Even by Arsenal’s declining standards, the 2019/20 season should be venerated for its anarchy. The characteristics of their implosion – namely an inept defence, void of leadership, dire away form and deep divide between players and supporters – are by now deeply ingrained into the club’s recent history. But, in those early months under Unai Emery, each flaw and strain, fracture and argument, seemed to be put under a magnifying glass until they each erupted into flames.
Granit Xhaka swearing into rafts of empty seats; Mesut Ozil maiming a glove after being substituted; a best-forgotten Europa League campaign; a bumbling manager and an adored but ultimately helpless caretaker. If this is the latent hangover from Arsene Wenger’s departure, it has been more crippling than anyone might have imagined. This is, after all, a club who only narrowly missed out on the top four last season in what was then already considered a total unravelling.
For Mikel Arteta, the task of rebuilding Arsenal from their rubble was already foreboding. The club is, at this stage, clinging on for a place in Europe next season. The very distinct possibility of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s departure this summer, whose 17 goals this season have provided a safety net from free fall, is a lightning rod for instability. Then there are the infinite equations of solidifying a defence featuring David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi, or distilling Mesut Ozil’s flickering shades of form into anything resembling tangible consistency.
It is, by any measure, an unenviable challenge. Especially considering that even with the transfer window coming, there will be little freedom for any significant outlay after the majority of the squad accepted a 12.5 per cent pay cut.
But then, if that all sounds a little too ominous, there have been a few stars born out of the chaos. Bukayo Saka has established himself as one of the most exciting teenage players in world football. Gabriel Martinelli, whose breathtaking 80-yard run and finish against Chelsea felt like a watershed moment, already has 10 goals in his first season outside of Brazil. In those weeks before football’s suspension, Arteta had even begun to coax a little of the evident but elusive talent out of Nicolas Pepe.
The morale of the squad, too, has been totally transformed – an essential basis for the drastic overhaul Arteta is seeking to implement. And, with that, results have followed, winning four of their last five Premier League games, even if those were punctuated by a devastating last-minute defeat by Olympiacos.
So the enforced break – triggered by Arteta’s own positive test for coronavirus – will have given the head coach ample time to reflect on his brief tenure. A pause to analyse the improvements and examine the weaknesses in a side that is now starting to re-emerge from its ashes.
With such shackling financial consequences if the club fail to secure a European spot for next season, there’s little room left for any false starts.