Arseblog Season Preview: 2020-21
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 – and its readiness for the new season.
Starting, as always, with:
Andrew Mangan: Before lockdown if you’d said we’d be receiving bids approaching £20m for Emi Martinez but unsure whether selling is the right thing to do, people would have said you were crazy. The world, however, is not what it was, and after his superb run in the team after Bernd Leno’s injury, that’s where we are.
The German was the unquestioned number 1 until that incident at Brighton, but Emi’s performances and personality have convinced many he should stay in the team. The issue is that he wants to be first choice, and as impressive as he’s been, you can understand why it’s hard for Arsenal to give him that assurance.
He’s played just 15 Premier League games for the club, and at 28 years of age has just hit the 100 senior appearance mark. Leno, on the other hand, has well over 400 to his name.
What is true right now though, is that Arsenal have two very good goalkeepers on their books, and given the European and cup competitions we have to play, there’s plenty of football to go around. Ideally, I’d like to see both stay and battle it out for top spot, I think it would be a genuinely competitive scrap between them, as well as providing us with genuine reassurance if one gets injured.
The club’s financial situation is likely to play a part though, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the money on offer for Emi was too good to turn down, even if some of it would have to go on a replacement. It shouldn’t also be forgotten how good Leno was until his injury, so whatever happens Arsenal will have a good number one.
Tim Stillman: “It’s not that I think Martinez is a bad goalkeeper, I am just not convinced he will ever truly push to be the first choice and that’s what you want in an understudy,” that’s what I wrote last summer, and after that pearl of wisdom it’s a wonder I was asked back to provide my opinion again this year.
In an ideal world I would really like to see Leno and Martinez fight to the metaphorical death for the number 1 jersey and perhaps next summer Arsenal could look at garlanding the winner and getting some good moolah for the runner-up. Martinez’s contract situation and desire to play might expedite the situation and give Arteta and his staff a decision to make now.
The sample size is insufficient for Arsenal to throw their lot in with Martinez and he, understandably, wants assurances having waited for his shot for so long. The selection against Fulham might light the fire under this one. I would start Martinez and stick with him until he does something to get dropped. There is plenty of football for both keepers in the first half of the season with the Europa League group phase and starting Martinez on the opening day might be enough to convince him not to agitate for a move just yet.
Andrew Allen: The fact it’s taken me 15 minutes of staring at a blank page before trying to tackle this section sums things up nicely. Arteta has a problem that isn’t really a problem, but sort of is. A problem he could solve only to cause another problem.
Were it not for our financial situation, I’d advocate retaining both Leno and Martinez and seeing how things play out over the next 12 months. The fact is, we need cash to reinvest in other parts of the squad and if a decent offer comes in for Martinez, I’d say we have to seriously consider it. It needs to be a proper offer though, one that covers a replacement and leaves us with more than pocket change. I’m thinking of £20 million or more.
Why let Emi leave rather than Bernd? For me, Martinez, even though he counts as homegrown, represents a cash-out situation. We didn’t know he was going to be this good and we have no idea if it’s a purple patch or not. Will he ever be worth this much again? Not on our watch if he doesn’t sign a renewal. Right now, on paper, Leno looks like a safer long-term bet to me.
He’s far more experienced, he’s played most of his football with crowds breathing down his neck and, on those occasions when he’s made a mistake (I’m thinking the Chelsea clanger), he’s compartmentalised them and gone on to perform at a high level again.
I’m not saying Emi will fall apart if he makes a terrible mistake in an important game in front of a packed house, but he’s not yet had to overcome that obstacle and at some point, he will. All keepers do. That teeny-tiny unknown swings things in Bernd’s favour for me.
Fingers crossed, if we do sell, we either don’t downgrade too much or don’t have to play them too often.
Andrew Mangan: In William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes we have two additions who, all going well, could be the future of the centre of our defence. In the very short-term though, it’s unrealistic to expect a 19 year old and a 22 year old to come into the team straight away and solve all our problems. They will need time, patience, and understanding from fans. Similarly, we haven’t seen anywhere near enough of Pablo Mari yet to know if he’s got what it takes at Premier League level.
We’re clearly overburdened with centre-halves, some of whom just have to go. It feels like a lot rests on David Luiz, which is a worry given his age and the overall standard of his performances last season. He looks like a player in decline, and while his experience and character is useful off the pitch, he needs to prove he still has what it takes on it.
