Though Arsenal finished with five straight wins, an eighth-place finish for a second season in a row means they will miss out on European football for the first time since the mid-1990s. Before looking towards the Premier League season ahead, how would you summarise the previous campaign?
I think you can probably split last year into two parts. During the first part, by Christmas they were 16th in the table and had been outscored by every team except for Burnley, Sheffield United and West Brom. They were struggling to create chances and were in really poor form. The second part of the season was where things got a lot better; Emile Smith Rowe came into the side, the youngsters started getting more opportunities and they were near the top of the form table from Boxing Day onwards. I would say it was a difficult season to define as a whole, but the end was a lot more positive, even though the beginning meant that the results at the end were less impressive than they seem. There were positives to take, despite eighth-place not really being good enough for Arsenal, and, personally, I think Mikel Arteta is really onto something.
Plans were significantly disrupted when they had to pull out of the Florida Cup last month, due to a small Covid outbreak in the travelling party, but how has pre-season been otherwise?
A lot of Arsenal fans in America were very upset about the fact they couldn’t travel, but I think it was a blessing in disguise. I was always wary of them going on such a trip when it felt like no other teams were doing it. They went to Scotland and didn’t win a single game there, though there were some positive signs in terms of the way they played. They then had two behind-closed-doors against Millwall and Watford, both of which they won 4-1, and they looked pretty good. The game against Chelsea on 1 August was a little bit disappointing as there were individual mistakes that we saw a lot of last season and playing out from the back was a bit of a problem. We have seen some new tactics introduced, including a higher line, and Arsenal are pressing a lot higher than they used to. Last season, they were quite a passive side and, this season, Arteta seems to want them to be a lot higher up the pitch and trying to win the ball closer to the opposition goal.
At the time of speaking, the club have bolstered the squad with the signings of Nuno Tavares, Albert Sambi Lokonga and Ben White. What have you made of their business and do you expect further additions?
It has been good so far and the additions are in areas of the squad that needed addressing. Not having a back-up to Kieran Tierney really cost Arsenal when he was out injured for a long period of time last season, while Dani Ceballos has left the club and we are expecting several other midfielders to follow, so signing up Sambi Lokonga seems to be a really smart piece of business. The £50 million signing of White is the big one, though, and I think he’ll improve the defence to no end. There is still a lot more that they want to do, too. They were looking at a central midfielder, but now that Granit Xhaka looks likely to stay, that seems to have been put on hold. The primary target is a central attacking midfielder then they need a back-up for Bernd Leno in goal, so those are the two signings you can be sure they are going to make and then, if there is still time, a centre forward and a right-back.
Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on on Friday night?
That’s a good question. It is difficult to know who is going to start with pre-season and players arriving back late but I would say Nicolas Pepe. I think he has flattered to deceive in the past whereas this season I think he is really going to impress. He ended last season in good form and has carried that into pre-season.
How is Mikel Arteta likely to set up his side at the Brentford Community Stadium?
Formation-wise, it will be a 4-2-3-1 as that’s what we’ve seen pretty much right the way through pre-season. The back four will play quite a high line, press the ball up high and try to win the ball from the opposition. I know Brentford are a team that like to play nice football and so I think Arsenal will try and win the ball from them as high as possible. You can expect left-back Tierney to attack quite aggressively, while I think Calum Chambers will probably be at right-back, drifting into the midfield to form an infield three as a Pep Guardiola style inverted full-back. Smith Rowe will pick up the ball where he can and dart all over the place and something I’ve noticed throughout the past few weeks is how much the frontline interchange their positions. As I said, it is difficult to say for sure, but I think you can see quite an exciting, fluid line-up. That’s not to say there aren’t defensive weaknesses Brentford could take advantage of.
While Arsenal won a Carabao Cup meeting between the two sides in 2018, this is the first time they have faced off in the league since May 1947. What’s your score prediction?
My memory of 1947 isn’t what it used to be! When the fixture list came out, Arsenal fans were quite confident this would be the three points they get before some quite difficult games against Spurs, Chelsea and Man City, but I think Brentford are a really good side and it will be close, so I’ll go for a 2-1 win for Arsenal.