Time for Mikel Arteta to deliver Champions League after Arsenal’s two-year refit

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It was a reminder of the standards in Arsene Wenger’s days. Not, albeit, from the season when they were Invincibles, even though it came from the most distinguished of the Invincibles. But, overshadowed by some of Mikel Arteta’s stranger antics, Thierry Henry popped up on the All Or Nothing documentary to say: “Let’s not hide from the fact this is Arsenal. You have to make top four.”

Which, until his last two seasons, Wenger invariably did. But, after 20 consecutive top-four finishes, Arsenal have now come fifth, sixth or even eighth in each of the last six campaigns. They have become stalwarts not of the top four, but the second four.

They threatened to end their exile last season: fourth for much of the second half of the campaign, their destiny slipped from their grasp on the day they could have clinched Champions League football. May’s defeat to Tottenham, like the subsequent loss to Newcastle, felt a failure of many things: nerve, discipline, strength in depth and a forward line who had been bailed out earlier in the campaign when midfielders got the goals.

Arsenal would have been a year ahead of schedule if they had finished fourth last season. Conversely, they would be behind it if they don’t return to the Champions League at the end of this campaign. Arteta has certainly had the opportunity: this will be his third full season and his new contract, announced six days before the North London derby meltdown, did not motivate his side to hold off Spurs.

Now, for the second successive summer, Arsenal have been heavy spenders. Their investment last year amounted to around £150 million. Now it is closer to £120m, with Gabriel Jesus, Fabio Vieira and Oleksandr Zinchenko the most prominent additions. That targets who eluded them included Raphinha and Lisandro Martinez shows Arsenal have not been skimping. They have shown ambition.

That £270m refit has built a new team. Two years ago, they made a deceptively auspicious start away in London, winning 3-0 at Fulham. Willian had a brilliant debut, and soon proved dismal, but of that 11, only Kieran Tierney, Gabriel Magalhaes and Granit Xhaka are likely to begin this season in the side, and either the Scot or the Swiss could be displaced by Zinchenko.

Arsenal start again with a capital derby, their trip to Crystal Palace selected as the division’s first game of the season. The precedent from last year bodes badly: they went to Brentford on a Friday night when, struck by Covid and with Ben White making a wretched debut – unlike Willian, his Arsenal career then picked up – they lost 2-0.

The Gunners scarcely felt ready for the start of last season; Martin Odegaard, Aaron Ramsdale and Takehiro Tomiyasu had not joined and, pointless at the end of August, they were in effect playing a 35-game season. “Everything that happened before Brentford was pretty strange and unique,” Arteta said. Now he senses a sea change. “It is different.”

Now their build-up has been almost ideal. “We had the pre-season that we wanted,” Arteta added. “It was well organised, we had good results, good performances, good preparation.”

Chelsea were demolished 4-0, Sevilla thrashed 6-0. Their pivotal piece of business was conducted early, with Gabriel Jesus headhunted to fill the striking void. No centre-forward got more than five league goals for the Gunners last year. The Brazilian has seven in five pre-season matches. They matter less but offer encouragement nonetheless.

Shorn of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, plus a host of other exiled bigger names and ageing figures - Bernd Leno the latest departure from the group Arteta inherited - this is the Spaniard’s side. “It has always been my team,” he countered. However, he added: “We changed the squad massively and you feel that now the players we have are more specific and better for the way we want to play basically.”

 (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
(Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

If the youthful personnel afford him more of a chance, so could the fixture list.

Palace took four points from Arsenal last season but an opening four fixtures against the Eagles, Leicester, Bournemouth and Fulham look easier than last August, when Brentford, Chelsea and Manchester City beat Arsenal.

“At the end of the day people don’t want to look at the context, they just look at the result and how we started,” Arteta said. “We are going to be judged on whether we win football matches or not, it’s as simple as that.”

And he will be judged on where they finish. “It’s great that people are excited,” he added. “But there is a big excitement across the Premier League because a lot of clubs have done a lot of business, getting stronger and stronger.”

It is, once again, about the context. The danger is that last season - without Europe, when Manchester United were in disarray and Tottenham managed for 10 games by Nuno Espirito Santo - may have been their best chance to return to what was their natural territory of the top four.