Europa League Match Day 4 Preview — Arsenal (3-0-0, 9, +6) vs. Sporting CP (2-0-1, 6, +2)

Arsenal have a chance to wrap up first place in Group E of the Europa League on Thursday when they attempt a sweep of their home-and-home set against Sporting CP.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Gunners have the maximum nine points through their first three group matches, including a 1-0 road win a fortnight ago on Denny Welbeck’s goal on 78 minutes. That was part of Arsenal’s 11-match winning streak which came to an end in their following contest with a draw at Crystal Palace.

But the unbeaten streak continues and is now at 14 matches (12-2-0) after a 1-1 draw at home versus Liverpool on Saturday. Alexander Lacazette assured the Gunners a split of the points with his equaliser in the 82nd minute, though Arsenal were also the beneficiaries of a disallowed goal that should have been allowed to stand in the first half prior to Liverpool taking the lead through James Milner.

“It was an intense game,” keeper Bernd Leno told the club’s official website. “It was a good game for the fans and we also played very well. I think we deserved to win but the draw is OK because Liverpool are a big team. The way we played was very good.

“I think today we saw that we can play our way against big teams. We controlled Liverpool. We played out from the back. It was not just lucky or lucky things to create from. We played the ball with passes from behind and that’s the way we want to play.”

While it was not a win, many regarded the draw against Liverpool as a positive result since it was a valid measuring stick contest given Arsenal had not played any of England’s “Big Six” since opening the season with losses to Manchester City and Arsenal.

The draw, in which Emery chased the victory late with his attacking substitutions, offered a tangible mark of progress Emery has made in his first season with the club in terms of changing the culture and match preparations of the north London side.

While it took Arsenal 83 minutes to break down Sporting in the reverse fixture, they had the better of the chances in Portugal as they put six of their shots on target before Welbeck notched his winner. The Gunners also did not permit any of Sporting’s 14 shots to trouble Leno, but with the prospects of continuing to mix and match his personnel on the back four due to injuries, Emery is expecting another tough battle.

“Of course the first [target] for us is to finish first in this group,” Emery said at Wednesday’s news conference. “Tomorrow is a very important match because they are second in the table and if we win, we are first in the group. That’s our clear target tomorrow.”

Hector Bellerin shook off a knock that forced him off at halftime of Arsenal’s draw against Crystal Palace to play all 90 minutes versus Liverpool, and it is possible the right back could give way to veteran Stephen Lichtsteiner since Arsenal have a margin of error atop the group. Emery will also get a boost with the expected return of left back Nacho Monreal, who missed the last five contests due to a hamstring injury. Emery was pressed so thin he had moved midfielder Granit Xhaka to left back for a couple of contests.

There likely will be changes across the board to Emery’s first XI, with Guendouzi and Aaron Ramsey potentially reunited as Arsenal’s holding midfielders. There could also be room for Iwobi on the right flank with Welbeck in the playmaking role.

Sporting are in third place in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, two points behind Porto and Braga, but they have won just two of their last five matches in all competitions. Sporting bounced back from a cup elimination at the hands of Estoril Praira with a 2-1 victory at Santa Clara last Sunday.

Bas Dost started Sporting’s rally with a penalty in the 62nd minute before Marcos Acuna grabbed the match-winner on the stroke of the final quarter-hour. It was a welcome return to the starting XI for Bost, whose last start before Sunday came Aug. 28. But as one player returned for Sporting, they are expected to be without midfielder Rodrigo Battaglia, who had to leave Sunday’s win after just 30 minutes.

Jovane Cabral, who appeared as a second-half substitute Sunday, is expected to fill the spot on the right side for Tiago Manuel Matos da Costa Fernandes.

“We know how good a team Arsenal are, especially at home,” the Sporting gaffer said Wednesday. “But we want to bring joy to the supporters that we’re bringing to their stadium. The players have been training fantastically, with a lot of professionalism, and that makes me proud to represent the club in this competition.

“If we make any mistakes, Arsenal will try and punish us. We need to be organised and cohesive. The key is to play for ourselves.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are prohibitive favourites to claim all three points and wrap up the top spot in the group with 3/10 odds to win. There are 21/5 odds for a split of the points, and a Sporting victory to keep their hopes of topping the group alive are 9/1.

