Premier League 2020/21 preview: Arsenal
When Mikel Arteta arrived the scale of the job was enormous, but after a promising start to his managerial career Arsenal fans will hope that his side can kick on this season.
First five games: Fulham (A), West Ham United (H), Liverpool (A), Sheffield United (H), Manchester City (A)
Final five games: Newcastle United (A), West Bromwich Albion (H), Chelsea (A), Crystal Palace (A), Brighton and Hove Albion (H)
How was last season?
Arsenal had been a club of stability for much of the 21st century but that all came to an end in the 2019/20 season. ‘The house that Wenger built’ was in need of some severe renovation and his replacement, Unai Emery, had done little more than apply a lick of paint in his 18 months in the role. When Emery was sacked in November the club were languishing in 11th place with as many league defeats as victories and a negative goal difference.
After a stint under the caretaker management of Freddie Ljungberg, the club finally got their man and Mikel Arteta returned from Manchester City to lead the team. It was a step in the right direction but there was no sudden upturn in form as can sometimes accompany the arrival of a new manager. Arteta was brought in to build something but he was given little to work with initially. He inherited a disjointed, dispirited squad and was only able to make two loan signings in January.
The real catalyst for change in Arteta’s first season as a manager were the back-to-back defeats to Manchester City and Brighton in June that brought about the switch to a back three soon after. Mesut Özil, who had started each of Arteta’s first ten Premier League games in charge, did not make a single appearance after the restart. The Arsenal boss has repeatedly insisted that the playmaker was being left out of the squad due to “pure footballing reasons” but the German World Cup winner’s more relaxed approach has not gone down well. Arteta has shown much more faith in David Luiz despite his calamitous performance against City and the Brazilian has been rewarded with a one-year contract extension. Luiz’s dedication and willingness to listen to instruction are highly prized assets at the Emirates now.
A chaotic season ended with silverware for the Gunners, lifting the FA Cup against Chelsea thanks to a brace from the irreplaceable Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Their hard-fought 2-1 victory displayed their new-found resilience and, as in recent wins against Liverpool and City, was done despite surrendering possession. Gone are the days when Arsenal had to dominate the ball to win. Arteta’s side already look a more streamlined, clinical proposition than before.
Arteta’s switch to a back three was largely done to sure up a shaky defence lacking in real quality, so it is no surprise to see that area has been his priority in the transfer market. Lille’s highly-rated Gabriel Magalhães was bought for a fee of around £25 million and William Saliba finally arrived from Saint-Étienne after signing for the club for a similar fee last summer. The pair were two of French football’s most promising young defenders and they will add the defensive attributes and pace that Arsenal’s backline was missing. Gabriel and Saliba, left- and right-footed respectively, could be perfect companions for Luiz in the centre of defence. The January arrivals of Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares leave them well-stocked in those positions for once.
Arsenal were desperate to bring Arteta to the club due to his burgeoning reputation as an elite coach but after arriving mid-season he had limited time to work with his players. The 2020 pre-season is much shorter than usual but it will have given him the opportunity to work with his squad properly, particularly the younger players who he has already shown faith in. It remains to be seen what the Arsenal boss has planned for the upcoming campaign but he will not be afraid to be bold in his choice of tactics or personnel. He is building a new identity at the club which values hard-work and selflessness above talent, which could well be the most important of his changes.
What should we expect this season?
Despite the late upturn, 2019/20 was a poor season for a famous club. Their final position of 8th was their lowest since 1994/95 and their points total was closer to that of bottom club Norwich City than it was to Liverpool’s. A title bid is out of the question but Arsenal could challenge for a top four spot if the new arrivals settle. After winning the FA Cup, Arteta said that he had been brought in to get the club back to where it belongs and he will want to build on the progress made last year.
That will mean continued opportunities for young players like Eddie Nketiah, who Arteta recalled from loan in January. Despite not getting many chances at Leeds United, the England U-21 striker featured heavily for the Gunners and after making his first league start in February was named in the starting XI as many times as the vastly experienced Alexandre Lacazette. Bukayo Saka and Ainsley Maitland-Niles will hope to tie down starting places and Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock will hope for a break-through season after impressing in flashes.
In their FA Cup final victory over Chelsea, the Gunners looked the more organised team and their identity will only grow under the guidance of Arteta. Their pursuit of Thomas Partey looks unlikely to be rewarded this summer so they will still be without the top-class defensive midfielder that they have lacked for years. But with a more stable defence and a dangerous frontline, spear-headed by Aubameyang, the team looks to be coming together nicely.
What does the manager think?
Mikel Arteta: “We needed some time to just reflect on what we did and also to put our minds a bit away from football. I think we had the chance to do it, not as we normally do, but enough and the players seem in good condition mentally and physically. We are ready to go.
“[The transfer market] looks pretty slow at the moment, not many teams are moving aggressively, so a lot of things are going to happen from now to 6 October. But it doesn’t matter who we have, we will challenge for the top, 100%.”
What do the fans think?
Pádraig Kavanagh, head of leading Arsenal fan news source AFCStuff: “There’s a sense of optimism heading into the new season under Mikel Arteta, his first full season as a manager, although it feels like we’re starting it with some unfinished business in the transfer window. Willian and Gabriel Magalhães was a very good start but it’s important we push on.
“Every Arsenal fan will tell you [qualifying for the] Champions League is the priority, but seeing how rivals have strengthened, I see it being a bigger task than ever before… it’s also important not to put too much pressure on Arteta, who has had to deal with tough situations on and off the pitch since his arrival last December.”
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