2018-19 EPL Match Day 15 Preview — Manchester United (6-4-4) vs. Arsenal (9-3-2)

Fourth place in the Premier League table is a spot Arsenal have been intimately familiar with for more than a decade. But unlike seasons past, currently occupying that slot is providing previously unseen optimism as the Gunners go from an intense north London derby win to a mouth-watering clash at Old Trafford against Manchester United on Wednesday.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Since winning their last Premier League title in 2004, Arsenal (9-3-2) have finished fourth in six of the previous 14 seasons. The constant battle to remain a Champions League participant under predecessor Arsene Wenger hid the gradual erosion from the elite status the London club enjoyed – something that came home to roost over the Frenchman’s final two seasons with fifth and sixth-place finishes.

Unai Emery’s arrival, initially met with skepticism following his flameout from Paris-St. Germain, has brought renewed spark and life to Arsenal, who are now unbeaten in 19 matches (15-4-0) across all competitions after a 4-2 victory over north London rival Tottenham Hotspur in a white-hot derby clash at the Emirates on Sunday.

The Gunners shook off a 2-1 halftime deficit with three unanswered goals in the final 45 minutes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who converted a first-half penalty, completed his brace on 56 minutes with a well-placed shot inside the right post that left Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris flat-footed.

The Gunners then grabbed the match with two goals two minutes apart starting in the 75th. Aaron Ramsey forced a Spurs turnover at midfield and sprung Alexandre Lacazette, whose shot took a fortunate deflection off Spurs midfielder Eric Dier and snuck inside the left post. Lucas Torreira then scored his first Arsenal goal, ripping a shot across Lloris after being sent through by Aubameyang.

The Emirates crowd, roiled so much by “Wenger In” and “Wenger Out” factions in recent years, roared their approval in unison as Arsenal overtook their eternal rivals for fourth place on goal difference and are one back of Chelsea for third.

“It’s not just an important game for a manager to win against a team from the top six, it’s important for us as a team,” keeper Bernd Leno told the club’s official website. “We lost the first two games against Chelsea and Manchester City but against Liverpool we played very well. We didn’t win that one but today we won against a good team and showed a very good performance.”

Emery will be forced into one change since defensive midfielder Granit Xhaka picked up his fifth yellow card and must serve a one-match ban. Matteo Guendouzi will likely fill that spot as Emery could continue with a 3-4-3 set-up for a second straight contest.

It is uncertain if Mesut Ozil will be available after the playmaker missed Sunday’s match through a back injury. Ozil did not play against Bournemouth per Emery’s decision, and with Ramsey surprisingly coming on after the club rescinded a contract offer for beyond next season, the former Germany international’s status is starting to bubble into an unwanted distraction for the Gunners. Emery, though, seems to be relishing his English adventures as they take him from one high-stakes game to another with Wednesday’s match-up.

“It’s a new match, a new challenge, a big challenge,” he said Monday. “It’s away and we need to continue improving our mentality away. We know we need to change to get more competitive away. I think the team is doing that, but it’s a new challenge because we’re going to play against Manchester United away, and the challenge is bigger than other matches.

“For us, it’s a very exciting match. The preparation for this match is also a big motivation for us. If we are stronger now, we need to (show that) on Wednesday.”

As Arsenal bring a tidal wave of momentum to Old Trafford, the inconsistencies persist for Manchester United (6-4-4). For the second time already this term, Jose Mourinho’s team recovered at least one point from a two-goal deficit after finishing 2-2 at Southampton on Saturday.

With a lack of available bodies in central defence, Mourinho opted for a 5-3-2 set-up that included midfielders Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay as his three centre backs. The plan backfired spectacularly as a relegation-threatened Saints squad were two up after 20 minutes.

United’s fightback revolved around Marcus Rashford, whom Mourinho exasperated midweek after missing a gilt-edged chance in their Champions League win over Young Boys. The England international set up goals by Romelu Lukaku and Ander Herrera six minutes apart late in the first half – the latter a spectacular run along the end line before spotting a charging Herrera — that was enough to see United through for a point.

