This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
Having finished eighth in successive seasons, Arsenal’s realistic first aim for 2021/22 is simply to break back into the top six. But is that really it? Well... no. Without the distraction of European football for the first time in 26 years, they have an improved chance of cracking the top four again – and shouldn’t be embarrassed about aiming for it.
Last season, Mikel Arteta’s side were second in the Premier League form table from Boxing Day onwards, a period encompassing almost two-thirds of the campaign, showing a huge improvement on their abysmal results up to then. Now they must maintain that momentum. Though they came eighth, Arsenal were just six points behind Chelsea in the Champions League spots, and their closing run of five consecutive wins included a victory at Stamford Bridge.
The north Londoners have a core of exciting young players to build a team around – and they should do just that. Emile Smith Rowe, the new No.10 and owner of shiny new contract, and Bukayo Saka have quickly become established first-team figures, while Brazilian forward Gabriel Martinelli is pushing for greater inclusion. The £50 million arrival of Ben White from Brighton is further proof of the club's upward trajectory.
Then there’s Nicolas Pepe. The club-record signing finished last season in excellent form: he ended up with 16 goals and five assists in all competitions, and half of those goals came from April onwards. Pepe can certainly frustrate supporters, but he is ultimately a high-end performer with two seasons at the club under his belt now.
Of course, it isn’t all positive. The Gunners have a very inexperienced coach whose callowness has been exposed regularly. Arteta’s substitutions are a constant bone of contention, as is the impression that his style is too cautious and overly coached.
At times, his players haven’t looked as if they’re afforded any freedom to assert dominance over teams in the lower half of the table.
The facts speak for themselves. Despite being able to call on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette (linked with a move away this summer), Pepe, Saka, Smith Rowe, Martinelli and, uh, Willian, Arsenal have scored fewer goals in the last two seasons than in any campaign since the days of Bruce Rioch. Too often, the side’s slow build-up play gave opposition defences precious little to fear.
Arteta has to demonstrate that his team can keep rivals under the cosh for longer if they’re to frighten the bigger boys this year. Arsenal’s top-four days may be over for now, but even a fleeting return wouldn’t go amiss. Just when you thought they were out...
The five-point plan
1 Pack more punch
Arsenal’s relatively paltry haul of 55 league goals from last term simply has to increase. Pepe’s improved integration can be a lesson to Martinelli, but both Saka and Smith Rowe can bolster last season’s goal tallies of five and two respectively. Arsenal averaged 12.1 shots per game last season, the 11th-most in the division. That isn’t good enough.
2 Play up to Auba
A good way of bothering scoreboards more often would be to build around the strengths of Aubameyang, who managed just eight non-penalty goals in the league last season, in line with a non-penalty xG (rating the quality of each shot) of 9.1. It was 14.3 and 16.8 in his two previous full campaigns. There are young, mobile attackers around him, so sit Auba in the box and focus on creating chances for him.
AUBAMEYANG 💪The Arsenal skipper makes no mistake this time 🔴📺 Watch on Sky Sports PL📱 Follow #ARSNEW here: https://t.co/RXWSqgPuVJ📲 Download the @SkySports app! pic.twitter.com/XKMubWxszyJanuary 18, 2021
3 Follow the (new) leaders
Last summer, Arteta brought in Gabriel (Magalhaes) and Thomas Partey to strengthen his team’s spine, and they helped the Londoners to leak the league’s fewest goals from set-pieces and third-fewest in total. They’ve had a year to settle, so it’s on them to own their areas. Kieran Tierney has emerged as a leader already – now a new core needs to form.
4 Settle on regulars
With no European football, Arsenal can focus on forming a nucleus of 15 to 16 players, rather than the bloated squads of seasons past, which have cost the team valuable cohesion. Arteta may not have two world-class players in each position, as Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel do, but that does at least mean he faces less pressure to rotate.
5 Let talent shine
One of Arteta’s biggest errors so far has been to over-value experience. He procured players such as Willian and Cedric Soares to bring it to his team, and the club awarded Aubameyang a huge new contract that takes him to his 34th birthday. It was the young players, however, who carried the team in the improved second half of last season. Arteta must prioritise ability over age.
FFT verdict: 6th
A vibrant young squad have momentum and no European distractions. If they start well, top six.
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