- 2018/19 Finish: 5th
- Signings so far: Gabriel Martinelli (£6m)
- Possible Gameweek 1 lineup (3-4-1-2): Leno, Mustafi, Sokratis, Monreal, Maitland-Niles, Torreira, Xhaka, Kolasinac, Ozil, Aubameyang, Lacazette
- First six fixtures: Newcastle (A), Burnley (H), Liverpool (A), Tottenham (H), Watford (A), Aston Villa (H)
Arsenal come into 2019/20 off the back of a bitterly disappointing end to last season. Despite faltering in April, they found themselves within two wins of securing Champions League football, in both the Premier League and Europa League. But a home draw with Brighton and defeat to Chelsea in Baku plunged the club back into Europe’s second tier for a third season running.
One of the major drawbacks of Europa League rather than Champions League qualification has been the loss of potential financial rewards which would have aided Arsenal in the transfer market. This has resulted in several drawn out negotiations for potential signings including Kieran Tierney, William Saliba and Wilfried Zaha as Celtic, Saint-Etienne and Crystal Palace have been unimpressed with both the amount proposed and the payment structure.
Reports suggest that the Tierney deal is edging closer for a fee of around £25 million, which would be Arsenal’s second summer signing following Gabriel Martinelli’s arrival earlier this month. But with Laurent Koscielny going AWOL and Hector Bellerin still recovering from a long-term injury, further defensive reinforcements are required. Free agent Dani Alves has been linked in recent days, which would free up Ainsley Maitland-Niles to play in his preferred central midfield role, helping to fill the void left by Aaron Ramsey’s after he joined Juventus.
This demonstrates that whilst the expiration of Ramsey’s contract is a bitter blow, opportunities for young prospects may arise. Either Maitland-Niles or fellow academy product Joe Willock could be employed as a forward-thinking option in midfield. Those two combined with Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith Rowe and Matteo Guendouzi provide the potential of fielding a first-team front six all aged 21 or under. That is unlikely to ever happen, especially if Maitland-Niles is kept in a wing-back role, but there are certainly promising signs for the future.
The extent to Arsenal’s recruitment will dictate how many minutes the aforementioned six get next season, but also how Unai Emery sets up his team. In Hector Bellerin’s absence, a 3-4-1-2 system was often used in the closing months of the season to provide balance in defensive areas alongside the very attack-minded wing-backs Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac. If Tierney and a right-back were brought in, a reversion to a back four may occur, as was the case in the early part of 2018/19.
It is a similar story in attack as Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Alex Iwobi, Emile Smith Rowe and Reiss Nelson are all comfortable playing in wide areas, but a switch to using wingers more frequently would be confirmed if Zaha joined this summer. Therefore, there will remain a degree of doubt over Emery’s preferred system and lineup until more players are signed.
But whether a 4-2-3-1, a 3-4-1-2 or another system is used, the key to Arsenal having a successful season will largely be down to the form of strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The pair scored a combined 50 goals last season, with 35 of those coming in the Premier League. In a side that lacks defensive solidity and is running out of time to improve in that regard, a similar return from the team’s two outstanding players is essential if the ultimate goal of a top four spot is to be achieved.
The fixtures ensure that aim will be tested throughout the season with matches against Liverpool and Tottenham during the first and final four weeks, whilst Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United visit the Emirates in the space of two and a half weeks either side of Christmas. It was Arsenal’s form at the end of the calendar year and the season that cost them Champions League football last season as they managed a combined five wins across the final seven matches in each category. This will certainly have to be remedied in 2019/20 with so many six pointers at stake.
For a side that are again likely to be on the borderline between Champions League and Europa League qualification, the outcome of these matches will be crucial. Only two spots are left with Manchester City and Liverpool set to contest the title once again. But hope is offered in the form of their rivals’ deficiencies. Manchester United gained a points per match equivalent to Crystal Palace outside of the twelve game unbeaten run following Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment as interim manager. Improvements on and off the pitch are necessary if they are to avoid entertaining the possibility of slipping out of the top six. Meanwhile, Chelsea have been weakened by a transfer ban and the departures of Eden Hazard and Maurizio Sarri. With these factors in mind, a tentative prediction of fourth place behind Tottenham looks just about achievable, despite Arsenal’s obvious weaknesses in defensive areas which are yet to be solved.