“Yes (it was two points dropped),” Mourinho said post-match. “The result is not good so I have to say we dropped two points. If you are losing 4-0 and you get to 4-4 I would say maybe not. I think the comeback is good from 2-0 down to 2-2 in normal conditions everybody says it is a point gained, you have the game lost and you get a point, so normally you say it is a positive point, but it is a match that we want to win.”

Mourinho, though, was optimistic Lukaku’s goal will get the Belgium international to finally kick on. His fifth goal of the season in all competitions ended a personal 981-minute drought stretching back to Sept. 15 at Watford.

Like his counterpart, Mourinho is forced into one change for this match since right back Ashley Young picked up his fifth yellow card. The most likely option to replace him is Diogo Dalot, who made his long-awaited Premier League debut after left back Luke Shaw was forced off with a knock. Mourinho could also turn to Antonio Valencia or play Marcus Rojo at left back if Shaw cannot play.

Central defence, though, continues to be a nightmare as Phil Jones figures to be the only centre back certain to play. Chris Smalling sat out Saturday with a knock, and Mourinho continues to have little faith in Eric Bailly. Victor Lindelof is out until Boxing Day with a hamstring injury, so there could be more of Matic and McTominay as part of a five-man back line.

Mourinho hopes to have Rashford available after lifting him for the final 15 minutes with a knock. Jesse Lingard would be the most obvious replacement on the right attacking side for United, while Anthony Martial could be restored to the starting XI if Mourinho reverts to a 4-3-3.

Also unavailable through injury is ex-Arsenal winger Alexis Sanchez, who did play in last season’s corresponding fixture after his January move from the Emirates. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who was shipped to London as part of the move, did score in that 2-1 United victory.

Manchester United did their first double over Arsenal since 2011-12 last term and are unbeaten in their last 11 league matches (8-3-0) against them at Old Trafford. The Gunners did record an FA Cup quarterfinal win in 2015, but they are just 4-7-19 at the Theatre of Dreams in the Premier League era.

Arsenal’s last league victory at Manchester United was a 1-0 win in 2006 courtesy an 85th-minute goal from Emmanuel Adebayor.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Manchester United are slight favourites at 29/20, with the Gunners 2/1 underdogs to leave Old Trafford with three points for the first time in league play in over a decade. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 5/2 and the longshot of this contest.

Oddsmakers are expecting the same kind of frailities at the back they showed over the weekend, with 8/13 odds for the total to clear 2.5 goals compared to 13/10 for two or fewer goals. There are 1/2 odds for both teams to score while there are 6/4 odds of at least one team recording a clean sheet.

While not surprising given his form and his club’s form, it is still a little jarring to see a Gunner lead the toteboard at Old Trafford with Aubameyang getting 7/2 odds to open the scoring. Lacazette and Lukaku are joint-second at 5/1, with the United duo of Martial and Paul Pogba at 13/2. Young Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah and ex-United winger Mkhitaryan join Rashford at 7/1 odds to open the scoring.

Aubameyang is also better than even money to score during the 90 minutes, getting 10/11 odds. Lacazette and Lukaku are again paired together at 13/10, with Martial and Pogba likewise at 7/4 odds. Nketiah, Mkhitaryan and Rashford all have 15/8 odds to find the back of net, with Lingard and Emile-Smith Rowe are both 13/5.

PREDICTION

These are the type of matches where Mourinho is renown for finding a way to win and defy the odds of the moment… and then letting everyone know about it. Yet his refusal to play Bailly — though it was revealed before the Southampton match he has a back injury —  and now, not playing Rojo has created a discombobulated back line that will have its hands full trying to stop an Arsenal offence flowing at top pace.

