The Hard Tackle looks back at Arsenal’s mixed bag 2021/22 season, as we analyse the many positives and reasons for missing the fourth spot.

Are you Arteta in or Arteta out? Did Arsenal bottle the top-four race? Are Tottenham Hotspur the bigger team in north London? Could William Saliba have clinched UEFA Champions League qualification for the Gunners? Might Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have made a telling difference in the end?

These are questions gathering momentum on social media after Arsenal’s inability to close the top-four race. Mikel Arteta could only guide his team to a fifth-placed finish in a tightly contested race for Champions League qualification with Tottenham, with the argument being that Spurs had the advantage due to the presence of a world-class manager to steer them through.

Conte and Tottenham’s two world-class forwards may be one of the many reasons for Arsenal’s failure to qualify. Many other factors contributed to that late-season collapse, and this review will help us understand where it all went wrong for Arsenal while dwelling on the many positives we saw in the 2021/22 season.

One stark difference from the mood on social media and inside the stadium after Arsenal’s last game was the raucous crowd in attendance that stayed behind for the lap of honour. That was not the case in previous years, which showed the supporters are firmly behind the idea of what Arteta is building at the club.

In reality, Arsenal supporters are happy to have European Football back on their schedule than not have it at all. They do not care which competition the team is playing in as long as there is tangible progress to show. For instance, the fans never liked Unai Emery’s time, for they did not see that as a long-term project.

With Arteta, things are different because the supporters have made their views inside the Emirates clear, even during games where the team suffered defeats. Take the Manchester City clash on New Years Day, where the entire crowd was behind the team, and that probably ticked off a new belief and trust in the process Arteta has been creating.

Fans have shown their importance and are set to back the team through next season unless Arsenal endure a catastrophic time. That leads us to look back at how the season transpired. The Hard Tackle analyses where the Gunners got it right and how some of their ideas were proved wrong, as they missed out on the top four.

The fourth spot was not a priority, but it was in their hands

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A section of Arsenal’s supporters argues that top-four was never the priority. Had the club achieved Champions League football, it may have been considered a more lucrative bonus than anything. And rightly so, as the Gunners board had drawn the line on a top-six finish as the bare minimum requirement.

Once the points guaranteed the sixth spot, Arteta was handed a new three-year deal. He can now continue the exciting squad rebuild on hand. Moreover, after the horrendous start to the season, nobody expected Arsenal to finish in the top-six, let alone chase a Champions League place.

But with three games left in the season and a trip to Tottenham on the horizon, Arsenal had the top-four finish in their hands. But defeats to Tottenham and Newcastle United killed their chances, and here is where Arteta may be at fault for mismanaging the side in crucial moments.

Arsenal lost several crucial games and subsequently valuable price in the games before the two mentioned above. That was probably expected of this Arsenal team, who consistently fielded the youngest teams during this season. Those defeats in games where the Gunners should have won is a tax the club paid for trusting youngsters.

Arsenal have achieved progress, and the ceiling is high with this group

Arteta has much to achieve at Arsenal. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Arteta has much to achieve at Arsenal. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

After being written off three games into the season, Arsenal annoyed their fanbase more by signing six players, all under 23. Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, Nuno Tavares and even Martin Odegaard were not instantly approved by the supporters, who had formed their own shortlist of alternatives to those players.

Four out of the six players that arrived were shoehorned into the starting lineup, which has made Arsenal better in many ways. Odegaard ended the season as one of this year’s best signings for a modest £30 million, compared to James Maddison or Emiliano Buendia. They were the preferred choice of the supporters back in the summer.

Arsenal’s summer signings have improved things on the pitch; their concerted efforts led to a top-four chase, which should be considered progress. Their ceiling is much higher than earlier thought, bringing optimism for the future.