Oddsmakers are also expecting the Gunners to rack up a few goals, giving them 20/23 odds to win with a total goal count above 2.5. There are also 11/4 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline to the hosts. Sporting have 16/1 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals and 20/1 for a shock 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline. There are 11/2 odds on a low-scoring draw, while oddsmakers give a 2-2 deadlock or higher the same odds on a Sporting victory above 2.5 goals — 16/1.

Lacazette leads a list of nine Arsenal players for first-goal honours before Sporting’s Bas Dost can be found on the betting sheet. The France international has 3/1 odds to make it 1-0 to the Arsenal, closely trailed by Aubameyang at 16/5. Denny Welbeck rounds out the top three slots at 7/2, ahead of Eddie Nketiah (4/1) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Playmakers Ramsey and Ozil are paired together at 13/2, a touch ahead of Emile Smith-Rowe at 7/1.

After Dost, Montero is the next Sporting option for a 0-1 scoreline with 12/1 odds.

Arsenal’s forward tandem of Lacazette and Aubameyang are better than even money to put one in the back of the net during the match, getting 10/11 and 19/20 odds, respectively, to score over the 90 minutes. Welbeck is near even money at 23/20, while Nektiah is 5/4. Mkhitaryan is also below 2/1 odds, checking in with a 13/8 return.

Sporting’s top three options or Bost, Montero and Nani, with Bost leading the way at 14/5, while Montero and the one-time United winger Nani both listed at 7/2.

PREDICTION

With the international break on the horizon, Arsenal must resist the urge to sprint to Sunday’s league contest against struggling Wolverhampton and, as Emery said, “to give a big match our personality.” While it is not the blooding of youth predecessor Arsene Wenger did previously with this tournament, Emery has developed a rotation that has slowly climbed near 20 players who he can count on without a troublesome fall-off.

That will be the case here as Emery could conceivably make as many as nine changes from his Liverpool XI around his central defence pairing of Rob Holding and Shkodran Mustafi. It likely will not reach that total, but Iwobi is one player who is starting to become a more integral part of the attacking unit behind the primary four as evidenced by his assist on Lacazette’s equaliser.

This could be another chance to steal a rest for some of his league regulars, primarily midfielders Lucas Torreira and Mesut Ozil. Emery has almost always put the right foot forward when it comes to his attacking substitutions, and given Arsenal’s current form, none of his choices on the sidelines are bad ones.

Sporting do not necessarily have to sit back and absorb pressure in this contest — they have a three-point lead over Vorskla for second in the group and already recorded a 2-1 victory at the Hungarian side last month. Sporting also have a solid advantage in goal difference, and another 1-0 loss to the Gunners will be far from the end of the world.

The problem is Arsenal are in far too fine a form to be held to just one goal, especially at home. Look for the Gunners to take care of business and book a spot in the knockout round in relatively easy fashion.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 4, Sporting CP 1.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 4 PREVIEWS:

BATE (1-0-2, 3, -3) vs. Chelsea (3-0-0, 9, +4)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 5 Preview — Newcastle United (0-1-3) vs. Arsenal (2-0-2)

(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at the STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match for this website.)

Looking for both a third consecutive victory in league play and improvement defensively, Arsenal also hope to extend the struggles of Newcastle United on Saturday when the teams collide at St James’ Park.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The transition from Arsene Wenger to Unai Emery at Arsenal (2-0-2) has had its ups and downs. Emery has held fast to a 4-2-3-1 formation to make the most of his impressive array of attacking options, but the back six when including holding midfielders Granit Xhaka and teenager Matteo Guendouzi have been at times inconsistent, insipid and ineffective.

The Gunners have yet to record a clean sheet, some of which can also be attributed to veteran keeper Petr Cech learning how to play out of the back on the fly, but there have been too many breakdowns to believe Arsenal are going to find a route to the Champions League through domestic play and a top-four finish.

Emery’s faith in Xhaka over summer signing Lucas Torreira continues to be questioned, with the Switzerland international racking up three yellow cards in the four league matches. The push and pull of the two players will continue to be scrutinised as Arsenal embark on their Europa League adventures for a second straight season next week, facing Ukraine side Vorskla in their group opener at home Thursday.

