So, I ended up going about this Arsenal story save a little differently than I had first planned. Originally, I wanted to do update pieces for each month of the season completed, but a few factors have cropped up that have since made me change direction.
For starters, monthly updates would leave little actual content to share and discuss. There is no point putting out 400-word pieces on as little as three matches if there is an international break. As such, I opted for two big updates and simply splitting the season right down the middle.
Another factor is that, truthfully, this save has not been near as fun or challenging as I would have expected. Despite my restrictions and parameters that I had set for myself in this save, it is still far too easy to achieve them for several reasons.
Regardless of the target of instilling a self-sustaining model at Arsenal, there is still access to loads of money with which I can solve any potential issue. In that same light, though I am committed to never spending more than ₤40m on a player, there is so much talent in the world for a club of Arsenal’s size and stature to bring in at that price point, and even lower. My goal of reaching the top of the Premier League ladder in said model is still quite achievable despite this.
Lastly, I remember now why I do not like doing saves in the Premier League; the money. There is just far too much for any and all participants that – much like real life – it just becomes a veritable whos-who of the footballing world; both recognized stars and gifted youngsters. After this save I will absolutely be returning to my preferred location of Germany, but may also branch out to France, Italy, or Portugal.
With that being said, here is the first of two updates on the first season at Arsenal without Arsène Wenger.
No long-term solution comes easy. As the Premier League program kicked off for Arsenal, my goalscoring struggles from pre-season remained a constant throughout the rest of August. Luckily, I have faired far better at the back than I have further forward.
Perhaps a bit unexpectedly, I was 3-0-0 going into the first big test of the season; United away. Despite three clean sheets on the spin, I still was not particularly confident. Just three goals in three matches are all I could conjure up, even with dominating each outing. The performances overall had been good all things considered but our apparent inability to finish moves off was becoming quite the worry.
United was in decent form in the run-up, beating Liverpool 4-1 on opening weekend, drawing 3-3 away to Watford, but rebounding 3-2 at Leicester. Romelu Lukaku topped the goal charts with 6; double the output of my entire team. Thankfully for me, he was unavailable for selection due to injury. Juan Mata was perched atop the league in assists on 5. I was up against it in all manner of respects despite my record.
Rather than deploy in my usual 4-2-3-1, I opted for more solidity in midfield while utilizing my pace on the counter-attack and deployed in a 4-3-3. Mesut Özil was dropped to the bench, Lucas Torreira moved into a dedicated DM role, and Mohamed Elneny came into the XI alongside Aaron Ramsey. Granit Xhaka was still recovering from an ankle twist he suffered in training.
Mourinho’s troops were on the front foot for much of the match. I was okay with my decision to give them the lions share of possession, as my defensive structure had been my greatest strength early doors in the season. All told, United did not carve out a single clear-cut chance despite nearly doubling my attempts.
The lone goal of the match came in the 40th-minute after Bernd Leno sprung us on the counter, bypassing the midfield and finding Alex Iwobi in space on the left. The Nigerian tucked into the inside channel with intent to go to goal, and though a last-ditch tackle by Eric Bailly dispossessed him, the ball would fall kindly at the feet of Ramsey on the edge of the area before he rifled it home low into the bottom right corner. The Welshman would go on to claim man of the match. Apart from his goal, his performance overall netted him an 8.3 in the match ratings. The perfect end to a perfect (in record only) month.
September & big match hiccups
September was a significantly harder month to negotiate, capped off by an away day at Anfield. After United and the first international break was a home fixture against Leicester. Our first Europa League group stage match followed (home to Standard Liege), then away at Burnley, followed by the Carabao Cup 3rd Round at Spurs.
Speaking of Standard, I was lucky enough to be given a pretty straight-forward Europa League group. Added to the Belgian side were Krasnodar and Rangers. There is really no excuse if I cannot win at least four of the six group stage matches, and at the very least I probably should not lose a single one either. Certain fixtures will allow me to field some of the kids as well, as is tradition.
The month started well for Arsenal, beating Leicester 3-0 at the Emirates and finally some semblance of goal return. It was followed up with another credible home outing (2-0 v Standard) and a tricky away day at Burnley that also netted me three points. 1-0 was the final scoreline. And then, two disappointments.
Losing to Spurs, in any competition, is never acceptable. The only saving grace for me in the wake of our 3-2 loss against that lot down the road in the Carabao Cup is that, well, it was the Carabao Cup.
When I first took over, the board made it clear that they had no opinion of the competition. This was the perfect chance for me to give a run out to players who were young or on the fringes of the first-team.
