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How we got here
Arsenal had quite a tricky season and one that continues a now worrying trend of finishing outside the Champions League places for the last five seasons. They saw a points improvement from the 19/20 season to the 20/21 season but 18 wins is behind the pace of what was under Mikel Arteta. Based on performances it wouldn’t have been shocking to see Arsenal part ways with Arteta but the end of the season that saw the team close out the last ten gameweeks with six wins two draws and two losses were enough to keep the faith for another year running.
But with early exits in all competitions, Arteta likely doesn’t have much room for error either. What was interesting is that most of Arsenal’s best performances came in a 4-2-3-1 with the 3-4-2-1 formation only being used in big matches where Arsenal would need to sit lower as well as a few test matches in Europa League along with facing Fulham. Overall, what you think of Arsenal’s season depends on expectations coming in but the attack didn’t do nearly enough to support a much-improved defense.
One of Arteta’s quotes about the inability to score goals sticks out for last season when he said, “I think it’s first time in the Premier League that we put 33 crosses. I’m telling you that if we do that more consistently we are going to score more goals. If we put the bodies we had in certain moments in the box, it’s maths, pure maths & it will happen.”
While this is true almost 2000 minutes played for Willian and Eddie Nketiah won’t help with turning those crosses into goals and neither did Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang becoming a shell of his former self after getting a massive contract extension. While not all of that is on coaching, these are things to watch this season as well as ensuring that Arteta doesn’t employ negative tactics like playing two central defensive midfielders while favored this season.
There was also a lot to be proud of for Arsenal last season. The defense is finally settled and that’s before welcoming Ben White into the fold. The youth movement of handing the keys to Bukayo Saka paid dividends in a five-goal three-assist season. Rob Holding was a rock in defense, Gabriel Looks like a good signing at center back, Nicolas Pepe finally began to show why Arsenal added him, and new number ten Emile Smith Rowe can only build on his solid performances too.
Matteo Guendouzi has completed a transfer to Marseille on a season-long loan with an obligation to buy. It’s unfortunate that he couldn’t make things work in the Premier League but at least he showed enough on loan with Hertha for Arsenal to get teams interested in his services. Joining him at Marseille is William Saliba which is an odd loan when he was expected to contribute to the first team last season. SaliBa played almost 2000 minutes for Nice last season with mostly positive performances but instead of joining a bloated center back core a the Emirates, he’ll be back in France for another season.
David Luiz is now out of contract and the options that Arsenal has at center back now are light years ahead of his output for the team. The big rumored outgoings are in relation to Granit Xhaka likely making the switch to Roma and Héctor Bellerín also being linked with transfers out. Xhaka’s replacement seems to have already been secured in Albert Sambi Lokonga but the team is still thin at midfield without other moves.
Bellerin would put the team in a similar situation but considering Callum Chambers started most of the games at the end of the season at right-back, maybe Arteta thinks that it's time to move on especially without the gind of European competitions this season. Cedric Sores can also provide depth at right-back since he shouldn’t need to deputize at left-back this season. There’s also the question of where Joe Willock and Ainsley Maitland-Niles' futures lie but that doesn’t have a clear answer at the moment.
Looking at official signings, Arsenal has added Nuno Tavares and Albert Sambi Lokonga with Ben White being almost official too. Tavares is a young depth option who can hopefully fill in if Kieran Tierney misses any time this season. He hasn’t met a cross that he doesn’t like and also gets forward with ease so stylistically, Tavares fits Arsenal well. Lokonga could be quite the catch if nurtured properly. He was the crux of everything that Anderlecht did while also being the captain of the side at only 21 but too much shouldn’t be placed on him right from the start.
This is where depth becomes an issue if Xhaka does make the shift to Roma. Arsenal has been linked with a move for almost every midfielder under the sun along with a few striker links but the names that continue to appear right now are Martin Odegaard and James Maddison. A return for Odegaard makes sense as he was finding his footing at the end of the season but also provides positional flexibility by being able to operate from deeper roles or as a ten. I’m unsure why James Maddison would want to leave Leicester City at this time for Arsenal but if he was to make the switch, it would be a coup of a signing.
Needs/ Key Positional Battles
Arteta needs to figure out what formation works best for this team and fast. In preseason matches in Scotland, a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 has been used but a midfield of Mohamed Elneny and Thomas Partey would be quite weak compared to a Premier League standard. Arsenal also needs to get the best out of Partey and Pepe if the team is going to return to where they’d like to be. A 4-2-3-1 makes sense as it would allow Pepe, Saka, and Smith Rowe to all work together to form the attacking band but if that partnership needs to be sacrificed for the sake of balance, figuring out who gets the minutes out of Pepe and Smith Rowe will be a tough decision especially with Smith Rowe’s new contract following transfer interest from Aston Villa.
The striker situation is also quite the question mark with the emergence of true wingers. Aubameyang needs a bounce-back year in the worst way but going into the season, Alexandre Lacazette deserves the minutes due to a more consistent output. Based on expected goals you’re splitting hairs between the two at 10.6 xG for Aubameyang versus 9.7 xG for Lacazette but hold up play when up top on their own is what puts Lacazette ahead for me. Eddie Nketiah likely needs to go on loan to get experience to prepare him for a Premier League role as he just doesn’t seem ready.
The back four versus back three situation will also determine who partners Gabriel in defense. In a four Ben White’s name will be one of the first on the teamsheet but Rob Holding deserves minutes too following his great season.
This is where things get a little kinder for Arsenal as they have some gems in FPL. Saka and White are currently leading the way in their selection percentage and for good reason. White is one of the best 4.5m priced defenders in the game and the Arsenal defense was fifth-best in expected goals allowed last season so starting the season with at least one of their defenders as they open with Brentford, Norwich, and Burnley in their first five fixtures seems like a great option. I get spending the extra .5m for Tierney for his attacking output but I’d rather see what happens with the formation before committing to him personally.
Saka’s biggest drawback is being in the same price bracket as Raphinha and Emiliano Buendia. This isn’t to say that Saka is a bad option because I do like his run to open the season but Buendia likely edges him in the short term and Raphinha has the best long-term outlook of the three. The good news for Saka is that even if the midfield isn’t figured out he’ll get plenty of chances to rack up points via set plays. I’m watching Pepe and Smith Rowe to see how the formation suits them because in a 4-2-3-1 both can be very good picks at different points of the season.
Joe Willock has the most room to gain here either with Arsenal or Newcastle because being a regular starter anywhere, he should be watched after his goalscoring exploits last season. Outside of those guys, it's tough to add too much more to the watchlist as the striker situation is a major question mark, and in a year with great budget forwards allocating that much to Arsenal doesn’t seem like a great use of budget.
Draft-wise, the biggest difference is all of their defensive options and Leno become top-tier choices at their positions and you’ll want to snap up Lacazette but I would likely still avoid Aubameyang.