“Thanks for the love,” read a banner displayed on the pitch after the final whistle at the Emirates Stadium. There has been a lot of it. Arsenal’s 5-1 win over Everton was the latest reminder of how the energy and atmosphere around the club has changed.
The result was not enough to secure a Champions League finish. “We needed a miracle and it did not occur,” said a rueful Mikel Arteta in his post-match press conference.
But the transformation of the mood could be seen in those scenes after the game. It could be seen the way Granit Xhaka, a player who cupped his ear to the boos of his own supporters at this stage not so long ago, was given a thunderous standing ovation when he was substituted in the second half.
This young Arsenal side may have lost the top-four race but they have won the hearts of their supporters and they have provided reasons for optimism on the pitch as well as off it.
Arteta said the pain of Monday’s costly defeat at Newcastle was still too raw for him to make a “fair assessment” of Arsenal’s season. But when he does he will find plenty of positives.
Arsenal’s total of 69 points would have been enough to secure Champions League qualification in three of the last six seasons and while it is not yet as high as Arteta would like, it still represents a significant increase on the last two.
It is not the only metric to show year-on-year improvement since his appointment. “When we look at larger trends, those trends are very much pointing in the right direction,” said director Josh Kroenke on Sunday. Perhaps most strikingly, Arsenal’s win rate has leapt from 45 per cent in 2019/20 to 58 per cent this season.
Results have improved and so too have performances.
Arteta inherited a side with major frailties at both ends of the pitch when he took over from Unai Emery in 2019. The issues could be seen in the underlying numbers as they finished his first campaign in charge with a negative net expected goals figure.
But there was dramatic improvement on that front last season – even if a second consecutive eighth-placed finish did not exactly scream progress – and the trend continued in 2021/22.
The expected goals data previously placed Arsenal in the bottom half of the Premier League but after two years of steady progress under Arteta, they are now firmly among the division’s elite.
In fact, this season, they finished behind only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea in terms of expected goals. Arsenal also ranked fourth for shots attempted.
It is a dramatic improvement given they ranked 13th and 15th in the same metrics only two seasons ago, and the profile of the side – Arsenal are the only team in the Premier League with an average age of under 25 – should allow for continued improvement.
A lack of creativity was one of Arsenal’s biggest problems at the start of Arteta’s tenure but an area of weakness has become one of considerable strength, both collectively and on an individual level.
Martin Odegaard ranks second in the Premier League for chances created from open play – above Kevin de Bruyne and Mohamed Salah and behind only Bruno Fernandes – while Bukayo Saka is sixth.
The problem, of course, is that Arsenal have not been able to capitalize on that creativity nearly often enough.
Their 14.6 per cent shot conversion rate puts them 12th. Arsenal scored roughly eight goals fewer than them should have, based on the quality of chances they created.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang found the net just four times in 14 Premier League games before his departure to Barcelona in January, while Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah only managed nine between them over the course of the entire campaign.
Arteta is well aware of the need for more firepower – “without goal threat, you have nothing,” he said in conversation with Sky Sports in March – and the urgency is even greater given Lacazette and Nketiah are expected to follow Aubameyang out of the club this summer.
The hope, though, is that finding a striker – or strikers – capable of finishing off scoring chances more consistently will be a far simpler task than building a team which creates enough of them. The club’s recent record in terms of recruitment offers further encouragement.
The decision not to strengthen in January was of course an unpopular one but it was born out of a determination not to repeat the mistakes of the past and the players they Garden brought in over the course of the last year have mostly contributed positively.
Indeed, while the signings of Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Odegaard were all questioned to varying degrees last summer, all four have excelled, hinting at sound processes off the pitch as well as on it.
Arsenal will need to be similarly shrewd this summer, at the same time knowing the demands are different. Last year, they targeted players aged 23 or under in order to lower the average age of the squad. The next step is to complement that youth with more experience.
Arteta acknowledged Arsenal have more room to be “flexible” in that regard back in March and the last few weeks of the season underlined why. When it came to the crunch, in the games against Tottenham and Newcastle, his young side wilted.
It was a similar story in a string of high-stakes away games earlier in the campaign and they finish it having only won four points from losing positions, the lowest total in the division along with Norwich.
There is an obvious need for greater maturity in the face of adversity and Arsenal must also prepare for the prospect of a potentially draining Europa League campaign.
Arteta made just 63 line-up changes over the course of the Premier League season – the fewest of any manager. It was an approach born out of necessity, at least to some extent, but it will not be an option for him as he juggles a busier schedule next season.
Greater strength in depth will be imperative and much will depend on what Arsenal can do in this summer’s transfer window.
But what’s certain is that the picture looks far more positive than it once did. The Champions League remains agonisingly out of reach for now but the progress is clear and the future is bright.