“I appreciate people that want to try and help Arsenal achieve more because I know Arsenal is a team that has to be playing in the Champions League and is a team that has to fight for trophies in England. What we’re trying to do is to bring the Arsenal level back,” winger Henrikh Mkhitaryan said to Arsenal Player.

Emery’s other notable decision before the international break was starting strikers Alexander Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang together for the first time, and both players scored in their 3-2 victory at Cardiff City. Lacazette bagged the winner nine minutes from time with a sharp turn in the penalty area before lashing a shot inside the upper near post on the right side.

While he is still at least six weeks away from returning, there was some good news during the international break as defender Laurent Koscielny has resumed practising. The France international ruptured his Achilles in last spring’s Europa League semifinal versus Atletico Madrid, costing him the chance to be on Les Bleus’ World Cup-winning side.

The international break split up a murderous three-match run for Newcastle United (0-1-3), who enter this match looking for a route out of the bottom three. The Magpies took on a defensive shell with five at the back as they tried to nick points from both Chelsea and champions Manchester City in the previous two matches, and while they were level at points in both matches, they failed to secure those draws in back-to-back 2-1 defeats.

Now facing an Arsenal side that has shown to be fragile at the back, the hedge is Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez is going to play positive football and hunt out goals going forward as opposed to solely on the counter. Much of that belief, though, hinges on the availability of midfielder Jonjo Shelvey.

Shelvey missed the matches against Chelsea and City due to a thigh problem, and the international break came at an opportune time as Benitez forced the England international to take a break from footballing to get near 100 percent health.

“Jonjo is the kind of player who wants to play in every game and he has been training, but at the same time there is a problem,” Benitez explained to the Chronicle Live. “We don’t talk about his quality, we talk about his fitness. He has the quality to do it, but he has to be fit because we play against another top side who moves the ball very quickly.”

Benitez is not expecting attacking midfielder Matt Ritchie to be available, with veteran Sung-Yueng Ki likely to fill in that spot as the Spaniard vacillates between using a 4-2-3-1 formation and 4-4-1-1 set-up. That “one” in both options would normally have been Salomon Rondon, but with the Venezuela international not expected back to Tyneside until Thursday following his brace in a win over Panama, Joselu could be in the first XI with Rondon among the substitutes.

That also holds true for right back DeAndre Yedlin after he made a late appearance for the United States in their 1-0 victory over Mexico on Tuesday night.

“This period is quite difficult,” Benitez said. “(Christian) Atsu is back now and was training on Tuesday and then on Wednesday we have a couple more problems but DeAndre and Rondon will come late. It will be difficult for us because sometimes they come to us and they say ‘I’m fine’. But they can be tired.”

Newcastle snapped a 10-match losing streak in league play with a 2-1 victory in April in last season’s corresponding fixture as Lacazette and Ayoze Perez traded goals in the first half-hour before Ritchie scored the match-winner on 68 minutes. Arsenal had been unbeaten in their previous 10 visits (6-4-0) to Tyneside in all competitions and 12 matches (10-2-0) overall in the rivalry.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are solid favourites at 20/23 odds, and Newcastle are listed at 29/10 to take all three points for the first time this season. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 27/10.

Oddsmakers are sensing Newcastle are vulnerable at the back, evidenced by the 17/10 odds on Arsenal winning with more than 2.5 goals. There are also 4/1 odds for both an Arsenal win under 2.5 goals and a 0-0 or 1-1 draw.

Aubameyang is the frontrunner for first-goal honours at 7/2, followed by Lacazette (9/2). Unsurprisingly, Joselu and Rondon share joint-favourite status for the host Magpies to make it 1-0 at 13/2. Aubamyeang is close to even money for a goal over the course of 90 minutes at 11/10, with Lacazette close behind at 6/4. Joselu and Rondon are listed at 21/10 odds to find the back of the net at some point for Newcastle.

PREDICTION

Does he unleash Newcastle? That is the £64,000 question around Tyneside as people posit theories on whether Benitez will let the Magpies venture forward against an Arsenal defence that has had their problems over the first four matches.

One of the issues within Newcastle’s issues is the late return of Rondon from international duty with Venezuela. Play him for only the final half-hour and if Newcastle does not win, the second-guessing for holding him out will be equal or exceed the second-guessing for starting him and he’s ineffective for the first hour or 75 minutes.

