As far as starts to the Premier League season go, Arsenal’s is a mix of the tough and the intriguing.
Just six games in, they’ll have faced two newly promoted teams, the champions of both England and Europe and had to navigate the North London derby.
By the end of October, they’ll have already played four of the teams who finished above them last season, but also three of the clubs who only escaped relegation late on in the campaign.
It’s the kind of run of fixtures which might give a very good early indication of whether Mikel Arteta’s latest teambuilding attempts are likely to end in relative success, or more disappointment.
Only the biased or the brave would suggest last year’s campaign ended in anything other than mid-table mediocrity; a five-match win streak to end the season is all well and good, but when it results in eighth place, it’s largely worthless. The brutal truth is that four of those victories came against teams whose campaigns were already done, for all intents and purposes – only the win over Chelsea really mattered to either club.
Even so, winning breeds confidence in all sorts of ways, and not just for the players but the management too, giving them perhaps a boost in belief that their planned route back toward the top is working, albeit after several sideways detours. That goes for Arteta in the dugout, but also technical director Edu.
What matters now is whether Arsenal can maintain that type of form on a more consistent basis; not necessarily right off the bat from mid-August, but certainly putting together a season-long points tally which can see them challenge for around 68-72 points, a tally that is likely to be required for the top four, which is where they seem to feel they belong.
Pre-season defeats don’t matter any more than last season’s winning run does, but whereas that streak inspired confidence, losing to Spurs and Chelsea right before the new campaign starts isn’t exactly going to bolster hopes of breaking past either of them… or West Ham, or Leicester.
Arteta isn’t under any perceived pressure from the outside of the club, but he surely has to make a positive start – say, the opening three months – to 2021/22 if the reasonable doubts and questions aren’t going to quickly surface.
The FA Cup triumph aside, there have been few real enduring positives for supporters to point to. Youngsters have thrived individually, but they need one or two more to follow Bukayo Saka, and to a lesser extent Emile Smith Rowe, in showing consistency and overall importance to the team structure. Injuries haven’t helped a few players in that regard. In attack, a real disconnect was on show last term, even without considering individuals’ disappointments and moments of indiscipline. Transfers have been mixed. Thomas thrived when fit, but that wasn’t often enough. Pablo Mari was indifferent at best. Gabriel was the pick of the bunch, Alex Runarsson the worst. And the less said about Willian the better.
That kind of hit-and-mostly-miss return has to change this year, given the outlay on Ben White and the ongoing rumoured interest in other expensive additions such as Aaron Ramsdale and James Maddison. Arsenal are already over £70 million for the summer with their spending; aside from the Manchester clubs signing Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish, and Aston Villa in turn spending that Grealish money, nobody else comes close. Last year it was over £70m too, with Emi Martinez the only notable sale to offset the spending.
That brings an expectation of significant improvement and an ability to compete once again.
The Gunners’ squad isn’t at top-four level right now, compared with the depth and quality available to a Chelsea, for example, but also comparing the mentality and consistency that the Arsenal players have habitually shown. A contract renewal is based on many aspects of a player and of the club’s situation, but Granit Xhaka staying and potentially extending his deal is, quite frankly, not suddenly going to result in him being a model of consistency and reliability which he hasn’t been for the past five years.
Arteta needs a good start, a solid foundation for the campaign ahead.
Given the pitfalls associated with playing a newly promoted side on their first game in the top flight – the extra adrenaline, being “up for it”, the long-awaited return of home fans for Arsenal’s trip to Brentford – it isn’t unreasonable to imagine they could sit with a point or fewer from the opening nine.
Summer optimism can quickly dissipate into winter irrelevance, as Arsenal found out last term, when they had sunk to 15th by Christmas.
The flip side of the argument is that an early surprise win, a big performance from a key new signing and a display of attacking intent that another slow-starter fails to live with, can all suddenly turn up the dials on what could come in the months ahead.
Arteta might not immediately need that second version of events, but if he guides the team to the first one again, questions will justifiably be asked of exactly where this roadmap of his and Edu’s is taking Arsenal.
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