Alex Keble takes a look ahead to Arsenal's 2020/21 season and predicts Mikel Arteta will inspire a major upturn in form...
"Despite the disappointments of the last 12 months, supporters are feeling more optimistic about Arsenal than they have for a decade."
At the beginning of the season many Arsenal fans expected Unai Emery to kick on and challenge for the Champions League places. Instead, the Gunners finished in eighth place and won 56 points, their lowest return since 1995. It says a lot about just how chaotic and confounding the 2019/20 campaign has been that despite those figures, despite the disappointments of the last 12 months, supporters are feeling more optimistic about Arsenal than they have for a decade.
That is the power of optimism; that is the value of hiring a charismatic young manager with a clear tactical identity. Mikel Arteta is averaging 1.6 points-per-game since taking charge in December, barely higher than the 1.4 achieved in the opening third of the season by Emery. And yet everything feels different.
After years of stagnation, Arsenal are finally going somewhere. Lifting the FA Cup last weekend was merely a bonus. Arteta is rightly aiming higher.
Tactical revolution at the Emirates
Within a couple of games of his appointment Arteta showed just how detailed and decisive his tactics would be at Arsenal. The Pep Guardiola influence is obvious, as Arsenal immediately began to play with an obvious vision and with positional discipline, the players spread evenly across the width and depth of the pitch in a compressed shape.
They have been consistently undermined by individual errors, of course, while creating chances remains an issue, the last thing that comes together in high-tempo possession football is the final couple of passes; the interchanges that pull a defence out of shape). But the foundations are being laid down faster than anyone could have expected.
Like Guardiola, Arteta is coaching automatisms, moves built into muscle memory that offer the illusion of improvisation. This takes intelligence and discipline, but it also takes time and the collective belief of the players. It is impressive, then, that already we see these intricate moves taking place in short bursts, with players rotating positions unthinkingly, synchronising their movements to control matches.
These things are hard to capture in statistics, and since Arsenal's results remain below par there are many who will challenge the supposition of a tactical revolution taking place at the Emirates. But there is a good reason why Arsenal fans are all-in, and the players too. A lot of what Arsenal are doing in the middle of the park - with action at both ends still ropey, still under construction - mimics how Guardiola's Manchester City looked in his patchy first term at the Etihad.
Arteta is sculpting the young players
Across multiple different formations and game-plans, from controlling possession to hitting opposition weak spots on the counter-attack, Arteta is clearly favouring the club's academy graduates. This is a very positive sign for the years ahead: young players are easier to teach, are both better listeners and more malleable as their brains continue to develop.
Bukayo Saka has been the standout, his brilliant positional play and clever movement between the lines symbolising the good work Arteta has done so far. Nicolas Pepe, Eddie Nketiah, Gabriel Martinelli, and Reiss Nelson have all improved considerably, while more recently Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Kieran Tierney have come to the fore.
If, as it would appear, Arteta has a Klopp-esque ability to improve individuals then Arsenal's superb academy can finally be taking full advantage of, allowing the club to make up the gap to the Premier League's wealthier clubs.
Issues that needs fixing
But there is still plenty of work ahead. Signing Dani Ceballos from Real Madrid and getting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang tied down are the two biggest priorities, even if all that would do is enable Arsenal to stand still. They clearly need another creative midfielder, as well as midfield reinforcements and a couple of centre-backs.
Such is the sophistication of what Arteta is attempting to pull off, it does not make sense to highlight specific tactical problems that need solving. Instead, Arsenal must improve the quality of the playing squad and save deeper assessment of flaws (many of which are inherited from the Emery era) for a later date.
The pursuit of Philippe Coutinho is good news for Arsenal fans.
Coutinho's output at Barcelona and Bayern Munich hasn't been great, but neither club utilised the Brazilian as a number eight, the role Jurgen Klopp converted Coutinho into towards the end of his Liverpool career. His experience in a high-pressing team at Anfield, creating chances from false-eight positions like Kevin de Bruyne or David Silva at Man City, makes him ideal for Arteta. He can be the modern version of Mesut Ozil that the club needs.
Thomas Partey would also add tenacity and line-breaking intelligence into central midfield. Sevilla's Diego Carlos and free agent Malang Sarr are the main rumours, reflecting the lack of funds available for Arsenal to sign the commanding centre-back they need.
Realistic aims for 2020/21
A lack of transfer money is the biggest threat to Arteta's rebuilding project, and it is certainly the reason why it is unrealistic to expect Arsenal to overtake many members of the Premier League's traditional 'Big Six' in 2020/21. Manchester United and Chelsea have the spending power to out-rank Arsenal, while Tottenham Hotspur start from a higher position than the Gunners.
Nevertheless, Arteta can certainly make Arsenal into a far more consistent side next year, and keep them in the hunt for a Champions League spot for most of the season.