Arsenal season preview: Mikel Arteta leads revival but gap from the top provides a reality check

Gunners enter the 2020/21 campaign following a wretched league season but, under the Spaniard, appear to be heading in the right direction

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Forty-three points behind Liverpool. Fewer wins than Burnley. Fewer clean sheets than Newcastle United. Failing to score more often than Southampton. Fewer than half as many away wins as Southampton and only as many as relegated Bournemouth. Their lowest finish in a quarter of a century with their second lowest number of victories since 1976.

It is a selective use of statistics, but a reminder of how wretched Arsenal’s league season was. Perhaps it is necessary as a counterweight to the optimism generated by Mikel Arteta’s revival, or perhaps simply as a reminder of how far they fell, and how much further they have to climb back.

But progress has felt fast. August yielded two trophies. Arsenal have gone unbeaten at home against English opposition and beaten Liverpool (twice, if you include a penalty shootout), Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United in 2020.

Arteta has injected a different mentality, a solidity and a steeliness. The notion that Arsenal are a soft touch on the major stage feels outdated, even if it remains more than five years since they won a league game away at big-six opponents.

It raises the question of how, and where, Arsenal calibrate expectations. Arteta remains a rookie in his first full season in charge, albeit one who had an elite education and who is already shaping up as one of the game’s finest tacticians.

There are fault-lines in his squad, even if flawed players’ weaknesses were cleverly camouflaged in their trio of summer wins at Wembley. Can they be hidden over 38 games?

Arsenal's fortunes rest to some extent on the relatively untried, and not merely in the dugout. Bukayo Saka was last season's breakout star, seemingly capable of exerting an impact anywhere. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has graduated to the ranks of the England internationals after excelling as a left wing-back, despite only playing a handful of games there. Gabriel Martinelli may not feature until 2021, but is shaping up as one of the finer finishers in the country. Eddie Nketiah, Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock offer promise, but converting potential into points is no straightforward task.

In particular, there is the overhaul at the back. Gabriel Magalhaes and William Saliba, 22 and 19 respectively and each imported from Ligue 1 for a combined cost approaching £50 million (Dh238m), represent the long-term partnership in defence.


Arsenal's 2019/20 season player ratings


But each is a newcomer and the short term involves David Luiz, just as the suggestion is that Arteta would prefer a back four, though his outstanding results have come with an inventive 3-4-3 formation.

He is juggling young and old, immediate aims and ultimate objectives. His success so far has come with a minority of possession, rather than Pep Guardiola-style football, but it is a consequence of Arsenal's lack of a playmaker apart from the unwanted Mesut Ozil. And he, in turn, is a reason their finances are such an awkward balancing act.

Willian's arrival, a case of prioritising the present over the future, points at more counter-attacking, hard-running football. The Brazilian ranks among the best defensive forwards in the league; he represents the antithesis of one who increasingly looks a luxury player.

The chances are that Arsenal will end up fifth or sixth, improving from eighth without gate-crashing the top four, even if Arteta’s prowess in knockout ties offers the chance the Europa League will lead to the Champions League.

The trump card in an uneven squad remains Arsenal’s best hope of getting there. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s last five seasons have yielded 170 goals. He is the throwback to Arsenal’s past, when players of his calibre were more commonplace, and, along with Arteta, the hope that better days are returning.