safe to say that he is more comfortable on the wing. His performances under Freddie Ljungberg were relatively solid - particularly against Everton and Standard Liège - but he managed to reach another level entirely when Mikel Arteta arrived.
The Spaniard modified the role of Granit Xhaka - which I will address later in this article - and this allowed Saka to essentially play as a left winger when his side were in possession. He had defensive responsibilities, but it allowed him to still capitalise on what he does best, namely his final ball and one-v-one situations.
As it stands, he has scored three times this season, whilst providing ten assists in the process. This is an admirable record for any 18-year old, let alone one who has had limited opportunities and has largely been deployed in a position that isn’t entirely natural to him. There is only 12-months remaining on his current deal, and extending it as soon as possible has to be an immediate concern for the club. In a time where we are struggling financially due to both the impact of the Corona Virus and the lack of Champions League football, we simply cannot afford to lose a player of his quality for a cut-price fee. Hopefully an agreement can be reached in the weeks to come and Saka can have a long and successful Arsenal career.
Most Improved Player of the Season - Shkodran Mustafi.
If you had told me last summer that I would be writing a piece come March about Shkodran Mustafi being our most improved player of the season, I would have laughed, but here we are.
It is safe to say that the German has had a mixed Arsenal career. From an initial unbeaten streak which lasted almost six months to being the victim of vile abuse via social media, there have been plenty of ups and downs. In the summer, it appeared that his fate was sealed. He had a very poor end to the 2018/19 season, and many mistakes made Champions League qualification virtually impossible. Although many players underperformed during this period, some fans preferred to pin the blame onto one individual in an attempt to ignore the bigger picture.
I have said it many times, constructive criticism is arguably beneficial, but non-football-related abuse sent to both players and their families is simply unacceptable. Unfortunately, Mustafi has faced his fair share of this. His wife was forced to make her Instagram account private, and Shkodran himself had to restrict the people who were able to comment on any of his posts.
The way that Mustafi responded to the public perception of his mistakes was very admirable. While many players prefer to deflect the blame or ignore the issues entirely, he took full responsibility. He took part in two interviews which addressed his shortcomings, and it altered the perception that many fans had. It clearly had a negative impact on his day-to-day life, and played on his mind frequently.
During this time, opportunities with the first team were limited for the ex-German international. He played in the cup competitions, but rarely even made the bench for domestic fixtures. He performed quite well in these games, but we were all fully aware that the level of opposition was much lower than that which we are accustomed to in the Premier League. He made one notable error during this run of fixtures, and addressed it on Twitter. He tweeted an apology to both fans and teammates, and the responses that he received were a breath of fresh air. Rather than undermining his ability or targeting his family members, fans were quick to reassure him that it could have happened to anybody. The performances that he had been showing were impressive, and one error does not overshadow that fact.
Since Mikel Arteta has arrived, a fresh opportunity has been provided for Mustafi. This has been partly down to injuries, but it has also been influenced by Mikel giving everyone a fresh start, regardless of their performances under his predecessors.
Mustafi has been nothing short of excellent since the turn of the year. He has made one notable error - which could have proven to be very costly at Stamford Bridge - but, if anything, this lapse in concentration has forced his performances to reach a new level entirely in order to keep his place in the side. Not only does the defense look more robust, he has also formed an impressive partnership with David Luiz, who has also improved immensely in recent months. Overall, there have been many players who have improved since Arteta’s arrival, but I feel that Mustafi’s is the most prominent due to the position that he found himself in prior to the season’s opening fixture.
Unsung Hero - Granit Xhaka.
Similarly to Shkodran Mustafi, Granit Xhaka’s Arsenal career has been full of ups and downs. The Swiss midfielder has divided opinion since arriving in England, and this season has summed that up perfectly. We all know what happened in the game against Crystal Palace this season, and I have no plan to go into the details of the situation again.
The bottom line was that it reflected badly on everybody involved, regardless of their intentions, and put Xhaka’s Arsenal future in jeopardy. When Mikel Arteta arrived in late-December, it appeared that Xhaka’s Arsenal career was beyond repair. Although he had been restored to the side by interim head-coach Freddie Ljungberg, his performances hadn’t improved dramatically, and his mind still seemed to be elsewhere.
Countless reports claimed that a move back to the Bundesliga was inevitable, and even the player’s brother acknowledged this interest publicly. For me, Xhaka has been our best performer under Arteta. This is influenced by many factors, namely his performances, his attitude and his selflessness.
Firstly, his performances have improved immensely. He has played every single minute of Premier League football for which he has been available, and this is no coincidence. He brings the best out of his partner in midfield and simply allows the team to tick. He also transitions the ball from defense to attack much more effectively than anyone else in the squad.
Regarding his attitude, it has been nothing short of faultless. Despite all that he has been through, he has not held a grudge against anybody. He was stripped of the armband, but he has not ever questioned the decision. He was criticised by fans, yet he is still one of the last players to leave the field after every single game and always thanks the crowd for their efforts. The dressing-room must have been influenced by his ongoing feud, but he is still a key figure off the field who seems to play a big role in helping youngsters settle to life with the first team - as seen with Bukayo Saka.
Finally, in regards to his selflessness, Bukayo Saka has yet again been one of those who have benefited. Xhaka is a midfield player, we all know that. However, Mikel Arteta has altered his role on numerous occasions. He had to fill in at centre-back following David Luiz’s dismissal at Stamford Bridge, and he didn’t put a foot wrong, nor did he complain. He had to switch to left-back at Turf Moor after Saka was unable to continue due to a knock, and yet again Xhaka did his job with no questions asked. Even on a week-to-week basis, he frequently fills in on the left-hand side of our defense to essentially give Saka a free role to express himself offensively without leaving us exposed on the defensive side.
Overall, he is the definition of a team player. Fans have gradually began to warm towards him since the turn of the year, but not nearly as much as he deserves. I hope that they continue to appreciate what he brings to the side - both during the good times and the bad.
These are uncertain times in general, and football is no different. If you have any additional thoughts or disagree with any of my selections then feel free to let me know in the comments section below. I wish all the best to you and your loved ones during these incredibly difficult months. Stay safe, follow all of the relevant guidelines and hopefully we can all get through this together. Thank you as always for reading.