This season our defeats came in clusters.
We lost the first 3 games of the season, but then went on an 8 game unbeaten run.
From game week 12 to 15 we lost 3 out of 4 games and game week 27 to 31 lost 4 out of 5.
Finally in those closing stages of the season we suffered back to back defeats on game week 36 and 37.
The loss to Manchester City in January was the only defeat they did not occur amongst a cluster of others.
It is a concern that one defeat has quickly led to 2 or 3 more in a short space of time.
For us to progress from 5th place to top 3 challengers next season, we need to bounce back better from defeats.
No January Signings
We were right in letting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leave in January. But the lack of any reinforcements did cost us 4th place.
There is an argument that 5th was our target. That when the transfer window shut we were 6th. So finishing 5th means that the risk to not sign anyone in January paid off.
Even if this narrative is true, to finish just 2 points behind 4th having made no signings is frustrating.
There is a danger in January signings.
You often overpay on a player you do not really want, which in turn leads to less money available in the summer to buy players you do want.
Or you end up loaning someone in that is not getting much game time elsewhere. But by the time they get up to full fitness the season is over.
Newcastle United and Tottenham aside, there was not much business done in January. But that does not mean the players were not out there.
In January I wrote a blog about 5 players we should be looking target.
Of those 5 players, 3 got a January move.
Tottenham New Signings
One of those 5 players mentioned in the January blog was Dejan Kulusevski.
The Swedish international came onto my radar as a player that can play across the 3 behind a striker.
Clearly talented, he was struggling in Italy and looking for a move out.
Tottenham took the plunge and signed him on loan, with options to make that move permanent both this summer and next.
He scored 5 goals and bagged himself 8 assists in 18 Premier League appearances.
Now it is too easy to say “Kulusevski made the difference”, but he clearly did.
Whilst Bukayo Saka, Smile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli ran out of steam, Kulusevski freshened up the Tottenham attack and gave them another option beyond the Kane / Son axis.
Spurs also signed Rodrigo Bentancur who quickly became a key man in the middle of the park for them.
During the closing stages of the season, Thomas Partey broke down injured. Could Bentancur have made a difference? Taking a bit of pressure off the Ghanian in certain games?
I was happy us not spending on players that we were not 100% on, but I do feel we missed a trick with Kulusevski.
Arteta Did Not Trust His Squad
Towards the end of the season, we saw Mohamed Elneny and Eddie Nketiah come in from the cold to put in game winning performances.
This raised the question as to whether Arteta trusted his squad players enough?
Partey started 17 league games out of 18 from November through to April.
The only game he missed was due to participation in the African Cup of Nations where he started all 3 games for Ghana.
In the 20 games for club and country during that period, he played 1759 out of a possible 1800 minutes.
Why did Arteta not trust in Elneny to come in sooner?
Had we started Elneny against the likes of Norwich City, Brentford and Leicester City, Partey might not have broken down with an injury caused by muscle fatigue.
Likewise, when Kieran Tierney picked up his injury, Arteta shuffled the pack putting Granit Xhaka at left back rather than trust in his back-up full back Nuno Tavares.
And when Alexandre Lacazette was clearly off the pace, Arteta stuck with him rather than put in Nketiah.
It took Lacazette to be struck down by Coronavirus in April for Eddie to get a start in the Premier League.
Arteta needs to begin trusting his squad players a lot more.
We Just Weren’t Ready
Youngest team in the league with the youngest manager.
When it came down to the pressure games, we failed to step up.
I will not go as far as to see we bottled it, as that would unfairly stigmatise a group of young players. But we did crumble under the pressure of being favourites.
Three times we crumbled.
The first was in that double header against Everton and Manchester United when the pressure was on to win two big away games.
Secondly in that run against Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton. And then again in the double header against Spurs and Newcastle.
When the pressure was off and it felt like we were out of the running, we played with freedom.
After the Everton defeat in December, top 4 looked a distance away. We then won 9 out of 11 games.
Back in pole position for top 4, we proceeded to lose 3 of our next 4 games.
With the pressure off again, we beat Chelsea and Manchester United, as well as West Ham away.
That 4 game winning run put it in our hands with 3 games to go. And we finished 5th.
In the Newcastle game we looked like a deer in headlights. Granit Xhaka was right in his post-match comments.
Physically we were also not ready as the likes of Saka and Martinelli ran out of steam.
People will point to “no European football” and question why they looked knackered I the closing stages of the season.
Both are still just 20-years-old and played more minutes than Phil Foden across all competitions. They also played the same minutes as Son Heung-Min.
These players have not yet obtained “old man fitness” that you get from playing 50+ games a season over an extended period of time. They still have young, raw bodies.
By the end of the season, our talented youngsters looked physically and mentally drained.
Some might say “but Chelsea made top 4 with a young squad” but that is re-writing history.
In 2019/20, Frank Lampard’s team had the 4th youngest squad in the league, at an average age of 25.3 years. This season Arsenal’s was 24.4 years.
Now one year might seem insignificant. But that one year is an extra season of football. An extra year of physical and mental strength.
In 12 months time, the likes of Bukayo Saka, Martinelli, Martin Odergaard, Aaron Ramsdale, Ben white and Gabriel will be a year older. A year stronger. A year wiser. I would not expect them to fall away physically and mentality like they did this.
A year is a long time in football. We were just not ready this year.
The good news is that if I can establish what went wrong this season, the senior leadership team at Arsenal can.
We have reduced ourselves to a paper thin squad. This summer we now need to get in similar quality to last and rebuild.
By doing that, it will give Arteta more options and enable him to rest and rotate. Keeping everyone that little bit more fresh.
I am looking forward to the 2022/23 season already.