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Pre-Season Over

Arsenal’s pre-season finally drew to a close on Sunday night. The focus now turns to the Premier League, where Arsenal’s match against recently promoted Brentford is the first game of the new season.

Through no fault of their own, Arsenal’s pre-season saw a fair amount of disruption. The ongoing involvement of key players at the summer’s EURO 2020, was also punctuated by a sudden outbreak of COVID-19, which rendered the team’s pre-season tour of America impossible, with hastily prepared friendlies against Millwall and Watford taking the place of their games against Inter Milan and one of either Everton or Millonarios.

13/07/2021Hibernian vs Arsenal2-1Smith Rowe
17/07/2021Rangers vs Arsenal2-2Tavares
24/07/2021Arsenal vs Millwall4-1Chambers
28/07/2021Arsenal vs Watford4-1Nketiah
01/08/2021Arsenal vs Chelsea1-2Xhaka
08/08/2021Tottenham vs Arsenal1-0

The matches
All in all, it was a fairly mixed bag, all things considered. Three losses, two wins and a draw are hardly nightmare fuel, but nor are they most convincing of results heading into the new season.

Ultimately, results in pre-season seldom matter, the focus is more on keeping fitness levels high and to ensure that the players understand the manager’s tactics.

Despite this, Arsenal’s results were a little disappointing all the same. The team’s opening game against Hibernian should really have ended in a draw, but Nicolas Pépé’s missed penalty meant that Smith Rowe’s consolation was all that stood.

A 2-2 draw with Rangers seemed to exploit the issues from set-pieces that Nicolas Jover will hope to rectify, but a decent debut from new signing Nuno Tavares and a brilliant cameo from Eddie Nketiah was enough to earn Arsenal a respectable draw.

Two behind-closed-doors friendlies against Millwall and Watford ended with the same result. The difference in quality between the two teams wasn’t quite what Mikel Arteta would have preferred, but equally, the COVID-19 outbreak in the squad meant that Arsenal were scrambling to source new games at very short notice. These two games were very comfortable experiences, but also allowed youngsters such as Miguel Azeez and Folarian Balogun to be given a run out and to find their names on the scoresheet.

The MIND Series were the final series of games for the team, with a 1-2 home defeat to Chelsea (which, but for goal-line technology would likely have been a draw) and a 1-0 away defeat to Tottenham, meant that Arsenal didn’t exactly end pre-season on a high note.

The tactics
The tactics have given a brief insight into Mikel Arteta’s plans for the new season. New signings Nuno Tavares, Albert Sambi Lokonga and Ben White all looked very comfortable in the team, however, the interesting decisions lay in defence.

Last season, Arsenal generally chose to operate a lower defensive block. Though the players would push up when in possession, defending meant that Arsenal dropped further back, however, in pre-season, Arsenal seemed far more suited to a higher defensive line.

The line will likely make or break Mikel Arteta’s defensive plans. While Ben White, Kieran Tierney and Héctor Bellerín are all suitably quick enough to support the line, Pablo Marí seemed to struggle, especially when facing faster opponents. While Gabriel Magalhães would likely be better suited to the role than Marí, his injury prognosis suggests that Arsenal may need to limp on with Marí in tow.

The high line allows Arsenal to press higher up the field and to create without the need for a bridging midfielder. Last year, Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka were expected to be the team’s main bridging players, but with a higher line, players like Thomas Partey are able to take charge and pick the longer passes out if needed, which previously fell to David Luiz.

Another interesting idea was the use of Eddie Nketiah. Ostensibly a striker, Nketiah was often deployed on the wing, most notably against Watford, where his curling effort was a delightful sight to behold. Nketiah worked well in the space; working through the middle often means that Nketiah is outmuscled by burlier defenders, however, the switch to the wing granted him more freedom, the chance to use his pace and meant that any physical deficiencies were masked, especially when he played down Kieran Tierney’s left-wing.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang alternated between the centre of attack and the left-wing, but seemed to struggle with both. He was arguably better suited to the central position than the wider one, but the license to travel out-wide seemed to greatly benefit him. The issues regarding finishing, which so defined the lacklustre performances Aubameyang turned in last season, still seem to remain.

