After back-to-back eighth-placed Premier League finishes – albeit with an FA Cup triumph in between – the pressure is on Mikel Arteta to lift Arsenal back into top-four contention this season.
The Spaniard inherited a daunting job when he left his role as Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City to take over from Unai Emery in December 2019. A year and a half later, the task of transforming Arsenal’s fortunes looks no less challenging.
FA Cup glory over Chelsea at Wembley last summer suggested a corner had been turned but optimism made way for angst as Arsenal stumbled through the first half of last season.
There was improvement after Christmas, once Emile Smith Rowe had joined fellow academy graduate Bukayo Saka in the starting line-up, but familiar problems soon resurfaced and a Europa League exit at the hands of Arteta’s predecessor was another low point for an increasingly frustrated fanbase.
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Arteta spoke of the need for a big summer in the transfer market as the season reached a conclusion. The club’s Kroenke owners have duly sanctioned investment in the squad as they try to win over supporters disillusioned with their running of the club.
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Ben White has arrived from Brighton for £50m and there have also been deals for midfielder Albert Lokonga and full-back Nuno Tavares. All three players are aged 23 or under and the same is true of goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, their first-choice goalkeeper target. There has also been news of a long-term contract for Smith Rowe.
The emphasis on youth has been welcomed by supporters tired of watching the squad grow stale in recent years.
England international White will add a new dimension to their defence. Lokonga and Tavares have impressed in their pre-season appearances so far. Smith Rowe has taken the No 10 shirt and looks primed to build on his breakthrough season.
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But for all the encouragement offered by that quartet, the overriding feeling ahead of Friday’s opening game against Brentford is the club still have much work to do in the transfer market.
Last season, Arsenal registered their second-lowest goal total in the Premier League era and yet creativity and cutting edge still appear to be lacking. Even more so, in fact, given Martin Odegaard has returned to Real Madrid following his loan spell.
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The lack of movement in that department is concerning and the worry is Arsenal and Arteta are hamstrung by a bloated squad and a lack of interest in the players they hoped to sell.
The club took a considerable financial hit to offload Mesut Ozil, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos in January but Hector Bellerin, Sead Kolasinac and Lucas Torreira remain on the books, while Granit Xhaka is now set to stay after Roma failed to match Arsenal’s asking price.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta says they are ‘trying to improve the team’ in this summer’s transfer window
Joe Willock is one player for whom they have been able to find a suitor, with Newcastle set to complete a £25m deal to sign him permanently following his successful loan spell.
But Arsenal’s hopes of making the desired progress this season could hinge on who they are able to bring in before the deadline passes at the end of the month – by which point they will have already faced Chelsea and Manchester City.
Those fixtures look poorly timed for Arsenal and another potentially decisive question is whether Arteta will be able to coax more from the misfiring Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The 32-year-old was the inspiration behind their FA Cup success last summer, scoring both goals in the 2-1 win over Chelsea and earning a lucrative new contract in the aftermath, but his form has tailed off dramatically since.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in action for Arsenal during pre-season
The striker, scorer of 70 goals in 109 appearances across his first two and a half years in north London, netted just 15 in 39 last season. Arsenal finished the campaign with four consecutive wins but their captain only scored once in his final 11 appearances. He has not found the net once in pre-season.
Perhaps Aubameyang and Arsenal will benefit from a less congested schedule. Their failure to qualify for Europe last season was a bitter disappointment but it does at least allow for more rest. It also affords Arteta more time on the training pitch with his players.
He must use that time wisely – and Arsenal must use the remaining weeks of the transfer window in the same way. This summer has not been without positives but there are issues still to address if they are to return to the level at which they feel they belong.
The Essential Football Podcast: 21/22 Premier League season preview
The Premier League is back! New signings, new teams, old rivalries resumed and fresh hope, all to the sweet sound of full stadiums. Kate Burlaga is joined by Nick Wright and Gerard Brand to preview another nine months of drama in the top flight.
PART 1: Are City still the side to beat? And who will challenge them? Man Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool assessed
PART 2: Will the north London gloom lift? Leicester in focus and surprise package: Leeds, Aston Villa and Everton tipped
PART 3: How will promoted trio Brentford, Watford and Norwich fare? Plus: New managers assessed, and can West Ham deal with European distraction?
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Arsenal’s first five fixtures
Brentford (a) – Friday August 13, kick-off 8pm, live on Sky Sports Premier League
Chelsea (h) – Sunday August 22, kick-off 4.30pm, live on Sky Sports Premier League
Manchester City (a) – Saturday August 28, kick-off 12.30pm
Norwich (h) – Saturday September 11, kick-off 3pm
Burnley (a) – Saturday September 18, kick-off 3pm
Arsenal’s summer transfers so far
Nuno Tavares – Benfica, undisclosed
Albert Sambi Lokonga – Anderlecht, £15m
Ben White – Brighton, £50m
Dani Ceballos – end of loan
Mat Ryan – end of loan
Martin Odegaard – end of loan
David Luiz – contract expired
Mark McGuinness – Cardiff, undisclosed
Trae Coyle – FC Lausanne-Sport, undisclosed
Zech Medkley – KV Oostende, undisclosed
Dinos Mavropanos – Stuttgart, loan
Daniel Ballard – Millwall, loan
Ben Sheaf – Coventry, undisclosed
Matt Smith – Doncaster, loan
Matteo Guendouzi – Marseille, loan
William Saliba – Marseille, loan
Tyreece John-Jules – Blackpool, loan
Harry Clarke – Ross County, loan
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