They may seem young, but some new players and existing ones have immense experience. Odegaard has been a professional and playing first-team football from a young age, while Ramsdale has experienced two full seasons in the Premier League, even getting relegated. Albert Sambi Lokonga was Anderlecht’s captain before joining Arsenal, which speaks volumes of the recruitment style implemented by the club.

The disappointment among fans for finishing fifth is understandable, but they were not expected to be there in the first place. The expectation was to qualify for a European competition, but narrowly missing out on the Champions League should be considered progress instead of taking it with a pinch of salt. The ceiling with this group is much higher, and keeping them together is key to Arsenal’s long-term success.

January activity and slashing the wage bill

Arsenal’s January activity, or the lack of it, was crucial to their season-ending form. Letting go of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang continues to attract criticism from various sections, but it may have been the right decision in hindsight. Fans have been crying out for the club to clear deadwood, and ironically Arteta and Edu Gaspar have been heavily criticised for doing so.

It is quite funny that Arsenal managing to get many unimportant players off their backs in January was not considered an ‘activity’. Secondly, it is rather lazy to say the north London club did not make an effort to sign players they might have needed for the second half of the season.

Dusan Vlahovic emerged as their primary target to replace Aubameyang. Arsenal tried their very best to sign the Serb and even spoke with Fiorentina regarding the transfer. But the striker’s agent behaved unprofessionally and would not take their calls before being quick to broker a deal with Juventus.

The same goes for Arthur, who the north Londoners wanted to sign to address a growing problem in midfield. But Juventus proved to be the antagonist and made it difficult for Arsenal to sign the Brazilian. There were rumours about Douglas Luiz, but signing him from a fellow Premier League club midway through the season would have been difficult anyway.

The point here is that Arsenal made big efforts to sign players and do not deserve criticism for that. Additionally, they managed to slash the wage bill considerably with the departures of Aubameyang, Sead Kolasinac, Pablo Mari, Calum Chambers and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, clearing out unwanted and unhappy players to give Arteta a base to build further.

Key injuries and the absence of a prolific No.9 cost Arsenal points

Injuries to key players came back to haunt Arsenal once more, with the absence of Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey costing them dearly. The uncertainty behind Takehiro Tomiyasu’s calf problem caused panic, but Cedric Soares brilliantly covered for the Japanese right-back.

There were flashbacks from last season as Tierney and Partey severely cost the Gunners some all-important points through their absence. Untimely defeats to Crystal Palace, Brighton & Hove Albion and Southampton cost Arsenal points that could have taken them well clear of Tottenham and maybe close to Chelsea or even beyond them, had things gone to plan.

While fans will blame the defeats to Spurs and Newcastle, the earlier losses were the real reason for losing out on the fourth spot. When Arteta drafted in Mohamed Elneny for subsequent games against Chelsea, Manchester United and West Ham United, the value of the Egyptian’s experience was abundantly clear.

Crucially, the absence of a prolific goalscorer might have been the difference. Arsenal have found a newfound goalscoring edge with their wide attackers, but Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were utterly disappointing. The Frenchman was guilty of missing many chances, which could have propelled the Gunners into a good position.

Arteta may rue Arsenal’s inability to bring in a centre-forward, despite their best efforts. Had that new striker put half the chances Lacazette got, the Gunners might have been in a different position. The Gunners have a chance to address the issue in a big way in the summer, as they have to get a prolific No.9 or miss out on another season of success.

Realistically, can Arsenal challenge the Premier League elite?

The real quality of this Arsenal team was evident in their acrimonious loss to Manchester City at the Emirates. The vocal support of the Emirates faithful was a surprise considering most fans had written the Gunners off even before the game began, and their performance was a welcome surprise.

The sheer intensity of their play to put Pep Guardiola’s side under pressure and eventually get the opener brought a sense of optimism, despite their defeat. Arsenal performed similarly against Liverpool in the Carabao Cup, and later in the league, which is evidence of their progress.

