Arsenal need to be bullish and act like a Big Club amid nonsense ‘bottle’ talk

Ian King
Leo Trossard of Arsenal and Moises Caicedo of Brighton during their Premier League match

Arsenal have probably ended their chances of winning the Premier League this season, but the buillding blocks are still in place for them to grow further.


So here’s where the story ends. It took 36 games, but Arsenal finally ran out of puff against Brighton. One win from three and Manchester City will be the champions for the fifth time in six years; it seems just about inconceivable that this won’t happen.

While it was always going to be inevitable that there would be substantial talk of ‘bottling it’ or ‘choking’, there is a fundamental gulf in the resources available to these two clubs this season. We can see this in the options available to the managers when they have to call on the reserves.

Premier League club supporters are largely already familiar with The Manchester City Bench effect. It’s 65 minutes into a match against them and things are going well, but then you glance over to the technical area and see that Rodri, Kevin De Bruyne, or some other £70m-valued player or other is going through their warm-up exercises. Your shoulders slump at the sheer relentlessness of it all. It just keeps coming.

Arsenal’s 2022/23 season has felt like something approaching the inverse of this. Their campaign has come to be defined by reactions to loss. Their defence’s performance in the absence of William Saliba has already been noted; there was a similar bout of angst when Gabriel Jesus got injured and missed more than three months with injury. And perhaps in the end, that’s the difference over the course of a 38-match season. Manchester City’s first XI beat Arsenal’s twice and comfortably, but that isn’t really where league titles are won or lost. They’re won and lost in that relentless grind, and when we came to the ‘business end’ of the season, City just kept pushing relentlessly on while Arsenal ran out of steam.

Of course, when the pejoratives are flying round it’s easy to become defensive, but if anything, now would be a good time for Arsenal supporters to become more bullish. After all, Arsenal are A Big Club. They have a 60,000-capacity stadium and an honours list as long as your arm. And if they need anyone during the summer, they need Big Club Players, those who arrive with that swagger that signifies something greater than a mere belief that they will win trophies. These players come with that knowledge.

It’s why the signings of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko were so successful. Manchester City had already bred that into them, but these are players with able to back that up with their actions on the pitch, too. It remains something of a surprise that City were so nonchalant about letting these two players go. Presumably, they didn’t see Arsenal as potential ‘rivals’ at the top of the table.

The sort of player that Arsenal should be looking to attract during the summer to flesh out a squad that turned out to not be quite deep enough are Big Club Players. They don’t have to come from Manchester City, but in a world in which there are no bad footballers in the Premier League any more, that psychological edge is more important than ever. We see this all the time. It’s this belief that keeps Real Madrid or Barcelona chugging away at the top of La Liga, or that has kept Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga for a decade.

Supporters of other clubs hate that perceived arrogance – and there’s a not-unreasonable argument that they’re right to do so – but it does feel increasingly necessary in a game of fine margins and moments to have that unquenchable belief in yourself.

It’s a fine balance. On the one hand, Arsenal have achieved a huge amount this season. It’s easy to forget that the last time they finished above fifth place in the Premier League, David Cameron was still the Prime Minister. Their progress, in terms of escaping that annual cycle of hope and recrimination – The Emirates Stadium went through this lengthy period of just feeling like such a deeply unhappy place – has been extraordinary, and it can be built upon. But merely stuffing the first-team squad with more of the same might not result in much of an improvement. Arsenal need to take a step up and persuade the sort of player who would consider themselves to be a ‘serial winner’ that this is a place at which their silverware-hoarding ambitions can be realised.

Things will likely not be as easy again. It seems inconceivable that Chelsea can be as bad again next season, while there’s also plenty of space into which Manchester United and Liverpool can improve. Newcastle United proved themselves to be a little short of having what it takes to challenge at the very top of the table, but they have infinitely deep pockets and a summer transfer window during which they will almost certainly strengthen further. And of course, there seem to be few signs that Manchester City are going to be letting up, either.

But the reality of being at or near the top of the Premier League is that…it’s not easy. The question is whether you recoil from the scale of that challenge or whether you’re bullish enough to front up to it and ‘go again’.

While the negatives might outweigh the positives in the forefront of their minds right now, Arsenal supporters have had a lot to celebrate this season. Bukayo Saka has been inspirational. Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard have been outstanding. Granit Xhaka has shed his fundamental Granit Xhaka-ness and has been redeemed as a result. Aaron Ramsdale still isn’t quite there yet as a finished article, but he is continuing to improve and has the potential to supplant Jordan Pickford in goal for the England national team. And the fact that William Saliba’s absence from the team has been so noticeable speaks volumes about what he was bringing to it when he was fit.

Furthermore, such has been their improvement this season that it seems highly unlikely that many of the players that they will want to keep this summer will want to leave. That’s a very good position to find yourself in at the end of any season.

In other words, the building blocks are there for Arsenal to continue into next season. This season came quickly and unexpectedly, almost certainly too quickly, but this doesn’t have to be the end of the story. They need to ignore the bantersaurs with their pejoratives about ‘bottling’ and ‘choking’, and keep in mind that this season has witnessed a degree of improvement within their club that no-one was expecting.

“Look how well we did” won’t continue that improvement. “Look how much we can still improve” might, and that’s the headspace that they need to occupy this summer. The opportunity is there to build on this season’s achievements, and they need more of that arrogance to progress, rather than a patronising pat on the head.