At full back we seem in good shape. Hopefully Hector Bellerin stays, Cedric is experienced back-up, while in Kieran Tierney we have a player who will hopefully kick on this season after a difficult first campaign because of injury. Ainsley Maitland-Niles can provide cover on both sides, as Sead Kolasinac remains a potential departure.
The big issue as I see it is the use of the back three versus a back four. It obviously works against the bigger teams, as recent results have shown, but when Arsenal need to control games more against so-called ‘smaller’ opposition, can Mikel Arteta find a way to make his team tick with the extra man back there as opposed to further forward?
Tim Stillman: We can finally see a succession plan at centre half with the signings of Saliba and Gabriel and I imagine David Luiz’s job will be to, effectively, oversee his own redundancy by helping both of these players on. Luiz, I am guessing, will start the season as first choice with the idea that Arteta gradually weans the team off the senior Brazilian.
Mari looks to be a back up to Gabriel at centre-half and then, well, there is a centre-half Royal Rumble going on. Sokratis looks Napoli bound while Rob Holding’s hairline might retreat to Newcastle even if the player himself doesn’t, Shkodran Mustafi only has a year left on his deal and Calum Chambers is injured. The strange thing is, while Arsenal are enormously overloaded in the position at the moment, next summer they might need to buy in the position again.
I am broadly positive that Arsenal are moving in the right direction in defence with the improved structure Arteta has brought but I am sure the plan is to move to a back four so an extra midfielder can be chiselled into the structure. Essentially, it’s all eyes on Gabriel and Saliba once the training wheels are off. Something certainly has to give at right-back between Maitland-Niles and Bellerin but that’s a relatively nice problem to have even if it’s a noggin scratcher.
Andrew Allen: Arteta proved himself to be a real pragmatist last season when he realised he couldn’t find a centre-back pairing he could trust. Adding an additional body to the backline and playing with wing-backs equipped us to better cope with high balls and counter-attacks but that too often came at the cost of controlling the midfield. Against possession-based sides, we invited pressure. Against sides in a deep block, we missed creativity further up the pitch.
While new boys Gabriel Magalhaes and Saliba bed in, I suspect we’ll stick with the three-man backline in the early part of the season. As confidence and experience grows, I’d like to see us revert to a pair. Having the know-how and personnel to play both would be ideal. Who knows, with a set-piece specialist on the coaching staff, we might even learn to defend corners!
In terms of numbers, it’s no secret we need to shed some fat. I think Sokratis’ departure is inevitable and I reckon Chambers could be playing his football elsewhere by February, if not sooner. That leaves Luiz, Holding, Mustafi and Pablo Mari to battle things out. Probably still one too many, but with our injury record, not a bad thing.
On the flanks, I’d look to offload Kolasinac and would be happy for us to keep the rest. Saka and Maitland-Niles can cover Tierney and Cedric is a solid back-up for Bellerin whose flirtations with a move I expect will come to nothing.
Right now, I see our defence like a lump of clay in the hands of sexy potter Arteta. It could easily be fashioned into a beautiful vase but I’m scared it could fall apart in the blink of an eye.
Andrew Mangan: So many questions remain ahead of the start of the season. Players like Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira and Mohamed Elneny could all be elsewhere by the close of the window – and it remains to be seen what kind of role, if any, the manager has for Mesut Ozil.
The re-signing of Dani Ceballos is an obvious positive, and Granit Xhaka’s redemption arc since Arteta’s arrival will see him start the season as a fundamental part of any midfield we put out. Joe Willock feels like a player who could benefit from a loan, but it’s not unreasonable to think that the 44 appearances he made last season will see him better equipped for this one.
There is still very clearly something missing though, and that can only be resolved via the transfer market. Whether it’s Thomas Partey, Houssem Aouar or somebody else entirely, it’s important we add quality to this area of the pitch. When Arteta repeatedly insisted last season we needed to improve the squad, it was hard not to think a midfielder of his distinction hadn’t spotted some of the gaps in our current set-up, so this is very much still a work in progress before the window closes on October 6th.
Tim Stillman: I think Arsenal have done well in the transfer market so far in that they have acted quickly to bolster the attack and the defence [Mari and Soares are both summer signings, remember] and to secure Ceballos on loan for another season. I think the club know that upgrading the midfield is the most difficult part and the one that probably can’t be resolved until later in the window.
