Arsenal are entering year three of the Mikel Arteta era, and you get the feeling that the 21/22 season could make or break the Spaniard’s tenure at the club. In Arteta’s first full season in charge, there were some positives, including some of the transfer targets, style of play and defensive solidity. However, the goals continued to be hard to come by under Arteta’s reign, and the results have struggled to impress. Arsenal face the prospect of no European football for the first time in a quarter of a century this campaign, and with fans back at the stadium, the pressure to deliver has never been greater for the club and the manager.
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While the Arsenal rumour mill is an endless machine, the Gunners are yet to address plenty of key issues in the starting XI ahead of the start of the new season. Ben White was acquired for £50 million from Brighton, and the Englishman replaced David Luiz’s ball-playing abilities which are integral to Arteta’s style of play. However, apart from White, Arsenal have only brought in left back Nuno Tavares and central midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga, two young promising players signed to add squad depth rather than improve the first team.
The two most pressing issues at the moment for the Gunners are in attacking midfield and in goal. Martin Odegaard has returned to Real Madrid following his loan spell while Bernd Leno remains the only senior goalkeeper in the squad. James Maddison, Odegaard and Houssem Aouar have all been linked to Arsenal to fulfil that number 10 role and the Gunners’ ability to secure one of those 3 players before transfer deadline day could define their entire season.
BEST STARTING XI
Bernd Leno is currently the only senior goalkeeper at the club, but if Arsenal wish to challenge for European spots, the Gunners should look to replace the German in the near future. While Leno is still an excellent shot-stopper, he is far from comfortable with the ball at his feet which inhibits Arsenal’s ability to play out from the back.
Mikel Arteta’s side also face a similar situation at right back. While Calum Chambers might be a passable option for the time being, the Gunners should target a long-term replacement in that position with Hector Bellerin unable to reach the heights he managed before his ACL injury.
Arsenal have no such problems on the left-hand side, with Kieran Tierney continuing to impress at both ends of the pitch. The Scotsman has been widely regarded as a future club captain and committed his future to North London after signing a contract extension in the summer.
Arsenal have had plenty of turnover in the centre of defence in recent years, but with Ben White and Gabriel, the Gunners could have finally found a long-term partnership. On paper, they seem to complement each other well and with both of them still only 23, they will continue to get better.
In midfield, after being courted by Jose Mourinho and AS Roma throughout the summer, Granit Xhaka is expected to stay at the club and sign a new contract. While Xhaka does have his critics, the Swiss midfielder was one of the standout performers last season and was integral to Arsenal’s ball progression. Starting alongside him is Thomas Partey, who will hope to put his injury troubles behind him and show some of the qualities that prompted Arsenal to spend £45 million on the Ghanaian in 2020.
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Moving on to the troublesome attack, Arsenal and Arteta struggled to find the balance last season, and the best results of the year came when Arsenal played three creators (Saka, ESR and Odegaard) behind a striker. Playing the likes of Aubameyang and Nicholas Pepe on the wings meant that Arsenal struggled to create chances because both players struggled to get involved in the build-up play.
The best solution, for now, remains to play Saka from the right, Emile Smith Rowe on the left (allowing him to drift inside with Tierney overlapping) and James Maddison (if he signs) through the centre.
Upfront, Arsenal have to continue with Pierre Emerick Aubameyang because of his goal-scoring pedigree, but if Mikel Arteta would prefer someone who will get involved with the all-round play, Alexandre Lacazette or even youngster Folarin Balogun might be a better option.
Even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans will agree that Top 4 is a rung too high on the ladder for this squad at the moment. Arsenal’s opponents have strengthened in the summer while the Gunners are still finding their feet, and it is unlikely Mikel Arteta’s men can reach the coveted Champions League.
What is a realistic possibility though, is a return to European football. Although it has its detractors, the Europa League provides significant revenue and can be a stepping stone for the current squad as it aims to regain its former glories. After finishing 8th for the last two seasons, there has been significant investment in the squad, and after all the talk about progress behind the scenes, now is the time for fans to see that translate into results on the field.
[Header Image Credit: Granit Xhaka]