After 100+ days of its absence, and weeks of debate between clubs, league authorities and the government, top-flight football in England has finally been given the green light to return.
One of the few positives to take from the outbreak putting the season on pause is the opportunity it has provided for us to step out of the usual hectic fixture schedule. We have been able to reflect on what we have seen so far.
Given the start of the 2019/2020 campaign, and everything that happened at Arsenal before Unai Emery’s dismissal, you would expect the Gunners’ hopes and expectations to be in the mud, but the North London side sit just five points off fifth place (with a game in hand). With Manchester City’s European status for next season in jeopardy, it’s not impossible to fathom the idea that the Gunners could stomach a late Champions League qualification charge.
A Look at Arsenal Ahead of Project Restart
The Arteta Effect
After a dreadful few months, in which Arsenal went on to lose seven straight games in all competitions, the club’s hierarchy parted ways with Emery. Despite the temporary leadership of club legend and ‘Invincible’ Freddie Ljungberg, when Arteta was eventually appointed the new head coach in late December, he had a mighty task on his hands.
The Spaniard was left with a disillusioned squad, a frustrated fan base and dismal league form. When he arrived Arsenal were sat in 11th place. However, Arteta has managed to breed a new life into this squad.
The league table may not show it, but there have been clear and significant improvements at Arsenal since Arteta took over. The former Arsenal captain’s side seemed to be building some momentum before the season came to a halt. Since the turn of the year, Arsenal are unbeaten in the Premier League. Despite Europa League heartbreak at the hands of Olympiakos, things have been looking up for the red half of North London.
Arteta, in his first managerial role, has been able to get the players back on board. The squad appear to be committed to the Spaniard’s philosophy. A once shoddy and embarrassing back-line seems much more solid, and the entire team is now putting a lot more in defensively.
Everyone in the league is aware of Arsenal’s attacking prowess. The fact they are now beginning to get things right on the defensive end (four Premier League clean sheets since the turn of the year), means there is optimism within the fan base ahead of the season’s resumption.
Positives to Season Being Put on Hold?
An impact of the season having such a long pause is that many clubs across the league have been able to get players back to full fitness. Arsenal are no different. The Gunners have many players back fit and are now in a prime position for a strong end of the season. With so much uncertainty over the impact that this break will have on each team, who knows where this can take them.
Notable returns include Kieran Tierney, who would have been ruled out for an extended period if the league had continued as normal. The idea of Arsenal now having conventional left-backs available will help Arteta stabilise things defensively. Also, it will enable breakout star Bakayo Saka to play in his more natural and offensive position further forward.
The details of Project Restart suggest frequent games in a much smaller period to normal. With Arsenal still in the FA Cup, even with the promise of five substitutions each game, Arsenal will require a much deeper squad. This makes these fitness boosts even more important.
Arsenal’s January defensive reinforcements, Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares, will have also been given the opportunity to find their feet in the set-up, as well as getting back to full fitness. The defensive pair are likely to be given the chance to establish themselves and help boost the side in the back-end of the season.
The break will also see some players who were being forced back into the side after injury, such as Hector Bellerin, Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac, given a fresh boost and will now hope to be fully fit when they travel to the Etihad on June 17th.
The COVID-19 Outbreak May Work in Arsenal’s Favour
During the break, Arteta has talked about how it has given him the opportunity to speak with the players one-on-one. Reports suggest there has been extensive team meetings in which the Spaniard has been discussing what he wants and expects of his squad.
He took over in late December, and with Arsenal’s FA Cup and Europa League commitments at the time, along with a hectic new-year Premier League schedule, Arteta had little time on the training ground to really implement his philosophy.
This break has given him time to work with his players and coaching staff. We are likely to see a more well-drilled and new-look Arsenal side come the restart.
The Behind Closed Doors Effect
Of course, this is all relatively unknown. We will have to wait and see how this new sanitised and isolated version of football will impact the Premier League.
However, could Arsenal actually be one of the sides who benefit from playing behind closed doors? It is clear that the atmosphere in the Emirates shifts very quickly, and not always for the best. Twenty minutes into the game, if there have not been any encouraging signs, tension builds when the side are not living up to expectations.
A misplaced pass or someone being easily dispossessed in midfield is met with significant groans. It is very apparent when the fans are disgruntled. Quite possibly, an empty stadium will allow these players who have come under such (understandable and warranted) criticism so far, to play with freedom they haven’t had since their youth days, and only ever get to experience in training.
Arsenal have a squad rich in technical ability and have an abundance of attacking talent. This freedom may see players such as Mesut Ozil and club-record signing Nicolas Pepe move into their element. These players may feel more inclined to express themselves without the worry of disgruntled noise from the stands. Even someone like Granit Xhaka may be able to play with renewed confidence. This will only benefit the squad for once fans are allowed back in their seats.
The Death of Home Advantage?
Six of Arsenal’s ten remaining fixtures are away from home, which led to many before the break doubting their chances of a climb up the table. However, in a small sample from the Bundesliga, home advantage seems to have been lost. In the first 27 games played, only five were won by home sides.
Arsenal, in recent years, have been known for going away to the ‘smaller’ sides and leaving empty-handed. Fans of teams in the bottom half appear to be in full voice when the big boys come to town. For them, nothing beats getting one over any side in the top six. However, with the absence of the ‘12th man’, away trips to Brighton & Hove Albion, Southampton and Aston Villa, may be less daunting for this recently fragile Arsenal squad. Even a trip to Bramall Lane in the FA Cup quarter-finals appears less intimidating.
Arsenal’s away form in the back-end of recent seasons has been their downfall and a large reason as to why they have found themselves shy of the top four. This new normal may be a blessing in disguise for the Gunners once football returns.
What Can Arsenal Fans Expect for the Rest of the Season?
Only time will tell what the rest of the season holds for Arsenal. However, time out of the spotlight for some of the players, and Arteta being given an extended period to instil and reinforce his already fruitful philosophy, accompanied by a healthier and stronger squad, means the Gunners are poised and as well prepared as ever for a late-season surge.
One must wonder what a good result at the Etihad could do for the confidence of this team.
Regardless, Arsenal should believe they are more than capable of clinching a Europa League spot at the bare minimum. However, their shoddy early season form has hindered their chances. It will be an incredibly hard feat for Arteta’s men to achieve.
What Next for Arsenal?
There is still an opportunity for silverware. The trophy’s record-holders will fancy themselves for the FA Cup, especially with league leaders Liverpool out of the competition. It is anyone’s to win. In recent years, the trophy has made up for disappointing league campaigns. In his first (half) season in management, Arteta would love to get his hands on some silverware.
It’s been a very difficult season at the Emirates. Emery’s dismissal, the club captain’s public spat with the fans, Arteta’s arrival, European heartbreak, a long injury list and many of their stars not performing have all made things difficult. With this in mind, a Europa League finish and a run in the FA Cup would be more than any sensible fan could wish for.
Yet, there is so much uncertainty around what the season holds for the rest of the league. Could there be even more to come for the Gunners?