They are going to have to make some sales – maybe even a reluctant sale – in order to bring Arsenal’s midfield into something that belongs in the top six of the Premier League at least. Ceballos and Xhaka is not athletic enough as a duo and doesn’t create enough for Arsenal’s service starved forwards and that is the best we have at the time of writing.
The principal challenge of this season is for Arsenal to start dominating and scoring more freely against the bottom half of the table and that requires an uptick in creative quality in midfield but also in athleticism and ability to take the ball on the half-turn. In an ideal world we would be looking at upgrading on a useful but one-dimensional player like Xhaka this summer- but that will have to wait. To put it bluntly, Arsenal’s midfield is of upper midtable quality at best and addressing that in the transfer window will go a long way to determining where Arsenal finish. If it stays as it is, 6th is our absolute ceiling in my view.
Andrew Allen: Trying to figure this out is like wearing a blindfold and attempting a Rubik’s cube. It’s not impossible that Torreira, Guendouzi and Elneny all leave in the next five weeks which definitely leaves us short of cover for our Ceballos and Xhaka double-pivot.
Will we raise the necessary funds to put a serious bid together for Thomas Partey? Is he even the right player? I’m really not so sure. That said, we could definitely do with some pace, controlled bite and variety in the middle of the park; all the more so if we go adventurous and revert to a four-man defence.
Obviously, a genuine creative spark would be lovely. You only have to look at Manchester United’s acquisition of Bruno Fernandes for an example of how one player can help revitalise an attacking unit. Writing on the eve of the season, I notice Ozil has been reintegrated into training sessions but I still think it more likely that game time behind the strikers will be split between our Academy graduates – Willock, Saka and Smith-Rowe – and chaperone Willian.
Our midfield contributed a sum total of seven Premier League goals last season and three of those are attributed to Martinelli. If we don’t improve in this area next season, it’s going to be a tall order achieving a Champions League finish.
Andrew Mangan: There remains a huge reliance on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for our goalscoring, so it’s a good job the captain shows no signs of slowing down. Nicolas Pepe should do more in his second season, which might ease some of the burden, and the arrival of Willian gives an experienced option which should prove useful.
Beyond that, Alexandre Lacazette has to show more than he did last season, as he scraps with Eddie Nketiah for the central role. There’s a lot of stock placed in the younger man who hasn’t quite demonstrated the kind of clinical nature in front of goal you’d hope for, but time is on his side.
With Gabriel Martinelli out until the new year, it feels like we might lack a little something in this area, but to ensure the talented young Brazilian doesn’t find his path impeded, I suspect it’ll be about getting more out of the players we have than bringing signing anyone in this area of the pitch.
We need more goals, some of that could come from more creativity in midfield, but much will depend on the players we currently have producing more than they did last time around (Auba excluded).
Tim Stillman: The addition of Willian is intriguing to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because his best position is the same as Pepe’s. It will be interesting to see what role Arteta has in mind for the Brazilian. It’s also interesting because Willian offers something against those deep block defences with his ability to beat full-backs in short spaces.
Arsenal’s back-up options in attack were very young last season so he adds experience too. If Aubameyang can match his 36 Premier League starts from last season we know he will score 20 or more but finding more than one avenue through which to be dangerous is going to be key for the team this season. Arsenal are too reliant on Aubameyang.
If Pepe can hit the ground running and Saka takes a step forward and Willian adds some goals and assists and, assuming he stays, Lacazette can start the season without that nagging ankle injury- if all of those eventualities come to pass, Arsenal will make improvements on the paltry 56 league goals they managed last season. Turning some of those 14 draws from last term into victories will be crucial and, for my money, that means working out a way to pound on the bottom half. That means better attacking output and I think we will see some improvement in that respect.
Andrew Allen: If Aubameyang signs his new deal – and I have little doubt he will – we might as well put the contract in the trophy cabinet. That’s how big a win it will be for Arteta. He brings goals and peace of mind in equal measure. Personally, I have no preference where he plays, he’s a matchwinner whether he plays centrally or from the left and he always puts in a defensive shift.
