Another season is upon us already, so soon after the last one ended. Less than six weeks after we lifted the FA Cup at Wembley, the Gunners travel down to road to Craven Cottage to kick-start the new campaign.
Despite the strange circumstances of the new season, I think Arsenal will be pleased more than most that the new campaign is kicking off so soon as they are able to keep hold of the momentum they built up at the tail-end of last season rather than let it fade away over a summer.
Although there will be no fans in the stadium, every game throughout September will be broadcast live on TV with Arsenal’s trip to Fulham on BT Sport. That means that no one will be able to miss out on the possible debuts of Willian, Gabriel Magalhães and William Saliba.
Mikel Arteta, recently promoted to first-team manager, has created an aura of positivity and possibility since his arrival at Christmas and fans will be hoping he can continue that this season as the Gunners look to reclaim their place in the top four – although there is only so much a person can do with our current midfield.
So what can we expect this season?
The main target this season will be qualifying for the Champions League and so a top-four finish is what Arteta will be tasked with. Of course, there is entry through the UEFA Europa League but relying on a knockout competition is a huge risk.
Over the last couple of seasons Liverpool and Manchester City have shown they are miles ahead of the rest of the Premier League and I don’t expect that trend to end this year. For the record I think City will pip (or Pep) Liverpool.
Chelsea’s re-emergence in the transfer market is hard to ignore and they look to have spent well with more additions rumoured to be arriving. If they settle quickly then they may even be able to challenge for the title but anything less than a top four finish would be a failure and Frank Lampard would pay with his job. I reckon it’s harder to fail than succeed with the talent they have.
That leaves Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur fighting it out for the last remaining spot. I just cannot see José Mourinho leading Spurs up the table but Man Utd’s midfield and attack is frightening when they are form.
It’s difficult to judge how Arsenal will do. On paper, they are weaker than most of their opponents but I think we have a manager who can get the best out of his players and make them work as a cohesive unit rather than a team of individuals, similar to Mauricio Pochettino improving Spurs although of course Mikel has already won a trophy.
Having said that I think the Gunners will just miss out in 5th but will post improvements in goals scored, goals conceded and points.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that I think Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will end the season as Arsenal’s top scorer. He has been a very reliable marksman since his arrival in North London with 71 goals in 110 appearances and is just as good from the left than centrally – possibly even better.
He won the Golden Boot in his first full season in England and only trailed last season’s winner Jamie Vardy by one goal. I fully expect him to be in the running again particularly as he seems to have added different types of goals to his game.
The main thing I am looking for this year is for players to lessen the burden on him. Without his goals last year, it would have been an even more catastrophic campaign than it was. I know strikers are there to score goals but we didn’t have anyone helping out. Joe Willock’s tally of four was the highest from any midfielder.
Willian, Lacazette and Nicolas Pépé should all be looking to hit double figures while the likes of Eddie Nketiah, Dani Ceballos and Bukayo Saka will be expected to increase their effectiveness in front of goal. More goals from elsewhere is what will propel us up the table.
There are a number of questions facing Arteta this afternoon.
The first was to pick between Emi Martínez and Bernd Leno but with the former set to move to Aston Villa he has been withdrawn from the squad and so the decision has been made for him. I would have gone for Emi had he been available because he did nothing to lose his place. However, Leno was exceptional before his injury and has been brilliant since he came to North London.
I think the three-man defence will be here to stay for the near future but with David Luiz, Shkodran Mustafi, Calum Chambers, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Pablo Marí all injured, Arteta has limited options. Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney will likely get the nod with one of the new boys handed their debut.
Héctor Bellerín and Ainsley Maitland-Niles will operate as full backs with Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos continuing their partnership in midfield.
That leaves two of spots in attack with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The likes of Eddie Nketiah and Bukayo Saka have been in training for longer and started the Community Shield but Alexandre Lacazette, Willian and Nicolas Pépé are all more experienced.
Here is what I think Arteta will go with
Every season there are players that have a bigger impact than expected and those that fail to impress. Apart from the likes of Aubameyang, Saka, Tierney and the goalkeepers, the squad didn’t play to the best of their ability.
There were some mitigating circumstances but they also have to take some of the blame for that. Arteta seems to have stabilised things on the training field, all the players have bought into his methods and there is a good team spirit building, which is the best environment for the players to express themselves.
Depending on how much game time he gets than Saka can really push on and I would be interested to see him in a midfield role. He is one of the more creative minds in the team and likes intricate passing in tight spaces that can help unlock packed defences. I think Nketiah can have a big impact too.
In terms of youth players breaking through, I think we will see Miguel Azeez and James Olayinka at some point this season.
With every player taking a step forward in their development there are always players who go the other way.
This is an important season for Reiss Nelson. He had a glowing reputation at academy level and enjoyed bright spells at Hoffenheim but failed to nail down a starting berth in Germany. Pépé and Saka were preferred to Nelson for the majority of last season and Willian has come in to add further competition.
The Englishman will need to take his chance when they come if he is to make a name for himself in the red and white.
This may be a controversial opinion but we may see a regression from Xhaka. I was impressed to see the way he came back from the incident at Crystal Palace and become a rock in the midfield as we claimed the FA Cup.
He is a trusted lieutenant of Arteta’s but I think his limitations may be exploited more this season. If he is given time and space then he can play those outrageous passes and control the midfield but if he is pressed then he struggles. He needs time to get the ball under control and pick his pass but you don’t get much time on the ball in the Premier League these days.
His lack of mobility is a concern, Fulham may not be the game that exposes that but there are plenty of teams that can. I’m always happy to be wrong but I think we may need to find a solution that limits our reliance on the Swiss.
I am ready to believe in this team again. Arteta has my full and unwavering faith and support, and the players believe in him too. There is a positive vibe surrounding the club at the moment and hopefully we can turn that into points on the pitch.
We still need to bring in new players to reach our goals but I am behind Arteta’s project.
Come on you Gunners!
Top Goalscorer: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Line-up v Fulham: Leno; Saliba, Holding, Tierney; Bellerín, Ceballos, Xhaka, Maitland-Niles; Pépé, Nketiah, Aubameyang.
Hits: Saka, Nketiah.
Flops: Nelson, Xhaka.