Friday, August 19, 2022

Arsenal Premier League 2022-23 season preview, bold predictions: Can Gabriel Jesus fire Gunners to top four?

Entering his fourth full season in the job, Mikel Arteta might feel he has finally begun to bring some degree of order to the chaos that has been Arsenal over the last decade. Off the pitch a generation of veterans, paid like stars but not playing like them, have been swept out for a leaner, hungrier and more malleable squad. They are the sort who will take on board their manager’s vision with fewer qualms, who will not be tempted to step outside the bounds of the masterplan.

Gone is the free jazz of the Arsene Wenger age. Arteta’s orchestra must know their parts in the depths of their brains. Arsenal could on occasion look rote, a team capable of performing all the notes but not necessarily imbuing them with the requisite spirit. But after bottoming out in the early years of their current manager’s tenure, last season brought a sense that this team had learned their rhythms well enough to have a bit of fun with it. There’s no need to go completely off script, but perhaps now these bright young things might be able to indulge their improvisational tendencies now and then.

Arsenal would end last season in credit with supporters who were finally brought back on side after years of rancor and division. They will not need reminding of how much more joyous it could have been, but for the neutrals in the audience, it could be argued that Arteta’s side squandered fourth place, Champions League qualification and St. Totteringham’s Day not once but twice. First the opportunity to open daylight between themselves and the chasing pack was frittered away in a run of defeats to Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton. They followed that up by beating three of the top seven before back to back defeats to Tottenham and Newcastle saw fourth ripped from their grasp in the final week.

And yet, the doom and gloom that would so often engulf north London when they had been beaten by the great rival did not materialize. It helped perhaps that the areas for improvement were so blindingly obvious. Arsenal needed someone to put the ball in the net on a reliable basis. Tottenham had two of them, Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son, who combined for 40 goals. Eddie Nketiah became the Gunners’ top scoring Premier League striker on the final day of the season with his fifth of the campaign.

By a fine margin, Arsenal created comparable chances than Tottenham over 38 games, registering 63.4 non-penalty expected goals (xG) to Spurs 63.8, and yet they scored eight fewer. Son was second in the Premier League for shooting goals added (an Opta metric that compares pre and post-shot xG to assess how much more shot value a player has added) at 2.56 and outperformed his xG by seven actual goals, something he has consistently managed throughout his career. 

Only six players performed less favorably on shooting goals added than last season’s lead striker at the Emirates Stadium, Alexandre Lacazette, who ultimately subtracted 3.21. He ended the campaign with a non-penalty xG of 6.8, a meagre return for the focal point of a top five side that, per 90 minutes, was slightly inferior to Watford’s Josh King. All the worse were the four goals he scored, only two of which did not come from the penalty spot.

It is perhaps curious (and a reminder that statistics cannot tell the whole story) to see Gabriel Jesus alongside Lacazette in those scoring metrics, considering he appears to have brought an almighty shot of adrenaline to the Arsenal frontline even in preseason. Three goals in his first four games, followed by a hat trick against Sevilla in the Emirates Cup final is the headline, but it has been everything else that comes with the Brazilian — the pressing, interplay and relentless hard work — that has captured the imagination of a fanbase who have been crying out for a do it all striker since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang went off the boil, perhaps even since Robin van Persie left.

Arteta is smitten, like Jack Donaghy with Elisa Pedrera he is convinced he has found “the one.”http://www.cbssports.com/”Whenever we give the ball, he is straight away active, putting pressure on and getting his team behind him,” he said. “He has developed his leadership skills a lot. I can see straight away what he is trying to do with the boys and he is the type of guy we want.

“I love these kinds of players.” Indeed it was notable that Arteta, who railed against the bedlam on and off the pitch that he inherited, seems to be relishing the broken plays that Jesus’ off the ball work can force from opposition defenders. It is even bleeding into Arsenal’s on-ball play, as Gabriel Martinelli explained on the Wrighty’s House podcast: “It’s amazing, we have the freedom to play, I can come to the right, you can go to the left. 

