Soccer

Arsenal Premier League 2021-22 season preview: Aubameyang struggles, Partey excels, bold predictions

Was last season the moment that Arsenal bottomed out? No European football, a second eighth placed finish in the Premier League and growing fan resentment towards Mikel Arteta and the Kroenke family that have presided over a decade where the Gunners have slipped away from the top of the table.

Will the additions of Ben White for $70 million, Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares, coupled with a first full preseason for their manager be enough to drag Arsenal back towards the top four? We take a look at what to expect from the 2021-22 season at the Emirates Stadium.

Cup run the best Arsenal can hope for

Heading into the second full season of the Arteta project — and that sort of long term word best describes Arsenal’s approach to their manager — many at the Emirates Stadium would have been pleasantly surprised if they could say that in a year and a bit of Premier League football the Gunners would have top flight wins against all of big six. They would have been left severely disappointed if they learned that would merely lead to consecutive eighth placed finishes, largely decided by consistently frittering away points against bottom half teams. With the exception of Brighton and Newcatstle, every team that finished between ninth and 18th last season picked up at least one point from their games against Arsenal.

The explanation for that was simple. A team once defined by the abandon with which they attacked scored just 55 goals in 38 games, the ninth best return in the league. In terms of expected goals (xG) the mark was even worse, the 10th best mark in the league at 52.99. Shots? 11th. Chances created? 12th.

The midseason addition of Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard — who may yet return after his loan from Real Madrid or be succeeded by James Maddison — brought a little more spice to the attack but they still only had the sixth best xG in the league after Christmas. Preseason has offered no more evidence that Arteta can construct an effective attack, in their 1-0 defeat to Tottenham they showed a familiar inability to turn territory into shooting chances. The Spaniard has spoken of the need for time on the training pitch that he has not always had. But there can be no excuses next season when Arteta will have had time before the campaign begins and no European football to manage.

Last season saw Arsenal discovered what a top four defense and midtable offense gets you. Not a lot. At least in the Premier League, where too often disciplined work without the ball could be irretrievably damaged by one clumsy mistake: two points dropped to Burnley because of a loose pass here, a clumsy goalkeeping effort at the near post against Everton there.

In cup football this Arsenal are often, if not always, a different beast. Perhaps the raised stakes ensure those attention levels don’t drop, as has been true in the numerous rearguard wins Arteta has masterminded over better clubs in the league. In knockout football a low scoring attack is not quite as prohibitive to success as it is over a 38 game season. Heck, maybe there is just some magnetism between the FA Cup and the Emirates Stadium.

Over a league season Arsenal should improve from their eighth place. After Arteta rejigged his system to fit in a No.10 they picked up the joint fifth most points in the league and that sort of return across a whole campaign does not seem beyond them, particularly now that they do not have to manage the headache of long trips for a Europa League game on a Thursday followed by Sunday games back in the league, one which club sources would not deny has been a drag on their domestic form in recent years. But barring a remarkable collapse from one of the four teams streaking out ahead of them — the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool and Chelsea — the holy grail of Champions League qualification looks a fair way away from a side who may yet find themselves reliant on youngsters such as Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka for creativity that is being provided by some of the world’s best playmakers at other clubs.

Aubameyang doesn’t clear 15 league goals

On the basis of past performance Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had certainly earned the sizeable new contract he signed on the eve of the 2020-21 season, almost single-handedly carrying Arsenal to the FA Cup win and European football. But the first year of the new deal could scarcely have been more disappointing, 10 Premier League goals his worst top flight return for a decade and a reminder that clubs should be paying for what they expect in the future, not what has come before. 

There was one immediately obvious explanation for his struggles: how could he be expected to score at previous rates when he hardly ever touched the ball? In the final third Aubameyang registered just 17.8 open play touches per 90 minutes last season, the fewest of his Arsenal career so far. Before Christmas that number was even lower at 17.1 with the lack of creativity deeper in the team offering the captain little to work with whether he was through the middle or shunted out on the left. In the early months of 2021 Aubameyang looked to be improving only to be struck down by malaria. Couple that with issues as big as the illness of his mother and as frustratingly small by comparison as missing of the north London derby due to traffic and truly this was Aubameyang’s annus horribilis. Whether you believe he is in decline or not, it is hard to imagine such misfortune will strike him again in 2021-22.

That does not mean the Golden Boot winning big game hunter will be back in Arsenal colors this season. There are relatively clear indications that Aubameyang is no longer the force he was when he left Borussia Dortmund. In his final half season in Germany he averaged 0.88 non penalty xG. That number dropped to 0.6 on moving to England and at the end of last season sat at 0.33.

Aubameyang’s shooting slump

Domestic league performance

2017-18 Bundesliga

1417

13

0.88

3.68

-0.21

22.4%

2017-18 Premier League

1058

10

0.6

2.64

1.3

32.3%

2018-19

2731

22

0.63

3.1

-3.96

23.4%

2019-20

3138

22

0.38

2.67

3.33

23.7%

2020-21

2337

10

0.33

2.2

-2.41

17.5%

Aubameyang likely has not suffered the complete cratering in quality that last season’s form would suggest. Fundamentally 2020-21 was a weird year for many footballers, one where it would be unwise to assume that it set the standard for a new normal. Even in preseason Aubameyang is showing an ability to get into scoring positions — and miss from there with surprising frequency for a man of his talents — that augurs well for an upturn. But he is still a 32 year old whose pace does not appear to be what it was and who seems to be less assertive in front of goal, leading the line for a club who does not create many chances. The days of him competing for the Golden Boot may just be over.

Partey proves to be an elite Premier League midfielder

If it is hard to believe that Aubameyang will get back to what he was it is not quite so challenging to see a revival of sorts from Thomas Partey even if the injury he suffered in the friendly loss to Chelsea may well delay when that begins. CBS Sports first revealed that the ankle issue is not as severe as Arteta first feared after that game but it may well be that he sits out until after the August-September international break to preserve his fitness.

No wonder; on the basis of preseason he could well be their best player. Any conclusions taken from before the real action begins should be tentative ones, but it makes sense that Partey would be a far greater force in year two than his first campaign in England. That’s especially true given that that one began late with nothing even approximating a preseason to work with his new teammates nor to build the fitness that deserted him with frustrating frequency in his debut campaign. This year a lot of that has changed and it was instructive against Chelsea just how at ease he looked with the task Arteta had set for him.

He has the raw attributes to fit perfectly into the Premier League. His years at Atletico Madrid heightened his defensive understanding, with Arsenal he has license to apply that further up the pitch and harass any midfielders or defenders who are foolish enough to come to close to him. Partey and the Gunners staff that scouted him for years saw a chance for him to be a more progressive figure than he was in Spain. 

Even in a debut season that wasn’t what they hoped, there was evidence of that. According to fbref the number of yards he progressed the ball towards goal per 90 minutes rocketed from 117 in his final season in Spain to 165.9 with Arsenal. Similarly he carried the ball into the final third three times as often in the Premier League. His confidence taking the ball on the half turn and darting upfield is perfectly suited to the English game. His strength in the tackle and his eye for loose passing ahead of him is as well. It may not be an entirely successful season for Arsenal but where Partey is concerned there should be plenty of cause for celebration.

Bold predictions

Premier League finish: 6th

Top scorer: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Player of the season: Thomas Partey

Something unexpected: Nicolas Pepe pushes Aubameyang close in the scoring chart with his best goal return for Arsenal so far.


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