Friday, October 7, 2022

The Big Arseblog Season Preview: 2021-22

It’s time for the traditional Arseblog season preview post, and like last year we’ve got a couple of other Arseblog regulars to give us their ten cents.

All of these have been written independently of each other, so there’s no cross-contamination. So, this is what myself, Andrew Allen and Tim Stillman think of the squad – as it stands, fully aware the transfer window is open until August 31st – and its readiness for the new season.

Starting, as always, with:

GOALKEEPERS

Bernd Leno 2021

Andrew Mangan

Considering the importance of the position, it’s not great that Arsenal are going into a new season with an established number 1, but without the kind of back-up needed at this level. Alex Runarsson just isn’t up to scratch, and while Arthur Okonkwo’s new contract sees him in the number 3 position, he’s still extremely raw as a couple of the pre-season showings demonstrated.

Links to Sheffield United’s Aaron Ramsdale only made sense if the plan was to make him the top man, no club spends that much on a number 2 goalkeeper, but question marks over his quality were valid, and the latest update suggests this is now extremely unlikely anyway. There were links to Andre Onana, but his suspension means he’s not a short-term solution either, not to mention we have no idea if he’d be willing to join us now when he can have his pick of clubs on a Bosman next summer.

If Leno picks up an injury or a suspension in the opening game, Arsenal are simply too weak in this area, and having had a whole summer to sort this signing out, it doesn’t reflect well on those tasked with carrying out the recruitment. To get this far without sorting out this problem is a risk, verging on stupid.

As for Leno, while his long-term future remains up in the air, he needs to rediscover his best form quickly, and although he’s generally a good shot-stopper, some of his decision making with the ball at his feet is a genuine worry.

Right now, this is an area of concern.

Tim Stillman

Nothing like a last-minute re-write, eh? As it stands the Ramsdale deal (the Rams-deal?) looks dead in the water (Rams-dead?) Arsenal do need to buy a goalkeeper if we assume that Bernd Leno will not commit to a new contract and while the current back-up options do look a little scary, Arsenal do need to get this right. They are potentially signing a goalkeeper for the next 4-5 years, not the next three games.

Profile wise, it makes a certain amount of sense to buy a player who will probably be happy to grapple with Leno for a place for this season knowing that his path will be clearer to the number 1 jersey this time next year. Bernd Leno himself trod a similar path when he joined with Petr Cech dawdling gently towards the knacker’s yard.

I was a little surprised about the strength of Arteta’s interest in Ramsdale, especially as Ramsdale’s data does not seem to map towards what Arsenal would want from a goalkeeper distribution wise. They seemed to be taking a leap of faith on his long-term potential and I don’t have enough knowledge of the player to deny that assessment.

I think Leno has been good for Arsenal, occasionally really good but far from irreplaceable. I think Arsenal should buy the player they consider to be their long-term number 1. There is no reason to try to keep Leno happy at this point and if that means him becoming the number 2 this season so be it. However, if we get to deadline day without the gold medal option, Edu might need to dig into his rolodex to get a number 2 in on loan. I wonder if Kia has any goalkeepers on his books?

Andrew Allen

Last year, I advocated selling Emi Martinez over Bernd Leno on the proviso we got at least £20 million and his replacement wasn’t too much of a downgrade. Depending on where you get your figures, we succeeded with the former and most definitely failed at the latter.

Gambling on Alex Runarsson was a classic case of kicking the can down the road. We just didn’t kick it very far. He was so obviously out of his depth that by January we had little choice but to recruit someone with Premier League experience. Mat Ryan looked solid in his six-month stint and, given he was available, it looked a low fuss move to make permanent in the summer. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen and he has since joined Real Sociedad.

On the eve of the new season, Runarsson, following a failed move to Turkey, is currently our backup again and young Arthur Okonkwo has been promoted behind him. Interestingly, the latter, who looked a bit shaky in pre-season, wasn’t even part of the weekend’s squad for the defeat to Sp*rs; fellow teenage Karl Hein got the nod.

What’s our plan here? Are we looking for a long-term replacement for Bernd Leno – out of contract runs in 2023 and increasingly prone to lapses in concentration – or will we settle for another stop-gap? Doing nothing is not an option. The rumours of a £30 million bid for Sheffield United’s Aaron Ramsdale suggest the former but that’s a lot of money when other areas of the squad clearly need surgery.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up kicking the can down the road again…let’s just hope it’s not a Leno-esque hospital pass.