Then there is the on-going war of trying to get the best out of Pogba, with whom Mourinho had another tete-a-tete in the locker room at halftime of the Southampton match in which the manager “calmly” criticised the France international for turning the ball over so much. In turn, Pogba said Mourinho’s system does not give him the freedom of movement to make the passes he wants.

This is a match United need to at worst not lose if they have any serious designs on a top-four finish. They are not overturning the already-16 point deficit to front-running City. Lose this match, and Arsenal are 11 points clear of United with 23 matches to play. It sounds doable, but given the week-to-week fluctuations in quality of play and mood of Mourinho, does anyone truly know what they will get from Manchester United?

There will be many things interesting about this contest, starting with Dalot at right back in a pressure cooker of an environment with an in-form Aubameyang ready to corkscrew him into the ground. Yet the real X-factor on that side may be Kolasinac, who looks like Emery’s mad scientist experiment come to life with unorthodox runs.

Another point of curiosity is who starts in the middle of the park for United. Does Mourinho risk Matic being exposed for his lack of pace, or does he put either Herrera or Pogba? Herrera may be the better answer considering Pogba leads the Premier League in lost balls this season, but it may sacrifice link play to their front three. 

This is where Lingard could be the most vital part of United’s XI because he’s the one who enjoys doing damage on the edge of the penalty area and will not be afraid to test Leno from distance.

For the Gunners, there is still concern about the back, three in this case. Xhaka’s absence could loom large, but the moment should not be too big for Guendouzi to fill his spot. Additionally, Torreira has been everything and then some since arriving from Sampdoria via Uruguay this summer. The 22-year-old embodies the renewed vigour and, dare it be said? — swagger of Arsenal, taking the yellow card for the shirt removal celebration after Arsenal’s fourth.

This could be the ships passing in the night moment where Arsenal are truly on their way while Manchester United continue to pile up a list of questions and holes that need to be answered and addressed. Yet again, it could very well be the case where Mourinho has one or two last aces in his deck and will find a way to snare a point.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 1, Arsenal 1.

Other EPL Match Day 15 Previews:
Bournemouth (6-2-6) vs. Huddersfield Town (2-4-8)
Watford (6-2-6) vs. Manchester City (12-2-0)
Burnley (2-3-9) vs. Liverpool (11-3-0)
Wolverhampton (4-4-6) vs. Chelsea (9-4-1)

Europa League Match Day 3 Preview — Sporting CP (2-0-0, 6, +3) vs. Arsenal (2-0-0, 6, +5)

In the span of less than three months, Arsenal have gone for having near zero expectations under new manager Unai Emery to the new boss pleading to supporters not to get carried away after arguably their most impressive victory of the season that also extended the Gunners’ run to 10 on the trot.

Such is the fickle nature in north London as Arsenal face Portuguese side Sporting CP on Thursday in a top of the table clash in Group E of the Europa League.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Arsenal are fourth in the table on 21 points, bookended by London rivals Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur while lurking two points behind reigning champions Manchester City and Liverpool. The Gunners have scored 22 goals in league play, second only to City (26), and that has carried over to Europa League action, where they have bagged seven more in their two wins to lead Group E on goal difference.

The 10-match winning streak in all competitions is Arsenal’s longest such run since reeling off 11 victories on the bounce from Jan. 10-March 30, 2004, part of the dominant run of the “Invincibles” who were the last team to navigate an entire Premier League season undefeated.

Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over Leicester City on Monday evoked memories of that famous side, with slick passing and a flowing offence that shook off a sluggish first half-hour to put on a master class of football in the final 60 minutes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a brace for the second straight match while Mesut Ozil had a goal and set up Aubameyang’s second goal on 66 minutes.

“I don’t have to tell you he’s a good player, he has shown that for the past years,” defender Shkodran Mustafi told Arsenal’s official website of Ozil, “and when you give him the opportunity to  play in his favourite position just behind the striker he is capable of doing anything and I think he showed he can assist, score goals and make us look very dangerous going forward.”

