It may seem like the world of soccer never stops. That’s because it doesn’t. You may be thinking it was only yesterday that England were taking penalties with both hands and a rope around their throats. It was just about a month ago, and the new Premier League season starts this weekend. So if you also watched the Gold Cup, you may feel like you haven’t had time to even sit down. Well, everyone sits down while watching TV, unless you’re just standing at the bar, so shut up. This is the way.
The Premier League seems distinctly stratified, perhaps more than it’s been in a few years. There’s the clear top four — the Manchester clubs, Liverpool, and Chelsea. Then there’s possibly Leicester trying for the third time to crash the party, or having missed their window the past two seasons and headed for a fall. Then there’s kind of a mess around and below the next European places, with West Ham, Arsenal, Spurs, Villa, Everton, and if we’re feeling charitable we’ll throw Leeds in there. Then there’s the bottom half.
All of the teams below the top four could be anything. It feels like this is Leicester’s last go with this squad, as the transfer rumors are already circling around Youri Tielemans and James Maddison, and Jamie Vardy are getting pretty damn old. West Ham maxed out to finish sixth and haven’t really added anything. Spurs could be losing Harry Kane, or maybe keeping him and having him be in a sulk all season, but they did just sign one of the best defenders from Serie A in Christian Romero and might be after Lautaro Martínez? Villa just lost their best player, but have that money to add to the squad and already have done some of that work. Everton should be way better than their 10th-place finish from last season, but considering they hired a Liverpool legend as manager in Rafa Benítez to replace Carlo Ancelotti, they have maybe three or four games to look like a real thing before the supporters go absolutely apeshit and poison the atmosphere.
Out of all the ooze behind the top four, Arsenal might be the most interesting watch. Which sounds weird, given the malaise they’ve spent the past four or five years in. Before last season, Arsenal had some buzz after hiring Mikael Arteta and winning the FA Cup. However, when you looked under the hood, their success at the end of the 2019-2020 season was basically due to a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang heater and Emiliano Martínez going 1986 Patrick Roy in goal… and then they promptly sold Martínez to Villa. There wasn’t a foundation under it.
So there was market correction last season. Aubameyang only scored 10 goals, and no one really made up the difference. But this time, things were probably better than they looked if you dug a little deeper.
From Boxing Day to the end of the season last year, Arsenal collected 47 points in 24 games, which is a 74-point pace over a full season. Last year, that would have been good enough to tie for second, and good enough for top four in just about any season. It was the second-most points collected from that point on in the season, behind Manchester City. And it wasn’t all that lucky. Their expected-goal difference over those 24 games was +10.9, which over the full 38 games would have been +17.2, good for fifth-best last year and right behind Manchester United at +18. Being Champions League worthy for only 63% of the season does not a Champions League club make, but it is something to build on. (All metrics from FBREF.com.)
Once again, Arsenal got some excellent goalkeeping, even though the urge is to make fun of them for selling off Martínez, who just happens to be one of the best keepers in the league. Bernd Leno saved four goals from what Arsenal should have given up in terms of the shots on target they surrendered, which is hardly out of character for him. Both Alex Lacazette and Nicolas Pépé chipped in a couple more goals than the chances suggest they should have, and this is what you get.
A tad worryingly, Arsenal haven’t added much. The big signing is Ben White from Brighton, and he’s a wonderful player who will improve their backline, and can moonlight as a holding midfielder if Arsenal need. White will greatly improve the Gunners’ distribution from the back, and severely lessens the threat of high comedy that David Luiz accompanied his passing with, and generally had everyone’s ass clenched to the point of strained muscles.
But further up the field, there’s been… not a lot. Only Albert Sambi Lokonga has been added in midfield or up top, and he’s more one for the future and a squad player this year. Martin Ødegaard, something of a revelation during his loan spell from Real Madrid in the second half of last year, has not been brought back, though rumors are that Arsenal are working on it.
Stil, with Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka, Arsenal have two of the more exciting young players in the league and will hope both are going to make “THE LEAP”™ this season. There will also be hope that Thomas Partey will play more than 24 matches, as when he was in the midfield it had more steel than anything Arsenal has been able to put out in years and provides a connection form Granit Xhaka to the attackers through his dribbling and eye for a line-splitting pass..
If Arsenal can bring back Ødegaard, or pilfer Leicester for Maddison as has also been rumored, then suddenly things look pretty tasty, with Partey and Xhaka behind in midfield. They’ll still be counting on two over-30 strikers in Aubameyang or Lacazette, and they don’t really play well together so it’s one or the other. Aubameyang might also rebound in a big way. All of his metrics fell off last season. Some of that could be because it was his age-31 season. Some of it was being shifted out to the left for a lot of the season. But this is a player who bagged over 20 goals in five straight seasons in two different leagues, so scoring 10 is just an outlier. If he gets back to near 20, then the world opens up for Arsenal.
The road is open. No other team in Arsenal’s strata have solid answers either. If any of the top four stumble, it could be their turn to pull a surprise.