Last season was both encouraging and disappointing for Arsenal, who achieved their primary objective of finishing in the top six yet still ended the campaign with a feeling of frustration. Mikel Arteta’s side undoubtedly made progress last term, but he must build on that this season or risk coming under pressure.
Let us start with the positives. In both 2019/20 and 2020/21, Arsenal finished eighth in the Premier League. They were absent from European competition last season for the first time since 1995/96, before Arsene Wenger had arrived in north London. Everyone at the club recognised that restoring the Gunners to the Champions League was a long-term project which would not bear fruit overnight.
Except, it very nearly did. Arsenal began last season with the aim of qualifying for the Europa League – and that is exactly what they did. Yet, there were no celebrations after their 5-1 thrashing of Everton on the final weekend. That is because Arsenal came so close to qualifying for the Champions League, and they would have done so had they not suffered a late-season collapse. Back-to-back defeats by Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United in May allowed Spurs, Arsenal’s arch-rivals, to secure a top-four finish at their expense.
Ending the campaign in fifth represented a step forward, but it did not feel that way. Indeed, in the middle of March Arsenal had a one-point lead in the race for fourth, and as many as three games in hand on the teams around them. Champions League football was there for the taking, but Arsenal were unable to grasp the opportunity.
Will things be different this time around? Some exciting recruitment has at least lifted spirits at the Emirates Stadium over the summer, and suggested that Arsenal are ready to give the top four a good go again in 2022/23.
Predicted XI (4-2-3-1)
Aaron Ramsdale; Ben White, William Saliba, Gabriel Magalhaes, Oleksandr Zinchenko; Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka; Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Martinelli; Gabriel Jesus.
Of the big six Premier League teams, Arsenal’s coach is the most unproven. Whereas Pep Guardiola, Thomas Tuchel, Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte and Erik ten Hag are widely recognised as some of the best managers in the business, the jury is still out on Mikel Arteta. But even the world-class coaches listed above had to start somewhere, and Arteta’s backers hope that he will one day be considered an equal to the likes of Klopp and Guardiola.
The Spaniard has done a good job so far. He won the FA Cup in his first half-season at the helm, and although the end to last term was disappointing, Arsenal exceeded the expectations of most impartial observers. Arteta has a clear vision for how he wants his team to play, something that the likes of Frank Lampard (Chelsea) and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Manchester United) lacked in their spells in charge of major English clubs.
The question now is whether Arteta is the man to lead Arsenal back into the top four, or whether he is the coach who lays the foundations for a more experienced successor to do so. The former midfielder has earned the right to be given more time, but this season feels like it could be pivotal for the 40-year-old.
Player to watch
When you watch Bukayo Saka play, it is easy to forget that he does not turn 21 until September. The winger plays with the type of maturity and intelligence that many players 10 years his senior lack. After spells at left-back, left wing-back and in midfield, the England international is now firmly established as Arsenal’s go-to pick on the right flank. If the Gunners are to break into the top four this term, Saka will be crucial.
The fact the youngster has been voted as Arsenal’s Player of the Year two seasons in a row says everything about his influence. Saka is, quite simply, the first name on Arteta’s team sheet when fit. He was directly involved in 18 goals last term, scoring 11 goals and setting up seven more. Quick, tricky and technically gifted, Saka has formed fine on-field partnerships with the likes of Emile Smith Rowe and Arsenal’s Norwegian playmaker, Martin Odegaard.
“He is the bright spark for Arsenal,” former Gunners midfielder Paul Merson said of Saka before Arsenal’s 4-2 victory over Chelsea in April. “He is the danger man and he still puts figures up like that. The figures he’s putting up there and the stats are absolutely phenomenal.”
Marquinhos (Sao Paulo), Fabio Vieira (Arsenal), Matt Turner (New England Revolution), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Oleksandr Zinchenko (Manchester City)
Alexandre Lacazette (Released), Konstantinos Mavropanos (Stuttgart), Matteo Guendouzi (Marseille)
Our Premier League score card
Aaron Ramsdale was written off before he had even played a game for Arsenal. The fact he had two relegations on his CV from spells with Bournemouth and Sheffield United did not help, but Arteta felt he was the man to take over between the sticks and the manager seemed to be proved right after Ramsdale made a tremendous start to his Arsenal career.
