Arsenal Season Preview 2020/21: The Arteta revolution to begin
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
On the 4th August I wrote my 2,000-word review on what was a chaotic 2019/20 season. No sooner than just over a month later I find myself previewing our next campaign, as we prepare for what is likely to be another unprecedented emotional rollercoaster across the next nine months. If it comes even close to how bizarre and frenetic last season panned out, then we’re in for some journey.
Three head coaches. A worldwide pandemic. Relegation threatening form for two months. A negotiated 12.5% pay cut for the playing staff. A 14th FA Cup Trophy. A captain that told our own fans to f*ck off. An agonising Europa League upset exit. Two wonderkid teenagers’ breakthrough seasons. Wins over Manchester United, Liverpool, City, Chelsea and Wolves. A North London Derby defeat. Facing 54 shots over the course of two games. Several redemption stories for players. Several players seemingly frozen out for periods of the season. 3rd in October. 12th in December. Football without fans. No football for three months. A 5-5. Five red cards. To ensure the health and safety of all Gooners worldwide, we cannot repeat this campaign. We can’t even go close to emulating it.
To avoid such psychological turbulence, we must approach this season in a more positive manner than the last. Better prepared, with better people in key hierarchal positions and a better playing squad.
On the executive side, we are arguably in a better position, with the divisive ‘Don’ Raul Sanllehi now out the door following an investigation into the signing of Nicolas Pepe. Despite his contact led approach to recruitment allowing us to get into bed with the big boy ‘super’ agents, this also led to the decline of other departments that contributed to the recruitment process. Whilst StatDNA’s influence in our incoming transfer business had become somewhat peripheral, the scouting department had become almost entirely irrelevant to first team recruitment, and has subsequently been dismantled following Sanllehi’s dismissal.
The club’s footballing matters are now being run by Technical Director Edu, whose capabilities we’re yet to truly discover, and Mikel Arteta, which is probably a positive but could leave us in a mess if his fortunes take a drastic turn for the worse and he ends up not actually being here for the long-run. Commercially, Chief Executive Vinai Venkatesham is now the conductor- basically playing the role of Ivan Gazidis but without the responsibility of footballing matters, which is a positive given that’s not his area of expertise. Vinai is very highly thought of, so I’m filled with confidence in that aspect.
On the pitch, things are looking up as well. Whilst our squad remains largely unchanged from how it looked this time last year, the man who is instructing them seems far more competent at doing so. Performances are still far from where they should be, but Arteta’s ability to instil tactical elements of his system into his players would appear far superior to Emery’s. We’re still not good, but we’re less bad.
How is our squad looking?
Well, essentially very unbalanced. Some areas are very well stocked with substantial quality and depth, whilst others look very threadbare of depth and or quality.
Our goalkeeping situation is strong. We have two excellent number ones, neither of whom ought to really be a number two, which could push us into selling one of them to raise funds for areas which are more in need. Bernd Leno has the sample size to back his claim for the first choice role, whilst Emi Martinez has the romantic claim, with his narrative arc winning the hearts of all Arsenal fans.
Another area which isn’t entirely settled in terms of outgoings but isn’t in need of new additions is both full-back/wing-back areas. Three very good full-backs are at the club in Kieran Tierney, Hector Bellerin and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Whilst Tierney’s Arsenal career is just getting started, it would appear one of Bellerin or Maitland-Niles will move on this summer at the right price, once again to fund moves for players in other areas of the pitch.
These first choice options are supported by the mediocre, but extortionately paid pair of Cedric Soares and Sead Kolasinac. Despite rumours linking the latter with a move away from the club seemingly having genuine substance behind them, if one of the previously mentioned first choice options does leave, it would be unlikely that Kolasinac will be allowed to follow suit. The club have well and truly fucked things up by offering the Bosnian and Cedric these lucrative long-term deals.
