As the new English football season opens this weekend, it is hard not to feel it is breathlessly tailgating the old one. Arsenal played Liverpool in July. They will do so on the last Saturday in August. The clubs will meet again in September. If either club’s deficiencies are made plain by all this repeated exposure to one another, they will still have a chance to make amends in a transfer window that only closes in October.
The disjointed calendar will take some adjusting to. Physical weariness will be felt hard at stages of 2020/21.
Crowds, it is hoped, will at some point be back to motivate tiring players, although Saturday's curtain-raiser, the Community Shield must, under continuing coronavirus protocols, be played without supporters at Wembley. Arsenal, contesting the Community Shield as winners of the FA Cup, have shown they can master those conditions, having come from behind in their 2-1 cup final victory over Chelsea without the helpful roar of fans.
An empty stadium, television viewers have learnt, has some upsides. One of benefits of elite football played in relative silence, is that you can hear more clearly the instructions, and the general input, that comes from the coaches on the touchline. They lose some of their mystique.
When Mikel Arteta took over as Arsenal manager last December, there was plenty of mystery around him as a manager: He was, after all, embarking on his first job as a senior head coach. After the March to June shutdown, when Premier League football was halted - initially because Arteta’s positive test for coronavirus alerted the sport to the seriousness of the contagion - he revealed more of himself. Arteta, with his set, slightly stern features, can seem unexpressive. It is a false impression. He is animated, genial, and authoritative in his technical area.
Those qualities are already appreciated at a club that had stumbled through a period of unsettled managerial change for which Arsenal were singularly unprepared. The same man, Arsene Wenger had overseen several layers of club business for 22 years. Then three different coaches held the job within a season. One, Unai Emery, struggled to be as expressive as he would have liked in his flawed spoken English; the next, Freddie Ljungberg, was a caretaker, a difficult role from which to impose authority or develop long-term plans.
Arsenal 2019/20 player ratings
Arteta arrived with a clarity of purpose, knowing the terrain from his days as an Arsenal midfielder, under Wenger, and knowing the Premier League intimately from his work as assistant to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. His Arsenal were not suddenly made tougher or more consistent, but aspects of their end-of-season run felt encouraging.
“Those were the moments where the team clicked a little bit,” Arteta reflected. In the last five games, he said, there had been “more belief.” Liverpool, by then confirmed as Premier League champions, were beaten 2-1, Manchester City 2-0 in the FA Cup semi-final, and Chelsea 2-1 in the final. A home defeat to Aston Villa seemed to have set back their chance of qualifying for Europe, but the FA Cup success means Arsenal will enter the Europa League at the group phase.
That will make Arsenal's midweeks busy, testing the depth of the squad. Significant strengthening is under way. Willian, who could make his official debut on Saturday, has joined from Chelsea, and may be designated a midfield role, pending the further midfield addition Arteta wants before the transfer window closes. The centre of defence has been bolstered, with the 22-year-old Gabriel Magalhaes on the verge of signing from Lille and William Saliba, recruited last summer but then loaned back to the selling club, Saint Etienne, now available.
Liverpool 2019/20 player ratings
That pair, and David Luiz, can expect some detailed training work with another newcomer, Andreas Georgson, who is a specialist set-piece coach poached from Brentford. Arteta inherited some systemic problems when he joined Arsenal, and defending dead balls was one. Last season they had the second-poorest record in the Premier League for goals conceded from set-pieces (22). They need not look too far to see the standards to aspire to: Liverpool’s stroll to the title owed much to the 22 goals they scored from dead-ball situations.
Arteta seems upbeat ahead of Saturday, his mood brightened by what he described as "some really good talks" with captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal's leading scorer for the past two seasons, over a new contract. The striker's current deal expires next summer, he has cachet across Europe, but, his manager believes, he is ready to commit to Arsenal.
“I am confident we are going to find an agreement soon,” said Arteta, “and I think he should be very happy to stay at the club a long time.”