Whatever Arsenal actually accomplished, and whatever they actually promise after yesterday’s FA Cup triumph over Chelsea, there’s hope. Hope that new manager Mikel Arteta is ready to take the club beyond where Unai Emery did, beyond where legend Arsene Wenger left them before that, and hope that he can either convince owner Stan Kroenke to get the moths out of his wallet or work miracles with the limitations that Kroenke gleefully imposes.
Three weeks ago, we sat here and laughed at their defensive shortcomings in another loss, this time to North London bunkmates Tottenham, as Sead Kolasinac Elmer Fudded Arsenal’s lead away. It seemed to consign them to another season outside of Europe, which it did. They finished eighth. Since that day, however, they’ve beaten Liverpool in league play and Manchester City, and then yesterday Chelsea to win the FA Cup. It certainly is a few feathers in the cap. Though, in that time, they also lost to Aston Villa and did their best to blow a three-goal lead to Watford on the final day of the league season.
While an actual trophy always promises bigger things in the future, Emery took them to the Europa League final last year, even with his reactive tactics. And perhaps that’s what has Arsenal fans so excited: that at the very least Arteta has instilled any kind of “style” that they can identify, instead of always sending the team out to counter the opposition, as Emery was wont to do.
Still, the stats don’t really back up any kind of “revolution” under Arteta. Before Arteta was hired, the Gunners averaged 1.49 expected goals for in matches and surrendered 1.31 expected goals per game (expected goals are calculated by the types and amounts of chances created and conceded and how many actual goals those chances resulted in over a span of years). Since Arteta’s hiring, Arsenal have averaged 1.34 xG and 1.41 xGA. Which means they’ve actually produced less good chances and conceded more.
What Arsenal did get is sublime performances at each end of the field that allowed them to outperform what the numbers say they should have put forth. In just nine league games, goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez saved Arsenal from four goals the team should have given up, according to the metrics. His performances in the FA Cup were just as good. For comparison’s sake, the man he replaced, Bernd Leno, had a +6.5 difference between expected goals and actual goals allowed over 30 games. Roughly, at that rate, Martinez would have gained Arsenal eight points in the table over a full season. Martinez had the seventh-best mark in this category among all keepers in the Premier League despite playing only nine games. He had a better difference than Alisson, De Gea, and Ederson.
At the other end of the pitch, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang became a fire demon. Two goals each in the semifinal and final, 29 goals over the whole season, and he outscored his expected output by seven goals in the league, the largest margin by any player. Your process doesn’t matter as much when the guys who are paid to keep out goals and score them do their jobs at a worldly level. That is the name of the game, after all. And world-class players outperform their expected metrics. It’s what makes them world-class. Aubameyang is at that level, but the goalkeeping?
It’s Aubameyang who holds just about every key towards Arsenal’s future. He’s 30 now, which generally means he’s at the very end of his prime. Based on his performances this season, he’s still some distance from a retirement tour in MLS. At the same time, the metrics suggest he’s in for a decline. He also only has one year left on his contract, and even with their FA Cup triumph, Arsenal can only offer him Europa League football. Bigger clubs have been sniffing around him all season, and the call of the Champions League and a bigger paycheck are always a threat to take any player of his ilk away from a club like Arsenal and where they are.
It would also help to convince Aubameyang to stay if the club could surround him with more talent. Since Kroenke took control of the club, they’ve been pretty fucking stingy, even with last summer’s splash for Nicolas Pepe. Pepe, Aubameyang, and Alex Lacazette remain the only players Arsenal have paid more than £50 million for, and compared with the money that both Manchesters, Chelsea, and Liverpool can and have thrown around, they’ll need some others. Europa League brings in more money, but is it enough?
However, it isn’t fair to chalk Arteta’s successes to simply luck, goalkeeping, and Aubameyang. Arsenal have shown a steel of late that wouldn’t have been found within a zip code of Emery’s or Wenger’s teams. Even yesterday, Arsenal went down a goal and battled back, something they were famous for not doing for years. Emery’s teams and Wenger’s last few needed little excuse to say “fuck it.” He has rescued the Arsenal career of Granit Xhaka, as well as turned Dani Ceballos into a shielding force in midfield next to Xhaka. Ceballos is only on a year-loan from Real Madrid, and will be another test of Kroenke’s willingness to spend to strengthen.
And Arteta has been far more eager to bring in players from the younger side of the spectrum. Kieran Tierney has looked dynamite either as a left back or as part of a back-three. Arteta seems to have finally unlocked Ashley Maitland-Niles, who terrorized Chelsea yesterday down the left. Bukayo Sako and Eddie Nkietah have shown glimpses of being awfully tasty in the near future. They can all start to fill some of the holes they have, just not all.
Trophies last forever, and certainly look and feel better than losing a final like Arsenal did last year (and incredibly meekly). Beating Chelsea in a final instead of utterly surrendering to them as they did last May in Baku feels like a turnaround, or at least progression. But the underlying problems are still very much there, and the process might have only incrementally improved. There’s still a very long way to go, and if Aubameyang isn’t kept or his output matches his metrics it only gets longer. Arteta might be the answer, but he’ll need help from ownership. No one can say for sure if he’ll get it.