Arsenal open the new league season at newly-promoted Brentford on Friday, a team hungry to make an impression on their return to the top flight and buoyed by a raucous home crowd on the globally televised curtain-raising fixture…what could go wrong?
If we leave aside the slightly underwhelming transfer window and a disappointing pre-season, it would be difficult to say we are in the best shape as a side and this is not exactly the ideal fixture to be kicking-off a season with.
But, look, it could be worse – at least our players all returned from holiday when instructed.
It’s true Mikel Arteta’s men face a tall order at Brentford but it’s far from insurmountable. Sometimes newly-promoted teams ride the wave of their first season and exceed all expectations (see Sheffield United) but sometimes the step up in quality is just too much and they sink without trace (see Norwich).
We will only really see which of those categories Brentford will fall into about five minutes after the whistle blows tomorrow so, until then, I guess there’s little point in guessing. As the old saying goes, play the ball and not the man.
I don’t expect the manager will throw any curveballs in terms of team selection – he has to go with the best of what he has and after a full pre-season, he should have a pretty solid idea of what that looks like. I suspect something along the lines of the below:
Leno, Bellerin, White, Mari, Tierney, Smith-Rowe, Xhaka, Lakonga, Pepe, Lacazette, Aubameyang.
The only possible changes I see to that makeup will be the possible inclusions of Rob Holding in place of Pablo Mari and Bukayo Saka in place of Lacazette (with Auba sent through the middle). Given the difficulty of the games we have coming up this month, however, I suspect it may be wiser to give Holding and Saka another week to get fully match-fit before throwing them into the fray.
In terms of options from the bench, the manager will have Reiss Nelson, Folarin Balogun, Eddie Nketiah and Willian to call upon but, in all honesty, he won’t have much in midfield to change the style or attacking impetus if things don’t go to plan.
And, when it comes down to it, I expect that is largely where this game will be won or lost for Arsenal – in midfield. We have already seen signs in the latter stages of the pre-season that creating chances is going to be a slog – just as it was for large parts of last season – with little having changed from the previous campaign. With mostly the same personnel in that area too – at least for the time being – it comes as little surprise.
In short, if we are to emerge from this match with three points, we are going to have to bury the two or three good chances we create. There can be no room for the sort of profligacy we have seen from our attacking players in the last 12 months. Until we can add some bodies to the midfield, we have to make the absolute most of what we have or we will struggle again and, three matches into the season, our title race will already be run.
The other area of interest will be in our defensive set up, will the manager persist with the high line or will he revert to something more akin to last season? It’s fair to say that we did a pretty good job at the back in 2020/21, ending up with something like the third best defensive record in the league. I think the manager has recognised, however, that part of that success has come at the cost of our attacking output and, in switching to a higher line, it’s clear he hopes to get us playing much more in the opponent’s half this season.
Doing so will carry a deal of risk, particularly against counter-attackers like Chelsea, but it might just pay off against the likes of Brentford. Time will tell.
I can’t say that I am in any way confident about this fixture because we don’t know how this Arsenal side will approach it. We don’t know what their confidence or motivation is like, we don’t know if they’re fully fit and firing and we don’t know if they are comfortable with the system they are being asked to play. All we have to go in is the team’s pre-season outings which could generously be described as inconsistent.
We are just going to have to wait a see. What’s certain is that they have had a full pre-season and plenty of time on the training pitch. How well they are able to use that remains to be seen.