As with results, misfiring in pre-season doesn’t really mean anything, as Arsenal fans would much rather than the captain didn’t score in pre-season than carry that poor form into the league, but it’s becoming harder and harder to justify his inclusion in the squad. The Gabonese forward looks increasingly lost in the team and though confidence has picked up in the team following their pre-Christmas slump, Aubameyang will need to regain his confidence if Arsenal are to be in with a glimmer of hope of European football this season.

The arrivals
Arsenal entered pre-season with a number of areas that needed addressing. Mainly, Arsenal needed a back-up left-back, a goalscoring midfielder, a creative attacker to provide cover or competition for Emile Smith Rowe, a right-back, a back-up goalkeeper and a striker (depending on departures). So far, Arsenal have addressed only one of these concerns.

Nuno Tavares was signed from Benfica to provide cover and competition for Kieran Tierney, Albert Sambi Lokonga was signed as Arsenal were impressed with his profile and Ben White was signed from Brighton so as to provide Arsenal with more defensive cover, given the permanent departures of Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz and the loaning out of William Saliba.

Of the signings Arsenal have made, they look to be solid additions. Tavares looks to be a shrewd signing given his pace, the fact he can use both feet and his crossing ability; Lokonga has looked to be a very wise purchase and would be most fan’s best bet for the team’s opening match against Brentford; and Ben White too looks to be a very good purchase.

Elsewhere, Kieran Tierney has put pen to paper on a new five-year deal, along with Emile Smith Rowe, who inherits the coveted number 10 shirt and Folarian Balogun, who signed his new deal at the end of last season.

The issue Arsenal fans seem to have is not with the players signed (though the fee for Ben White has certainly raised some eyebrows), but rather the players that haven’t been.

Ajax’s goalkeeper André Onana was certainly on the Gunners’ wishlist this summer, but no deal for the Cameroonian goalkeeper materialised. The pursuit of Aaron Ramsdale seems to have done little to quell Arsenal fan worries and the lack of a permenant or loan departure for Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson has been a point of contention as well.

Missing out on Emiliano Buendía from Norwich City to Aston Villa was certainly a moment of bruising to the professional pride of the club, however, Arsenal have reportedly moved onto more exciting targets such as Martin Øegaard (long thought to be Mikel Arteta’s main target) and Leicester City’s James Maddison.

Yet, still no signings have arrived and departures are even thinner on the ground. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made departures a lot more difficult than in the past, however, no suitable offers arriving for Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Lucas Torreira, Reiss Nelson, Willian, Alexandre Lacazette or Héctor Bellerín have left Arsenal with more players than they know what to do with.

As always, Arsenal seem to have left things to the last possible moment and while that is not necessarily a bad thing, Arsenal need to ensure that they leave Mikel Arteta with a more focused squad than the one he has now.

The departures
Departures have been fairly minimal. The departure of Mattéo Guendouzi came to the surprise of absolutely no one, but the departure of William Saliba on loan did.

Given Arsenal’s lack of defensive cover after the departures of David Luiz, Mustafi and Sokraits, it seemed inevitable that Saliba would finally get his chance in an Arsenal shirt and yet the Frenchman was loaned to Marseille for the season. His loan has also precipitated Arsenal signing Ben White, which means that Arsenal have seemingly wasted time and resources on an area that was not immediately worrying.

Guendouzi’s departure is slightly more palatable. Guendouzi has been out of favour with Mikel Arteta for a while now and his future at the club always seemed uncertain after he refused to apologise for his actions after Arsenal’s 2-1 away defeat to Brighton.

Joe Willock seems likely to leave the club, with Newcastle reportedly tabling a £25m bid for the youngster, which seems to be a decent deal for all involved. Willock’s participation in the senior team was already under threat in pre-season and a full season of minimal involvement would likely have seen his value plummet.

Elsehwere, Lucas Torreira has still yet to return to the first team, but Italian club Lazio continue to hold an interest in the Uruguayan midfielder. Ainsley Maitland-Niles is of interest to a number of clubs, but as yet, no bids have been tabled; Eddie Nketiah seems destined to leave, with Arsenal rejecting a £12m bid from Crystal Palace.

Granit Xhaka had been expected to depart this summer amidst interest from AS Roma and their manager José Mourinho, however, Roma’s reticence to meet Arsenal’s valuation of the player resulted in him remaining with the club and a new contract being signed.