Pochettino fielded a full-strength XI, which somewhat surprised me. What resulted was pure banter of the highest order and I was the victim. Despite the scoreline, I was absolutely mauled. Poor performances across the back four (bar Dinos Mavropanos) was the biggest concern. The midfield trio of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Joe Willock, and Mohamed Elneny was solid enough, especially the two youngsters. Further forward, both Yussuf Poulsen and Eddie Nketiah acquitted themselves well, but it was a debut to forget for young Magnus Kaastrup.
To pile on the misery came Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. To our credit, our performance was vastly improved from three days prior.
A 2-1 loss at Anfield is a mildly respectable result for anyone, given the difficulty factor. But the data behind the loss showed that we outperformed the Reds in quite a few areas. I stayed with the same shape from the Spurs match, but the reintroduction of my first-choice XI and the resulting performance was telling, though Elneny and Hector Bellerín had nightmare displays.
Overall it was a very even match on the balance of play, including chances that would fall to both sides. It took an 85th-minute belter from none other than Jordan-freaking-Henderson to seal all three points for Liverpool. It was my first dropped points in the league campaign, but I really could not fault the overall performance. On another day we would have at least earned a point.
A nice addition to a decent month (despite its ending) was that Iwobi was nominated as Premier League player of the month for September. In addition, we would finish as the runner-up in the voting for goal of the month. He certainly was proving the decision to put faith in him was a good one.
Goal-filled October & a point against the champions
There was a running theme to Arsenal’s fixture list thus far. Ending the month with a crunch-tie against a top-six/title rival was becoming a habit. With Pep Guardiola and City looming at the end of the month, it was imperative that I took maximum points off Brighton (H) and a deceptively tough West Ham (A). Our two league matches were nestled between Europa League away days at Krasnodar and Rangers respectively.
It all kicked-off in expected fashion. A straightforward 2-0 away win at Krasnodar in a tricky country to get results in as followed up by a 4-1 thrashing of Brighton at the Ems. Up to that point, it was the performance of the season.
West Ham away proved to be as tricky as I expected, with – of course – Jack Wilshere and Felipe Anderson proving massive headaches. If not for an own-goal by Ryan Fredericks in the latter stages of the match I would have walked out of the London Stadium with a 2-2 draw. Instead, Arsenal took all points with a 3-2 result that must be labeled as lucky. The Hammers deserved more.
Rangers were dispatched 3-1 at Ibrox in a match where Steven Gerrard’s troops performed better than the result showed. Still and yet, we started our European campaign strongly, winning our first three group stage matches. Four wins in four in all competitions after two straight losses was the perfect response with City right around the corner.
My goal against the champions at home was to limit the number of high-quality chances they could generate. I succeeded. Most of their chances came from outside the area, and they only managed five on frame out of their thirteen total efforts at goal. As expected, they dominated possession, but a return to the 4-3-3 (Özil did start this time, on the right of the front-three) really hampered their ability to penetrate my lines in the final third.
My plan to hit them on the break when possible was the obvious choice, but my efforts here were hampered by very poor outings from both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Iwobi. Özil was one of my better players on the day ironically enough.
The performance overall and the growing confidence and consistency from Kieran Tierney (man of the match) showed that I could reliably deploy in this shape against bigger opponents if I chose to. It was my original plan, but with Mesut still at the club, I predominately have been in the expected 4-2-3-1. His performance on the right did, however, give me a moment of pause and something to consider moving forward.
It was a decent result to close out the month with the NLD four days later. Another award would be bestowed upon an Arsenal youngster as well, with new-boy Christian Pulisic picking up the young player of the month award on the back of two brilliant league outings.
Derby success & the Arsenal train gains steam
What better way to follow-up a point against the holders than with a win against your biggest rival. 1-0 to the Arsenal against Spurs, away from home, and further evidence that the 4-3-3 was succeeding when called upon.
I had first turned to it when I paid a visit to Old Trafford and fought tooth and nail for the 1-0 win. When second-guessing myself against Spurs in the Carabao Cup, and ultimately going back to the 4-2-3-1, I was battered. Lesson learned. The 2-1 loss to Liverpool, where my performance levels against a rival were once again increased, was down to calling upon the 4-3-3. The same can be said for the City result four days earlier.
Once more the increased control in midfield, and this time taking away from Spurs’ ability to be direct and hit the space behind me, really paid dividends. They still created more chances, but far fewer in both volume and levels of danger. Auba popped up to bag the winner in the 87th minute after being put through on goal by a brilliant 40-yard ball from Bellerín (man of the match). Revenge had been achieved.
Two difficult matches loomed in the aftermath, however. Arsenal’s second Europa League group stage match against Rangers was up first and saw us run out 2-1 winners. Emile Smith-Rowe bagged a brace in a man of the match performance, but Gerrard again showed his managerial credentials with a credible outing. Bournemouth away followed and despite result was an incredibly even affair, which included us going 1-0 down halfway through the second frame. Ramsey popping up with a brace to steal the points saw me let out a sigh of relief.
