The Community Shield may not be the most prestigious piece of silverware in English football, but it was a welcome opening to the 2020-21 season for Mikel Arteta’s side and an excellent bookend to a close season that began amid celebrations of a famous FA Cup win.
Two trophies won in two consecutive trips to Wembley is a solid start for the Gunners’ boss, but the nature of those victories is also of significance.
When Arteta took the job, there were no illusions on his part or among Arsenal fans about the size of the task facing him or the extent of the gap that had to be closed on Liverpool and Manchester City. The fact that renowned betting firm Bet365 have placed Arsenal’s chances of finishing in the top four at 3.50 underlines just how far behind they have fallen in the Premier League rat race, having been top four regulars for so long.
So, it is to Arteta’s credit that he has crafted hard-fought victories over Manchester City and Chelsea in the FA Cup, and managed to match Liverpool in normal time before securing a penalty shootout victory that will boost confidence ahead of the new campaign.
These successes have been achieved with a distinctively cautious style. In the games against Chelsea and Liverpool, the Gunners managed 40% possession in each. In the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City, it was just 25%. Against the bigger teams, Arteta has found a way to keep things tight at the back, and with the pace in the Arsenal front line, this team will always have the ability to hit teams on the break effectively.
This, however, can only be a short-term solution. If they are to return to the top four and even challenge for Premier League glory, the Gunners will need to find a way to balance defence with attack, otherwise they may find themselves thwarted by middle and lower ranking teams who pack the defences. And both Arteta, who was mentored by Pep Guardiola, and the Arsenal fans, will want to see their side play a more expansive game.
They ranked sixth in the top flight for number of passes last season and the manager will be aiming to show they can become a better passing team.
To do that, they will need reinforcements in the centre of the pitch. The side-lining of Mesut Ozil is presumably a permanent reality, which leaves Arsenal with plenty of energetic defensive midfielders and deep-lying ball recyclers, but no-one to run the show in the way that De Bruyne does for Manchester City or Fernandes for Manchester United.
New signing Willian could be part of the answer. The Brazilian veteran will be able to slot straight into the team without any difficulty, and to an extent, he can play that role based on his performances last season and his ability to play key passes into the box. His presence will certainly add depth, guile and creativity to an already impressive Arsenal front line that is capable of unlocking most defences.
Still, the feeling is that Arteta will want more than Willian, and that is supported by the long list of players that Arsenal were linked with this summer. Thiago Alcantara and Philippe Coutinho were among the creative influences that the Gunners have apparently been considering, though neither have come to fruition.
Among the more realistic options appear to be Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey, who would bring power and creativity to the midfield; former Arsenal player Dani Ceballos who seems set to rejoin the club, and Houssem Aouar of Lyon, whose versatility and creativity would make him the ideal all-round creative player.
Took longer than club would have hoped to get this over the line but Ceballos return now all-but secure.
Hold up means he will miss start of PL season due to quarantine rules.
— Mark Mann-Bryans (@MarkyMBryans) September 3, 2020
There will still be one or two hurdles for Arteta to clear, however, before bringing in the type of creative influence that he needs. It seems that, given the current financial constraints, the club will need to sell more players before bringing in a new number 10. Top of the list of departures would be Ozil, but the German has so far remained adamant on his plan to see out the remaining year of his contract, despite interest from Fenerbahce.
That leaves the out-of-favour Matteo Guendouzi as the key saleable asset, though so far it seems that interest in the controversial French midfielder is not as high as the Gunners would like.
There is still plenty of work for the manager to do if he is to craft a top four side but with Pierre Emerick Aubameyang (hopefully) set to stay, if the Gunners can find a way to bring in a top rated creative influence in the midfield area, that could be the key piece to complete Arteta’s jigsaw.