Ozil’s play was what Gunners supporters have been longing for from the former Germany international, whose inconsistencies at times have been maddening to watch and arguably contributed to Arsenal slipping to second-tier status in recent years. But while the wins are piling up, Emery has warned against thinking Arsenal are now title contenders.

“It was very important for us to beat Leicester because they’re not far behind us. Now we’ve created a lot of distance with the teams behind us,” the gaffer said. “Now in front we are looking at teams like Liverpool, like Manchester City, like Chelsea, but it’s not important to think about the end. We need to think about the next match against Crystal Palace on Sunday and I also think the Europa League is very important on Thursday.”

To that end, Emery looks like he will not mess too much with a good thing, most notably leaving the red-hot Aubameyang in his first XI. He has five goals and an assist in his last four matches, and the four goals in the last two contests have come in a span of 89 minutes.

While keeper Petr Cech has been cleared to play, he did not accompany the team on this trip as Bernd Leno will again be between the sticks. That, however, may change for Arsenal’s league match against Palace since Cech had been the No. 1 in Premier League play.

There is also the chance of a Uruguay reunion on the field as Arsenal midfielder Lucas Torreira and Sporting defender Sebastian Coates could meet. Both were instrumental in helping La Celeste reach the quarterfinals in the World Cup this summer in Russia, where they lost to eventual champions France. Torreira’s dogged play in the midfield in front of Uruguay’s back four was a key factor in Arsenal signing the 22-year-old.

Sporting have claimed the maximum six points in their group matches with a 2-0 home victory over Qarabag and a 2-1 triumph at Vorskla in their most recent Europa League encounter earlier this month. The Portuguese side are fifth domestically on 13 points, four back of Benfica and Braga, and are still rebuilding to a degree after supporters attacked players and staff at the end of last season for failing to qualify for the Champions League.

That led many players — most notably goalkeeper and Portugal No. 1 Rui Patricio — to cancel their contracts with the club and seek work elsewhere. While they have yet to face Arsenal in league play, Patricio has caught the attention of the Premier League in helping promoted Wolverhampton reach the top half of the table thus far.

The Verde e Brancos have lost two of their last three league matches and are coming off a 4-2 defeat at Portimonense last Saturday, shipping four goals in a domestic match or the first time since a 4-1 cup defeat to Benfica in 2010. Sporting twice pulled within one goal in the second half, first through Fredy Montero and again through Coates on 88 minutes, but a stoppage-time marker by Portimonense put the contest out of reach.

Sporting have missed Patricio to a degree, recording three clean sheets in their 10 overall matches while conceding 10 goals. Patricio had 20 shutouts in 48 matches across all competitions in 2017-18.

Montero, one-time Manchester United winger Nani and Jovane Cabral share the team lead in scoring with three goals, and Cabral has bagged two of his coming off the bench in just 24 minutes of Europa League action. Bruno Fernandes has yet to show the scintillating form that led to 15 goals and 14 assists in all competitions last season, but he does have two goals and two assists in Sporting’s nine matches.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are clear favourites to return to London with three points and the Group E lead as they have 19/20 odds to post a victory. The odds of the teams remaining level on points through a draw are 5/2, while Sporting have 11/4 odds to pull off a surprise and take the group lead for a fortnight before the return encounter at the Emirates.

The Gunners have 2/1 odds to win this match with more than 2.5 goals and 15/4 odds to be victorious via 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline. That is slightly longer than a low-scoring draw (7/2), and Sporting odds to claim all three points in a match of three goals (5/1) is slightly better than two or fewer (7/1).

There is no lack of options for first goal-scorers among Arsenal players as Welbeck, Lacazette and Aubameyang all share joint honours at 4/1. Gunners teenage striker Eddie Nketiah is just behind his more seasoned teammates at 5/1, and Mkhitaryan rounds out the top five to give the Londoners a 0-1 lead at 11/2. Bas Dost is the top choice for the hosts at 6/1 to open the scoring, while Abdoulaye Diaby and Fredy Montero are right behind him at 13/2.

