Achieving a spot in the top-four this season was always going to be a tall order for Arsenal. After all, the side is arguably the weakest of the top six teams in the Premier League. To couple that with the addition of a new manager and a lack of financial strength is not a recipe for immediate success. Nonetheless, Arsenal found themselves in the discussion for Champions League football up till the penultimate weekend of the season. Considering the woeful performances by their competitors this season and the subsequent inability to capitalize on this opportunity makes it feel like another disappointment, but it is far from it.
Just looking at the past four Premier League games, it would be easy to call the 2018/19 season a complete failure. The Gunners were in control of their own fate. A couple of wins especially in their two home matches and Arsenal would have qualified for the Champions League. Terms such as “Bottlejobs FC” and “Banter FC” have been thrown around to describe the complete capitulation of a great set of circumstances spurned by the players and the manager. None of these people are wrong, but Arsenal were expected to come up short since the beginning of the season.
The foundation constructed by Arsène Wenger was still in place come the first match of the season at home against Manchester City. Even with the addition of players such as Bernd Leno, Sokratis, Matteo Guendouzi, and Lucas Torreira, the back line was still very much a work in progress and the midfield remained an uncertainty. The “weak mentality” ascribed to players like Mesut Özil, Shkodran Mustafi, and Granit Xhaka was never proven incorrect. This is not meant to cast aspersions on Wenger. He is not at fault for the entirety of the issues the club faces today. Whether he was merely forced to make due with limited budgets or placing to much trust in players that let him down, Arsène Wenger will always be a legend at the club.
Commentators and pundits continually mentioned that it was going to take multiple seasons for Unai Emery to create an environment to his liking. New players that suit the system Emery prefers to implement can not be brought in over the course of one season. The Spaniard also needs to gain tactical awareness about England’s top flight and how his system needs to be adjusted to become effective. Emery preferred to use either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 formation during his other managerial stints. Unfortunately, Arsenal do not have enough stability in the back to play anything other than a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3. These formations also require a different emphasis on the counter-attack and in build up play, which runs in contradiction to Emery’s strategic preference. The overall implication is that Emery does not have the quality of players in the necessary positions for him to play the style that best suits him.
Inconsistency signifies an underlying issue of confidence, depth, or the absence of tactical adjustments. This is not a revolutionary thought. The quality is clearly there for a side to travel to Napoli, where only Juventus managed to win this season, and hold on to a 1-0 victory. Yet, for Arsenal to return home to the Emirates and surrender three goals to Crystal Palace in a 3-1 defeat highlights a deeper illness that must be remedied. The Gunners have a better squad than Crystal Palace and are arguably weaker than Napoli, but the results were the opposite of what would have been suggested.
Arsenal endured a plethora of injuries to key areas of the pitch. Héctor Bellerín and Rob Holding were both influential players to Arsenal’s unbeaten run in the fall of 2018. Both suffered season ending injuries that left positions already lacking depth now all but devoid of such important players. Holding, for example, was experiencing what could only be described as a break out season, while Bellerín was still an upgrade over Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Stephan Lichtsteiner.
The Gunners are still in contention in the Europa League as they travel to Valencia with a 3-1 lead after the first leg in the semi-finals. If Arsenal can win the Europa League, all will have been forgotten. After all, the primary goal for the North London side is to achieve Champions League football for the next season. Arsenal are currently not a top-four side as difficult as that is to say. They may not even be a top-four club next season with at least Manchester United expected to markedly improve. Supporters have to remember that regardless of how close the club came to getting into the top-four, only to hit a stretch of bad form when it mattered most, signifies that the club’s long journey to the top is still a work in progress.
There comes a point where placing blame on a certain player, the manager, or the board and owner attempts to provide a false sense of justifiable answers. The club as a whole is not at the state where the supporters expect, and rightfully so. That does not mean that Unai Emery is not the right man for the job or that most players are not up to the task. Should Arsenal fail to win the Europa League then this season is a failure, but that does insinuate that Arsenal are a failed club.