Hale End graduates shine despite turbulent Arsenal season

West Bromwich Albion's Callum Robinson (left) and Arsenal's Bukayo Saka battle for the ball during t

West Bromwich Albion's Callum Robinson (left) and Arsenal's Bukayo Saka battle for the ball during the Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium, London. Picture date: Sunday May 9, 2021. - Credit: PA

Graduates of the Hale End academy proved to be the shining lights for Arsenal during a turbulent 2020/21 campaign. 

Sitting in 15th in mid-December, it took a remarkable effort from Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe to help haul Arsenal up the table, but they ultimately missed out on European football by a single point, finishing in eighth. 

Reflecting on the season, Mikel Arteta said: ”I am sad because the club deserves to be delivering trophies and Champions League. We have not managed that, it has not been enough. We have to be very critical of ourselves, of myself.” 

Arsenal began their season with a win on penalties against Liverpool in the Community Shield before kicking off their Premier League campaign with a 3-0 victory over Fulham at Craven Cottage. 

The opening six games were a mixed bag, beating Fulham, West Ham and Sheffield United, but losing to Liverpool, Manchester City and Leicester City, the teams Arsenal were hoping to compete with. 

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Despite inconsistency in the league, the Gunners beat both Liverpool and Leicester City in the Carabao Cup to set up a quarter final tie with Manchester City in December, which they later lost 4-1 despite an inspired performance by the returning Martinelli. 

An impressive 1-0 victory at Old Trafford marked Arsenal’s first win away at Manchester United since 2006, however the Gunners went winless in their next seven league games, losing five.

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Doubts over the manager began to form as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Willian struggled to perform, and disciplinary issues appeared with three red cards in five games.

Despite the league woes, cup competition once against offered Arsenal reprieve as they breezed through their Europa League group winning all six games with Joe Willock and Nicolas Pépé impressing. 

Arsenal’s league fortunes turned on Boxing Day with an electrifying 3-1 win over Chelsea. Arteta moved away from a 3-4-3 formation, instead setting up with a 4-2-3-1, bringing in the exciting trio of Saka, Smith Rowe and Martinelli to play behind Lacazette.  

Arsenal's Emile Smith Rowe (left) and Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha battle for the ball during the

Arsenal's Emile Smith Rowe (left) and Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha battle for the ball during the Premier League match at Selhurst Park, London. Picture date: Wednesday May 19, 2021. - Credit: PA

That game was followed up with five wins and two draws in the league, and the positivity continued as Martin Ødegaard joined the club on loan from Real Madrid in January. 

Even though the new formation and trust of the younger players had provided improved performances, results returned to being inconsistent through the months of February, March and April with 4 wins, including a 2-1 victory in the North London Derby, three draws and five losses. 

During this period, Arsenal bowed out of the FA Cup with a 1-0 defeat to Southampton in the fourth round but made it past Benfica 4-3 on aggregate with a late comeback in the Europa League before beating Olympiacos 3-2 on aggregate to make the quarter finals.

Lacazette and Arsenal sent out a strong anti-racism message, beating Slavia Prague 4-1 on aggregate following racist abuse directed at Rangers’ Glen Kamara in the round prior. 

Unai Emery’s Villarreal stood between Arsenal and a European final, winning a chaotic first leg 2-1 before frustrating his old team in a 0-0 draw to progress. 

Arsenal’s failings in Europe set off a strong end to the Premier League season as the Gunners won their remaining 5 games, including a 1-0 over Champions League finalists Chelsea.  

However, their late season run proved in vain as Arsenal finished in eight, one point off European football.

Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe were the shining lights in a positive second half of the season, whilst Joe Willock, out on loan at Newcastle from January, ended the season scoring in seven consecutive Premier League games.  

Arteta was pleased with the progress in the latter stages of the season, saying: “When I watch the team a few months ago and when I watch them now, regardless of the results, in my opinion we are in a much better place.” 

However, the Arsenal manager is aware of the shortcomings in the 2020/21 campaign, stating his side need to be “much better” next season. 

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