EPL preview: Arsenal's ceiling suddenly looks a lot higher under Mikel Arteta

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It’s hard to overstate how far once-feared Arsenal had fallen by the time Unai Emery was dismissed as manager three months into last season following the club’s worst start in almost 30 years.

After all, this was a club that had finished in the top four of the Premier League — easily most competitive domestic league in the world, if not always the best — for an astonishing 20 consecutive seasons until that otherworldly streak was inevitably broken in 2017.

Legendary French manager Arsene Wenger was run out of town a year later. The thought then was that the club needed a fresher face at the helm. Maybe that assessment was correct. And in settling on Emery, the club went with experience. Recently retired Gunners midfielder Mikel Arteta coveted the job then but was passed over, and ended up joining Pep Guardiola’s staff at Manchester City instead.

Looking back on it now, maybe Arteta should’ve been given the gig from the start.

Mikel Arteta's first nine months or so in charge of Arsenal have been pretty promising. (Catherine Ivill/Pool via AP)
Mikel Arteta's first nine months or so in charge of Arsenal have been pretty promising. (Catherine Ivill/Pool via AP)

How much Arteta’s apprenticeship under arguably the game’s best coach helped him, we’ll probably never know, but when Arteta was hired to clean up Emery’s mess last November, few would’ve predicted that what looked like a lost season would end on a high note. Although the Gunners finished a disappointing eighth — the same spot they occupied when Emery got the sack — the club managed to upset London rival Chelsea to claim its second FA Cup in three years.

Now, after beating defending Prem champ Liverpool in the Community Shield to open the 2020-21 campaign, there is perhaps more cautious optimism around the Emirates Stadium than at any point since Arsenal finished runner-up to Leicester City four years ago.

The good vibes aren’t all down to Arteta. Most of the hope for a return to the top four (and the Champions League berth that comes with it) this season hinges on the the white-hot form of star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The Gabonese International has been a reliable scorer for years. But during his five years with German titan Borussia Dortmund, the knock on Aubameyang was that he squandered too many opportunities, that needed too many chances to convert. Nobody is saying that anymore.

At the ripe old age of 31, Aubameyang has emerged over the last year or so as one of the most consistent finishers on all of soccer. His 22 goals last season were just one fewer than Leicester’s Jamie Vardy, who took home the Premier League’s Golden Boot award.

Aubameyang had both goals in the come-from-behind victory over London rival Chelsea in last month’s FA Cup win. Two weeks ago, he notched the Gunners’ opener against the Reds in the Community Shield, then sealed the win from the penalty spot with the decisive shootout attempt. On Tuesday, Aubameyang was the lone Arsenal player named to the Professional Footballer’s Association’s Premier League’s team of 2020.

He’ll need help shouldering the scoring load, but he should have considerably more help behind him this year. Veteran midfielder Willian arrived on a free transfer from Chelsea. Another Brazilian, 22-year-old stud center back Gabriel, was lured from French side Lille for $30 million. Veteran right back Cédric Soares joined from Southampton, also on a free. That vets like Soares and Willian chose Arsenal over other suitors speaks to Arteta’s quietly growing reputation as the sort of coach players want to work under.

Still, any optimism entering the season must be followed by results. Arteta’s team begins its slate with a pair of extremely winnable games, at newly promoted Fulham on Saturday and at home to another London side, West Ham, a week later.

A daunting trip to Liverpool awaits after that, and the Reds will surely want to exact revenge on Arsenal in a game that counts toward the standings after the two teams’ most recent meeting. How the Gunners handle themselves in that match will tell their restless supporters a lot more about how realistic a return to the elite of the English game this season might actually be.

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