Is Arsenal's fifth-placed finish a sign of progress or a failure?

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After having Champions League football within their grasp for so long, Arsenal’s wait to return to Europe’s top-tier club competition will go on for at least another year.

The disappointment was obvious following Sunday’s season finale against Everton, with Tottenham’s 5-0 win at Norwich making Arsenal’s 5-1 success against Everton at the Emirates Stadium irrelevant.

A run of three straight victories for Spurs at the end of the campaign ensured they took the final top-four spot in the Premier League, with Arsenal left to rue their costly recent defeats in the north London derby and at Newcastle.

Arteta’s side fell at the final hurdle, with injuries and perhaps inexperience taking their toll at the crucial moment.

“We did what we had to do,” Arteta said after Sunday’s victory, which saw Arsenal finish the season with 69 points, two adrift of Spurs.

“We knew that it wasn’t in our hands. We needed a miracle and it didn’t occur, that’s it. The league table at the end of the season doesn’t lie. 

“It’s true that last year with 67 points Chelsea got into the Champions League and we have 69 and we are out of it, but that’s the level and the demands this league has now.”

It’s difficult to really assess Arsenal’s season, and that is perhaps why their fifth-placed finish has created such debate.

Many view it as a failure, while there are plenty who believe there have been clear signs of progress.

Ultimately, both sides of the debate have merit.

Arteta quote

Internally, the target for Arteta at the start of the season was clear. To get Arsenal back into Europe by securing a top-six finish.

The club invested heavily during the summer transfer window, spending around £145 million ($182m). But that vast outlay was predominantly on young and unproven players. 

It was money spent on potential, rather than proven quality.

Many mocked Arsenal’s transfer business at the time, especially when they opened the season with three straight league defeats which saw them bottom of the table going into the first international break without having amassed a single point or even scored a goal.

But as the new signings settled and were embedded into the starting XI, Arsenal improved dramatically and a real sense of optimism started to grow around north London.

Arteta has worked hard to rebuild a connection between the team and fans and that connection has become more and more evident as the season has progressed.

Even amid the disappointment of Sunday, the fans inside the Emirates created a carnival type atmosphere.

“They can see what we’re doing,” Arteta said after the game. “They can see what the players want to do, how they represent the club and who we are as a group.”

Arteta’s young side have given supporters lots to enjoy during the past 10 months and a top-five finish has to be viewed as progress after finishing eighth in each of the past two seasons.

Arsenal are back in Europe next season and they have done it with the youngest team in the Premier League.

They have also done it while overhauling their squad and removing several big names on huge wages, most notably Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who left in January.

So there are many reasons why Arsenal’s season can be viewed as a relatively successful one.

The club has slashed the wage bill, drastically reduced the age of the squad and the team established a connection with match-going fans that had been almost totally lost.

Arsenal have picked up more points this season and scored more goals, even though no striker found the net more than five times in the league.

And with the club set to spend big on two new forwards this summer, you would expect that is an area where things will improve even more during the 2022-23 campaign.

“We will take the club to the next level,” Arteta said. “That is the ambition. 

“In order to do that we have a very clear plan again. It is no secret we need resources and we need to increase the quality and depth of the squad. That will be the challenge.”

Despite the clear signs of improvement since the start of the campaign, however, it’s also very difficult not to also look at Arsenal’s fifth-placed finish as a massive failure.

Yes, no-one would have given them a chance of making the top four when things kicked off in August.

Gabriel Arsenal GFX
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But the fact is, with four games to go they were just one win away from securing Champions League football once again.

They got themselves into a position where they had their destiny in their own hands and they threw it all away right at the finish line.

Arteta’s side had lots going for them this season. They didn’t have the distraction of European football to worry about. Tottenham started the season poorly and had to change their manager. Leicester were well below par and Manchester United were a total disaster.

A lot of things went in Arsenal’s favour, but they couldn’t take advantage.

The club also opted not to strengthen in the January transfer window. In fact they weakened their squad, allowing several players to leave, including Aubameyang.

Meanwhile Tottenham signed Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur, two players who have gone on to play a big part in their strong end to the campaign.

Arsenal’s lack of activity in January was always a risk given what was at stake and ultimately, it looks like a gamble that backfired massively.

So overall, it’s difficult to really define Arsenal’s season.

When it started, a fifth-placed finish would undoubtedly be viewed as success. But given how it panned out and the position they put themselves in, it’s clearly been a big missed opportunity.

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Ultimately, it might not be until the end of next season that Arsenal’s 2021-22 campaign can be truly defined.

If they go on and build on the foundations that have been put in place during the past 10 months then it could be looked back on as the period that the project under Arteta really started to take shape.

But if they struggle and fall even further behind their top-flight rivals, it will surely be remembered as the season they let their big chance slip away.