How will Mikel Arteta deploy the Gunners against Brentford amidst player absences?
Arsenal is set to kick off their 2021-22 Premier League campaign against Thomas Frank’s newly-promoted Brentford and the Brentford Community Stadium on Friday evening.
The Bee’s will feature in the Premier League for the first time since the league’s initial season in 1992-93, having not competed at the top level of English football since 1938-39. Frank’s outfit could well fancy their chances against Mikel Arteta’s Gunners as well, with the Basque-born headmaster and former Arsenal midfielder tasked with fielding an XI that six first-team players are sure to miss out on.
Questions in defense
Summer signing Ben White is likely to make his debut for Arsenal, but with Brazilian center-back Gabriel unavailable through injury after international duty at the Olympics with Brazil, Pablo Mari should remain as the left-sided option in the central pair. With Rob Holding listed as doubtful, the selection should be self-explanatory.
Kieran Tierney will undoubtedly start at left-back, but the bigger question comes in the vein of whether or not Arteta will call upon Arsenal veteran Héctor Bellerín, or if Calum Chambers could once again be drafted into the role after solid performances at right-back where he started eight of Arsenal’s final eleven league fixtures last season. The fact that Bellerín has been linked with a move away this summer only solidifies the chances that Chambers could be deployed from the outset of hostilities.
New Arsenal youngster has the perfect chance to impress
It may be early doors, but summer signing Sambi Lokonga has already captured the hearts and minds of many in the Arsenal fanbase after his pre-season displays have most realizing what a gem the Gunners have on their hands after his move from boyhood club RSC Anderlecht.
And the timing could not have worked out more perfectly for the Brussels-native and U21 international, with Thomas Partey picking up an injury in Arsenal’s 2-1 pre-season loss to Chelsea that will see him sidelined until mid-September.
Lokonga’s elegance on the ball, mobility in the center of the park, and ability to bypass the press with well-placed direct balls through the lines or over the top present a player at both ends that is ideally suited to replace Partey. Arteta has turned to Egyptian international Mohamed Elneny in the past, but the reduction in mobility – especially against a competitive outfit like Brentford – could potentially be costly through no fault of his own.
Should Lokonga be called upon and shows the requisite contributions, the gifted young Belgian could be given his first tough tasks as Arsenal has upcoming early dates with both Manchester City and Chelsea.
Front-four selection key to Arsenal’s chances in season opener
The ever-lasting question regarding Arsenal’s most effective front-four continues to the frustration of many. What can be ruled out is the selection of either Eddie Nketiah (injury) or Gabriel Martinelli (extended summer with Brazil on Olympic duty), thus the age-old question of whether Alexandre Lacazette or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is to be trusted to lead the line.
Little scope exists to make the surprise decision to start Folarin Balogun despite him being in the first-team set-up, considering the young center-forward has yet to register a single minute of Premier League action to date, and with one of Lacazette or Aubaeyang guaranteed to be selected, one has to wonder if Arteta will call on both senior forwards to be included which would force Aubameyang to feature out on the left.
Such a decision would, unfortunately, impact one of Bukayo Saka or Nicolas Pépé, with the wide pair looking to continue their on-pitch relationship with Arsenal’s new number ten Emile Smith Rowe. The attacking trio looked the part when all three featured in the starting XI last season, and that trend continued during pre-season preparations, though there is no telling if Saka will end up being risked.
But on a tactical level, should Saka be included, it would certainly afford a better attacking balance behind the center-forward, and given the Gunners approach when in possession combined with Brentford’s high level of organization under Frank, Lacazette could be given the go-ahead at Aubameyang’s expense. No one would be surprised if the opposite happened, however, with rumors that Lacazette has been offered as a makeweight in multiple potential summer deals.
Predicted starting XI
Bias aside, Arsenal needs to go into the 2021-22 Premier League campaign with the intent to rely on tactical balance and the ability to source and finish goals from multiple areas of the starting XI. With that in mind, here is how the Gunners could square-off against Brentford on Friday evening;
Leno; Tierney, Mari, White, Chambers; Xhaka, Lokonga; Aubameyang, Smith Rowe, Pépé; Lacazette