Arsenal Season Preview 21/22: A defining campaign for the rebuild?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
Around this time last year, I was writing my preview for the upcoming 2020/21 season.
"To ensure the health and safety of all Gooners worldwide, we cannot repeat this campaign (19/20). We can’t even go close to emulating it", I said, naively.
Relying on this club to not cause you mental trauma is somewhat ambitious. In typical Arsenal fashion, we produced another season inducing extreme levels of anxiety, unrealistic optimism and ultimate disappointment. Never again will I assert such an ignorant statement.
A disastrous campaign that saw another run of relegation threatening form, a small renaissance and then a consecutive 8th placed finish- which unlike last year didn't have an FA Cup win to mask over some of the issues- left us all fuming at the club in general. However, despite the air around the Emirates seemingly filthy, a proper analyst would look at this situation with more hope. Yes, we underwhelmed in the Europa League semi-final and results remained inconsistent, but the second half of the 21/22 season saw Arsenal play a lot more like you'd expect a "top six" team to play like.
At Christmas time, Mikel Arteta stumbled upon a formula the seemed to work. Actually deploying a number ten saw our underlying metrics go from well below average to around the 5th-7th best in the league, which is you know, not bad. And results mirrored these improvements in performance, as we finished the Matchday 15 to Matchday 38 table in third (add that to the cabinet).
Next season, we must build on this. Expectations around making a return to Champions League football are perhaps unreasonable, but qualifying for Europe's second rate competition is very plausible. Top six should be the minimum expectation for a team that will have the liberty of few midweek distractions and thus extra time afforded to work on the training ground.
However, perhaps more important than the concluding league position is tangible signs of the process in motion. If Arsenal were to finish 7th but the metrics were better, the football was nicer to watch, we scored more goals and our young promising player all made big strides in their development, we could make our peace with it. A 5th place finish where not many of these things happen and I'd be far more concerned. We're at a part of the evolution of this team where actual signs of the 'process' and more sustainable indicators are far more important than the surface level indicators.
For Arteta, this is certainly a make or break campaign. Scrutiny on his management of the team intensified after the Europa League exit to Villarreal and it's at the point where we can't afford to stagnate in this rebuild any longer. Thankfully for the Spaniard, as I alluded to, the underlying indicators point to a pending improvement for the Gunners. However, if pre-season and the lack of activity in the transfer market thus far is anything to go by, then our metrical improvement last season may not be sufficient.
Thomas Partey's injury was perhaps the most concerning outcome of our pre-season. The Ghanian looked sharp in the friendlies, perhaps showing he'd finally seen off the lingering injury issues of last campaign, only to be hit with a 4 week sidelining unnecessary tackle from Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Losing your best central midfielder for the opening period of a season, which includes some very difficult fixtures and when the pressure is already on, is certainly not ideal.
Although not much can be read into the state of performances in pre-season, Arteta did display some interesting early tactical suggestions. A visibly high line was in place, but without the high intensity pressing to match it. With often slow defenders deployed in the backline, this system got exposed and will need major work. It is, however, encouraging that Arteta is trying to instil a more aggressive modern system which could help us create more, rather than persisting with the highly structured slow possession based football we saw for much of last season.
And much points to the need to be more aggressive next season. Arsenal ranked 18th for total pressures and 19th for successful pressures in the Premier League last campaign. With our build up in deep areas pretty but lacking much incisive creativity further up the pitch, the need to find an alternative way of creating chances (i.e winning the ball high up the pitch) is key.
How is the Squad looking?
Well, not great. The continuity in our playing staff is the greatest cause for concern for most Arsenal fans, and understandably so. Despite finishing 8th for two seasons running, we've failed to make radical changes this summer that would improve the team.
The goalkeeping situation is a problem. Bernd Leno's poor form towards the back end of last season remains a concern, but what is a greater issue in the short-term is the lack of options behind him. We're a training accident for our German shot-stopper away from being in a lot of trouble. Acquiring a goalkeeper who can contribute more in his distribution, cover for Leno and compete with him in the long-term is a priority.
At left-back, we're in a much better place having brought in adept cover for Kieran Tierney in the form of Nuno Tavares. Sead Kolasinac has to now be moved on, even if it means paying him to cut ties with the club.
At right-back, there are huge question marks. Hector Bellerin wants out of the club, and it's accepted that a departure for the Spaniard may be the best outcome for all parties. However, finding an appropriate destination is a problem that looks unlikely to be fixed. Other options include Calum Chambers, Cedric Soares and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, although all three are not necessarily convincing candidates to fill this role sufficiently. In an ideal world, Arsenal would move for their right-sided Tierney in this window, but that would require sales. Attaining 5 players for one position would represent more bloating of an already bloated squad.
The centre-back position may well be one of the most settled areas of the squad. A bit of planning over the past few years appears to have taken place here, with two right-footed options in Ben White and Rob Holding complimenting the left-footed Gabriel Magalhaes and Pablo Mari in a symmetrical array of central defensive candidates. Although the William Saliba debacle still lingers, to me it does feel there is still an inclination to use the much maligned Frenchman in the future.
Central midfield is no doubt a problem area. Granit Xhaka's transfer U-turn means his partnership alongside Thomas Partey is likely to be prominent in our pivot next season and that we'd appear to have pushed the issues in this position further down the road. Albert Sambi Lokonga will provide cover for the aforementioned two and represents a smart investment.
However, beyond that it is rather bleak. If injuries are sustained (which they already have done in Partey) then we could well be forced to experience more Mohamed Elneny. At most, I hope the Egyptian is limited to a very sporadic rotational role. Joe Willock is closing on a move to Newcastle, whilst Miguel Azeez still represents a very raw talent probably not ready for Premier League football.
As well all know, signing a creative midfielder to compliment last season's breakout star Emile Smith Rowe is absolutely essential. With no natural alternative or support for the blonde-haired baller, until such a player is acquired, my optimism for this season will remain very minimal.
Huge doubts over our forward areas persist. Exciting wide options in Bukayo Saka, Nicolas Pepe and Gabriel Martinelli are coupled with stale options in Willian and Reiss Nelson, both of whom need moving on. The striker situation is far more complex. Arsenal are stuck in the position of having two ageing and declining strikers with tricky contractual situations and two very young strikers who are far from ready to lead the line for a club with top four aspirations. One from both categories (most likely Alex Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah) needs to be moved on and replaced with someone with an age profile in the middle.
It's an absolute mess of a squad that's rebuild has been inhibited by the extremely restrictive and sterile market conditions. Whilst there's an expectation that things will speed up in the final weeks of the window, it's unlikely everything we ideally want to do will get done.
Arteta will have to make do and mend to an extent. He has to, for the sake of his future at the club but also the entire future of the club in this long-winded rebuild.
I can’t wait to see, and I can’t wait to paint, this season’s narrative over the next 9 months.