With just over two weeks of the transfer window remaining, there is still work to be done.

How ready do Arsenal look?
In terms of preparation, Arsenal are as ready as they need to be. Since taking over from Unai Emery, Mikel Arteta has not had a tremendous amount of time to organise his team, having missed out on a full pre-season with his team last season.

Arsenal still look a little rugged at the moment and their creativity seems to be funnelled, as always, down the left-hand channel, however, Emile Smith Rowe seems to be full of confidence ahead of the new season and has looked suitably dangerous so far.

Nicolas Pépé hasn’t perhaps been as palpable a threat as some may have hoped in pre-season, but the Ivorian has looked sharp and has linked well with his teammates, specifically with Calum Chambers.

Though Pablo Marí ended the last campaign strongly, he has looked a little rusty in recent weeks, culminating in a fairly embarrassing dive in the build-up to Tottenham’s only goal on Sunday. He should do fine until Gabriel Magalhães returns to the side, but Arsenal fans will want the Brazilian back before long.

Arsenal have already sustained casualties ahead of the season start that they could have done without.

Gabriel Magalhães was forced to withdraw from Brazil’s successful Olympics team with a knee injury that will keep him out for a few weeks, Thomas Partey was injured against Chelsea two weeks ago and seems unlikely to be back before the international break and Eddie Nketiah is likely to be out for four weeks too.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka have had extended summers and willl likely not be match-fit enough to play on Friday night, but will almost certainly be in the squad.

Assuming Arsenal sustain no more injuries the team for Friday is likely to be:

Expected subs:

  • Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson
  • Rob Holding
  • Héctor Bellerín
  • Nuno Tavares
  • Mohamed Elneny
  • Willian
  • Bukayo Saka
  • Gabriel Martinelli
  • Folarian Balogun

The introduction of 9 substitutions being allowed will likely serve Arsenal well, but without the likes of Thomas Partey, Arsenal may struggle to break Brentford down unless the forward line are at the very top of their games.

Potential injusires sustained during the game aside, it seems likely that Saka, Elneny and Willian will all be introduced at one point or another with Lacazette, Lokonga and Pépé all likely to be sacrificed late in the game.

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2021/22: A Look Ahead

The beginning of the transfer window has seen the usual flurry of transfer rumours swirl around the club as Arsenal begin their preparations for the 2021/22 Premier League season. The club faces its first season without European football of any kind, for nearly 25 years and now have the unenviable task of mounting a push to get back into the Champions League for the first time since 2017.

Preparations for the new campaign will begin on the 8th of July, when the Arsenal squad returns from their holidays, though there will be a few notable exceptions; Kieran Tierney, Bernd Leno, Bukayo Saka and Granit Xhaka will all be either on holiday or (hopefully) continuing their excursions at EURO 2020. Meanwhile, Lucas Torreira is unlikely to feature owing to his involvement at the Copa América and as he will likely be sold; meanwhile, both Gabriel Magalhães and Gabriel Martinelli are likely to miss the start of the season, owing to their involvement in the Olympics.

Arsenal will be without Gabriel Magalhães for a while.

Aside from this, there is also a hope that Arsenal will have new signings Nuno Tavares, who is expected to be announced in the coming days, following his successful medical in Portugal, and Albert Sambi Lokonga, who’s move from RSC Anderlecht edges ever closer. Also on the transfer front, is the situation of Brighton defender, Ben White. Though a deal is yet to be struck with Brighton for the England international, it is thought that Arsenal are likely to have the player signed up and a part of the first-team squad after the EUROs are over, though like Saka, Xhaka, Torreira, Tierney and Leno, he will likely require a holiday before joining up with Mikel Arteta’s squad.

Given the absence of Gabriel, Pablo Marí likely will partner one of Rob Holding and Ben White on the opening day of the season. William Saliba would have been in with a chance, though his impending loan move to Marseille means that Arsenal will likely only have one defender to choose from, two if White signs.

Manuel Locatelli remains one of the many players Arsenal have registered an interest in.

Meanwhile, Arsenal’s attention will also likely be drawn to the other members of the squad that need to be attended to. Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka and Mattéo Guendouzi are all expected to depart the club this summer, with the futures of Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, Sead Kolašinac and Alexandre Lacazette still yet to be sorted out.