Having Shelvey back, though, will be a huge plus for Newcastle. His vision for long diagonal passes could prove vital to stretch Arsenal’s back line or find the gaps between the midfield paring of Xhaka and Guendozui and the back four.

Arsenal’s advantage is that there is nothing about Newcastle’s defence that strikes fear in an opponent. Lascelles is good, yes, but one would expect Aubameyang to give Yedlin a torrid time on the left flank while forming triangles with Ramsey and Lacazette. It may be a case for the third straight match where Newcastle put themselves in position to claim a point but fail to do so late.

Predicted Final Score: Newcastle United 1, ARSENAL 2.

OTHER MATCH DAY 5 PREVIEWS:

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool
Manchester City vs. Fulham
Watford vs. Manchester United
Everton vs. West Ham United

2018-19 EPL Match Day 2 Preview — Chelsea (1-0-0) vs. Arsenal (0-0-1)

While they had directly opposite outcomes in their first matches in charge, both Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery know there is much work to be done to rebuild both their teams to an elite level as Chelsea and Arsenal meet in a London derby at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Sarri, who came over from Napoli to replace Antonio Conte, is in the midst of an overhaul from a counterattacking unit to a flowing one with a 4-3-3 formation. Everything mainly went according to plan in Chelsea’s season opener as they routed Huddersfield Town 3-0 on the road last Saturday.

The focal point of his makeover, holding midfielder Jorginho, contributed a penalty right before halftime as both N’Golo Kante and Pedro added goals. Kante, the France international and World Cup winner, is still finding his legs going forward as Jorginho plays the deeper role Kante rose to international stardom playing for both Chelsea and Leicester City over the past three seasons.

“He is playing like a centre right-midfielder and I am very happy for the performance of Kante, especially when I think he only arrived with us on (Aug. 6),” Sarri noted to the team’s official website.

The victory also marked a return to relevancy for centre back David Luiz, whose falling out with Conte last season essentially made him a forgotten man at Stamford Bridge. Despite the Brasil international’s sometimes adventurous forays forward, Sarri values Luiz as a player who can carry the ball forward from the back and be a voice of leadership in the locker room.

“He is very good to build up the action from defence,” the manager said. “If you are a good defender you can play in a three-man defensive line and a four-man defensive line. I think he will be very useful for us – on the pitch and in the dressing room.”

Keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga had a rather easy time in winning his debut following his record £71 million transfer from Athletic Bilbao. He finished with one save but was also fortunate when a shot thumped the crossbar with the score 1-0.

Sarri likely will elevate Eden Hazard into the starting XI for this match after the Belgium international was a late substitute and assisted on Pedro’s tally versus Huddersfield Town. It also seems less likely Hazard will move to Real Madrid before the European transfer deadline at the end of the month, which would scuttle a reunion with compatriot, former Chelsea teammate and keeper Thibaut Courtois.

The other position of intrigue for Chelsea is the other wide midfield spot, where Ross Barkley is trying to fend off England international Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Barkley started the opener, but it would not be surprising to see Loftus-Cheek in the first 11 with another week of practice under his belt.

“Playing in a 4-3-3 in an attacking midfield position is kind of my position really, my suited position, so hopefully I can bring my best football to the team,” said the 22-year-old Loftus-Cheek, whose game grew on loan at Crystal Palace last term before contributing to England’s semifinal run at the World Cup. “I feel like I have got that experience of a Premier League season now, and international football as well. I feel more mature as a player to help battle for three points every game.”

While Sarri saw most of his match-planning come to fruition, Emery had a first-hand look at the enormous scale of Arsenal’s rebuild to rejoin the Premier League’s elite as the Gunners started their season with a 2-0 defeat to champions Manchester City on Sunday at the Emirates.

The loss was not due to lack of graft as Arsenal harried City all over the pitch and tried to rapidly regain possession of the ball when it was lost. Even with one of the most potent attacks in Europe, the Gunners simply did not have enough talent to deal with City, especially in the midfield.

Granit Xhaka still is not the box-to-box destroyer many thought he would be upon his arrival prior to last season. French teen Matteo Guendouzi gave a game effort but was overmatched against the likes of Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez, and the hopes and dreams of Aaron Ramsey being a playmaker in a more advanced role in Emery’s 4-2-3-1 set-up were put on hold as he failed to unlock City’s defence.

