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Arsenal: BTSport.com's Premier League 2019/20 season preview

As the Gunners enter their second season of the post-Arsene Wenger era and a third without Champions League football, Unai Emery faces an uphill task to arrest their recent malaise.

Last season's Premier League finish: 5th (W20 D7 L10 - F73 A51 - Pts 70)

Last season's top scorer: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang - 22 (31 in all competitions)

Odds to finish in the top four*: 5/4

First five fixtures: Newcastle (A), Burnley (H), Liverpool (A), Tottenham (H), Watford (A)

Predicted finish (BTSport.com writers' combined prediction): 4th

Predicted finish by The Script: 5th

Transfers in: Nicolas Pepe - Lille (£72m), Dani Ceballos - Real Madrid (loan), William Saliba - Saint-Etienne (£27m), Gabriel Martinelli - Ituano (£6m), Kieran Tierney - Celtic (£25m), David Luiz - Chelsea (£8m), Dominic Thompson - Brentford (£3m)

Transfers out: William Saliba - Saint-Etienne (loan), Aaron Ramsey - Juventus (free), Krystian Bielik - Derby (£7.4m), Laurent Koscielny - Bordeaux (£4.5m), Takuma Asano - Partizan Belgrade (£1m), Danny Welbeck (released), David Ospina - Napoli (£3.5m), Stephan Lichtsteiner (released), Julio Pleguezuelo - Twente (free). Petr Cech - retired, Xavier Amaechi - Hamburg (£2.25m), Jordi Osei-Tutu - Bochum (loan), Bayli Spencer-Adams - Watford (free), Daniel Ballard - Swindon (loan), Vontay Daley-Campbell - Leicester (undisclosed), Charlie Gilmour - Norwich (free), Ben Sheaf - Doncaster (loan), Eddie Nketiah - Leeds (loan)

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Reasons to be optimistic

Arsenal came within a whisker of Champions League qualification. Heading into the away match at Everton on April 1st, Unai Emery’s men sat third in the table.

They conspired to self-destruct with a run of seven points from seven matches and missed out on fourth by a single point, painfully to north London rivals Tottenham. The Europa League couldn’t save them either. Arsenal made it all the way to Baku before falling at the final hurdle.

So amid the doom and gloom that swelled after the Europa League final, it’s worth remembering Arsenal are not miles off getting back into the Champions League. The 22-match unbeaten streak between August and December demonstrated they are capable of positive runs even if they ultimately don’t last.

In Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang they possess arguably the two best traditional forwards in the Premier League. Both strikers are capable of winning games even when Arsenal aren’t playing well, a trick they performed repeatedly in 2018/19. Their displays away at Valencia in the Europa League semi-final served as a case in point.

And the exciting addition of Nicolas Pepe for a club-record £72 million - structured over five years to adhere to Arsenal's strict financial restrictions - now gives Emery three quality attacking options. The transfer has certainly raised spirits in N5 after what threatened to be a frustrating summer of transfer business.

Pepe scored 22 goals last season for Lille and was one of the standout players in Ligue 1. Hit the ground running and the Ivorian will add even further firepower to Arsenal's already impressive attacking ranks.

It may be a big ask for Dani Ceballos to fill Aaron Ramsey's shoes but the Spaniard is an exciting talent, as showcased in the European Under-21 Championship this summer. Emery suggested the Real Madrid man will play as either a No 8 or No 10 and Ceballos will surely do better than follow in the footsteps of his compatriot Denis Suarez.

Emery will also welcome back key defenders Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding after both suffered anterior cruciate ligament injuries around the turn of the year. 

Arsenal’s defensive issues were exacerbated once both went down as Emery was forced to chop and change his backline. Though neither will be ready for the trip to Newcastle on August 11th, when they do return Arsenal will benefit from playing with a more settled defence. 

Adding to their defensive ranks - Kieran Tierney looks a smart acquisition at left back for £25m from Celtic if the Scotsman shakes off his injury concerns. David Luiz, signed from London rivals Chelsea, is obviously a flawed player but Arsenal did need cover at centre back and the Brazilian remains an effective defender on his day.

There is also buzz around some of the club’s youngsters. Joe Willock, Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson and Bukayo Saka are all pushing for increased playing time with another Europa League campaign on the horizon. Willock in particular has thrived in pre-season and Emery publicly promised the teenager minutes in the coming season.

Matteo Guendouzi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, aged just 20 and 21 respectively, have already established themselves in the first team and are expected to make further strides in their development.

Reasons to be fearful​

Even if they managed to come within touching distance of the top-four spot, the meek manner in which Arsenal surrendered it was alarming.

The mental fragility and soft underbelly that plagued Arsene Wenger’s later years in charge has not been eradicated by Emery. Arsenal still routinely crumble when the pressure is on, particularly on the road - they lost more matches than they won away from the Emirates last term. The defeats at Wolves and Leicester in April encapsulated the very worst of Emery’s Arsenal - timid performances where the Gunners were too fearful of the opposition to seize the initiative.

