Arsenal’s 2021-22 season began disastrously. After three successive defeats to open their Premier League campaign – including a reverse at the hands of newly promoted Brentford – and no goals scored, there was widespread and vociferous criticism of their expensive summer transfer strategy and calls for manager Mikel Arteta to be sacked.
A lot can change over the course of a season, though. Now, as the term approaches its crescendo, the Gunners have climbed to fourth. As they prepare to face title-chasing Liverpool at the Emirates on Wednesday night, they are a point clear of fifth-placed Manchester United, having played three games fewer.
Thanks to the full-scale turnaround from their poor form in August, Arsenal are comfortably positioned to end their six-year absence from the Champions League.
And despite their current outlook differing so drastically from their early-season gloom, the improvements Arteta has overseen in recent months have been gradual, steady – almost stealthy – and appear wholly sustainable.
At the back
Firstly, the defence has been shored up. Back when Arsenal were being turned over by Brentford, Chelsea and Manchester City at the season’s outset, and even in the 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Liverpool in November, questions were asked over the club’s decision to splash a combined £80m on goalkeeper Aaron Ramsey – who was relegated with Sheffield United last season – and centre-back Ben White from Brighton.
But only twice since their 3-2 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford on 2 December have Arsenal conceded more than a single goal in a Premier League game – a New Year’s Day 2-1 loss to City and a recent 3-2 victory over Watford. Only Wolverhampton Wanderers (23 goals conceded) have a better defensive record than Arsenal (29) of those outside the top three places.
White, in transitioning from a back three at Brighton to a back four at the Emirates, took time to settle but now looks set to be the linchpin of the Gunners’ backline for years to come. And Ramsdale’s outstanding form for most of the campaign has seen him lauded as one of the league’s best keepers.
Further forward, Arteta has struck upon a balance rarely seen at the Emirates since the halcyon days of Arsene Wenger’s reign. Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka provide ballast and a defensive platform for a carefully constructed forward line that boast creativity, diversity of skills and graft in equal measures.
Since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s January departure for Barcelona, Alexandre Lacazette has carved out a niche as a Roberto Firmino-esque hard-working, low-scoring facilitator at centre-forward, a pivot around whom the likes of Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe buzz.
And the latter duo have shone as the youthful, homegrown emblems of the new Arsenal. Saka has already racked up career-best returns for goals (eight) and assists (five) this season, while fellow England international and Hale End academy graduate Smith Rowe is the club’s top scorer, with nine strikes to his name.
Arteta is not allowing his side’s run of five straight victories, nor their bigger-picture improvements that have yielded nine league wins from their last 11 games, to be confused for an emergence among the division’s true elite.
“Still far,” the Arsenal manager said when asked about the gap between his side at the Premier League’s title challengers Liverpool and Manchester City. “We have to make things quicker, sharper. We can be more adaptable, we can be much more unpredictable, we can have much more flexibility and we can be much more consistent throughout games to maintain that level.
— Mirror Football (@MirrorFootball) March 16, 2022
“I think we are much closer than we were, and probably the closest we have been in terms of what we are looking for. But I focus on that gap, and that gap is still big.”
The Gunners have lost every league game they have played so far this season against the clubs currently surrounding them in the top five. They have lost twice to champions City and once each to Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea.
But, for now, they don’t need to compete with the elite. Their rise to fourth-place favourites has been founded on their ability to reliably overcome everyone else. Since a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace on 22 October, they have dropped just five points against sides outside the current top five.
That might not be enough to take them to title contention just yet, but a championship campaign isn’t on anyone’s timeline for Arsenal this season or next.
A return to the Champions League is the first milestone to tick off. For that, they need only to stay ahead of the inconsistent United and any other would-be top-four contenders. Arteta has made Arsenal the best of the rest, and their rebuild plan is right on track.