Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Big Arseblog Season Preview: 2022-23

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

Aaron Ramsdale 2022

Andrew Mangan

It’s clear Aaron Ramsdale is the number 1, and how you felt about Bernd Leno providing genuine competition for him last season might well impact how you’re feeling about this position now.

The German has now signed for Fulham, and at Premier League level, new signing Matt Turner is very much an unknown quantity. In truth though, the American isn’t likely to play much in the league, unless there’s an injury or suspension.

If you look at other clubs, they have a very clear and obvious first choice. Alisson at Liverpool, Ederson at Man City, for example, and it looks like this is the road Arsenal are going down with Ramsdale. He had a better first half of last season than the second, but with a stronger defence in front of him, and a team that’s likely to play more in the opposition half than we have done in the past, it’ll be about concentration and focus for him during this campaign.

He is a fantastic shot stopper, his distribution is off the charts at times, and at 24 he’s still very young in the life of a goalkeeper. The key now is consistency and absolutely cementing his status as one the first names on Mikel Arteta’s teamsheet.

Tim Stillman

I don’t know enough about Matt Turner to really comment on whether or not he is a good recruit. I like the profile though, an ambitious goalkeeper fighting for his spot in his national team. The Ramsdale Leno 1-2 was probably one of the best goalkeeping combos in Europe last season, all told. It was only ever going to be a one-season deal, however.

I think Leno did the job I expected of him, which was to be the “tideover” goalkeeper in the sticky post Wenger years and I think that’s largely what he was. Not spectacular but not bad by any means. It was a mutually convenient deal that has ended at the right time in my view. Ramsdale exceeded expectations last season but I think we could all see that he had lost some edge at the end of last season. It will be interesting to see whether he was “regressing to the mean” or else just a bit jaded but I strongly suspect the latter.

Andrew Allen

If the recruitment of Aaron Ramsdale this time last year had everyone scratching their heads, it didn’t take long for the Yorkshireman to prove his doubters wrong. While his form in the first half of the season was tighter than the second, overall he was a marked upgrade on the Bernd Leno of 2020/21. Ramsdale’s ability to build play from the back, whether threading balls through the lines or pinging them long to the wings with pinpoint accuracy, was genuinely game-changing and definitely a missing piece in Arteta’s puzzle.

Leno remains an excellent keeper and there are slight concerns that we’re dropping a level by switching him for Matt Turner. At 28, the American brings life experience to the dressing room but not match experience; he came to the game late and has only 150 or so professional appearances to his name. I find it particularly curious that he admits that playing out with his feet is not his forte, however, I trust the club is well aware of his strengths and weaknesses given they made the commitment to buy him way ahead of time.

Like Ramsdale, Turner is vying for a starting place for his country at the World Cup so I’d expect the competition on the training ground to be fierce. At the same time, Ramsdale is a shoo-in to start the Premier League campaign and should play the Europa League group stage matches until qualification is assured. That leaves Turner with the League Cup and potentially a couple of European dead rubbers this side of Christmas. With Arthur Okonkwo spending a year with Crewe Alexandra, Karl Hein has been promoted to the first team and looks ready to provide further depth ahead of Alex Runarsson.

DEFENCE

William Saliba Gabriel

Andrew Mangan

On paper this is as strong a defensive line-up as we’ve had in a long time. The return of William Saliba gives us more depth at centre-half and allows us to use Ben White at right back in the absence of Takehiro Tomiyasu. The Frenchman is everything you want in a modern defender: he’s got pace, physical presence, he’s calm on the ball, and although our sample size with him is small, he looks likely to start the season – something many thought might not happen.

Gabriel is well and truly settled now; Rob Holding can provide cover for both centre-half positions; and the arrival of Oleksandr Zinchenko adds real quality and experience which allows us to ease Kieran Tierney back to full fitness.

The one concern is the fact that KT and Tomi are a bit injury prone, but if we get them fully fit and keep them fit, there’s incredible quality, versatility and depth at the back.

Tim Stillman

I think the additions of Saliba and Zinchenko seriously raise the floor of this defence. Saliba’s presence meaning that Ben White can also play as the back-up right-back to Tomiyasu represents a big quality injection. We have replaced Tavares with Zinchenko and whether you regard Tavares as an interesting “project” with workable raw materials or a sports car without a set of brakes, it represents an upgrade, simple as that.

Tierney’s injuries have proved too unsettling in consecutive seasons now and that ought not to be the case any longer. It also means Tierney has serious competition for his place. Saliba’s presence pushes Cedric a little further down the pecking order which (sorry to be unkind) also represents an upgrade. We perhaps don’t have an ideal analogue for Gabriel given how different Rob Holding is in terms of profile (not least because he is also right-footed).

