Arsenal: Young Gunners outperforming old heads
The 2021-22 season has been a streaky campaign for Arsenal, who lost their first three Premier League matches by an aggregate score of 9-0 before embarking on a ten-game unbeaten run in all competitions.
That sequence ended on November 20 when the Gunners were thumped 4-0 by Liverpool at Anfield and disappointing December defeats at Manchester United (3-2) and Everton (2-1) have increased the pressure on manager Mikel Arteta.
However, Arsenal are only four points off the top four in the Premier League with summer signings still bedding in and some hugely talented youngsters at Arteta's disposal. The north Londoners are 14/1 to finish in the top four although they face stiff competition from the likes of 1000/1 Manchester United, 1000/1 West Ham and 1/25 Tottenham.
Gunners aiming to lay long-term foundations
One of Arsene Wenger's famous sayings was: "At Arsenal, we don't buy superstars, we make them" and that approach was reflected by the club's summer transfer activity.
Brighton centre-back Ben White was the headline act, arriving for a fee of around £50 million, and Sheffield United goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale joined as competition for Bernd Leno.
Full-backs Takehiro Tomiyasu (Bologna) and Nuno Tavares (Benfica) were less familiar names for the majority of Gunners supporters and Belgian midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga signed from Anderlecht, where he had earned rave reviews from manager Vincent Kompany.
Norway playmaker Martin Odegaard, who spent the second half of last season on loan at the Gunners from Real Madrid, made his move permanent late in the transfer window and, significantly, all six of Arsenal's summer signings were aged 23 or younger.
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Changing of the guard in defence
The Gunners had a disjointed start to the 2021-22 season, losing 2-0 at promoted Brentford, where an attacking injury crisis meant rookie striker Folarin Balogun led the line on his first Premier League start.
A 2-0 home defeat to Chelsea followed before a 5-0 loss at Manchester City, where Granit Xhaka was sent off in the first half and the Gunners started with Leno in goal and a back five of Cedric Soares, Calum Chambers, Rob Holding, Pablo Mari and Kieran Tierney.
Of those six players, only Scotland left-back Tierney is in Arteta's first-choice defensive unit as the impressive Ramsdale has displaced Leno as number-one keeper, Tomiyasu is the preferred right-back, and White has formed an eye-catching centre-back partnership with Brazilian stopper Gabriel.
The nine goals conceded in recent defeats to Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton suggest there is room for improvement but Arteta's men had the third-best defensive record in the Premier League last season.
The Gunners are yet to concede a goal in the EFL Cup, beating West Brom 6-0, AFC Wimbledon 3-0 and Leeds 2-0 and they are 11/10 to win to nil against quarter-final opponents Sunderland on 21st December. Arsenal are 10/3 to lift the League Cup, with Chelsea 6/5 and Liverpool 4/6.
Senior forwards struggling for consistency
Arteta seems to have a clear vision for his back five but Arsenal are a little more unsettled in midfield and attack.
Thomas Partey declared recently that he is still adapting to life in England after arriving from Atletico Madrid in October 2020 and Xhaka, so impressive for Switzerland at Euro 2020, has had a frustrating start to the domestic season with injuries and suspensions.
Young England internationals Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, along with exciting Brazilian forward Gabriel Martinelli, are terrific talents but some of the club's more established stars have struggled to make an impact this season.
Club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was left out of the starting 11 at Goodison Park and is 12121/1 to win the Premier League Golden Boot after scoring only four times in 14 league appearances.
All four of those goals came at home and the Gabon star will be hoping for another opportunity at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, when the Gunners are 3/4 to beat 7/2 visitors Southampton. Aubameyang is 7/2 to score first and 20/21 to find the net at any time against the Saints.
French forward Alexandre Lacazette has been in and out of the team, with five starts and five substitute appearances in the league this term, and record signing Nicolas Pepe has been linked with a January move away from the club.
The Ivorian winger scored five times in his last three league games of 2020-21 but his only goal of the current campaign came against Championship side West Brom in the EFL Cup.
December fixtures could bring Arteta festive cheer
For the first time in 25 years, Arsenal are not involved in European competitions but they remain an inconsistent outfit despite being able to focus on domestic matters.
Their recruitment policy means they have assembled a strong, classy core of young players but their development will require patience and there have been question marks over Arteta's long-term prospects ever since he was appointed in December 2019.
The Spaniard's immediate objective is to stop the rot after a run of three league defeats in four and, on paper, the Gunners have a decent set of fixtures leading into the new year: Southampton and West Ham at home, Leeds and Norwich away, and Wolves at the Emirates on 28th December.
In January they travel to Championship side Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup, a competition that Arteta won in his first season.
The Gunners are 12/1 to lift the trophy again and, for now, cup success and a serious tilt at the top four would represent a successful campaign.
A promising crop of young players offers hope for the future but Arteta's main challenge is to rejuvenate some of his underperforming senior players.
Last season Arsenal took 47 points from 24 games after Christmas (the third-best record in the Premier League) and they will be hoping for a similar hot streak this time around after a patchy start to the campaign.
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