(Writer’s Note: This is the 15th of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on August 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page)
Manager: Unai Emery (Hire Date: May 23, 2018)
Tenure Length: 18th/20 in Premier League and 75th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 19-6-13, 60 points, 6th in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 74
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-23
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 93 (includes 2018-19 and subtracts 1915-19 due to World War I, 1939-45 due to World War II, and 1945-46 as teams played in Football League North and Football League South)
Last Promotion: 1915
Last Relegation: 1913 (First Division to Second Division)
2017-18 Europa League: Semifinal two-legged loss (Atletico Madrid)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Runner-up (Manchester City)
2017-18 FA Cup: Third-round loss (Nottingham Forest)
Arsenal opened the season with a dramatic rally to beat Leicester City 4-3 in the league’s first match, then promptly dropped its next two and absorbed a 4-0 drubbing at Anfield. The Gunners would then win 10 of their next 13 matches in all competitions, with the lone blemish a 2-1 loss at Watford.
But the fact Arsene Wenger’s team was not ready for prime time came to light in its 3-1 loss at Manchester City on Nov. 5 in which “Le Professeur” played what was, for all intents and purposes, a five-man backline. The Gunners won their next three league matches, allowing the fan angst to devolve into a murmur until Jose Mourinho and Manchester United left the Emirates nearly a month later with a 3-1 victory in true smash-and-grab fashion.
All three United goals came on the counter, and the apoplexy of losing to Mourinho for Wenger was exacerbated by Arsenal unloading 33 shots and having 75 percent possession in that rope-a-dope defeat. While league troubles were mounting, the Gunners were thriving in both the Europa League and Carabao Cup, and they reached a high-water mark of fourth place following a 1-0 win over Newcastle United on Dec. 16.
The holiday fixtures saw Arsenal take six points from four matches, but the cumulative mileage from playing three different tracks came to a head in the FA Cup, where a Gunners side comprised of youngsters and second-choice players was unceremoniously dumped out in the third round at Nottingham Forest.
The ringing in of the calendar year saw the ringing out of Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud before the end of the transfer window as Sanchez departed for Manchester United in a swap that saw Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrive at the Emirates and Giroud go across town to Chelsea. There were bigger personnel moves on the final day of the deadline as forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang arrived from Borussia Dortmund for £55 million and Arsenal provided Mesut Ozil a three-year contract extension.
By this time, however, Arsenal was locked in a holding pattern in sixth place and failed to gain any traction in the league. In their first Europa League knockout tie, the Gunners advanced despite some nervy second-leg moments against Swedish side Ostersund, and their 2-1 home loss in that match triggered the low end of Wenger’s final season.
Arsenal put in an abject performance in the Carabao Cup final versus Man City, getting plastered 3-0 at Wembley. The teams met again at the Emirates four days later, and while not as horrific as the first loss, a similar 3-0 scoreline in front of swaths of empty seats set the wheels in motion for Arsenal’s ownership to begin the process of trying to ease Wenger out the door as opposed to letting him serve out the second season of his contract.
The cries of “Wenger out” only intensified as the gloomy week concluded with a 2-1 defeat at promoted Brighton and Hove Albion.
It was now Europa League or bust to gain re-entry in the Champions League for Arsenal, and the team responded with a 2-0 victory at the San Siro over AC Milan in the first leg of the round of 16 to trigger a six-match winning streak domestic and abroad. The Gunners eased past CSKA Moscow into the Europa League semifinals, but the damage had been done — Wenger announced April 20 it would indeed be his last season at Arsenal.
The chance to give the Frenchman a storybook ending ran headlong into the reality of facing Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semifinals. The first leg seemed to brilliantly yet cruelly encapsulate Wenger’s final decade with the Gunners — full of stylish play that was bereft of finishing.
