Mikel Arteta needs a positive start to season after Arsenal’s big spending and slow progress

After a campaign spent largely in mid-table anonymity, the Gunners are splashing the cash again

Karl Matchett
Monday 09 August 2021 17:36
Mikel Arteta on Xhaka's decision to stay at Arsenal

As far as starts to the Premier League season go, Arsenal’s is a mix of the tough and the intriguing.

Just six games in, they’ll have faced two newly promoted teams, the champions of both England and Europe and had to navigate the north London derby.

By the end of October, they’ll have played four of the teams who finished above them last season, but also three of the clubs who only escaped relegation late in the campaign.

It’s the kind of run of fixtures which might give a very good early indication of whether Mikel Arteta’s latest teambuilding attempts are likely to end in relative success, or more disappointment.

Only the biased or the brave would suggest last year’s campaign ended in anything other than mid-table mediocrity; a five-match winning streak to end the season is all well and good, but when it results in eighth place, it’s largely worthless. The brutal truth is that four of those victories came against teams whose campaigns were already done, for all intents and purposes – only the win over Chelsea really mattered to either club.

Even so, winning breeds confidence in all sorts of ways, giving players and management the belief that their planned route back to the top is working, albeit after several sideways detours. That goes not only for Arteta in the dugout, but also technical director Edu.

What matters now is whether Arsenal can maintain that type of form on a more consistent basis; not necessarily right off the bat from mid-August, but certainly putting together the 68 to 72 points they’ll need to challenge for a top-four spot –which is where the club feel they belong.

Pre-season defeats don’t matter any more than last season’s winning run does, but whereas that streak inspired confidence, losing to Spurs and Chelsea in friendlies right before the new campaign starts isn’t exactly going to bolster hopes of breaking past their rivals in the league... or West Ham, or Leicester.

Arteta isn’t under any pressure from outside of the club, but he surely has to make a positive start - say, the opening three months – to 2021/22 if the reasonable doubts and questions aren’t going to quickly resurface.

The FA Cup triumph aside, there have been few enduring positives for supporters to point to. Youngsters have thrived individually, but they need one or two more to follow Bukayo Saka, and to a lesser extent Emile Smith Rowe, in showing consistency and overall importance to the team structure. Injuries haven’t helped a few players in that regard. In attack, a real disconnect was on show last term, even without considering individuals’ disappointments and moments of indiscipline. Transfers have been mixed. Thomas Partey thrived when fit, but that wasn’t often enough. Pablo Mari was indifferent at best. Gabriel was the pick of the bunch, Alex Runarsson the worst. And the less said about Willian the better.

That kind of hit-and-mostly-miss return has to change this year, given the outlay on Ben White and the ongoing rumoured interest in other expensive additions such as Aaron Ramsdale and James Maddison. Arsenal have already spent over £70m this summer. Last year it was over £70m too, with Emi Martinez the only notable sale to offset the spending.

That brings an expectation of significant improvement and an ability to compete at the top once again.

£50m signing Ben White turns out for the Gunners in their pre-season game against Spurs

The Gunners’ squad isn’t at top-four level right now, compared with the depth and quality available to a Chelsea, for example, and there are still question marks over their mentality and consistency. A contract renewal is based on many aspects of a player and of the club’s situation, but Granit Xhaka staying and potentially extending his deal is, quite frankly, not going to result in him displaying the consistency and reliability he’s lacked in the past five years.

In the opening games, Arteta must carve out a solid foundation for the season ahead.

They begin against Brentford, and given the pitfalls associated with playing a newly promoted side on their first game in the top flight, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine Arsenal could slip up. In fact, it’s possible to see them getting a point or fewer from the opening nine.

Summer optimism can quickly dissipate into winter irrelevance, as Arsenal found out last term, when they had sunk to 15th by Christmas.

The flip side of the argument is that an early surprise win, a big performance from a new signing and a display of attacking intent that another slow-starter fails to live with, can all suddenly turn up the dials for the months ahead.

Arteta might not immediately need that second version of events, but if he guides the team to the first one again, questions will justifiably be asked of exactly where this roadmap of his and Edu’s is taking Arsenal.

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