Lacazette and Aubameyang have some separation from Welbeck for scoring at any point during the 90 minutes, sharing top billing at 7/5 compared to Welbeck’s 6/4 odds. Nketiah lurks slightly further back at 7/4, and Mkhitaryan again completes the top five options with 2/1 odds on an anytime goal. Aaron Ramsey and fellow Arsenal teenager Emile Smith-Rowe offer 21/10 odds on a goal, and Bost again leads the pack of Sporting options at 11/5.

PREDICTION

While it’s not the “rainy Tuesday night in Stoke” test, this match does represent a step up in class of competition for Arsenal, who it can be argued were favourites to win all 10 of their matches during this winning streak.

Still, the groundswell of support the Gunners are enjoying during the honeymoon period under Emery is a welcome change to the clashing factions under predecessor Arsene Wenger. With each victory in each passing week, the distance grows between the culture of Arsenal’s past under the Frenchman and the one Emery is creating like a meticulous mason building a foundation.

Ozil’s sprinkle of magic dust, however, is what could lift Arsenal to that next level. It may not be title-contention worthy as there is still a noticeable gulf in class between the Gunners and both Manchester City and Liverpool, and Chelsea to a lesser extent, but a top-four finish is definitely there for the taking.

They were irresistible in that hour against the Foxes, but it was the fact it was only an hour still gives pause to Arsenal being a juggernaut. Leicester took a deserved lead in that first 30 minutes, and arguably could have grabbed a second before Arsenal swung the match.

Sporting have the attacking depth to give Arsenal’s back line a severe test, especially through the middle with Fernandes and Montero, along with Nani on the right. Nani had two goals and an assist in eight career matches versus Arsenal, but more importantly, his teams were 6-1-1 in those contests.

This is a contest where Sporting can begin to re-establish the club’s identity following the disastrous spring occurrences, and a draw between the sides to set up a return engagement in London in a fortnight for the top of the group seems like the most likely outcome.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Sporting CP 1, Arsenal 1.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 3 PREVIEWS:

Chelsea (2-0-0) vs. BATE (1-0-1)

Europa League Match Day 1 Preview — Arsenal vs. Vorskla Poltava

Bernd Leno’s wait is over as the keeper has been tabbed to make his Arsenal debut Thursday when the Gunners begin their Europa League campaign at home versus Ukrainian side Vorskla Poltava at the Emirates.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Leno, a £19 million transfer from Bayer Leverkusen, was brought in as part of the new regime under Unai Emery in which Arsenal were going to start playing the ball out of the back as part of their renaissance and eventual return to elite football.

The 26-year-old Leno was unable to supplant incumbent and veteran Petr Cech, however, and has watched Arsenal overcome their slow start from the bench. Emery has not committed to Leno as the team’s cup keeper as the three-time winner of Europe’s second-tier tournament is keeping all of his options open as he continues to gauge his personnel.

“He’s here because he’s shown us his quality,” Emery said at his Wednesday news conference about Leno. “The quality for the goalkeeper for me is complex, but he has it. Tomorrow he is going to start and he can go a long way here at Arsenal. He’s young.

I spoke with him on the day of my first match about my decision, I give him my argument for the decision and [seeing] his performance in training  every day,  the best for him and for us is when he starts to play, to play with this performance. I am very happy with him.”

On the surface, it appears Emery will be starting a largely first-choice lineup. Stephan Lichtsteiner is expcted to get the start at right back, while fellow summer signing Lucas Torreira will pair with teen Matteo Guendouzi as the holding midfielders in Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 set-up. Denny Welbeck is likely to start on the left flank in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s spot while lead striker Alexander Lacazette is expected to maintain his spot up front.

