The story of Arsenal’s season and where they can improve

LONDON — When the pain passes, only pride will remain. Arsenal ultimately finished the 2023-24 Premier League season with the same second-place finish as a year earlier, but it feels very different this time.

The Gunners went into the final game against Everton two points behind Manchester City and with a chance of landing their first title since 2004 but, in truth, from the moment Phil Foden scored City’s opening goal against West Ham United inside 78 seconds, Emirates Stadium never truly believed.

There were brief flashes of hope. Arsenal recovered from Idrissa Gueye‘s deflected 40th-minute free kick to win 2-1 with goals from Takehiro Tomiyasu and Kai Havertz, but the latter came in the 89th-minute, moments after West Ham had a goal disallowed at the Etihad to extinguish any lingering doubt.

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No recriminations came at the final whistle, however. Warm applause greeted an Arsenal team that have given their all, going stride for stride against a City side creating history.

It is a far cry from the previous campaign, when the Gunners wilted in the final sprint, winning just three of their final nine matches as pressure and fatigue affected a squad unaccustomed to the rarefied environment of a title race. There can be no such accusations this time. Since the turn of the year, Arsenal won 16 out of 18 games, scoring 54 goals and only conceding nine. City played one more match than the Gunners but scored fewer, conceded more and took the two extra points that ultimately separated the sides.

Arsenal were edged out by a trophy machine, winning their sixth title in seven seasons and an unprecedented fourth Premier League in a row. The Gunners ended with 89 points, their second-highest tally in Premier League history. The club’s famous “Invincibles” side, who won the 2003-04 title without losing a game, garnered 90 points.

Arsenal set a club record of 28 Premier League victories in a season. They have only once fared better in their entire history, with 29 wins in 1970-71 (and 28 in 1930-31.) They scored 91 goals, a club record in the Premier League era. They were unbeaten against the traditional “Big Six” sides, taking 22 points from 10 games against City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur (City, by comparison, won 15 points in those games.) They ended this season with the best defensive record in the division.

The margins were so small as to be almost imperceptible. Here’s how Arsenal ran Man City so close, and where they can find improvement to finally win their first title in more than 20 years.

The search for marginal gains

Head coach Mikel Arteta is widely regarded as being the key driver for improving Arsenal’s standards to ensure no stone is left unturned in the pursuit of success. This mentality was evident as far back as preseason when concerns grew within the backroom staff over the state of the pitch ahead of Arsenal’s friendly against Barcelona at the SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.

A source at the club told ESPN that the Gunners “took control of the stadium” in the hours before the game, altering the way the pitch was prepared in an attempt to reduce the risk of potential injury to their players.

Preparations were being made off the pitch, too. Sources said that, last summer, Arsenal held talks with referees’ body Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) regarding the officiating of their matches. ESPN has been told that the Gunners were frustrated at a lack of understanding of Arsenal’s game model, specifically that seemingly innocuous fouls in “safe” areas of the pitch — specifically a long way from their opponents’ goal — were actually much more important and required stronger punishment.

There was also a desire to highlight the unwritten rule of the “first foul” escaping a yellow card. Sources added that Arsenal believed some sides were taking advantage of a referee’s leniency early on in a game — traditionally to avoid bookings too early in an effort to let a match flow — to inflict strong challenges on certain players. The Gunners felt Bukayo Saka was particularly harshly treated in this respect; later on in the season, sources told ESPN that Arsenal felt their front three of Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Gabriel Jesus, were not receiving as much protection from referees as they would have liked.

Arsenal’s set-piece prowess is well documented, scoring a season-high 22 times (excluding penalties). Sources say they worked on dead-ball situations during their midseason training break in Dubai but not excessively so, with specialist coach Nicolas Jover’s methods established much earlier.

Declan Rice‘s emergence as a set-piece taker came in the second half of the season, but both player and manager insisted it was something they had discussed as a possibility earlier in the campaign.

Sources say Arteta’s search for an edge included requesting regular briefings from the prematch news conferences of opposition managers, explaining in part why the Spaniard himself is often evasive when giving Arsenal team news before matches. A staff member — or on occasion Arteta himself — would watch on in hope of team news or any early information which would aid planning. One key example cited by staff was Paul Heckingbottom’s news conference before Sheffield United‘s visit in October. Amid rumours of around 10 players being sidelined through injury, Heckingbottom all but confirmed the absence of several players. Arsenal won the game 5-0.

