Arsenal 2020/21: Champions League finish the target for Mikel Arteta

Mikel Arteta is preparing for his first full season as Arsenal manager and there is quiet optimism among supporters about what’s to come following the FA Cup-winning finish to the previous campaign.

The Gunners endured bitter disappointment in the Premier League last season, limping to an eighth-placed finish – their lowest in a quarter of a century – despite appointing Arteta to replace Unai Emery in December.

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But the former midfielder has made a big impression in the dugout, and Arsenal’s FA Cup triumph, in which they beat Manchester City in the semi-finals and Chelsea in the final, hinted at a promising future.

Could a busy summer in the transfer market now help them crack the top four?

Where they stand

Arsenal only won two of their final five games of the Premier League campaign but their 2-1 win over Chelsea at Wembley changed the complexion of their season and there was more encouragement to be found in their Community Shield victory over Liverpool.

Arteta has installed a far clearer philosophy at the Emirates Stadium and recent evidence suggests their long-standing weaknesses against top opposition finally appear to have been eradicated.

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The challenge now is to find the consistency that eluded them last season but Arteta’s squad certainly looks stronger than it did. As well as making the loan signings of Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares permanent, the Gunners have bolstered their ranks with the additions of Willian and Gabriel Magalhaes. Dani Ceballos has returned for another season on loan and there is likely to be more movement before the October deadline.

Arsenal major ins and outs so far

Pablo Mari – Flamengo, undisclosed
Cedric Soares – Southampton, undisclosed
Willian – Chelsea, free transfer
Gabriel Magalhaes – Lille, £27m
Dani Ceballos – Real Madrid, loan

Henrikh Mkhitaryan – Roma, free
Sam Greenwood – Leeds, undisclosed

Merson’s verdict

“I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Arteta, you can see what he’s trying to achieve and what direction Arsenal are heading in,” says Soccer Saturday pundit Paul Merson. “There is a plan, players are being sent out on the pitch with clear instruction and they know what they are doing.

The gap to the top four, at first glance, looks too big for them to close that quickly. That said, if they can get off to flying start, you never know where it could take them

Paul Merson on Arsenal

“You don’t beat Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea by luck. Towards the end of last season they had a game plan and executed it well, the challenge for Arsenal now is to stick to that game plan every week, something they have not been great at in recent seasons. Their consistency levels have not been anywhere near where they should be and that’s why they are more of a cup team. On their day they can beat anyone but can also lose to anyone.

“The gap to the top four, at first glance, looks too big for them to close that quickly. That said, if they can get off to flying start, you never know where it could take them.

“Injuries are going to play a huge part this season, I cannot emphasise that enough. If Liverpool and Manchester City lose a couple of players for eight weeks to injury all of a sudden, the title favourites may be under pressure. This season is going to be an intriguing one and it will come down to who can keep their players keep and stay consistent.”

Where they’re strong

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored 22 goals and won his side 20 points in the Premier League last season, and his superb strike against Liverpool in the Community Shield was a reminder that persuading him to sign a new deal at the Emirates Stadium is paramount.

Opta xG data underlines his quality: the Gabon international scored a league-topping 7.25 more goals than expected last season, based on the quality of his chances. He is a match-winner and Arsenal need him to stick around.

Where they need to improve

Arsenal were among the most reluctant shooters last season, a fact partially disguised by Aubameyang’s finishing.

Arteta may want his team to create clearer openings with patient build-up play, but the Gunners failed to achieve that: they created only 47 big chances last season.

Willian to fill the void?

Willian created a team-topping 12 big chances for Chelsea last season during 2,601 minutes in the Premier League.

What has the manager said?

Speaking after Arsenal’s Community Shield victory, Mikel Arteta said:

“We’ve beaten top teams consistently in the past two months but obviously after 10 months, the table showed last season that we are very, very far away.

“The gap is enormous and we have to try to close that gap as quickly as possible. In order to do that, there’s a lot of aspects in our game that we still have to improve.”

Key man

Who else but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang?

Arsenal supporters will hope Nicolas Pepe can build on a promising finish to his first season in English football and an immediate impact from Willian following his transfer from Chelsea. But the man who matters most is undoubtedly their brilliant and prolific No 14.

Aubameyang’s new contract is yet to be announced but there seems little doubt that he now sees his future at Arsenal and that’s a major boost to Arteta. With 72 goals in 111 appearances for the club so far, the 31-year-old seems primed for another stellar goalscoring season.

One to watch

There is plenty of excitement around William Saliba. Arteta called for patience with the 19-year-old in an interview with Sky Sports in July, insisting it’s dangerous to expect too much from him too soon. But the Frenchman arrives from Saint-Etienne as one of the most highly-rated young defenders in Europe and there is certainly space for him in the team.

Saliba turned heads with his assured displays in Ligue 1, making his senior debut only a few months after his 17th birthday in 2018 and impressing thereafter. Adapting to the Premier League is sure to be a challenge for him, but with his imposing frame and confidence in possession, he certainly looks ready for it.

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