Despite playing all but the first 10 minutes with a man advantage, Arsenal could only muster a 1-1 draw at home and conceded in the final eight minutes through an awful defensive error by Laurent Koscielny. That away goal loomed large at the Wanda next week in Madrid, where a stubborn Atli squad got a ruthless goal from Diego Costa just before the stroke of halftime and rode that to a 2-1 aggregate victory while holding the Gunners to one shot on target.
Its Champions League hopes dashed, the last three matches turned into the long good-bye for Wenger. The Gunners achieved some much-needed catharsis in his swan song at the Emirates, tearing apart Burnley 5-0 with what was hoped to be a glimpse into the future as Aubameyang and Lacazette scored in the first half before Aubameyang added a second goal and an assist in the second.
Arsenal’s last two matches — a 3-1 loss at Leicester City and 1-0 win at Huddersfield Town — were little more than playing out the string and sending Wenger out a winner one last time while lamenting a second straight season without St. Totteringham’s Day in north London.
Amidst the rumours and conjecture of who would succeed Wenger on Arsenal’s touchline, with candidates reportedly including former players Mikael Arteta and Patrick Vieira as well as former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique, Unai Emery was hired 11 days after the season ended. Emery coached two seasons at Paris-Saint Germain where he won the Ligue 1 title last season but also failed to get beyond the round of 16 in the Champions League.
POTENTIAL STARTING XI
While Emery used a 4-3-3 formation at Paris-Saint German prior to his arrival at the Emirates, having a strike force of Edinson Cavani, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe would dictate one use a 4-3-3 formation. At Arsenal, it appears Emery will use more of a 4-1-4-1 set-up, though the second bank of four could have two advanced wingers and two reserved midfielders.
The biggest benefit for Emery’s hiring coming so soon after the season ended was having a full preseason to integrate his players into his personnel shape since there are only four players who started last season’s opener versus Leicester City projected to hold their spots for this season’s debut versus Manchester City.
While Wenger used Europa League to blood his academy and younger players, Arsenal has enough veteran depth to run a two-track course domestically and abroad. But for Premier League purposes, the changes start between the sticks where Bernd Leno is expected to displace incumbent Petr Cech.
The back four is relatively stable, though Laurent Koscielny is expected to be sidelined until at least mid-November after rupturing his Achilles tendon in the loss at Atletico Madrid, an injury that also knocked him out of the running to be on France’s World Cup-winning squad. In his place will be Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who also found his way to Arsenal via the Bundesliga and Dortmund.
Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal are again the wide backs, with free transfer and Switzerland international Stephan Lichtsteiner acquired to provide depth. In front of that back four is another new face, Uruguay international Lucas Torreira. The 22-year-old played for Sampdoria in Italy the past two seasons and appeared in all five World Cup matches for La Celeste, starting three.
The attacking midfield has been streamlined with the departure of Jack Wilshire, and both Ozil and Aaron Ramsey are expected to share playmaking duties. Given how Ozil likes to range forward, it is more likely he could play a more advanced three-quarters role slotting behind Lacazette as a second striker.
Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan will be on the flanks, with Mkhitaryan expected to be the beneficiary of being surrounded by fellow creative types. Lacazette leads the line as the lone striker, but only in theory as the Gunners have five players among this 11 who have scored at least 10 goals in a season once in their respective careers.
THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS
Arsenal was one of the busiest Premier League teams this summer. The notable departures were Wilshire to West Ham and oft-injured midfielder Santi Corzola to Villarreal, both on free transfers, while defender Per Mertesacker retired to head Arsenal’s academy team.
All told, Arsenal spent nearly £70 million this summer with the additions of Leno, Torreira, Papastathopoulos, and French teenager Matteo Guendouzi. That number climbs to nearly £175 million when including the 2017-18 transfer windows, though the net spend comes to approximately £60 million when factoring all the transfers in the opposite direction.
