After the last couple of years, Arsenal starting their season on Friday 13th feels a little too close to the bone, if you’re of a superstitious bent. I’m not really. No lucky socks, no pre-game rituals, but if I could arm our players with hockey masks and chainsaws for this one, I’d certainly consider it.
With Chelsea and Man City looming, it feels like we really need to get ourselves off to a good start tonight. It’s not that taking points from those games is impossible, it’s just that tonight is more likely. Which isn’t to take anything for granted. Any Arsenal fan doing that right now is a brave/foolish soul.
We go into this first game with a couple of key injuries. Thomas Partey’s absence is a real blow, while Gabriel must – on paper at least – be primary candidate to partner new signing Ben White this season. For tonight though, Mikel Arteta has to choose between Pablo Mari and fit again Rob Holding, and while his preference has been for the left-footer on that side of his back four, I wouldn’t rule Holding out after the Spaniard’s somewhat shaky pre-season.
At full-back, which of our collection of three hundred right-backs will get the nod? Hector Bellerin started in our last pre-season game, is that a sign he’s being readied for tonight? Calum Chambers finished last season in pole position, so it remains to be seen who Arteta sees as the best fit for this particular fixture. I’ll leave it to you to decide what the difficulty of choosing between imperfect options means about our quality in this area.
I’m hopeful that Albert Sambi Lokonga’s selection against Sp*rs means he’ll make his debut tonight. Some have drawn parallels between his style and that of Partey, so in the absence of the senior man, it makes sense that he should deputise. I don’t think he’ll be overawed, he’s 21 with plenty of experience and he captained Anderlecht. You don’t do that if the idea of playing against Brentford is likely to freak you out. His selection would be one way of Arteta shedding some of the safety first approach that many associate with him.
The biggest question of all is what the front three will look like. I think it’s nailed on that Nicolas Pepe starts on the right, but the idea of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the left with Alexandre Lacazette in the midfield is an uninspiring one. We’ve seen it too often to be enthused by it, and with older legs I just don’t think it works anywhere near as effectively as it once did (and even then it was far from perfect). I suppose this is a situation which depends on other players as much as anything else.
If Bukayo Saka is fit and ready to start, he’d be my choice for the left-hand side. I like the idea of him and Kieran Tierney forming a partnership which, if it really clicked, being one that no opposition would fancy facing. We don’t have enough of that in this team, players and/or combinations which would worry our opponents, and they seem like a good fit to do that. It will depend on Saka’s fitness/readiness, and there’s also the potential to use Gabriel Martinelli, but having just returned from the Olympics, we’re not quite sure how much his pre-season sojourn to Japan has taken out of him. He didn’t really play for Brazil but was the training of sufficient rigour to make him ready for the new season?
I should point out that if Saka starts, Aubameyang would be my choice up top. I wonder about the message it sends if you start your season with your captain on the bench, what it might do for his apparently fragile confidence, but I also just think he’s the best striker/goalscorer we have at the club. Even in his current funk, which is worrying in fairness, I’d prefer him to anyone else we have right now. If it’s not working, you can change it.
Whatever team he picks though, three points this evening would go some way to calming the nerves a little. Quite reasonably, there’s anxiety about the season ahead, and although we’ve made some promising signings, there’s not a great deal different about our potential starting XI from the one that finished last season in mid-table. Of course there’s still time, and on transfers the manager hinted strongly that more would be done, but closer to the end of the window. He said:
Anything is possible and there is still a lot of things to be done and a lot of clubs involved and you can see that things have started to move at a different speed in the last week or so. It’s been a really difficult transfer window and probably a lot of things will happen in the last week or so.
Understanding that the market is difficult, complicated, and slow moving for all the myriad reasons we’re well aware of still doesn’t dampen down the nerves about the season ahead. However, a win this evening would provide some breathing room, and a bit more time to get things done before next weekend’s home game against Chelsea. Let’s hope we can do that, by hook or by crook, against a team who will be determined to show the Premier League what they’re all about. Brentford won’t come into this game fearing Arsenal – why should they? – but this is the kind of fixture Arsenal need to win as a matter of course if we’re to improve on last season.
We didn’t see a great deal in pre-season to tell us quite how the manager is going to improve this team’s attacking potency. The high defensive line suggests we want to play further up the pitch, but we did look vulnerable to the counter too. Hopefully there was a lot of ‘just pre-season’, and now that the stakes are high and there are points to play for, we can go for it.
It’s a new season. I am worried but also, this morning at least, excited, nervous and hopeful that Arsenal can get things off to a good start. Let’s see how we feel later on closer to kick off after the inevitable team news meltdown (a thing which happens regardless of who is selected).
For now, there’s a preview podcast over on Patreon, and a brand new Arsecast below, previewing the season, the state of the squad, what kind of expectations we should have, and lots more. Enjoy, and catch you later for the game.