DEFENCE

Ben White 2021

Andrew Mangan

When it comes to numbers we’re more than sorted. We have four players who can play right back and did so in pre-season (Hector Bellerin, Calum Chambers, Cedric and Ainsley Maitland-Niles); five central defenders (Chambers again, Rob Holding, Pablo Mari, Gabriel and £50m signing Ben White); and, at the time of writing, three left-backs (Kieran Tierney, Nuno Tavares, and Sead Kolasinac).

The issue isn’t bodies, it’s combinations. It’s unclear who is the incumbent at right-back. Ben White has been brought in to replace what David Luiz gave us in terms of possession, with the added bonus of mobility and being able to run; but that left-sided central defender position is up for grabs. Having spent £27m on Gabriel last summer, you’d imagine he’s the one earmarked for that role once he returns to full fitness.

Last season at Arsenal there wasn’t a great deal of selection consistency in defence. The Gunners fielded 25 different defensive combinations in the Premier League. The most common were as follows:

4 times – Bellerin, Holding, Mari & Tierney
3 times – Bellerin, Luiz, Gabriel & Tierney
3 times – Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel & Tierney
3 times – Bellerin, Luiz, Holding & Cedric
3 times – Chambers, Holding, Gabriel, Tierney

In total, 18 of the combinations were unique and only played together once. [source of defensive stats/line-ups: @Orbinho – who also tells us that we featured 37 different starting XIs in our 38 PL games last season!]

So, despite a solid defensive record, I’m sure Mikel Arteta would like to be able to build a consistent defensive unit that can provide a solid base for the team. If he can maintain last season’s decent record and improve the goalscoring/chance creation, it’s the platform for improvement.

There’s no room or need for further arrivals, but in a season without European football which limits the need for depth/rotation, moving at least a couple on before the deadline has got to be on the agenda.

Tim Stillman

In Gabriel and Ben White, Mikel Arteta has a pair of centre halves that he spent just shy of £80m on. That simply has to become the firm first choice partnership for this season and beyond now. I like the look of Ben White, even if Arsenal have probably overpaid for him. A David Luiz style passer who doesn’t need to retreat to the goal line every time the opposition mounts an attack seems like a fair trade to me.

Nuno Tavares looks a decent bit of business too; I thought finding a facsimile of Tierney was going to be next to impossible and felt that the club should bite the bullet and just make Saka the back-up left-back. They have done well to find someone similar to Tierney and happy enough to be his deputy. Right-back, at time of writing, looks like a very tangled set of earphones.

Three right-backs, none of whom would be in Arteta’s dream team you would imagine. Chambers is very much in “can do a job” territory; Bellerin in “I’m working my notice and now I am not even hiding the fact that I am just here to steal stationary” terrain; and Cedric is just using the staff gym and drinking the complementary juice.

That said, defence was not Arsenal’s Achilles heel last season, though that was partially to do with how deep the defensive line sat. I think the signing of Ben White is about edging that defensive line more towards the halfway line. Arteta’s job depends on making the attack more potent so the job description might be different for the defence this season. I wouldn’t expect the defensive record to improve much but I am fine with that if Arsenal carry significantly more threat going forward.

Andrew Allen

Only Manchester City (32) and Chelsea (36) conceded fewer Premier League goals than Arsenal (39) last season. It was our best defensive season since we finished runners-up to Leicester in 2015/16 but also our worst finish in the league in 25 years. Go figure.

The improvement (particularly at set-pieces and in the number of penalties conceded) is definitely welcome but despite last season’s return to a four-man backline, the balance between defence and attack remains off. Cue the £50 million arrival of Ben White – a replacement for the released David Luiz – and our pre-season flirtation with a higher defensive line. We need to win the ball quicker and, when we have it, we need to move it forward before opponents can reset.

While White and Kieran Tierney are first names on the teamsheet, it’s unclear who else might start in defence. At right-back, Hector Bellerin was supposed to be off, Cedric fell behind Calum Chambers in the pecking order and Ainsley Maitland-Niles backed away from the bun fight in favour of a loan move in January. Ideally, we’d be sweeping the decks and finding someone of Tierney’s level but that’s a pipedream at this point. Instead, it sounds like Bellerin could sign a new contract even though he’s not recovered his pre-ACL injury form. Personally, I’m leaning towards Chambers who was often selected when we went up against long-ball merchants.

On paper, Gabriel Magalhaes is the best fit to play as the left-sided centre-back alongside White. I was underwhelmed by his first season, but he’s a better option than Pablo Mari who looks vulnerable against anyone with pace. Unfortunately, the Brazilian has missed the whole of pre-season and is currently sidelined by a knee problem. While it’s not his preferred side, Rob Holding (again linked with Newcastle) is a solid option and I’d have no problem giving him the minutes while Gabriel recovers.