THE GUY WORTH SEEING
Aaron Ramsey (MF)
While Ramsey has played more than 30 Premier League matches just once in his last five seasons with Arsenal, there is a sense the Wales international has finally turned a corner regarding his injury issues, and he enjoyed his best season since 2013-14 for the Gunners last term.
Ramsey totaled 11 goals and nine assists in 32 matches across all competitions, and Arsenal posted an 11-1-2 record in the 14 matches he had either a goal or an assist. The run to the 2016 European Championship semifinals with Wales in which he had a goal and four assists had a knock-on effect for last season, and with so many playmakers around him in Arsenal’s attack, his numbers could kick even higher this campaign.
Well, only because Ladbrokes is offering odds on such remote possibilities, Arsenal is a 500/1 long shot to be relegated and all but a lock to finish in the top half of the table at 1/200 odds.
The Gunners are the lowest favorites to repeat a top-six finish at 1/5 odds and have 2/1 odds at recording their first top-four finish in three seasons. Arsenal also currently sports 8/1 odds on lifting the FA Cup trophy.
Aubameyang is fifth on the tote board to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot at 7/1 odds, while Lacazette is further down the pecking order in ninth at 25/1 odds.
FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES
Aug. 12 — Manchester City (1st) H
Aug. 18 — Chelsea (5th) A
Aug. 25 — West Ham United (13th) H
Sept. 2 — Cardiff City (N/A) A
April 20 — Crystal Palace (11th) H
April 27 — Leicester City (9th) A
May 4 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) H
May 12 — Burnley (7th) A
Welcome to the great unknown, Arsenal. And oh by the way, you open the season against reigning champion Manchester City and then go on the road to face 2017 title-winner Chelsea. Good luck!
For the first time in more than two decades, Wenger will not be on the touch line to polarise the fan base, but there will be more than enough scrutiny surrounding Emery to potentially resurrect such antagonistic feelings should a slow start occur. But in the bigger picture, this is the absolute best time for Emery to have his first season at the Emirates.
No one ever wants to be the guy who follows the legend, but in this case, there is little downside for Emery. There will be on-the-fly successes and failures, and while it would be great to avoid a third consecutive season on the outside looking in with regards to Champions League play, there is little pressure on Arsenal to make up those 12 points that consigned it to sixth last season.
The commitment to a four-man backline should pay instant dividends for continuity’s sake, regardless if either Cech or Leno are between the sticks. Additionally, Emery has a wealth of attacking talent in his first XI, led by Aubameyang and Lacazette to help offset those teething pains in the back.
Ozil’s decision to retire from international play should also benefit the Gunners, and while he is another part of this club who can polarise like few others, one has to believe he has the most to gain with Emery’s arrival.
While Manchester City is the odds-on favorite to repeat as Premier League champion, Arsenal is not that far removed from the four teams that were between the Gunners and the Citizens.
Consider: Manchester United appears most ripe for the taking given its pre-season drama, players absent through injury and recovering from World Cup duty, and a helping of third-year craziness that always seems to plague Jose Mourinho.
Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool both have a slew of players from World Cup squads who will be gradually incorporated into their respective rotations while also juggling Champions League responsibilities.
Chelsea is an unknown quantity as it goes from one Italian manager in style and substance to another as Maurizio Sarri takes over for Antonio Conte at Stamford Bridge and has Europa League commitments.
The Gunners are not immune from those dual-track duties since they will be joining the Blues on Thursday night travails across Europe, but it has been a relatively drama-free summer at Arsenal — Ozil’s broadside against the DFB aside — and that is a good thing compared to the last two seasons.
This should be an Arsenal team that is still entertaining to watch, with the hope of more consistency on a match-to-match basis in league play. Emery gets thrown right into the fire in his first three matches with the reigning champion and two London derbies, but the hedge here is he has learned from his previous shortcomings at Paris-Saint Germain and able to pip Manchester United for the final Champions League spot should entry via the Europa League be short-circuited.
PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS
July 18 — Fulham July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace August 6 — Manchester City