Struggling Arsenal on course for worst start to Premier League season

Gunners have lost first two games without scoring - against Brentford and Chelsea - with champions Manchester City next up at Etihad Stadium

The Arsenal supporters were allowed to fill the Emirates Stadium for the first time in 17 months. They booed the team off at half-time.

The biggest spenders in the transfer window ended the day in the relegation zone, for the first time, outside the opening weekend of seasons, in Premier League history. With no European football, for the first time in a quarter of a century, Arsenal contrived to find another way to register a new low.

“A difficult and unprecedented situation,” said Mikel Arteta. Arsenal have lost to capital rivals who won the Championship play-offs and the Champions League respectively last season, in Brentford and Chelsea.

With the champions of England, in Manchester City next, Arsenal may find themselves in a 35-game season, playing catch-up. If their awful August of 2011, culminating in an 8-2 thrashing at Old Trafford, seemed certain to forever remain their worst start to a Premier League campaign, perhaps it is not any more.

It is a moot point where luckless ends and hapless begins but Arsenal have been both. Ben White was supposed to be a signing to signal their ambition, a £50 million ($68.4m) playmaker from the back. He began his Arsenal career by being dominated by Brentford’s Ivan Toney in a way to encourage any striker with aerial ability. He was then sidelined by Covid, which is set to keep him out of Saturday’s trip to the Etihad.

In his absence, Pablo Mari followed up a lamentable performance against Brentford with a still worse one against Romelu Lukaku and Chelsea. Arsenal’s weak defence conformed to every unflattering stereotype about them.

In attack, Arsenal started the season without a specialist senior striker. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang mustered the last half-hour against Chelsea after a solitary training session and could not faulted for being ineffectual.

After last year was his worst in front of goal for a decade, he has lacked the chance to rebut the theories that he is not being paid lavishly to decline after getting a lucrative contract extension last year. With a weakened Aubameyang and no Alexandre Lacazette, Arsenal have not yet scored this season.

Gallery: Arsenal 0 Chelsea 2

If they have failed in both penalty boxes, the midfield has suffered in Thomas Partey’s absence. Arsenal have felt ill-prepared for the start of the season in every section of the team. Bukayo Saka’s minutes have been rationed after Euro 2020. Martin Odegaard was not signed in time to feature against Chelsea. Gabriel Magalhaes has not played due to injury.

But they have also caused their own problems. The choice of Calum Chambers at right-back, ahead of specialists, backfired at Brentford. Arteta can micro-manage his team tactically yet was impassive when Reece James was repeatedly free on Sunday. The marginalised Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who has excelled against Chelsea in the past, has been an unused substitute in both games.

Arteta is entitled to ask to be judged when he has a full complement of players, when Odegaard, Smith Rowe and a fully-fit Saka can be reunited in an exciting contingent of creators and when White and Gabriel could form a centre-back partnership with the potential to stay together for years.

Yet he was spared a vocal kind of scrutiny last season, escaping any negative reaction from fans in stadia. Arsenal are starting to feel in permanent transition and while Arteta is recruiting and developing players whose peak may lie far into the future, that does not grant him a pass for another year. Nor can they write this campaign off yet.

“I don't think the season is over after two games,” said the stand-in captain Granit Xhaka. But, already, it feels like another year of underachievement beckons.

Updated: August 24th 2021, 4:05 AM
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