Do you still remember how it all ended for Arsenal last season? With two defeats at the hands of North London rivals Tottenham and Saudi-owned Newcastle United, and the sheer disappointment of missing out on a top-four finish yet again. It was the second consecutive time that Arsenal finished fifth under coach Mikel Arteta. Those signs of limited improvement under the Spaniard had not resulted in clinching a coveted ticket for the Champions League.
In 2019, Arteta’s arrival at Arsenal was greeted by mild optimism. Here was a coach who could resuscitate Arsenal after the vagueness of Unai Emery’s maligned reign and the ill-fated interlude that befell, more than anything else, Freddie Ljungberg. The Spaniard’s CV and real-life skill set were deemed to be impeccable. Above all, he was a disciple of the Guardiola school. He was to deliver an upgrade on Wengerball and remove the shadow over the club cast by the Frenchman’s departure.
The returns, however, have been too slim. True, Covid-19 was unprecedented and in many ways truncated Arteta’s first seasons at the club, but this campaign the Spaniard will no longer have any excuses. The goal is clear: irrespective of the competition and a congested calendar – the World Cup splitting up the seasons – Arsenal must finish in the top four.
As Arteta and his team take on Crystal Palace in the curtain raiser of a landmark 30th Premier League season on Friday, there is a sense of mild optimism at Arsenal. The arrival of both Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko has led to the belief that this time Arsenal can reconnect with their status of old and compete properly.
The £75 million Manchester City cast-offs are fascinating players, each in their own right and with their peaks still in front of them.
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Jesus has not been quite the same player after his failure at the 2018 World Cup. He didn’t score a single goal in the tournament as Brazil exited Russia in the quarter-finals. It was the nadir of his career, one of a player who could play across the entire front line but who would ultimately develop into a world-class striker. That didn’t quite happen and so at Arsenal, the Brazilian wants to reignite his career as a striker, not in a wide role. The Brazilian enjoyed an excellent pre-season, scoring seven times.
Zinchenko is another excellent addition to the squad. He can fill in at various positions and his versatility is not in doubt. Skilful, mobile and attacking, he should improve the quality of Arsenal’s midfield and he might flourish if he gets a proper run of matches under his belt.
Cast a glance at the squad photo and there is talent and youth in abundance, with all of Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard, William Saliba, Fabio Vieira, Emile Smith Rowe, Kieran Tierney and Gabriel Martinelli at Arteta’s disposal to engineer a great side.
The deadwood is gone as well. Matteo Guendouzi, Kostantinos Mavropanos and Alexandre Lacazette have all exited the club on permanent deals.
Arsenal last participated in the Champions League in the 2016/17 season after the club had qualified nineteen successive times for the competition. A return to Europe’s elite tournament will prove that Arsenal’s incremental progress under Arteta is real. It’s all or nothing then for the Spaniard this season.