I am really happy with how we are looking in this area this season. Last season, I liked our first choice back four but the back-ups were not analogous / a little raw / shit at football. Six good defenders instead of four feels like a win to me.

Andrew Allen

Arsenal conceded nine goals more last season (48) than the season prior (39) and ended the campaign with the seventh best defensive record in the league behind the four clubs above us and Brighton (9th / 44), Wolves (10th / 43) and Crystal Palace (12th / 46). On the surface, that’s not great. At the same time, our 13 clean sheets – all achieved before the end of March – ranked fifth and tallies with our league position. Simply put, after a nightmare start, we improved dramatically but wet the bed when almost everyone in defence (and Thomas Partey) picked up an injury or knock in the closing stages.

The gap between our first-choice defenders – Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel, Tierney – and their backups – Cedric, Tavares, Holding – was too great last year so I’m heartened by the attempt to rectify the situation. Banishing Captain Chaos to Marseille was a no-brainer while the integration of William Saliba and acquisition of Oleksandr Zinchenko is very exciting. That White can deputise for Tomiyasu at right-back is a boon although I’d still be tempted to find another option in the transfer market to squeeze Cedric out of the squad altogether if Maitland-Niles and Bellerin leave as expected. It’s wishful thinking.

All the same, there’s a nice blend of power, versatility and technical quality at the back. Throw in greater familiarity with Arteta’s playing style and Nicolas Jover’s set-piece tactics and we have all the ingredients to step up a notch. We’ll need to be tighter at the back because compared to our rivals I still think we’re shy of goals in attack. On that note, it would be great if the defence could follow the lead of Gabriel Magalhaes and get themselves on the scoresheet more often.

MIDFIELD

Granit Xhaka 2022

Andrew Mangan

The one area of the squad that hasn’t seen any significant addition – even if there is speculation that Zinchenko might be used in a midfield role. Of course, Fabio Vieira was brought in from Porto, but as yet we’re unsure as to where Mikel Arteta sees him playing.

Could he be the mythical left 8? There are ongoing rumours regarding Youri Tielemans, but as yet no bid from Arsenal for the Belgian. With more incomings dependent on trimming the squad, it looks like we’ll play the early part of the season with essentially the same roster as last season.

If there’s room to grow, it comes in the shape of Albert Sambi Lokonga who will, at the very least, get Europa League games to continue his development, and his use in pre-season has been interesting. Martin Odegaard is now captain, and ready to shoulder more responsibility, and behind him the experienced trio have their qualities but they’re not without their flaws either.

It does feel like most fans would welcome a central midfield addition, a signing who fits with the age profile and experience of Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus, but with almost a month still to go before the window closes, that might be something that happens towards the end of August.

Until then, what we have, we hold – and whether that’s enough remains to be seen.

Tim Stillman

The one area that hasn’t really changed, personnel wise, this summer. I fancy Fabio Vieira will get some Europa League games in the “left-eight” position but not so much in the Premier League. Not yet anyway. Granit Xhaka still feels like a player earmarked for an upgrading but it doesn’t feel like a total emergency and will probably happen next summer.

Odegaard has the captaincy and that right-eight role down to a tee and I am looking for more from him this season. He had an excellent season in 2021-22 but I think there is another 10-15% in this player we are yet to see and I want to see it. Sambi Lokonga will offer back up to Xhaka rather than Partey this year with Elneny playing as the back-up to Thomas Partey. Zinchenko can also plug into this position well enough. A foreseeable world where Partey is unavailable for a long period of time still very much feels like a chip in the Arsenal paintwork.

In one respect, every team not owned by a nation state carries this kind of vulnerability somewhere. Liverpool don’t have a replacement for Virgil van Dijk. Barcelona never had a replacement for Lionel Messi. Arsenal didn’t really have one for Patrick Vieira. However, it feels like a live concern and maybe one where the club will need to concentrate some resource soon.

Andrew Allen

Having rated his form in an injury-hit first half of the 21/22 season as a four out of 10, something clicked for Thomas Partey just before Christmas and he finally started producing consistently dominant performances as a soloist at the base of Arteta’s midfield. Given the price tag, it was about time. There was a sharp intake of breath when the Ghanaian picked up an injury in early March and despite the best efforts of Mo Elneny, whose retention I advocated, we did indeed struggle without his ability to cover vast swathes of the pitch. We’re still heavily reliant on Partey and I worry that if he’s absent through injury – something that’s happened a lot – or otherwise, then we could be in a bit of a pickle.

If he’s not having to provide back-up to Tierney, Zinchenko could play in the more advanced 8 position allowing Granit Xhaka to drop deep again although the Swiss, despite improving with age, isn’t any more mobile. I’m curious to see how Sambi Lokonga progresses and where we field him. He’s had a year to acclimatise and more will be expected of him after a so-so debut season. Can he step up when needed? Might we still be in the market for someone else?