This also extended to watching opposition teams arrive at stadiums. Arteta said in December that “if I am good at mind games, maybe you don’t notice” and sources told ESPN that once such moment came when Saka was an injury doubt ahead of October’s home clash with City. Saka made the journey on the team coach, even pictured walking off towards the dressing room with his washbag before it was confirmed he was absent through injury. City were left guessing until the last possible moment.

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Arteta congratulates Man City on Premier League title win

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Fostering a sense of togetherness

Sources have told ESPN that Arsenal made a concerted effort to ensure their major signings were acquired early in the window last summer, ideally so everybody went on the club’s preseason tour to the United States together.

Havertz finalised his move from Chelsea on June 28 and sources with knowledge of the talks said the deal “took about a week” to complete. Relations were good with the Blues from the previous January, when they brought in Jorginho from Stamford Bridge — a deal which “took about a day,” according to the same sources. Jurriën Timber completed his transfer from Ajax Amsterdam on July 14; Rice joined from West Ham a day later. All three were part of the 29-man squad which flew to Los Angeles via an Emirates 777 aircraft on July 16.

Back at the club’s London Colney training base, a chocolate Labrador named “Win” — a trained therapy dog — continued to ingratiate himself to those new signings and help maintain an empathetic feel within the squad.

Sources have told ESPN that Saka turned up at Colney one day during Christmas with presents for his teammates and several staff members. Staff and players regularly took turns to take Win home with them and one source said the dog spent Christmas Day with Arteta, but it was the only “Win” the Arsenal boss had over the festive period as a draw and three defeats between Dec. 23 and Jan. 7 preceded the midseason training break in Dubai.

Much has been made of the Dubai trip because of the dramatic and sustained upturn in form upon their return. Sources say there was no magic formula, but a noticeable change came in Arteta’s more-relaxed attitude. The players were entrusted to use their free time responsibly — they were allowed to go to the beach with their families, for example — with Arteta keen to empower the group to make their own decisions.

Many of the partners have become genuinely close, often watching matches together, which sources say gave the players one thing less to worry about, particularly in light of a spate of break-ins at the homes of Premier League stars in recent times. Sources say the club are also now better at marking major family events, such as when a player has a baby, a gift package would be sent to their home on behalf of Arsenal. There were also barbecues in Dubai, a habit of frequent team meals which continued throughout the season.

On the same night as a team dinner in the capital, Rice broke away briefly to attend the London Football Awards at Camden’s Roundhouse to pick up the Premier League Player of the Year award before returning to join his teammates.

Sources say there was a barbeque at London Colney during the penultimate week of the season where families and some player entourage members were invited.

Arsenal have also sought to capitalise on that sense of togetherness by proactively ensuring players sign new contracts where the opportunity has arisen. Ben White and Martin Ødegaard became the latest players to pen new deals despite no immediate urgency to do so; sources have told ESPN that technical director Edu was keen to avoid a cycle the club previously slipped into of allowing players to run down their deals into the final year.

With Saka, William Saliba and Martinelli also having signed contract extensions in the last 18 months, the core of Arsenal’s team should be settled for next season and beyond.

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Being flexible with luck as well as judgement

Arteta’s meticulous attention to detail has given his players greater clarity on the pitch, but not all of it has been by design. Timber was set for a key role as inverted full-back, having impressed coaches in preseason with his physical conditioning, only for the Dutchman to suffer a serious knee ligament injury on the opening day of the season. His next appearance came in the final game of the season against Everton.

At the start of the campaign, White was earmarked for a centre-back role — playing there on the opening day against Nottingham Forest and in their win at Crystal Palace nine days later — as doubts grew over Gabriel’s future, but the Brazilian was restored to the team and steadily his centre-back pairing with Saliba became the best in the division.

Havertz was signed from Chelsea for £67.5 million with his versatility in mind, but Arteta did not intend for the German to lead his attack in the run-in. Havertz was seen primarily as a No. 8 who could play out wide, with the option of playing as a No. 9 in certain circumstances. Yet from February onwards, his goal return was so good — nine goals in 14 league games — that Arteta kept him as a striker.

After beating Brighton on April 6, Arteta said: “A lot of the time players decide where they have to play, and we can have certain ideas, but then you see certain relationships and some things flow. And when it flows, you have to let it go, and I think Kai at the moment is flowing and he’s feeling really comfortable there, the rest of the team is comfortable with him there and things happen naturally.”