MIDFIELD

Albert Sambi Lokonga 2021

Andrew Mangan

With much of the summer taken up by slow-moving stories of Granit Xhaka’s inevitable move to Roma, there was the promise of something new in this area. Whatever you think of the Swiss international, his almost continuous presence in the team meant his departure would have required a substantial signing. As it turned out, Roma wouldn’t pay, Arsenal wouldn’t sell, and what we have we hold.

The arrival of Albert Sambi Lokonga is an encouraging one, the 21 year old has looked good in pre-season, but the acid test will begin when the season starts. It looks as though he’ll get the nod for Brentford, saving us from an underwhelming Xhaka/Elneny partnership to kick off the new campaign, but the injury to Thomas Partey is a real blow, with the Ghanaian likely to be out until mid-September. Not ideal when you face Chelsea and Man City so early on.

Beyond that, the future of Lucas Torreira is uncertain, primarily because nobody’s seen him; Joe Willock looks set for a move to Newcastle; and Ainsley Maitland-Niles is another who could depart, albeit later in the window.

Further forward, Emile Smith Rowe has been given the 10 shirt, and the responsibility that comes with it, but from the squad that finished last season, Arsenal are light in the creativity department. ESR can’t be the sole creator, it’s too much to ask, and it’s poor squad management to only have one player in that position. Will we see a return for Martin Odegaard? Is there truth to the James Maddison stuff?

Time will tell, but this is an area that has to be addressed before the end of the window and, in truth, the sooner the better.

Tim Stillman

I understand why the prospect of Xhaka staying at Arsenal carries more than a whiff of ‘meh’ about it – like being forced to take another bite of a discarded onion bhaji when you’ve just polished off a keema naan and a madras. I actually think the partnership of Partey and Xhaka looked really good last season, particularly towards the end of the campaign when Partey put a run of games together.

I am really excited by the addition of Lokonga, I am enthused by the fact that Arsenal have identified a lack of ball carriers in midfield as an issue. Unlike Elneny, Ceballos and Xhaka, Lokonga looks like he can get the ball on a lead and take it for walkies if a passing angle isn’t immediately available to him. Getting teams to commit to the ball out of possession and lose their shape is a big priority for Arsenal next season.

I am a huge fan of Smith Rowe but now he has his contract and the number 10 shirt, expectations will be higher. It was one thing for him to win commendation by raising the team’s creative level from -10 into the low positive numbers last season but now he has to improve that level again. Arsenal absolutely need another creative attacking midfielder and if they don’t get one, I don’t see how they significantly improve their league position.

Increased creativity- wherever that comes from- has to be top of Arteta’s to do list. Ben White can help ease some ball progression issues, as can greater chemistry between Xhaka and Partey. Potentially Lokonga can do it better than Elneny and Ceballos. However, without an addition in attacking midfield, this is just window dressing. Watching Arsenal move the ball from A to B last season felt a bit like watching a fly try to find its way out of your living room through of a slightly open window.

Andrew Allen

As was the case this time last year, there are plenty of question marks about those on our midfield roster. I’m assuming Lucas Torreira and Ainsley Maitland-Niles will follow Joe Willock, Matteo Guendouzi and Dani Ceballos out of the door, which leaves us with four options – Thomas Partey, Sambi Lokonga, Mo Elneny and Granit Xhaka – to fill the double-pivot positions.

Like the rest of us, I’m sure Granit is wondering how on earth he’s still an Arsenal player, let alone one that remains fundamentally important. Partey’s latest injury means we should see Sambi get an early chance to shine alongside him. After watching him closely in pre-season, I think we’ve found a gem, but he’s going to need time to get used to the rough and tumble of the Premier League. He’ll need to be fully up to speed by January when Partey and Elneny head to the AFCON.

At the time of writing, my big concern is the lack of cover for Smith Rowe and fatigue catching up with Bukayo Saka. I’m very happy we’ve tied down ESR but he definitely needs support. I think the club are well aware that it’s unfair to ask a 20-year-old – especially one with his injury record – to be consistent across 50-games which is why we were (and are?) so keen to extend Martin Odegaard’s stay at the Emirates. James Maddison fits the profile but I’d be surprised if we dropped £60 million on him. Does Mikel see Bukayo filling in as a 10? It’s an option to re-explore if we aren’t able to recruit but I’d prefer his end product coming off one of the flanks.

