Arsenal sit sixth in the Premier League table going into Saturday’s game, two points behind fourth-placed West Ham and with up to three games in hand over their nearest rivals. What have you made of what you have seen so far this season?
We all know about the start of the season! We all know about that game against Brentford and the games that followed and that was about as bad as it could get in terms of starts in a Premier League season. There were extenuating circumstances, though; they didn’t have the full squad they have now, they had lots of injuries and were quite badly hit by Covid. The six new signings have all been fantastic, with the likes of Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Martin Odegaard being really impressive and Albert Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares have done really well, too. This Arsenal team is on the right path. I think getting into the top four is going to be difficult because so many teams are pushing for that one spot, but if you had asked me at the start of the season if they had a realistic chance of getting there, I probably would have said no, which is a sign that they are slightly overachieving expectations. They have surprised us with how consistent they have been.
For the first time in a few years it seems as though Mikel Arteta’s side are genuine top four contenders once more. How much of a contributing factor has the lack of European football for the first time since 1995/96 season been?
It is difficult to say. Most Premier League teams have suffered with fatigue; over Christmas, a lot of teams – Brentford included - were hit quite badly by Covid and AFCON was a big factor, too, as Arsenal lost four players from their squad. I’m not sure how much of an advantage it has been, but, going into the back end of the season, we are going to see the table take shape, especially as, in February, for example, Arsenal have three games, compared to Spurs, who have six. Arsenal do have a smaller squad after selling a lot of players in January, but I still think that, going forward, we are going to see the real effects of the lack of European football and a lack of cup football as well. They are very clear in what their objective is and can now devote their focus to reaching the top four, which means that every Premier League game they play is, essentially, a cup final. You saw the celebrations after the Wolves game, for which they got a lot of criticism, but I think that is because they realise how big each win is going to be from now until the end of the season.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang left under a cloud and joined Barcelona on Deadline Day, bringing an end to his four-year spell in north London. He had been a key player in seasons gone by but how important was it to draw a line under his rift with Arteta and move him on, for both parties’ sake?
I think Arsenal wanted to avoid another Mesut Ozil situation. Last season, we saw Arsenal really struggling to create in the first half of the season and he was not even in the squad, so every press conference Mikel Arteta was asked why he was not playing him. It would have been exactly the same with Aubameyang every time Arsenal struggled to score – and rightly so. I think that move needed to happen as I don’t think it would have been good for the player or the club for him to train away from the rest of the team. It is a sad state of affairs because he had been a fantastic servant to the club and was a really good player on his day, but he has not really been scoring for the past year or so and part of me has a theory that maybe Arteta saw the way Aubameyang’s career trajectory was heading and thought it was the best time to move him on. Barcelona came in and were willing to take him on full-time and I think that is as good a deal as Arsenal could have got, considering the circumstances.
Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on this Saturday?
Last time I said Nicolas Pepe and that did not work out well! My pick would have been Gabriel Martinelli, but he is suspended, so I’ll say Bukayo Saka (pictured above) is the one to keep an eye on. He had a bit of a slow start to the season after the Euros, but has really found his groove recently and has been Arsenal’s most consistent attacking threat on the right wing.
How is Arteta likely to set up his side at the Emirates?
I think it will be a 4-2-3-1 again, which it has been for most of the season, except for when they go down to 10, which is relatively frequently these days! The big question is whether right-back Tomiyasu will be fit enough to play and, if he is not, Cedric will play there, which could potentially be to Brentford’s advantage, though he had quite a good game against Wolves. It will then be the usual defenders: White, Gabriel, Kieran Tierney, a midfield of Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey and then Saka on the right, Emile Smith Rowe on the left and Alexandre Lacazette up top.
Brentford, famously, won 2-0 in the reverse fixture on the opening night of the season back in August? What’s your score prediction this time around?
I’m hoping it will be a bit better than that one, from an Arsenal perspective! The two teams are in different places now, so I would be a fool not to back Arsenal to win a home game against a team who are not in the best of form, particularly given their own form. I’m going to have to say 2-0 to Arsenal, but I do think Brentford will give them a tough game and it won’t be as easy as a 2-0 scoreline suggests.