“It’s two different halves, the first and the second half, for me,” Emery told Arsenal’s official website. “The first half, we conceded more space on the pitch for Manchester City to progress. In the second half, we took more risks with our pressing, took more risks with the ball to break their lines and go forward quickly.

“I think we need to improve collectively and also individually. But I think this process is normal against a great team like Manchester City.”

One area Emery will be forced into a change is at left back, where Ainsley Maitland-Niles was forced off with an injury after 35 minutes but also run ragged by both Mahrez and Kyle Walker. Summer signing Stephan Lichtsteiner will likely step into the spot, and his veteran presence brought some discipline to the back four.

Arsenal also looked better going forward after Alexander Lacazette replaced Ramsey, which means Emery may have to juggle his attacking players to find a group who work well together. It is also possible Lucas Torreira could start in Xhaka’s place after the Uruguay international got a 20-minute runout in his Arsenal debut.

Emery is also sticking with Petr Cech between the sticks for this match over £22 million summer signing Bernd Leno. Cech finished with six saves, including a double in the first half, and denied Sergio Aguero on a 2-on-1. While Emery expressed confidence in both keepers, the Gunners still appear to be in a place where the sooner Emery rips the band-aid off and commits to a rebuild from the back out, the better they will eventually be.

“I am very happy with Cech’s performance – he has experience, he has quality, he has the capacity,” the Arsenal manager told The Telegraph. “Also, with Bernd Leno. They are two goalkeepers who are important for us. They have different qualities but for us, in the way we want to play, they can [both] play. For Saturday, the decision for me is easy. Petr Cech can continue to start the match. I believe in him. If Bernd starts, I believe in him also.”

Cech has beaten his former club just once in six tries (1-2-3) since moving across London in 2015.

Arsenal are unbeaten in their last five (2-3-0) in all competitions versus Chelsea starting with their 2017 FA Cup victory, and eliminated them in the Carabao Cup semifinals over two legs last season. The teams played to a pair of draws in league play last season, and the Pensioners have taken points in 12 of the last 13 league matches (7-5-1).

Chelsea had won five straight over Arsenal in league play at Stamford Bridge prior to last season’s scoreless draw.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are decisive 4/5 favourites, while Arsenal are 3/1 underdogs. For those thinking the Gunners can escape with another point like last season, the odds are 11/4. A 2-1 Chelsea scoreline seems to be the preferred option among punters at 7/1, ahead of 0-0 (17/2) and 1-0 to the hosts (9/1).

Alvaro Morata and ex-Arsenal forward Olivier Giroud are joint first-choice options for first-goal scorers at 4/1, followed by Hazard and Aubameyang at 5/1 and Pedro at 6/1. Willian slots in just behind at 13/2, closely trailed by Lacazette at 7/1. Morata and Giroud also lead the way with 13/10 any-time goal-scoring odds, with Hazard and Aubameyang joint-third at 8/5.

PREDICTION

One gets the sense Arsenal will eventually figure out what Emery is asking of them with his higher-pressing, higher-tempo style. The key word is eventually as opposed to now in mid-August where concepts are still taking hold. While that still holds true on the other side of London with “Sarri-ball,” the fact the Gunners do not have a possession-based No. 10 to link their defensive midfielders to their attack is going to prove problematic until either Ramsey figures it out or Emery potentially drops Ozil deeper to take better advantage of his playmaking skills.

The fact Kante has quickly figured out his new role is not surprising, and regardless of who is on Jorginho’s left — eventually it will be Loftus-Cheek, otherwise they would have loaned him out again — Chelsea are going to have a relentless and tireless midfield trio. How this group links with Hazard in attack will be a bellwether for the Blues as they go forward. They had some impressive sweeping movements against Huddersfield Town, and while Arsenal are a step up in class, one gets the sense Jorginho has made the transition on the blue side of London far more seamless than the red.

Prediction: Chelsea 2, Arsenal 1.

(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at the STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related notes and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)

Other Match Day 2 previews:

West Ham United vs. Bournemouth
Everton vs. Southampton
Cardiff City vs. Newcastle United

2018-19 EPL Team-by-Team Previews: Arsenal (August 1)

(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)

ARSENAL GUNNERS

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)

2017/18 REVIEW

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

Arsenal Lineup.png

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.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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

OUTLOOK

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.

PREDICTED FINISH

4th place

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