In the more advanced positions, there’s much to whet the appetite. Like his mentor Arsene Wenger, Arteta has begun collecting creatives. Martin Odegaard is just sublime to watch and, with more mobility ahead of him, he should thrive. The Norwegian didn’t post ‘wow’ headline numbers last season (7 goals and 5 assists in 40 games) but he’s shown enough to suggest he could. With a tendency to drift to the right, he’s also forged a really promising relationship with Bukayo Saka.

This time last year, I was really concerned that our ‘Star Boy’ would struggle with fatigue following the Euros. How wrong I was. He underlined what an exciting talent he is by registering 19 goal involvements in 43 matches – three appearances more than anyone else in the squad. The sky’s the limit for him. Meanwhile, Emile Smith Rowe played 1,000 fewer minutes than his brother-in-arms but demonstrated real efficiency when he was on the pitch with 11 goals and two assists of his own. He’ll be impatient to get fit with a World Cup on the horizon but for our sake we shouldn’t rush him back prematurely and risk further setbacks.

Saka, Odegaard and ESR shared 30 goals last season, up from eight the season before. Maintain that upwards trajectory and throw new boy Fabio Vieira into the mix alongside the new look attack and that 90-goal tally that Arteta wants to hit doesn’t look as fanciful as it sounds.

FORWARDS

Arsenal Forwards 2022

Andrew Mangan

I wrote this week that Gabriel Jesus is a player who transforms this Arsenal attack, and while obviously what he’s done in pre-season is hugely encouraging, we need him to do that when it really counts. I’m confident though, this is a top quality player who has settled in quickly, knows he’s got some serious responsibility, but remains humble enough to know how hard he’s got to work to be a success in red and white.

Eddie Nketiah as our number 2 centre-forward is a show of faith from Arteta. He finished last season very well, but he’s got to take another step forward this season too. The loan departure of Flo Balogun means we’re a little light in that key position, although I’m sure this is something the manager is mindful of.

On the left I’m expecting a big season for Gabriel Martinelli. He’s already shown he’s on the same wavelength as Jesus, and that’s a combination that could be very dangerous this season. I’d like to see him hit double figures in terms of goals scored, I think he’s capable of it, as well as providing assists. Emile Smith Rowe’s injury issues are a concern, but he stepped up last season and could do the same again this time around.

On the right, Bukayo Saka remains a key part of this team, but with Europe added to the Premier League schedule, we have to careful about his already heavy burden. There are question marks over the future of Nicolas Pepe and Reiss Nelson, while it’s as yet unclear whether or not summer signing Marquinhos is ready. This is the one area I’d like us to clear the decks, and make another signing – not least because another goalscoring wide player would help us offset the issue of being light at centre-forward.

Tim Stillman

“Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” I have talked and written enough about Gabriel Jesus without repeating myself unduly here, as well as his potential impact on teammates. Needless to say I expect this to be a transformational signing.

Arsenal have been trying to make do with good strikers but strikers who do not really fit into the overall unit. Gabriel Jesus is a really good striker who aligns totally with the way that Arteta wants to play, he is still young but with bags of experience. Arsenal have talented wide players and I expect Jesus’ presence to lift their games too.

I am happy enough for Eddie Nketiah to move into that carousel of attackers because I have seen big improvements in his overall game, albeit across a small sample size. In Saka, Arsenal have a player who is already a star who will hopefully get better. In Martinelli and Smith Rowe, they have talented players ready to ‘pop’ and make the move from potential to regular delivery.

I still fancy Arsenal are a forward light. Nobody really knows who the third choice centre-forward is and probably hopes we never have to find out. Saka can’t play every minute of every game but I don’t think it’s so much about buying dedicated Saka back-up (nobody good is signing up for that job). I view the attack as a carousel, a rotating cast and I fancy we need one more in the cast. If Arsenal can shift a few players for cash money in the coming weeks, I fancy that’s where the money will go but I wouldn’t be surprised if that can’t happen just yet.

Andrew Allen

In my opinion, we’re heading into the new season short of a striker. But first, the positives.

Gabriel Jesus is an excellent purchase and I have absolutely no doubt that he’ll score lots of goals for us this season. If Alex Lacazette was a pregnant cow trundling around the middle of the pitch, we’ve now got ourselves a tiger. I know he’s on record stating he doesn’t want to be a ‘superstar’ at Arsenal, but if he continues his pre-season form into competitive matches, he may find people lauding him as such. Can he get to 30 goals in all competitions? That has to be the aim.

Waiting in the wings – and sure to get plenty of game time in the cups and off the bench – is a revitalised Eddie Nketiah. He had something of a free hit at the tail-end of last season, showed what he’s capable of and now needs to prove he can do it on-demand. In many respects, given the type of six-yard box poacher he is, it’s on his teammates to provide him with the necessary service. 10 goals with comparatively little game time was no mean feat last season but with the number 14 shirt on his back, he’s now one of the big boys.