This time last year, I warned that we’d really struggle to push up the league table if our midfield didn’t score more goals than 2019/20. Thanks to Saka, Smith Rowe and Odegaard, who weighed in with eight goals between them, we did improve a tad, but it’s pretty obvious that Xhaka, Elneny and Partey are not regular threats in and around the box. A total of 55 goals in the league was poor for a side with Champions League ambitions. That our expected goals fell below that number (53.5) highlights just how hard we found it to create chances in the final third. We have to find a way to improve.

FORWARDS

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 2021

Andrew Mangan

It’s fairly easy to understand why Arsenal have been linked with strikers like Lautaro Martinez and Tammy Abraham this summer. At the top end, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are not getting any younger, and in an ideal market, the former French international would be sold because he has less than 12 months left on his contract.

20 year old Folarin Balogun is talented but yet to play a single minute of Premier League football, and we’re not yet 100% clear what the plan is for Gabriel Martinelli – will he be a wide forward or centre forward? There’s an age gap that has to be addressed sooner rather than later, although it looks like an onerous task in this particular window.

What’s clear is that Arteta still has plenty of attacking options at his disposal. Aubameyang, Lacazette, Balogun, Martinelli, Nicolas Pepe, Bukayo Saka, and even Emile Smith Rowe can play in the front three if another creative midfielder arrives. That’s without mentioning Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson and Willian who are all still on the books.

There are goals in those players, but question marks too. Can the captain shake himself out of the funk he finds himself in? Much will depend on how he’s used, and deploying him on the left feels increasingly pointless. Lacazette’s tendency to drop deep can be effective in build-up, but his inability to couple that with penalty box presence is a problem when it comes to sticking the ball in the back of the net.

It also feels important that Martinelli’s role becomes more defined and more regular. There were some understandable reasons as to why he didn’t play as much last season, but after a 10 goal debut campaign at the club, it’s time to lean into his potential – especially if some of the more experienced players can’t raise their level.

Goals were the biggest issue last season, we do have players who can finish, and it’s how Arteta manages to improve the creativity that is likely to be key this season.

Tim Stillman

Not a lot has changed here. Arsenal have Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe, all of whom are talented, all of whom were expensive, none of whom can actually play together coherently. The failure to move Lacazette and Nketiah has created a logjam and of all the forehead slapping decisions the club has made in the market over the last five years, buying Lacazette and Aubameyang in the space of two transfer windows is among the worst.

Having two strikers of a similar age, similar(ish) pedigree who interpret the role completely differently has held Arsenal back for the last few years and it’s difficult to see a resolution for the season ahead. On the upside, the wave of the future is already crashing to shore. Bukayo Saka is the single best thing about Arsenal Football Club at the moment and Gabriel Martinelli, given the opportunity, could well be the second-best thing.

Martinelli is the antithesis of an Arteta footballer but it’s what makes him so compelling as an option. He shoots at goal and moves the ball into the very final yards of the pitch. A lot. That’s good. It’s something Arsenal ought to consider doing more of. The trouble, of course, is that it’s difficult to see how Martinelli can co-exist with Pepe and Aubameyang. Hell, I am not even sure Pepe and Aubameyang, both of whom need the ball delivering to them in front of goal, can co-exist. Martinelli is going to have to rip the shirt off one of their backs.

Saka, Smith Rowe and Martinelli (hopefully Balogun can make a case to join them) feels like a more satisfying suite of attacking options than “LAP” (or “PAL”) but we are going to have to wait out the old guard for at least one more year. It’s not really Pepe, Auba or Laca’s fault that the forward line is so dysfunctional, of course. As for Willian, well, “Willian offers something against those deep block defences with his ability to beat full-backs in short spaces,” I wrote in my season preview last year.

To be fair, if you count the buffet as a “short space” I think he has the beating of most people….

Andrew Allen

After 31 goals in 2018/19 and 29 goals in 2019/20, last season’s tally of 15 goals represented a drastic downturn in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s output. Given how reliant we were on him to put the ball in the net, we paid a heavy price for his poor form. Granted, it wasn’t all his fault. As has been well-documented, Arsenal were completely dysfunctional in the final third prior to Christmas and a bout of malaria, family issues and a north London traffic jam didn’t help the captain’s cause when we improved. While the signs in pre-season aren’t great, I’m really hoping last season was a blip rather than a great striker’s career fizzling out before our eyes.

If the goals aren’t coming from Auba, who heads to the AFCON with Gabon in January, then who is going to step up? It’s not going to be Eddie Nketiah or Reiss Nelson, both of whom should leave before the transfer window closes, and it looks like Mikel Arteta realises Willian is a busted flush. Folarin Balogun hasn’t even made his Premier League debut, so it’s unfair to heap the pressure on him. That leaves Gabriel Martinelli, Nicolas Pepe (also AFCON bound) and Alex Lacazette.

