There's a sense of optimism around Arsenal after Mikel Arteta guided the club to its 14th FA Cup win in his first campaign at the helm.
We run the rule over Emirates Stadium ahead of the 2020-21 season.
🤔 Ability to beat the good teams but what about the rest?
There is plenty of work still to do but Mikel Arteta has made a promising start to life at Emirates Stadium in unique and difficult circumstances, with the hallmark of his tenure so far being wins against top-six sides.
The Spaniard endured a frustrating opening duo of matches with a 1-1 draw at Bournemouth and a loss at home against Chelsea after leading for 70 minutes and finally succumbing to goals on 83 and 87 minutes consigning Arteta to a loss in his first match as a manager in the Emirates dugout, but there were signs of life in his team. His maiden win for the club came against Man United on January 1st, just three days after that defeat to Chelsea, and there have been hugely promising performances of late, most notably in a 2-1 win against champions Liverpool in the Premier League on July 15th. After the conclusion of the domestic league season, Arteta steered his underdog charges to wins over Man City and then Chelsea to lift the FA Cup and a Community Shield win over Liverpool served as ideal preparation for his improving side ahead of the new campaign.
Yet the issue remains that for all of Arsenal's growth, there is the tendency to lose to seemingly inferior sides. The Gunners threw away a lead at then relegation-threatened Brighton on June 20th to lose 2-1 and they succumbed to Ason Villa of the season's penultimate day. And in the cold light of day, 14 draws from 38 matches (the highest of any team) isn't good enough for a side with European ambitions, and nor was a dismal loss to Spurs in the North London Derby after taking an early lead.
Turning draws into wins might be the first massive problem to solve for Mikel Arteta.
♻️ Blend of youth and experience with new arrivals
Arsenal certainly can't be accused of being inactive in their defensive recruitment drive. Mikel Arteta has already brought in Cédric Soares (29) and Pablo Marí (27). With William Saliba (19) having returned from his loan spell at Saint-Étienne to start his Arsenal career and Gabriel (22) now confirmed, the Gunners defence has a much more youthful look about it. Experienced Gunner Héctor Bellerín has just turned 25 and Kieran Tierney is 23, with utility man Ainsley-Maitland Niles turning 23 a couple of days ago. The signing of versatile, creative midfielder Willian also ticks boxes for Arsenal, even though he's just turned 32. There will have to be departures though, with concrete stories linking Bellerín with a move to PSG.
🇪🇸 Ceballos' return on loan
An area of weakness for Arsenal is undoubtedly the centre of midfield with Lucas Torreira battling with form & injuries and Matteo Guendouzi frozen out. Real Madrid man Dani Ceballos came good in a big way after the restart, becoming one of Arteta's most trusted generals in the centre of the park. News that the 24-year-old has agreed to a new one-year loan with the club is a massive bonus for Arsenal.
Ceballos' industry and technical excellence combined well with the passing range and stability of Granit Xhaka alongside him, and there's the added benefit that he won't have to settle into life in London again. For the record, Arsenal won 65% of games Ceballos and Granit Xhaka started together – 75% under Arteta - and only 38% when neither began.
🇬🇦 Elite Aubameyang must extend his deal
The Gabonese striker is the only player to have hit 20+ goals in the past two Premier League seasons and he's one of only four footballers in Europe's top five leagues to score 20+ for the last five seasons running. The other three? Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo & Robert Lewandowski.
If there were any doubts about Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's goal-scoring calibre then those have been laid to rest in emphatic style. Arsenal must move mountains to keep the 31-year-old for the next few seasons. He's in good physical shape and boasts an admirable injury record to date, making it plausible for him to enjoy another three seasons at the top.
Ironically, Arsenal was one of the most technically-minded teams in Europe under Arsène Wenger with a host of creative players laying chances on a plate for the strikers. Now, the Gunners are finding it a bit more difficult to fashion clear-cut opportunities, making Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's frightening consistency in front of goal even more impressive.
🎯 Since the start of 2019-20, only Kevin De Bruyne (22) & Trent Alexander-Arnold (15) have provided more assists in all comps among Premier League players than Arsenal teenager @BukayoSaka87 #ARSLIV pic.twitter.com/2tX8fxqmrY— Futaa.com (@Futaacom) August 29, 2020
The emergence of ultra-talented teenager Bukayo Saka, who recently signed a new deal with the club, will mean that there's a growing burden on him to create chances along with record signing Nicolas Pépé. Arsenal does not possess a player of the calibre of Kevin De Bruyne. Genius playmakers don't grow on trees, so they'll need a collective effort from Pépé, Saka and new man Willian because there's no question that Arsenal has an attack that can cause damage to any side in the Premier League. They just need supply.
🏦 Possible departures to fill the creative void
Failure to qualify for the Champions League yet again has had its effects on the balance sheet with Arsenal not able to shop at the top bracket of the transfer window. With Arsenal already splashing €30m on 22-year-old central defender Gabriel, they need to raise funds in order to see their transfer goals bear fruit. Atlético Madrid midfield dynamo Thomas Partey is a long-standing target whose release clause stands at €50m, while talented Lyon playmaker Houssem Aouar is also a target. With PSG in contact with Bellerín, Arsenal may have to swallow the loss of a fans' favourite to move forward with their existing acquisition goals.
🧮 Likely best XI
Emiliano Martínez proved himself to be a legitimate contender for the number 1 spot in the season run-in and his battle with fit-again Bernd Leno should bring the best out of both keepers. 21-year-old striker Eddie Nketiah will challenge Alex Lacazette for a starting berth up front and teenager Gabriel Martinelli adds superb attacking depth when he returns from injury in December. New men Saliba and Gabriel will have to settle into life in the English capital quickly as both are earmarked for starting roles despite their tender years. With Arsenal also comfortable playing in a 4-2-3-1, expect plenty of squad rotation from Arteta, who's already known for his keenness to experiment and tweak tactics.
🧩 Puzzles to solve
Mesut Özil continues to collect astronomical weekly wages while sitting on the bench. What makes this situation most frustrating for Arsenal fans is that the German's creativity and vision are attributes that the team sorely needs, but until he and Arteta see eye-to-eye on the manager's football philosophy, the 2014 World Cup winner will remain on the fringes. Then there's Mattéo Guendouzi, an undoubtedly talented yet highly temperamental midfielder whose antics away to Brighton saw him banished from the first team. Solving these two issues will be Arteta's biggest man-management challenges to date.
🔮 Summary & season predictions
Arsenal looks well set to reclaim a place in the top six of the Premier League and good runs in the Europa League and FA Cup. Mikel Arteta has built up a considerable amount of goodwill with the fans and it's clear that the club is making progress under the Spaniard. A new contract for skipper Aubameyang would be the icing on the cake of a hugely positive couple of months on the red half of North London.
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