Given Arteta had the chance to utilise Martinelli in a central position when Aubameyang departed but gave Nketiah the nod suggests he’s already formed his opinion of the Brazilian. I’m happy watching him cause havoc off the left flank but we need more end product. He’s electric, exciting, more than capable of roasting opponents with his direct running but there were games last season where he did the hard work and then fluffed his lines. He’s still young and these things take time but he’ll know it more than anyone that it’s time for lift off.

I don’t really have any expectations for Nicolas Pepe or Reiss Nelson – both of whom I reckon could and should leave before the window closes – and I’ve not seen enough from Marquinhos to commit anything to paper. The whispers are positive so maybe he won’t be a Wellington Silva.

Returning to my original point…I think we need another option up front. I always worry about injuries and also think it wouldn’t hurt to have a ‘plan B’ option off the bench. In a five sub world, if you’re chasing a goal and already have Nketiah and Jesus on the pitch, what else do we have in the squad to make our opponents think? If we can find a cheap striker or a loan deal, preferably someone with a physical presence, then it would get my vote. Haaland, Diaz, Lewandowski…big strikers are back in fashion and we don’t have one.

If that’s too Sam Allardyce for your tastes, I apologise!

OVERALL

Andrew Mangan

I think this is the strongest squad we’ve had going into a first game for a long time. It doesn’t mean there aren’t still things to be concerned about – I do worry a bit about a credible alternative to Bukayo Saka, at least in the manager’s mind, and we have to be conscious of the burden we place on him this season.

Similarly, there might well be room for another central midfielder before the start of the window, but as it stands, this isn’t a squad with any glaring holes. Having finished 5th last season despite some obvious deficiencies and some key absentees at the business end of the season, why can’t we do better this time around when we’ve added real quality and winning experience to the squad?

Top four has to be the aim, but not just that. We have to acknowledge the likes of Man City and Liverpool are ahead of us, but closing the gap should be part of our objective this season too. If we do that, we’ll finish more or less where we want.

I also think the Europa League should be taken seriously as soon as we get to the knock-out phase. How Mikel Arteta balances his squad during that Thursday/Sunday grind will be interesting, but let’s make no bones about it: after a final and two semi-finals in recent years, this is a competition we should be looking to win.

All in all, I’m optimistic, I like the players, I like the excitement around the club, I like how we’ve rebuilt in the last 12-18 months, and hopefully we see the fruits of that on the pitch this season.

Tim Stillman

It feels to me very much like the rebuild is essentially done. By that, I do not mean that Arsenal cannot improve on what they have. I mean that we are in a tweaking phase rather than a “does anyone know where I can hire a good bulldozer?” phase. Some of last season’s tender spots have been addressed.

I really like the addition of Zinchenko, not just because of his quality and versatility but the two positions that he plays have been held by players who have been absolute locks in the team for a few years now. He provides competition and support to both. There are still a few creases, what Arsenal would do with even a medium-term layoff for Partey, Saka or if Jesus and Nketiah are simultaneously stricken feel like the most obvious.

Overall though, I think this squad is unrecognisably better than the one we had this time two years ago. And let’s be honest, it ought to be. While the wage bill has been trimmed, money has been spent on transfers. It would represent a spectacular failure if Arsenal didn’t look a better, leaner squad given the outlay. But overall I feel good about the season ahead, I think the swiftness with which the club has done its main business is to be commended too.

Andrew Allen

My expectations heading into last season were relatively low. I was in a post-Super League debacle funk and I didn’t think we had the squad (at the time of writing) to finish in the top four. All the same, I was hopeful we’d make a fist of things up to Christmas. We did better than I expected, especially given the Aubameyang curve ball. There was a moment in the 2-1 home defeat to City where I looked around an energised Emirates and I was convinced we were on the right path.

It was no less painful getting so close to the promised land and falling just short, especially to you know who, but I see and believe in what the club is trying to do and can see an upwards trajectory.

Honestly, I’ll be bitterly disappointed if we don’t end our Champions League exile this time out. We head into the Europa League as one of the favourites and on the domestic front, having pulled away from the likes of West Ham, Leicester and Wolves, we shouldn’t be scared of going toe-to-toe with Sp*rs, Chelsea and Manchester United. For now, Liverpool and Manchester City are out of reach and it won’t be any surprise to see them finishing first and second.

More than anything, I’m looking forward to being part of an engaged crowd at the Emirates. For the most part last season, it felt united and the players fed off the positivity. It hadn’t been like that in a long time. The foundations have been laid and we’ve ALL played a part. I’m excited for what happens next.