Arsenal fall just short of Man City in title race but their best is yet to come under ruthless, relentless Mikel Arteta

football Monday 20 May 2024 17:14, UK

Arsenal fall just short of Man City in title race but their best is yet to come under ruthless, relentless Mikel Arteta

Arsenal's painful second-placed finish will have supporters rueing points dropped earlier in the season. If only they had converted some of their first-half chances against Aston Villa in April. If only they had held on to beat 10-man Fulham in August.

But despite the inevitable feeling of deflation that comes with losing out to Manchester City again, it is difficult to be critical. This Arsenal side have amassed the second-highest points total in the club's history. They have won more games than the Invincibles.

Last season, they faded, their performances deteriorating at a crucial point of the campaign and prompting scrutiny of their character. This time, they got stronger, taking 49 points from a possible 54 after the turn of the year and only losing once.

The problem, of course, was that City did something similar, taking 51 points from a possible 57 in the same timeframe and finishing, as they do, with a run of nine consecutive wins.

They have set new standards in the Premier League under Pep Guardiola. Prior to his arrival, the 90-point mark was only reached in six out of 24 seasons. Since then, it is six in eight.

There are 115 reasons why City's dominance may one day require reassessment. Those alleged breaches of the Premier League's financial rules loom over their achievements.

But Arsenal must continue to focus on themselves, and on maintaining the pattern of incremental improvement that has underpinned Mikel Arteta's time in charge.

The progress has not always been obvious. Arsenal's FA Cup win in 2020, only months after Arteta's mid-season appointment in 2019, provided early evidence of his tactical acumen. But back-to-back eighth-placed finishes in the Premier League invited criticism.

Even then, though, as Arteta was beginning the arduous process of overhauling a bloated, imbalanced playing squad and battling issues that predated his arrival, there was evidence, on the pitch as well as off it, that Arsenal were moving in the right direction.

The data underlying their performances is compelling.

Arsenal's expected goal difference, a metric regarded as a key performance indicator by clubs which essentially measures the quality of chances a team creates against the ones they concede, has increased, and significantly, in every season under Arteta.

Those underlying figures now place them above even City. It is worth noting that this is only the second time in the last seven Premier League seasons that the team sitting top in terms of expected goal difference at the end of the campaign has not won the title.

The numbers are a testament to just how good Arsenal have been and while they do not mitigate the pain felt by supporters as they watch City lift the Premier League trophy once again, they do at least offer cause for optimism about what comes next.

At some point, of course, Arsenal will plateau. Their performance levels might even begin to regress. For now, though, it seems much more likely that their improvement will continue.

The age profile of the squad is a cause for optimism.

Arsenal's starting line-up is the third-youngest in the division, leaving significant room for improvement. None of the players you would consider their most important, from William Saliba, Gabriel Magalhaes, Ben White and Declan Rice to Bukayo Saka, Kai Havertz and Martin Odegaard, is older than 26.

The same cannot be said of their rivals.

At City, Kyle Walker will be 34 at the start of next season while Kevin De Bruyne will be 33. Mateo Kovacic is turning 31. Bernardo Silva and John Stones are entering their 30s too.

Those players are showing few signs of slowing down right now. But City's need for renewal is clearly more pressing than Arsenal's and so is Liverpool's post-Jurgen Klopp. There is a decision to be made on Mohamed Salah, who is 32 in June. Virgil van Dijk is turning 33.

Arsenal's squad still requires work, of course. There is room for strengthening in midfield and attack. But the quality of their recent recruitment offers further encouragement.

Jurrien Timber's first season was effectively wiped out by injury but, with the possible exception of Fabio Vieira, who is yet to flourish following his £34m arrival from Porto, every one of the club's major additions over the last three years has contributed positively.

Arteta, sporting director Edu and the club's decision-makers are closely aligned. The processes behind their recruitment decisions are sound. Rice's preference for Arsenal over City last summer also underlined the growing appeal of their project to top players.

Most important of all, though, and intertwined with the increasing attractiveness of this Arsenal project, is the manager presiding over it all. Their reemergence as contenders owes more to Arteta than any player. As does the brightness of their future prospects.

The 42-year-old has overseen a total transformation of the club. And while he admits Guardiola is a huge influence, it is clear he is his own man, attuned to Arsenal's identity having served as captain under Arsene Wenger, but not bound by idealism.

Of course, like Wenger's teams, this Arsenal side are capable of breathtakingly intricate approach play. But dominating the ball is not a prerequisite. In fact, when the circumstances demand it, they are just as comfortable absorbing pressure in a low block.

Arsenal, a side identified by their passing prowess under Wenger, actually rank sixth among Premier League clubs for possession this season. Their biggest strength, to quote Luton boss Rob Edwards, speaking in April, is that "they can play any type of game".

The defensive flakiness that dogged Arsenal's late Wenger-era teams has been replaced by steeliness. Arsenal are capable of dominating opponents physically as well as technically. It is difficult to even create chances against them, let alone score.

"You want to maintain all the qualities we had in the past and keep improving," Arteta told Sky Sports when asked about this process of adapting the club's identity in an interview at London Colney in March. "Add, and add, and add, without losing anything."

The result is that Arsenal are a less predictable and more complete side. Arteta is a pragmatist, ultimately, his priority being to win by any means necessary, and the Gunners are better for it.

His willingness to embrace every facet of the game is evident in his attitude towards set-pieces. Arsenal have scored more goals from dead-ball situations than any other Premier League side this season. Their total of 22 is their highest since the competition began.

It all starts with Arteta, whose relentless desire for improvement, and willingness to adapt and evolve his principles in order to achieve it, was apparent right at the start of his journey into management, when he was studying for his badges at the Welsh FA.

"He had an unbelievable amount of humility and he was engrossed in everything," David Adams, now the Welsh FA's chief footballing officer, tells Sky Sports. "I think he realised quite quickly that, in order to be successful as a manager, he had to innovate and adapt.

"He was very strongly influenced by the Barcelona, Pep Guardiola way of playing. But it was obvious that he was adjusting his overarching philosophy into something unique to him."

He made a similar impression on Joao Tralhao, a course-mate of Arteta's in Wales and former coach at Benfica. "One of the standout things from him is his mentality," he says to Sky Sports. "He is always trying to find innovation and prepares himself for everything.

"Sometimes, when you speak to someone, you know immediately how humble they are," he adds. "That is what Mikel is like, humble, focused and always open to learning.

"They are qualities you can find in the best coaches in the world."

They are qualities Arteta has applied throughout his time in charge of Arsenal and what has also become apparent is that they are complemented by a ruthless streak.

Arsenal's dressing room has been free of disruptive personalities since Mesut Ozil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Matteo Guendouzi and others were culled. But Arteta continues to act decisively in the interests of the team, even if it draws protest.

The decision to replace Aaron Ramsdale with David Raya was unpopular but has been vindicated. So too has signing Havertz after selling Granit Xhaka. Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, transformative last season, can no longer get in the team.

The evolution of the side has been rapid and recent history suggests Arteta will stop at nothing to continue the process next season.

"You have to be ahead of the game," he told Sky Sports in another interview at London Colney in April 2022. "You have to try to understand what can happen next, and how you are going to be first to make that decision and take advantage of it."

It remains to be seen how those next steps will manifest. For now, supporters will continue to rue the dropped points and if onlys. But there is reason to believe that Arteta and Arsenal will come back stronger, and that this thrilling young side's best is yet to come.