I can understand the temptation to cash in on Lacazette this summer. If Martinelli wasn’t injured, I think he’d be one of the first I’d sacrifice, predominantly because he could fetch a decent price. At the same time, if he stays, I can’t see him playing as poorly this year as he did for a chunk of the last campaign. By the FA Cup final, there were flashes that he was getting back to his old self, perhaps sparked by the emergence of Nketiah.
I think this is a big year for the England under-21 international. Arteta gave him a chance and he took it. Now he needs to build on that. His movement in the box is very intelligent and he says he used the lockdown period to bulk up and hone his technique. If he gets regular game time, he should be aiming for at least double-figures in the league this season. Martinelli won’t have quite so long to make a mark but we’ve seen enough from him to expect an impact when he’s fully fit in 2021. The jury is out on Nelson.
Writing in last year’s preview, I predicted that Nicolas Pepe would need some time to get used to the physicality of the Premier League. That was about the only thing I got right. In the end, his stats weren’t too bad but we’re all expecting more from him this season. The dancing feet, the wand of a left foot; he has what it takes to be a game-changer like peak Riyad Mahrez. It’s now about application and consistency.
Andrew Mangan: Winning the FA Cup was a huge positive, providing us with European football this season, and there’s a lot that Mikel Arteta does and says that instills hope and optimism. He’s had to cope with so much in such a short space of time, and this off-season – as short as it has been – has provided unique challenges again because of the pandemic, the impact on finances, and the way the market operates.
Quite how much progress we can make this season is the big question – as is what would realistically constitute a good campaign. More Premier League points and finishing higher up the table would be evidence of progress. So too addressing some of the issues which plagued us last season, i.e – a lack of consistency, not enough creativity, defensive lapses, and turning some of those draws into wins.
As it stands I’m not convinced we’ve done enough to break back into the top four, but there is still time before the window closes. It’s important we don’t become overly-reliant on the brilliance of Aubameyang for our goals. By all means harness his quality, but others need to step up to the plate too.
We scraped into 8th last season, our lowest finish for years, 10 points off the top four. Other teams aren’t sitting still either, and it’s clear there’s work still to do. Arteta can only get so much out of the players we have, to properly improve we need to bring in some better players, that is the bottom line.
Despite that though, I am confident we can do better than we did last season, although improving on what was our worst campaign in over 20 years means that’s a low bar. I like what Arteta does and what he says, I feel like he’s the right man, but I don’t think we should under any illusions about how much work there is still to do to get back to where we want to be.
Tim Stillman: I think things are just about heading in the right direction again- but it all depends on what happens in that midfield before the end of the transfer window. Arsenal have addressed other areas and, I think, are slowly beginning to untangle the knots in the squad. It’s more than a one window job and the young defenders signed will take some time to settle.
What Arsenal need is to be more dangerous in attack and I expect Willian to add something there, I expect Pepe to start the season in better shape, I expect Saka to take a half a step forwards and I expect Aubameyang to be Aubameyang. With Martinelli to come back too and with Nketiah now a more established squad member I think Arsenal will become a more menacing proposition in attack.
The midfield is the burning issue now but I do think we will add a starting eleven player there- maybe as late as deadline day and we will see the sale of Bellerin or Lacazette to facilitate it. I think Arsenal will be in the conversation for the top four again – I am still not entirely convinced by Solskjaer or Lampard as coaches – but I’ve a feeling we might finish 5th by a hair’s breadth. There is lots of work to do before this is a top 4 squad but I do think we have a better coach than some of the teams who might be vying for those 3rd and 4th spots.
Andrew Allen: I know the underlying metrics suggest Arsenal haven’t moved on that much since Unai Emery was sacked but I’ve seen enough from Mikel Arteta to be convinced that he and his staff are more than capable of getting us back into the top four. Whether it happens this year, I’m not so sure. The squad is still in a state of flux.
When you look at the competition, I think there are only two Champions League places available to us via the league. While I don’t think Liverpool and Manchester City will run away with things like they have in the last two seasons, they are still miles ahead of us and the chasing pack. Chelsea’s spending suggests they will be strong and United have decent attacking options. With Spurs, Wolves and Leicester in the mix, there’s going to be so little margin for error.
My heart says we might just steal fourth. My head says we’ll finish in fifth and embark on a couple of lavish cup runs. If that happens, so be it. Right now, I just want coronavirus to piss off, so I can appreciate something I took for granted; enjoying matchdays with friends and family.
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