Arsenal are unlikely to commit to any further deals until they have managed to shift one or two players along the way; not for financial reasons (though these will likely still help) but mainly to help trim the fat of such a big squad. Though rumours have persisted recently that the club has made an opening bid of around €40m for Sassuolo midfielder Manuel Locatelli, sources at the club deny that such a bid has been lodged, despite the assurances of Sassuolo president Giovanni Carnevali that Arsenal’s bid is “significant”, though Arsenal do hold a significant interest in the player and will likely lie in wait for the midfielder waiting to pounce properly if Juventus are unable to agree a fee with Sassuolo, however, given the relationship between the two clubs and the player’s desire to play for la Vecchia Signora, it seems unlikely that Arsenal will be in the running.

Rúben Neves is an option to replace the outgoing Granit Xhaka.

Though Locatelli would likely be a very attractive signing for Arsenal fans, Rúben Neves of Wolves is thought to be a more immediate replacement for Xhaka.

The new season is also likely to see Arteta finally adopt the 4-3-3 formation that he has wanted to play since he arrived at the club. This would mean that Partey, Neves and Locatelli (if Arsenal were to procure both players) would play in the Arsenal midfield. A very tasty option if Arsenal can pull it off, but given that Neves is likely to cost around £30m and Locatelli around £34m, coupled with the impending arrival of Lokonga for £20m, an £84m outlay for the midfield seems a fairly unlikely undertaking.

Emile Smith Rowe’s future remains a hot topic.

Another issue still yet to be resolved is the future of Emile Smith Rowe. Though Arsenal sources remain outwardly confident that the youngster will sign a new contract with the club, there is still a fair amount of anxiety among Arsenal fans as talks drag on even further. Reports suggest that Smith Rowe will not sign his deal until his holidays are over, however, the news that Aston Villa have made two seperate bids of £25m and £30m respectively is causing a fair amount of unease. Whether these are just inventions of an agent looking to ensure a rise in the wages that the club would need to offer Smith Rowe or are genuine bids, these are still worrying times.

Arsenal have maintained on multiple occasions that they will accept no less than £75m for the Hale End graduate, though Villa seem undeterred by Arsenal’s stance and may yet return with a third bid.

Martin Ødegaard seems unlikely to return to North London.

As for creativity, Arsenal are still in the market for a creative attacker who can relieve some of the workload for Smith Rowe. Mikel Arteta’s first-choice was Martin Ødegaard from Real Madrid, who spent the past six months on loan with the club, though the chances of Ødgeaard returning to Arsenal look slim, especially given his most recent Instagram post and with Carlo Ancelotti reportedly keen on giving the youngster a chance to prove himself.

Other targets have been mooted, such as Leicester City’s James Maddison, though his price tag is likely to be an obstacle for the club. There haven’t been any concrete links to other names, although the club’s long-standing interest in Julian Brandt, Houssem Aouar and Christopher Nkunku are known, it remains to be seen if Arsenal will move for any of them in the forthcoming window. Arsenal failed in a bid for Aouar last summer, though may be tempted to return this summer if the leaks regarding Lyon’s financial situation are true and if Arsenal are unable to land any of their prime targets before the end of the window.

Aaron Ramsdale is an option for a homegrown goalkeeper.

Then there is the club’s rather worrying homegrown quota. Though Ben White is likely to be joining, the club are likely to sell Joe Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson this summer, which would see four homegrown players leave the club. The club have identified Sheffield United goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale as someone who can not only become the club’s second-choice goalkeeper, but one who can also provide healthy competition for Bernd Leno, though Ramsdale has mainly been targeted as he would provide additional cover for the club’s homegrown quota, though his price may again prove too costly and Arsenal make look elsewhere, with Brentford’s David Raya and West Brom’s Sam Johnstone both admired by the club.

In terms of the youth players coming through this season, Arsenal will likely hand more chances to Folarian Balogun, who recently signed a new long-term contract with the club and will also likely hand some minutes to Miguel Azeez as well, who has also caught the manager’s eye in recent months. Though it is unlikely that Arsenal will rely on both too heavily, they will provide useful cover for the future.