Coming from Juventus, where the Switzerland international was a regular as the Italian side often ventured deep into the Champions League, competing for playing time with Hector Bellerin and playing Thursday nights has been an adjustment for Lichtsteiner, whose lone action with Arsenal was a 55-minute runout against Manchester City in the season opener.

“I’m not frustrated but of course I’m not used to being on the bench more than three times in a row,” the 34-year-old said. “It’s also a new situation for me and I’m curious how I’ll manage it. I’m here to work, to get better personally, to get better with the team and I think we are in a very good way. I’m trying to start more and for that I have to work, that’s the only thing I can do in this moment to show the coach that I’m ready to play. We are in a good way, I’m in a very good way and ready to play.”

This is the second straight season Arsenal are toiling on Thursday nights, with Arsene Wenger’s final run to get back to the Champions League ending in a two-legged 2-1 loss on aggregate to Atletico Madrid in the semifinals.

Vorskla qualified directly for the Europa League group stage by finishing third in the Ukrainian Premier League last season behind perennial powers Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv. The Green-Whites endured a slow start with three losses in their first four contests but have won three of their last four to climb to fifth place in the table.

Vasyl Sachko’s team is coming off a 1-0 victory at Karpaty Lyiv on Saturday in a foul-tempered match in which six yellow cards were issued. Defender Ardin Dallku was the unlikely offensive hero, scoring in second-half stoppage time to secure the three points and Sachko’s 60th career victory.

“We will fly to London in a good mood,” Sachko told BeSoccer. “We understand that we will have to wait in England. We have earned a place in European competition on sporting principle.

“We are not favourites in this group. The frontrunners are Arsenal and Sporting, while Qarabag are an experienced team. It will be very difficult. We will be dark horses, but we will try to win.”

The Green-Whites will be without three regulars for this match as Yuri Kolomets, Volodymyr Odaryuk, and Denis Vasin all did not make the trip due to injuries.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are overwhelming favourites at 1/9 odds to take all three points, with Poltava 33/1 longshots to pull off the shock scoreline. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 8/1.

The Gunners are also better than even money odds to win with more than 2.5 goals in the match at 1/2, with Arsenal victories by either a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline a distant second at 14/5. Oddsmakers are barely considering a draw as an outcome, as a 0-0 or 1-1 scoreline would return 10/1 odds while a 2-2 draw or higher is 33/1.

A 2-0 or 3-0 Arsenal scoreline are joint-favourites at 5/1, with a fourth goal to the hosts without reply would offer a 7/1 return.

Though he is not expected to be among the starters, Aubameyang is the favourite for first-goal honours at 23/10, closely trailed by Lacazette (14/5) and Welbeck (16/5). Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey check in as 9/2 options to make it 1-0 for the Gunners.

Oddsmakers appear to be expecting at least three goals considering Aubameyang (8/15), Lacazette (8/11) and Welbeck (5/6) are all better than even money to score over the course of 90 minutes.

PREDICTION

Much like Chelsea, this match is where supporters can begin to sense a direction and philosophy of Emery, who will begin making his squad rotations for this match. On the surface, he appears to have enlisted more than enough firepower for this contest by holding back only Aubameyang and Ozil, but it is always better to have too much than too little in a group opener.

The spotlight, though, will fall on Leno as he makes his Gunners debut. The only question is whether he will see enough of the ball against what appears to be an overmatched Vorskla side to make an assessment of the qualities that prompted Arsenal to pay Leverkusen nearly £20 million. The selling point was his ability to play the ball to start the cycle of possession — something Cech has been gamely attempting to learn — so something to watch for Arsenal will be a tempo through the middle third on those occasions Leno starts the build out from the back.

With three wins on the trot, Arsenal have shown expected strength in attack and frailty in the back. This is a good match for them to begin the cohesive process of being a team, which means top-shelf performances from both Torreira and Guendouzi would be a welcome start into a busy three-match stretch in the next seven days.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: ARSENAL 4, Vorskla 0.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 1 PREVIEWS:

PAOK vs. Chelsea

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