Despite spending the summer at the Olympics, I’m hopeful Gabi can hit the ground running. Eased into last season following knee surgery, he demonstrated his poacher’s instinct with a couple of goals that will have served as a timely confidence boost. His energy and willingness to get in the box is a major plus and if he plays on the left it frees Auba to spearhead the attack instead of Lacazette. While the Frenchman was our top scorer last season with 13 goals in the Premier League, his overall record at Arsenal is trending behind predecessor Olivier Giroud (0.38 goals per game vs 0.41). Now 30, I’m not expecting him to arrest that decline. There’s still a chance he could be replaced in the next three weeks but I suspect he’ll do his best to stick around given he’s a free agent next summer. Double figures would be nice but I’m not holding my breath.

After a late flourish, nobody in Arsenal’s squad bettered Pepe’s 21 goal involvements (16 goals and five assists) last year. He also had the most shots (72) and generally looked more menacing and disciplined than he did in his first 12 months. I have high hopes that he can maintain that upward trajectory.

OVERALL

Mikel Arteta 2021

Andrew Mangan

Mikel Arteta goes into this season under pressure. Last season’s 8th place was not good enough for a club like Arsenal, even taking into account the many and varying mitigations, and the various issues he’s had to deal with since taking over (and to be extremely fair, some of those are unique to this club).

With the transfer window so far not as convincing as most would like, he has to juggle this immediate pressure with a very tricky start to the season, and a few iffy results in the early weeks will only ramp that up. Patience is in short supply already.

In truth though, while his future depends on this season, it’s where we end up that will decide it. Anything less than top 6 would have to be viewed as a failure. This is the summer where he’s had a pre-season; this is a transfer window when he’ll have given the green light on all the arrivals (and hopefully there’s more to come before August 31st); and this is the season when he has no midweek distractions, so his team should be fresh and well prepared for every Premier League game.

There is no hiding place, there can be no excuses. The context of our final league position will play a part, but if Arsenal aren’t competitive next season, if we’re hanging onto the European places by our fingertips, and ultimately fall short, it’s impossible to make the case for him to stay.

With all that in mind though, if the team can improve creatively, score more goals, and get fans off their feet a bit more, Arteta would go some way to convincing those who have real doubts about him. Direction of travel, and all that.

It’s a lot for a still relatively young and inexperienced manager to deal with, but this is Arsenal and Arteta himself understands there are standards that need to be met. Let’s hope he can do it, because ultimately that will be good for everyone.

Tim Stillman

There is potential for organic improvement, if White stays fit I expect the defence to be broadly fine. If Xhaka and Partey stay fit; I expect the midfield to be broadly fine. My biggest worry is the attack. It’s where Arsenal have the largest allocation of talent but the least amount of coherence. My hope is that the younger players can maneuver some of their senior counterparts into redundancy but it’s unfair to expect that.

If Arsenal procure a good attacking midfielder, with no European competition this season, I am optimistic about improvement. I think top six ought to be a realistic aim, I do think 8th has represented a slight under-performance on the talent Arsenal have had available over the last two seasons. However, I think it will be really tough to finish ahead of any of City, Chelsea, Liverpool or United.

I always expected this summer to be incredibly tricky, even absent the moribund market, it has never been easy for Arsenal to shift their unwanted wares. Remember those summers of trying to shift Denilson, Bendtner and Djourou? That’s the problem with bad recruitment, it gives you two problems: firstly because you buy a player that can’t do what you need them to, and secondly, because you then can’t shift them, they clog up your squad like burger grease in your arteries.

Andrew Allen

While the football in the second half of last season was far from scintillating, the fact we accumulated the third-most points in the league after Christmas is a hint that things are moving in the right direction. That and our core of young talent is a reason for muted optimism.

All the same, in its current state, I don’t believe this Arsenal squad is capable of a top-four finish. The two Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Liverpool have experience on their side, are better balanced and score more goals. That leaves us scrapping with Leicester, Sp*rs and a few of the upstarts – West Ham, Villa, Everton and Leeds – for a place in the Europa League. Just writing that makes me feel depressed, but it is what it is; we’ve fallen a long way.

A quick start to the campaign would at least give us some leeway for dropped points further down the line, but I fear the way the fixtures have fallen, we’re going to find it hard building momentum in the opening month or so.

I don’t expect us to race out of the traps but we need to roll with the punches and be in the mix for the top six (preferably top four) by Christmas. It’s the least we can ask without the distraction of European football. If we’re not, that could and probably should be the end for Project Arteta.

Where we go from there is anybody’s guess.

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