“With Eddie he drops, I can go in behind, he goes in behind. With Jesus he can come to play. With Martin he can find you everywhere.” When it clicked in the 4-0 friendly win over Chelsea that Arteta would urge you not to take too seriously it looks to be a feast for the senses, some of the verve of Wenger’s side coupled with a thoroughly modern pressing system that gets the ball to the star men as quickly as possible.

A swift move down the left has already left the Chelsea defense scrambling and when Trevoh Chalobah wins the ball back he does not expect Martin Odegaard to be pressing him with such alacrity. That closes down the short pass to Conor Gallagher, forcing a more risky punt out of shot, where Granit Xhaka is waiting to steal in.

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Odegaard’s pressure (with Martinelli chasing from behind) forces Chalobah into a bad pass Wyscout/SportTV1

Xhaka, once so inhibited in an Arsenal shirt, but now happier and better than he has ever been, pings the ball first time to Jesus, who has judged the run to perfection and clips the ball over Edouard Mendy. This has been a familiar sight in the Gunners’ preseason, an authoritative press forcing mistakes from opponents that are pounced on in clinical fashion by their new No.9. 

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Xhaka’s first time pass finds Jesus, who looks to be just about onside Wyscout/SportTV1

To be clear, this Chelsea side looked a shadow of what they can be under Thomas Tuchel. One might have forgiven them curious observers for assuming that Arsenal had just beaten up on a lower midtable Premier League team. But then last year’s wasteful side rarely managed to do that; far too many of the matches that Liverpool, City and even Tottenham won convincingly proved to be white knuckle rides for supporters in red.

Adding players that can reliably put the ball in the net should ease that. Other problems from last season have been addressed, most notably the single points of failure when key first teamers were lost for extended periods. Arsenal’s season fell apart when Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey did, with the former in particular being so injury-prone that there is no justification for not having a high quality option to step into the fray when he is unavailable. Oleksandr Zinchenko ought to add that and may also prove to be an upgrade on Xhaka in Arteta’s 4-3-3.

The Odegaard-Bukayo Saka tandem was no less critical last season. Between them these two contributed 33.7 percent of Arsenal’s expected assist value and created the same proportion of their team’s chances. Their interplay on the right flank was the Gunners’ most consistent route to goal and they travelled in that direction a lot. Saka played in every match of the season, logging nearly 3000 minutes, while, barring a brief period in the autumn, Odegaard was Arteta’s on field general. Little wonder he has been handed the Arsenal armband.

Take either of those out of the side last season and the damage may have been sizeable. It could be this but the addition of Fabio Vieira, viewed as one of the outstanding young prospects in the Portuguese game, could ease Arsenal’s reliance on those two for midfield creativity. So too could Zinchenko, if his performances with the Ukraine national team are anything to go on.

But there is still that question of who sticks the ball in the net. Emile Smith Rowe did so more than anyone early in the season but his hot streak in front of goal eventually cooled. Saka’s 11 goal return in the Premier League feels like it should be a baseline for future seasons, such is the talent of the youngster, and when Eddie Nketiah sees the pitch regularly he gets goals. Perhaps the biggest growth area might come from Gabriel Martinelli, who ranked in the Premier League’s top 25 for non-penalty xG per 90 last season. It would not be unreasonable for him to target twice as many goals as the six he registered in 2021-22.

That would all help to ease the burden on Jesus, but it is hard to shake the sense that their hopes for the season will wax and wane with their new striker. At their best in recent months Arsenal have felt like a team who are just a top tier forward away from being something special. If the Brazilian is that missing piece then this could be quite the year in north London.

Bold predictions

  • Premier League finish: 4th
  • Top scorer: Gabriel Jesus
  • Player of the season: Martin Odegaard
  • Something unexpected: Arsenal manage to go through a season with no great captaincy crisis

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