A defence that shipped 51 goals remains largely the same and still includes the error-prone Shkodran Mustafi. Former captain and the club’s best centre-back, Laurent Koscielny, refused to go on a pre-season tour to the United States in order to force an exit to Bordeaux. Pepe is a morale-boosting addition but fails to address the area Arsenal are weakest.

The departed Ramsey leaves a big hole in midfield and Arsenal still remain overly reliant on their two star strikers for goals. After Aubameyang’s 31 and Lacazette’s 19 goals last term, the next top scorers for Arsenal were tied on six. The hope is that Pepe, with just three seasons of top-flight experience in France, can help carry the burden.

It was largely down to the two forwards that Arsenal enjoyed the highest shot conversion rate of any side last season with 15.6% of the Gunners’ total efforts resulting in a goal. That suggests a ruthlessness but more worryingly, a lack of chances being created. Emery’s side managed just 467 shots last season: enough for 11th-best in the division.

And all the while, the bizarre Mesut Ozil circus is no closer to being resolved. Arsenal’s most talented and highest-paid player is deemed tactically unsuitable by Emery to play in most matches. The 30-year-old was hauled off pointedly during the Europa League final to be replaced by academy product Willock.

A tough battle awaits to avoid a fourth consecutive season of missing out on the top four. And with Everton, Leicester and Wolves all strengthening, Arsenal supporters could be looking over their shoulder rather than in front of them.

Key man: Alexandre Lacazette

It’s telling that Lacazette still earned the club’s Player of the Year award despite being outgunned to the tune of eight goals by his strike partner Aubameyang. As Ian Wright tweeted to Lacazette in December: “Your work for this team and all Auba's goals does not go unnoticed."

Lacazette scored 13 times in the league, laid on eight assists and was central to so much that was good about Emery’s side in 2018/19. He netted seven in 11 as the Gunners embarked on their 22-game unbeaten run earlier in the season.

Emery deserves credit for managing the partnership effectively for long stretches of the season and the Spaniard showed a preference towards playing Lacazette as the main forward. Aubameyang was often deployed out wide or even left on the bench to accommodate the Frenchman.

While Aubameyang was linked with a move to the Chinese Super League this summer, Lacazette was a target for Barcelona as an alternative to Antoine Griezmann. Fortunately for Arsenal, Lacazette remained and is set to take on an even greater responsibility this year with Ramsey now in Turin and Ozil potentially set for another campaign on the periphery.

Expect Arsenal to be just as reliant on the forward's invention and ability to create for his team-mates as last season during what could be a difficult year at the Emirates.

The manager: Unai Emery

Even if his final season ended with a whimper, the Wenger dynasty was always going to be a tough act to follow. Emery can be forgiven for not immediately snapping Arsenal out of their malaise after succeeding a man who had grown to control every aspect of the club during his 22 years in charge.

After two defeats to begin the season, Arsenal embarked on a 22-match unbeaten run in which Emery displayed his tactical flexibility by switching between a back three and a back four. That continued until the end of the season and across all four competitions.

That tactical flexibility was absent under his predecessor but with so much chopping and changing, some of it enforced by injuries, Arsenal fans remain unsure over how their manager wants his side to play. Speaking in his second language, Emery’s anodyne press conferences fail to offer further insight.

The coach did show considerable backbone in dropping Ozil for some of Arsenal’s biggest matches of the season for “tactical reasons”. The question beckons, though: if Arsenal’s best player can’t fit in to Emery’s system, is that system best for Arsenal?

When the dust settled, Arsenal’s first season under Emery bore the same results as their final campaign under Wenger. No Champions League football, no trophies, the same amount of goals conceded and one fewer goal scored.

The honeymoon period has long finished and Champions League qualification must be secured. Otherwise Arsenal could look elsewhere for the next step in the Wenger succession plan.

Fans' view - Stubbsy's Tours

"I was out in Baku [for the 4-1 Europa League final defeat to Chelsea] and the second half performance just left all the Arsenal fans deflated.

"That complete capitulation was worse than any of the other defeats that saw us miss out on the top four. The supporters are still so gutted after the final and that feeling has carried into this season too.

"Ozil remains one of the most frustrating players we’ve ever had at the club. Ignore the wages - they aren’t his fault - but I don’t understand how he can be both one of the best and worst players I’ve ever seen. He can be key but we’ve had him a long time now and he seems to go missing when we want him most.

"The negativity on social media from Arsenal fans is beyond belief but I don’t buy into all that. We were very critical of Wenger’s stubbornness and how we couldn’t adjust when things weren’t going our way. Now we have the opposite – a manager who isn’t afraid of changing things around, a real pragmatist.

"Top four is the maximum we can have expectations for. I want to be challenging for the league, not battling for top four, but we need to take each step as it comes.

"I am confident that we could go to the next stage next year because we came very close last season. You’d hope that Emery now knows where he needs to improve and knows what he wants from the squad."

*All odds correct with bet365 at time of writing

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