The centre-back position looks like it might be slowly working itself out, albeit it might not be immediately fixed for next campaign. The acquisitions of William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes look like excellent deals, tying players with huge potential down and possibly building a partnership to dominate the club for the next decade. However, both are young and new to this level of football, so their likelihood of playing prominent roles together next season is low.
Sokratis looks to be on his way out, whilst Rob Holding could well be a loanee next season, at either Newcastle or Leeds. The ex-Bolton man may never be a first choice option at Arsenal, but if he can get one season injury free at a Premier League club to complete his development into the prime years of his career, he could assert himself as a squad player in North London, or as a regular at a lower down side in the division. Calum Chambers’ fortunes remain a mystery given his injury, but it’s likely he’ll settle for a squad role in the long-term.
We also have Pablo Mari, who you’d be forgiven for forgetting about. The Spaniard is something of an unknown quantity, given how little we’ve seen of him in an Arsenal shirt and at Europe’s elite level. He’s tall, left-footed and slow, which is all we can really say about him. He’s also one of the only ones in this area we’re stocked with players with in the right age profile for impacting us next season.
Shkodran Mustafi’s time in North London is surely up. His injury complicates a possible departure, but his redemption must serve as a bit of an anomaly in what has been a disastrous Arsenal career. With one year left on his deal, we won’t be offering a contract renewal or extension, and he should be out the door within 6 months’ time. A lot rests on David Luiz leading this defence in the coming season, which is of course, far from ideal. Combining an already mistake prone player with natural ageing is somewhat scary, but we’ll have to trust Arteta’s ability to negate his players’ weaknesses with his system on this one.
Midfield is a problem area. Granit Xhaka is the staple of it, with his passing range making him key to this Arsenal side functioning. We all know of his limitations as a player however, and if we could find a way of becoming a lot less reliant on him then we’d probably improve as a team. Dani Ceballos is back, which is good. He was pivotal to our end of season form after the restart, and offers an all-round game unparalleled to the rest of our options in there. He’s only likely to improve in his second campaign in English football.
Beyond that it really is bleak. Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira are almost certainly moving on, whilst Mohamed Elneny can at most provide a very sporadic rotational role if absolutely necessary. Joe Willock is far from the finished article and arguably played too prominent a role last campaign, whilst everyone at the club desperately wants Mesut Ozil to accept a lower wage and move on. Adding at least a couple of players here is absolutely crucial.
Our forward areas look a bit more settled, but are far from refined. Talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is set to pen a new deal, whilst Nicolas Pepe is only likely to improve in his second season. Willian will provide a short-term solution to our creative issues, whilst Alexandre Lacazette may well recover from last season’s woes to produce a much improved season at the level we know he’s capable of producing. He may also make way for new signings elsewhere by being sold, although keeping four relatively senior front three options feels sensible. The likes of Gabriel Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah, Bukayo Saka and Reiss Nelson will support this front three as they continue their development. None of them should have excess responsibility to provide. Emile Smith-Rowe is an outsider who could well make his way in this season- very much worth looking out for.
The squad isn’t in a perfect place and probably still needs major reconstruction in the remainder of this window and in the next two, but it feels more promising than it did when we were approaching last campaign. Realistically, top four may be a bit of a stretch, but with some sensible midfield reinforcements, a place in the top six, as well as a charge for the Europa League, does not feel unreasonable.
Arteta needs to work on his offensive patterns of play, making Arsenal a better team in possession but also a lot more aggressive in our pressing out of possession. Improvements in these areas could well solve a lot of our problems against the lesser sides who tend to sit in low blocks, which was largely where we struggled under the Spaniard last campaign. With more time to do this on the training pitch, we could see drastic upturns in all our underlying metrics next season, and hopefully see a lot better football. The players at his disposal have demonstrated they can carry out defensive instructions, can they do the same with more complex offensive game plans?
I can’t wait to see, and I can’t wait to paint this season’s narrative over the next 40 odd weeks.