His save to deny Leicester City midfielder James Maddison at the King Power Stadium in October was one of the stops of the season, and he was widely regarded as Arsenal’s best summer signing around the midway point of the campaign.
However, the England international’s form dipped after the turn of the year, and some fans even called for him to be replaced by Bernd Leno. Mistakes crept into Ramsdale’s game and he was criticised for being excessively excitable rather than a calming presence. The 24-year-old distributes the ball well and is comfortable playing out from the back, but he needs to cut out the more fundamental goalkeeping errors.
So while Rasmdale is a perfectly good No.1, he is clearly a rung below the likes of Ederson, Alisson Becker and Edouard Mendy.
Arsenal only ranked eighth among Premier League teams for the number of goals conceded last season, with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion among those who posted better defensive records. The cliché about Arsenal being soft is no longer valid, but there is certainly room for improvement at the back.
A key concern is what happens when Arteta’s first-choice defenders are not available, an issue we will explore in more detail in the ‘squad’ section below. Kieran Tierney and Takehiro Tomiyasu, Arsenal’s go-to full-backs, both missed large chunks of the 2021/22 campaign. But neither player is guaranteed to start this time around: William Saliba looks set to establish himself at centre-half, pushing Ben White out to right-back, while Oleksandr Zinchenko will challenge Tierney on the left.
Arsenal have moved to strengthen their engine room options this summer, with Fabio Vieira arriving from Porto for a reported fee of €40m. Key figures at the club had been tracking the 22-year-old for a while and his presence in the squad will give Arteta another option in the centre of the park in the upcoming campaign.
For now, the most likely outcome is that Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka will resume their midfield partnership at the start of the season. The Ghanaian took a while to adapt to the Premier League following his move from Atletico Madrid in 2020, but it is no coincidence that Arsenal’s dramatic drop-off in form at the end of last term coincided with Partey suffering a season-ending injury.
Xhaka, meanwhile, has rebuilt his relationship with the Arsenal fans over the last couple of years. While he still occasionally struggles with disciplinary issues, the Switzerland captain is an important part of Arteta’s team. Mohamed Elneny ended last season strongly and should get plenty of minutes in 2022/23, but Albert Sambi Lokonga will probably be no more than a peripheral figure.
With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang joining Barcelona in January and Alexandre Lacazette departing north London when his contract expired on the last day of June, a new striker was always going to be a priority for Arsenal. Gabriel Jesus is the man they have gone for – an intriguing choice given his preference, which he has expressed publicly, to play out wide.
Jesus is a gifted forward but he has not always looked comfortable when relied upon to be his team’s main source of goals. It will be fascinating to see how he deals with the pressure of being the player Arsenal fans expect to put the ball in the back of the net.
The support cast around him should help Jesus adapt to life at the Emirates Stadium. Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli are thrilling young talents who can both create and convert chances. Martin Odegaard is one of the most creative players in the division, while Emile Smith Rowe is capable of playing as a No.10 or out wide.
Eddie Nketiah has signed a new deal after becoming Arsenal’s first-choice No.9 towards the end of last season, but he will find himself behind Jesus in the centre-forward pecking order this term.
Where Arsenal could come unstuck is their squad depth. We saw how much the Gunners missed Kieran Tierney and Takehiro Tomiyasu at full-back last season, with Cedric Soares and Nuno Tavares proving to be unreliable deputies.
A long-term injury to Saliba or Gabriel could expose similar vulnerabilities at centre-half, while further forward Arsenal will not want to have to rely on the likes of Albert Sambi Lokonga, Nicolas Pepe or perhaps even Nketiah for long periods. There is a bigger gap between Arsenal’s starting XI and reserve side than many of their rivals for the top four.
Final score: 39/50
Arsenal might live to regret their failure to secure Champions League football last season. They are unlikely to get quite as close to a Tottenham team that has had a full pre-season under the superb Antonio Conte, while Manchester United should also mount a more convincing top-four push this time around. Arsenal’s starting XI is strong but doubts over their squad depth could prove costly.