Arsenal put it all behind them with a 3-0 drubbing at home to Fulham in a match that could have ended with a much heavier scoreline. The Craven Cottage outfit managed just two efforts all match, neither of which were on frame. Twenty-three shots (17 on target) and a missed Aubameyang penalty were the main talking points. While the overall performance was good, two of our goals came from the spot. One goal from the run of play after that many chances created was frustrating, but in the end, the result was never in doubt.
The month ended with a 1-1 draw in Liege against Standard. Disappointing score line and an iffy performance overall, but thirteen points from a possible fifteen and a match that had zero significance considering confirming the group on the back of the second Rangers result saved our blushes.
It was eight wins and two draws in Arsenal’s last ten matches in all competitions. Just the sort of form you want to see going into the ever-so-frustrating December period; one that would include Watford, Chelsea, and Everton.
Yet again it would be an Arsenal player who gaining player of the month recognition; this time it was Aaron Ramsey, who has repaid the faith shown in his contract extension.
The December period is always a hotly debated topic regarding English football. Should there be a mid-season break akin to what you see in other leagues, or should the tradition of Boxing Day and the hectic schedule be upheld, making the Premier League the most challenging calendar to negotiate?
Personally, I will always favor a break. It inevitably helps with injury recuperation and overall prevention and allows training camps and friendly matches with which to target tactical adjustments and squad disruptions. Never the less, it is likely that England will never feature a mid-winter recess, and Arsenal went into the trying period looking to continue our great form. We did that in spades.
Two of our three toughest fixtures of the month came in rapid-fire succession. Watford away and Chelsea at home. Both ended in wins; 2-1 and 1-0 respectively, with Aubameyang bagging all three of the goals. Palace away showed a return to better scoring days as we ran out 4-1 winners, with Smith-Rowe and Nketiah both bagging the first Premier League goals of their young careers.
Wins against Krasnodar (2-1), Newcastle (3-1), Southampton (1-0), Everton (2-0) on Boxing Day, and Cardiff (3-0) rounded out a very impressive December. Four clean sheets, eighteen goals in 8 matches, and an unbeaten run that stretched to eighteen matches in all competitions.
Not to be out-done, it was – you guessed it – an Arsenal player who scooped up the player of the month award; our third out of a possible five awarded up to this point. Kieran Tierney, who I mentioned before had settled quite well, has been one of my best players over the duration of the season. A well-deserved award.
January business & awards showers
Past the results, some January business had been lined up as well. Kolasinac had become frustrated at his lack of minutes being second-choice behind Tierney, who was on form arguably the best left-back in the league, and with far more potential. Come the turn of the year, he would be off to Wolves for ₤9m in a piece of decent business for Nuno Espirito Santo.
Mohamed Elneny would also be jettisoned come January. His performances were far below the standard, and the likes of Maitland-Niles, Willock, and Guendouzi had worked their way past him in the pecking order. Atalanta would offer up ₤9m for him and I was more than happy to accept it.
In return, I would bring in the highly-rated Max Aarons from Norwich for just ₤10.5m. Bellerín was now in excellent form and in the running for the clubs’ player of the season, but Lichtsteiner would not be kept past his deal which was due to expire in the summer. A long-term option was needed, and Aarons can play on either flank of the defense. His wages (₤15k/week) were more than reasonable for a youngster of his potential, and his expected minutes would be minimal at best due to his requested status of a hot prospect.
It has yet to be seen if I will dip further into the market to bring in more young players for a youth set-up that was struggling at the U18s level, but it is certainly something I was keeping my eye on, with Sven Mislintat and the massive scouting set-up I had at the club working overtime.
All in all, it was an excellent first half of the 2018-19 campaign, one which saw me topping the table by some distance (10 points) and into the next round of the Europa League and a date with Chelsea’s Dutch affiliate Vitesse Arnhem.
Capping off the year saw Arsenal players rake in the personal awards. Aubameyang bagged African Footballer of the Year (15 goals in 20 appearances), Leno was voted as World Goalkeeper of the Year on the back of thirteen clean sheets in eighteen appearances, and Ramsey beat out Spurs’ Ben Davies for Welsh Footballer of the Year. Additionally, Both Leno and Tierney were included in the starting XI of the World Team of the Year, and I had just won my third Manager of the Month award. We were rolling and life without Wenger was better than anyone ever expected.
As explained before, the next installment will cover the entirety of the second half of the season, kicked off by a January fixture list featuring matches against Wolves, United, Liverpool, and Leicester.
Thanks as always for reading. One bright spot about going through this save is giving me plenty of ideas for small one-off pieces, while the scouting work I have done is sure to provide content as well. Both will be explored in the coming weeks. Any feedback and/or requests are always welcome and appreciated.
Until next time! COYG