Whichever way you look at it, Mikel Arteta’s first full season in charge of Arsenal has been underwhelming at best. An eighth place finish means an end to a run of 25 successive campaigns in Europe, a record the club were extremely proud of.
There have been calls for his head from some sections of the fanbase while others have insisted he requires more time – he’s wasted no time in taking over from Mesut Ozil as the most divisive figure at the club.
Here’s a review of Arsenal‘s season by way of a report card, complete with a final grade.
Premier League – 8th
Despite finishing on 61 points – five more than the Gunners achieved during the 2019/20 season – they were unable to improve on their eighth-placed finish. Last season, a total of 61 points would have seen the club finish 6th, but this time around it wasn’t even good enough to see them sneak into the Europa Conference League.
13 defeats is simply unacceptable for a club the size of Arsenal, especially when you consider seven of those came at the Emirates Stadium. Inconsistency has been their biggest problem and many have put that down to the manager’s tinkering, his overly defensive tactics at times, and his failure to strike the right balance in the first half of the season.
To be fair to Arteta, their Premier League form since Christmas has improved dramatically with only Manchester United and Manchester City picking up more points than the north Londoners during that period. Signs of progress?
The decision to abandon the back three and introduce a specialist creative midfielder to the mix has led to the team creating more chances, scoring more goals and subsequently picking up more points. Emile Smith Rowe’s emergence has been key in the improvement as has the arrival of Martin Odegaard on loan. It’s proved to be too little too late but if we’re to criticise the Arsenal boss’ approach in the early part of the season, it’s only fair we give him credit when something he implements has a positive impact.
FA Cup – Fourth round
Considering the Gunners were the holders going into this season, their defence of the cup which endeared Arteta to the Arsenal faithful after an uninspiring start to his managerial career was incredibly disappointing.
Squad rotation saw them name a significantly weaker side for the trip to Southampton and they deserved to be eliminated for failing to respect the competition.
Carabao Cup – Quarter-final
Arsenal registered victories away at Leicester City and Liverpool on their way to the quarter-finals but Manchester City proved too strong, defeating the Gunners 4-1 at the Emirates Stadium and eliminating them from the competition.
Europa League – Semi-final
On the face of it, reaching the semi-finals of a European competition feels like a respectable achievement. However, the nature of Arsenal’s exit, at the hands of their former boss Unai Emery and his Villarreal side, made it a far more difficult pill to swallow for the Gunners faithful.
Arteta made some strange decisions over the two legs, most notably, opting to start the first-leg without a recognised striker and for many fans that was the last straw with regards to the Spaniard.
The fact Arsenal were out of the Champions League race domestically added greater significance to their Europa League campaign and having seemingly placed all their eggs in that one basket, their failure to reach the final has got to be seen as a major disappointment.
Bukayo Saka has proven himself to be mature beyond his years, versatile in a way that makes him a manager’s dream. For the most part this season, he has been incredibly consistent. His form has dropped off in recent weeks but at just 19-years-old, it’s to be expected.
Granit Xhaka and Alexandre Lacazette were certainly contenders too. Despite the pair being the subjects of harsh criticism in recent seasons, it’s impossible to deny they’ve been two of Arsenal’s most consistent performers.
However, the England international is a worthy winner when it comes to selecting Arteta’s best performer this season.
When it comes to identifying Arsenal’s single worst player of the season, you needn’t look any further than Willian. The Brazilian joined the club on a three-year deal last summer but despite Arteta persisting with him at the start of the campaign, it became abundantly clear very early on that this transfer simply wasn’t going to work out.
The former Chelsea man was left out of the squad completely for the final game of the season with rumours rife he is looking to move to MLS this summer.
Ultimately, when a team underachieves, the buck stops with the manager. While most Arsenal fans would acknowledge the squad needs major surgery, it would be disingenuous to suggest Arteta doesn’t have more talent at his disposal than the likes of West Ham United, who finished above the Gunners.
At times, he’s overcomplicated things and his obsession with changing the culture at the club has led to him cutting his nose off to spite his face – leaving key players out at key moments and allowing others to leave on loan despite being short in their respective positions.
There have been some positives, most notably the team’s overall improvement defensively but make no mistake about it, Arteta will be under immense pressure from the very start of next season.
Disappointment is the overriding feeling following the 2020/21 campaign.