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There is a continuity to Arsenal now. You can disagree with the plan if you like, but you can’t accuse Arsenal of not having one. After the Kia Joorabchian-sponsored era, that’s a huge advantage. They believe, not unreasonably, that their strategy of continuity will bear fruit. The youngest team in the league, by some distance, will be a year older and a year wiser. Forget the new signings for a minute; the improvement from those already there will help.
Gabriel Jesus is hard to work out, a striker who at international level says that he is more comfortable playing as a wide forward and yet has been signed to be Arsenal’s elite goalscorer. The theory is that Arsenal have so many attacking midfielders creating lines of supply that Jesus will get enough chances to make the doubts about his finishing efficiency irrelevant. Judging by his pre-season form, there’s logic to that theory.
The other major positive is that Arsenal will not need to improve much on last season’s form to make the top four. Mikel Arteta’s team finished five points behind Chelsea in third despite having a rotten start and rotten finish to the campaign (three points from their first three and last three games combined). Cut out the sloppiness in August and May and they can hold their own.
Finally, the signings of Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko add something Arsenal have long lacked: winning experience. Neither player was ever unarguable first-choice in their position at Manchester City and both were clearly expendable because they were sold, but they won 18 combined major domestic trophies during their time at the Etihad. That’s more than the rest of Arsenal’s first-team squad have managed in their combined careers.
Central midfield could still be a problem, if no more signings are forthcoming. Fabio Vieira may well become a tour de force for Arsenal over the next three years, but he has 20 career league starts in Portugal’s Primeira Liga and will take time to settle in. If Granit Xhaka is still in the first-choice central midfield pairing and he is still prone to letting Arsenal down at some point, Arsenal have a weakness that some teams will exploit.
At full-back, we’re still not quite sure what to expect. Arsenal have paid more than £30m for Zinchenko and Arteta has stated that he sees him as a left-back, but who knows how he will perform outside Pep Guardiola’s system. On the right, Takehiro Tomiyasu only played 21 league games last year through injury and he is the only player in his position supporters would want to see in the team.
Arsenal are also a fairly small team: Zinchenko, Ben White and Vieira are all diminutive and there are few attacking players with the height to help out defensively. The return of William Saliba could ease that issue, but only Everton lost a higher percentage of their aerial duels last season. Arsenal can occasionally come unstuck against teams that play directly or use set pieces to put pressure on them. Hopefully Arteta has addressed this on the training ground.
It feels like Arsenal have been busier than the list suggests: three first-team arrivals and one of them with one eye on the future. But spending £75m on two players from Manchester City, even if they were expendable, is a show of intent. Not least because Arsenal were the highest spenders in European football last summer.
As important is that Arsenal have finally managed to clear some (although nowhere near all) of the deadwood that seemed to drag down the mood of the place. Matteo Guendouzi, Kostantinos Mavropanos and Alexandre Lacazette have been moved out on permanent deals. Lacazette’s wages alone were reportedly costing Arsenal more than £9m a year; it is deeply unhelpful to have these types of players sat glumly on the bench.
For all the belief in Arteta, there have been several periods during his tenure where, if he has not come close to losing his job, he has certainly been under huge pressure to deliver immediate results. Perhaps that is the sweet spot to stay in a job, like Ralph Hasenhuttl at Southampton: suffer slumps but escape them; never achieve too much too quickly and become a victim of your own success; improve incrementally and stick around.
Either way, this is a crucial season for Arteta. If incremental improvement is his strategy for longevity, the next step up from fifth is to finally crack the top four. Given the money spent, that is a reasonable expectation even with the competition for the top four places. That makes this judgment year.
I’ve been burned by this before, but will I learn? I will not. 4th
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