The big question for Arsenal this season is
“After spending over £382m NET in transfers – the most in England since 2019 – and having the 5th highest wage bill in the country, can Mikel Arteta get Arsenal into the top four and a place in the Champions League?”
The answer is an unequivocal, maybe.
The first place to look for our answer is at our own dealings.
Defensively, Arsenal were kind of a mess last season. 8th in goals allowed and 7th in expected goals*, Arteta smartly brought in highly rated center back William Saliba from Marseille. Saliba has impressed (the folks who didn’t watch him at Marseille last season) with his passing range, defensive awareness, dribbling, and footspeed. Playing with Saliba in CB allows Arsenal to play a much more vertical game, higher up the pitch, than they have been able to do (or have chosen to do) since Arsene Wenger retired.
Another addition to the defense is Oleksandr Zinchenko, the Ukrainian born midfielder who played largely as a left back for Manchester City. Zin is an exciting addition for Arsenal because he allows Arteta to swap players in LCM and LB seamlessly in game. One of the hallmarks of Arteta’s football is that he wants the fullbacks to be able to come inside and cover those spaces when they are vacated by the LCM and vice versa. We have already seen that quite a bit this pre-season. And just in terms of having a player who can help keep the ball on his side of the park – Zin is a natural midfielder and is the conductor of his Ukrainian national team – Zinchenko adds so much talent and graft to the left side of Arsenal’s defense/attack. Having Zinchenko and Tierney also allows Arteta to choose between a more defensive option (Tierney – this isn’t saying he can’t get forward or that he’s not good at that) and a more possession and attacking option with Zinchenko. It also allows Arteta to play Zinchenko in midfield and drop Xhaka to the DM position which he played for many years.
On the right, Arsenal still have the much loved Takehiro Tomiyasu and have added £50m British Bulldog Ben White. White transferred from Arsenal to Arsenal this season and can play in a number of roles in defense. White played CB for Arsenal last season and can play there or RB. A versatile passer and adept dribbler, White can get forward when needed and in pre season we saw him making overlapping runs from deep and cutting in centrally to receive throughballs rather than getting to the touch line to put in crosses.
Keeper is one spot where Arsenal have taken a bit of a hit. Last season Arsenal had possibly the best backup keeper in the League in Bernd Leno but they sold Leno to Fulham for £3m plus add ons which could go as high as £8m. Fan favorite Aaron Ramsdale struggled in the 2nd half of the season, keeping just one clean sheet in his final 15 appearances for the Gunners and we will all be hoping that he repeats the form from the first half of the season all season long. If he doesn’t there isn’t much option but to play him through the rough patch because the backup option is Matt Turner, a relative unknown (to people who don’t watch MLS) who had an ok pre-season but who will be severely tested in the Premier League.
And finally, there’s no question that Arsenal need a midfielder of top quality on the pitch. And to put it bluntly, if our current midfielder misses a significant part of the season – which he did last season – and Arsenal do not have a top quality replacement on hand, there is no chance Arsenal finish in the top 4. Top four is going to be won this season on fine margins and even with a top quality midfielder in the team, Arsenal would be hard pressed to finish in the CL places, without one, I can’t see any way. For me, this remains a wholly unaddressed problem at Arsenal and while there has been some talk on twitter about Youri Tielemans, I’m unconvinced that he’s actually an Arsenal target. But if he is, we better make the deal happen quickly because the season starts on Friday.
In attack, Arsenal have made some significant upgrades and they really needed to. Bringing in Gabriel Jesus to play center forward is exactly the kind of move that Arsenal needed to make last season – where we finished 5th in xG but well off the pace needed to ensure 4th. Gabriel adds directness, pace, guile, and vision. I will predict he will average at least 0.75 goal+assist per game this season (so if he plays 30 matches, 15 goals and 7 assists or something in that range). He also presses like a beast and leads Arsenal’s high press which has been magnificent in pre-season. Along side him are Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli who both look very hungry to score goals this season. We cannot underestimate how powerful it is to have a player like Jesus on your team: last season Saka was virtually our only focal point, teams could double-team him and rough him up and they did. But now with Jesus out there, Arsenal have another tricky player that teams have to pay attention to, which should mean that Saka and Martinelli (or anyone else who plays up top with Jesus) are given a little more room to get goals.
Overall, I’d like to see Arsenal find a way to add 15 goals to their total from last season. It’s not a requirement to score 76 goals to get into top four but I think it would make the race a lot easier (unless we score all 15 in one game, lol).
Ok, so I hear you say that there’s a small problem: many other teams will want to get into top four! And you’re right. The race for top four is the most difficult I’ve seen in my lifetime of watching football. There are two teams which are generally understood to be so far ahead of everyone else that they are virtually a lock for the top two places. Below them are Arsenal, Chelsea, Man U, and unfortunately Tottenham. That leaves four clubs all with a legitimate chance to take the final two Champions League places.
Of that group Manchester United are the weakest. They have been a basket case for years and have been living off the fumes of Ferguson. Adding new coach Erik Ten Hag was a good pick but they scored 57 goals and conceded 57 goals last season, so they are looking at probably two years rebuilding before they are a top four contender – unless Ten Hag is a super genius. And so far, I’m not seeing it in the acquisitions. I think they finish 6th.
Chelsea meanwhile are another basket case. They bought Romelu Lukaku last year to score goals and then suddenly forgot how to play him to do exactly that. Now, they brought in Raheem Sterling to score goals and so far in this pre-season he looked like he’s also forgotten how to score. Maybe Chelsea is just the place where strikers go to fall apart? Still, they are a tricky team and a danger to pip Arsenal to 4th place. But right now, as it stands, I think they finish 5th – if Arsenal get in a top quality midfielder, if they don’t, then I have Chelsea finishing 4th.
That leaves Arsenal and Tottenham fighting for 3rd and 4th this season. I’d like to finish above Spurs so I’m putting that as a stretch goal but in reality I think Arsenal are slightly weaker and significantly weaker without one more signing. If Arsenal can get in that midfield signing that they need, we will probably be fighting for 3rd. If not, we are looking at 5th.
There is one last thing that I would like to say. There’s a topic which many people are not legally allowed to talk about. UK law is odd in this regard but it is what it is. As an American citizen, I’m fairly certain that I can speak out and I have seen many African publications or blogs hosted in other locations make statements. I have also seen people make direct accusations on Twitter and I believe that person. However, my own legal protections aside I do have others to consider and as a result will not be making any statements on the topic at this time. When folks are allowed to say something I think that everyone will.
*Since one of you will ask: expected goals for 1.6 per game average until 16 March 2022, 1.5 per game average after 16 March 2022 and expected goals against 1.3 per game before 3/16/2022 and 1.2 per game after. So, statistically, no difference.