Where Arteta deserves great credit is in the evolution of Rice. The Gunners spent an initial £100m to bring him in from West Ham and many thought they committed such a huge sum because they were getting the finished article capable of transforming Arsenal from the No. 6 position. However, Rice excelled in a role mirroring the departed Granit Xhaka‘s positioning as a No. 8, adding key goals — think the winner at Luton Town, and vital contributions against Manchester United and Chelsea — as well as regular assists: his 15 league goal contributions is more than twice what the midfielder has managed before in a single campaign.

Coping with pressure by staying in the present

Sources have told ESPN that there was a feeling last season’s run-in took an emotional toll on the players as the scale of the challenge became real.

Arteta sought to address this by attempting to relentlessly keep the focus on the immediate weekly challenge in front of them, adorning their away dressing rooms with appropriate messaging.

One such banner featured an acronym making up the word: BASICS. The individual letters stood for Boxes, Attack, Shape, Intensity, Compete and Set-pieces. It was pictured after Arsenal’s win at Tottenham in April, but sources have told ESPN it was used at earlier games including the Champions League defeat at FC Porto two months before.

Arteta’s desire to replicate the necessary motivation and intensity on a weekly basis led to a series of hype videos which sources say he was instrumental in driving, some of which he posted on his own social media channels including before Arsenal beat Liverpool 3-1 in February. After that match, Arteta described “the atmosphere that we generated in the stadium” as “the best I have seen this season.”

Arsenal’s difficult spell at the turn of the year led to a degree of soul-searching but the club’s staff relied on data to keep faith they were on the right track.

From their last-minute 4-3 win at Luton on Dec. 5 to the home FA Cup defeat to Liverpool on Jan. 7, Arsenal were confident key metrics including Expected Goals (xG) and dribbles into the box were so high that the poor run of two wins from eight games was an anomaly rather than symptomatic of any major underlying issues.

Sources also insist that Arteta’s repeated insistence on deflecting any talk over his new contract is not evidence of doubt in his mind but more a desire to ensure nothing distracted from the task at hand. Sources added that the club’s preseason plans regarding their summer tour to the United States had not been signed off by the football department in part for the same reason.

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What more can Arsenal do?

Arteta was quick to answer where the difference may have come in the title race this season.

“[Having] everybody available in the crucial moment of the season,” he replied. “Huge difference.”

Only two outfield players played every minute of this Premier League season: Wolverhampton Wanderers centre-back Max Kilman and Arsenal’s Saliba. Their defensive improvement this term only lends credence to the idea that Arsenal’s 2022-23 season fell away in part because Saliba suffered a season-ending back injury early in April.

Saka may have missed the final game of the season with a slight muscular issue, but sources say the club believe they have managed his workload better this season. Sources suggest Saka is one of several players whose training programme has been altered where he would miss the odd session to work in the gym, something which marks a departure from previous campaigns.

Arsenal had very few injuries on the run-in aside from Timber’s long absence, although Thomas Partey missed a lot of the campaign with nagging issues. It is, however, something Arteta clearly thinks Arsenal can still improve upon, as is coping with the demands of Champions League football better. Arguably Arsenal’s most inhibited performances came in the two knockout away legs against Porto and Bayern Munich, a sign perhaps of a need to acclimatise to the pressures of Europe’s premier club competition after a seven-year absence.

The game that most would point to as the one that cost them dearly, a 2-0 home defeat to Aston Villa, came in the Sunday between the two games against Bayern, exemplifying the need to better manage a multi-pronged assault on silverware.

Arteta has a desire to work with a slightly smaller squad boasting higher quality, allowing greater rotation without any drop in level — mirroring City’s model under Guardiola.

Sources have told ESPN that Arsenal are prepared to back Arteta once again in the transfer market this summer. The club’s priority is to add a versatile forward who can add greater penetration in attack. While Cedric Soares and Mohamed Elneny will leave the club this summer when their contracts expire, the futures of Eddie Nketiah and Emile Smith Rowe among others are uncertain. Both could be moved on for pure profit under the Premier League‘s Profit and Sustainability Rules, although the Gunners have headroom there. They may also look to strengthen other areas including central midfield.

Asked if there was a moment that stuck out in his mind as a key reason they finished second to City, Arteta said on Sunday: “For sure, Aston Villa at home. In the first half it should have been 4-0. Maybe the story would have been different. What happened last Tuesday [when City beat Tottenham 2-0], maybe we could have been champions. These are the margins that are so, so, so small. That’s the credit that the club and the team should take. We’re doing this against the best team in the history of the Premier League by far.”

City were happy to let Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko join Arsenal two years ago. Sources told ESPN that City viewed Arsenal much more seriously last summer, refusing to countenance allowing João Cancelo to move when the Gunners were interested. They are getting closer. But more is needed.