Arteta managed this with a thin squad and without a proven goalscorer. Arsenal’s ability to rise and challenge the top teams will depend on their recruitment and Arteta’s proficiency in tightening his system. Catching Liverpool and Manchester City might take a few years, but Chelsea should be their target for next season.

Realistically, the Gunners could spring a surprise next season on the basis of their overall performances against the big teams. However, some of Arsenal’s displays against teams they were expected to beat caused a bit of panic among the supporters and probably cost them a place in the Champions League.

Verdict: The next rebuild phase has to be perfect

Two and a half years, over £230 million spent, and all Arsenal have managed is a strong fifth-placed finish. Statistics speak volumes, and the Gunners have posted near-identical numbers in the last two seasons. They have allowed eight goals more than 2020/21 and scored only six additional goals from the previous campaign.

They lost exactly 13 games in both campaigns, with the only tangible difference coming in their overall wins tally, giving them more points in 2021/22. Now the numbers do not justify the progress made under Arteta, but they could come back to haunt Arsenal if they endure a terrible start to their season.

Arteta and Edu need to get the summer business spot on. Arsenal cannot afford a single mistake with their recruitment, and player identification must be perfect from all angles. Last August, they showed they could have an exceptional window, and a repeat performance can boost their chances in the coming campaign.

In addition to extending the contracts of Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and William Saliba, Arsenal desperately need a striker, a left midfielder, a wide attacker and a full-back to strengthen the team. If Arsenal get this list right, they might even shock everyone with a surprise title challenge. For now, it is time for Arteta to reflect and refresh before it will inevitably be time for the churn.

Comments 3

  1. Big Mal says:

    There is a contrary argument. Arsenal got knocked out of both cups early and had no Europe to distract them. They had the luxury of planning for one game per week and still failed to end top 4. Tottenham had to recover from Nuno; United had CL. So of the 6 credible teams, Arsenal came 5th buoyed latterly by a bizarre team selection by Chelsea and a season’s worth of luck against Man U. Having gone 4 points clear with 3 games to go, they needed a solid performance against Tottenham. Time for the experienced players to lead and the allegedly brilliant youngsters to perform. The youngsters were awful. They didn’t show up and were blown away. The more experienced players aren’t good enough. Arsenal still need a massive rebuild. This was their best chance of ending top 4 for years and they completely blew it against Tottenham and Newcastle. As soon as the pressure was off, surprise, surprise, they beat Everton making their gutless performances against Tottenham and Newcastle even more disgraceful. Sixth is the very best Arsenal can hope for as Man U, Chelsea and even Tottenham are going to be spending big. If Newcastle get their act together quickly even the top 6 may be tough. There are far too many youngsters in the Arsenal side and they may well not kick on. Everyone believes they will but the evidence shows that just as many regress as develop. Those who do may decide to leave. Arsenal have an inexperienced manager who could not handle the pressure. He resides over a leader less team – Xhaka is not a leader, he’s an idiot – and seems to want to pack his side with youngsters presumably because they won’t threaten the little authority he has. I doubt he’ll last next season. The deluded fan base will expect 4th which won’t happen. Tough times ahead and the best chance of ending 4th gone in 2 shambolic performances that a top manager and decent side would never have allowed to happen

  2. jod says:

    Trying to make sense of last season is a hopeless task. Spurs beat City twice but lost at home to Brighton and Wolves. United were so bad they made everyone else look good in comparison. Nobody actually seemed to want fourth place. If it weren’t for all their European games I have a feeling West Ham would have got the last Champions League spot. Fans always seem to think next season will be like last season but I don’t see it. Last season was a one off and I suspect the competition will be much tougher next time. Arsenal may well find a better level of performance results in a lower final league position.

  3. Big Mal says:

    I agree with most of that except West Ham are no where near good enough for top 4 irrespective of European football. I always felt Conte would get Tottenham over the line. Let’s face it he was only up against Arteta and Rangnick. Imagine failing to end 4th when they are the competition

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