Before the Premier League hit the pause button back in March, Arsenal were taking their first steps back on the road to progress.
Much about how the team was performing, the antics at boardroom level, and the hangover from the Unai Emery era were still sources of considerable bemusement, but things were looking rosier for the first time in a long time.
Fears that those few, fleeting months of progress – those first sparks of momentum – may have been snuffed out by this hiatus, then, are understandable. Nobody frets more over the future than a football fan and, as we are all too aware, confidence and form, while hard earned, are easily lost.
But does this lengthy break from the game mean that Arsenal will be back to square one? Will we find ourselves at a disadvantage in the scrap for the finishing line that looms large on the horizon?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think we’ll be better placed than most.
As physically inactive as the players have been in the last three months, and the value of coaching time should never be underestimated, there was a sense of ‘learning on the job’ about the way the team was going about its business in the early stages of Arteta’s reign. That’s not a criticism, that’s just the inevitable consequence of changing the manager in the midst of a season.
The hectic schedule of fixtures meant that, instead of time on the coaching field adapting to Arteta’s style of football, his philosophy and approach to the game, the players were focused more on the next game, which was never more than a few days away. The preparation was as much about learning what the next opposition had in store as it was learning about the new manager. The same might also have been true for the manager himself, who was learning about his players, their strengths and idiosyncrasies, as much as he was about what it means to lead a group of footballers.
With a three-month period out of the spotlight, the marvels of technology have allowed both manager and squad to bridge that particular gap in a way that was probably not possible when coping with two or three games in a seven-day period. On a human level and on a tactical level, the squad has had time to learn, to do its homework, in an environment away from the relentless glare of fandom and media. To that end, it’s been a tremendously useful period of time, and god knows we’ve all had a lot of time on our hands.
Time away has also allowed some of our longer-term absentees and perennial niggle-carriers to recuperate and rejoin the squad, handing the manager a set of options he would have been denied in normal times. Instead of fitting square pegs into round holes, three months away from competition has allowed the likes of Kieran Tierney, Rob Holding, and Hector Bellerin the chance to shake off their lingering injury concerns and has brought them back on par with their colleagues. Nobody has been thrust back into the fold ahead of time – risking further injury – and everybody will be starting from the same level. That gives us that most precious of commodities: squad depth.
If the return of the Bundesliga has taught us anything, it’s that keeping the squads rotated and fresh will be of crucial important. Our returning players will afford us that opportunity. Of course, every other Premier League club will be in the same position in that respect, but I’d sooner have our best and most-suitable options available for all positions than be fielding makeshift line-ups.
Perhaps most important, and most exciting of all, though, (and the biggest benefit for Arsenal in the longer term) is the depth of excellent young talent at our disposal and the chance to review and reflect these young guys would have had in these last three months. Up until March it had been a promising period for the likes of Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Bukayo Saka, Joe Willock, and Gabi Martinelli and, while it’s a shame their momentum was checked, a period in which these young talents have been able to rest and take stock of their progress will have been invaluable.
When the season starts up again, pandemic permitting, the depth of our squad and its ability to react quickly will be crucial, and who better to lead that renewed assault than the most exciting set of youth talent we have produced in the last decade? Between them, these young men could form the bedrock of the Arsenal starting XI in the years ahead, and that’s before we factor in Emile Smith-Rowe, Wiliam Saliba, Zech Medley, Jordi Osei-Tutu and Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
If our youngsters can stay fit and firing in this mini-season, and if they have used their time away to learn from their season so far, there is cause to be optimistic. That’s not to say I expect they can fire us back into Champions League contention, from here that would take a huge amount of good fortune and good form, but some momentum to finish this season will be enormously valuable for the start of the 2020/21 campaign, which will, in all likelihood, begin not long after this elongated campaign ends.
Financial pressures are almost certain to mount on the overwhelming majority of clubs across Europe in the coming years so it is incredibly fortunate that we have been able to produce a raft of young talent who may just be able to carry us into the future, without the need to spend hundreds of millions on buying talent from elsewhere, money that, quite simply, doesn’t exist anymore.
The true impact of the pandemic on the Premier League might not truly be known for years to come and, in the medium-to-long term, it may have no effect at all. But, in the short term at least, the impact will be marked and, by good planning or simple good fortune, Arsenal look to be in good shape to weather it.
With luck and fair winds, this may just be a turning point for the club.