The lack of European football could be a blessing for the club.

Over the next few weeks, Arsenal will play a series of friendlies with games against Hibernian, Rangers, Inter Milan, Everton or Millonarios, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, which will provide useful glimpses at competitive football before the Premier League season starts on Friday the 13th of August.

The lack of European football in the calendar is a very unwelcome sight for Arsenal fans, but may prove to be a blessing in disguise. Without a European fixture taking up a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night, Arsenal will have ample chances to recover for their next few games. Small comfort, especially when the League Cup (assuming Arsenal get far enough) and the FA Cup fully kick in.

Arsenal will be hoping that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s form picks up this season.

There will also be a distinct lack of experience at the club this season as well. Following the expiration of their contracts, Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz have since left the club, but so too have Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Mesut Özil, both of whom departed in the January window amid a shroud of controversy. Though Arsenal have been known to supplement any younger signings with older players, the club’s recent transfer strategy suggests that Arsenal are aiming for younger players this time around and although stalwarts such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Mohamed Elneny, Thomas Partey, Willian, Rob Holding, Bernd Leno, Pablo Marí and Cédric Soares are all on hand to provide first-hand experience for those who need it, it does look as though Arsenal will be entering the season with a distinctly younger squad than most of their competitors.

The forward line is also an area that will need to greatly improve this season. Though no major departures are expected, Arsenal will be hoping that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has been training in Greece with A.O. Mykonos’ academy side, will find form once more. The future of Willian is also one of great interest to Arsenal fans too as the Brazilian has already priced himself out of a move to Inter Miami, with club, fans and player all keen to see an end to the former Chelsea winger’s time with the club.

Héctor Bellerín also looks to be on his way out.

Then there is also the issue of a right-back. While Héctor Bellerín is expected to leave the club this summer amid interest from Spain, Italy and France, Arsenal will need to move for a right-back before the season starts. Calum Chambers deputised impressively in the position last season, but is clearly not the favourite to start there regularly. This could prompt a move for RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams, who Arsenal are reportedly keen on. Adams’ ability to play as a holding midfielder as well as a right-back will make him a very enticing target for Arsenal.

If Arsenal are able to land all of their primary targets this summer, then a 4-3-3 shouldn’t be out of the question, but a 4-2-3-1 is a more likely formation on the opening day of the season.

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Premier League Fixtures For New Season Announced

The fixtures for the 2021/2022 season have finally been announced. Mikel Arteta’s side ended last season in a very poor manner, failing ti qualify for a European competition for the first time in 25 years.

With new boys Brentford, Norwich and Watford now in the Premier League, the fixtures have been announced.

Depending on Arsenal’s progress in the remaining two competitions, the League Cup and the FA Cup, the fixtures are subject to change, as well as their opponents’ progress.

Looking at Arsenal’s opening three matches, the need to strengthen in the transfer market is more pressing than ever.

August 2021
14th: Brentford (A)
21st: Chelsea (H)
28th: Manchester City (A)

September 2021
10th: Burnley (A)
11th: Norwich (H)
25th: Tottenham Hotspur (H)

October 2021
2nd: Brighton & Hove Albion (A)
16th: Crystal Palace (H)
23rd: Aston Villa (H)
30th: Leicester City (A)

November 2021
6th: Watford (H)
20th: Liverpool (A)
27th: Newcastle United (H)
30th: Manchester United (A)

December 2021
4th: Everton (A)
11th: Southampton (H)
14th: West Ham United (H)
18th: Leeds United (A)
26th: Norwich City (A)
28th: Wolverhampton Wanderers (H)

January 2022
1st: Manchester City (H)
15th: Tottenham Hotspur (A)
22nd: Burnley (H)

February 2022
8th: Wolverhampton Wanderers (A)
12th: Chelsea (A)
19th: Brentford (H)
26th: Liverpool (H)

March 2022
5th: Watford (A)
12th: Leicester City (H)
19th: Aston Villa (A)

April 2022
2nd: Crystal Palace (A)
9th: Brighton & Hove Albion (H)
16th: Southampton (A)
23rd: Manchester United (H)
30th: West Ham United (A)

May 2022
7th: Leeds United (H)
15th: Newcastle United (A)
22nd: Everton (H)

Season Ends.