Arsenal have endured two fairly miserable domestic seasons under Mikel Arteta’s stewardship.
The Spaniard took over the managerial hot-seat at the Emirates Stadium in December 2019 but his side have struggled for consistency, finishing in eighth place in each of the last two campaigns.
However, the Gunners will be looking to avoid a repeat again this season, having spent around £76million on talented young trio Albert Sambi Lokonga, Ben White and Nuno Tavares, with the former two likely to start their Premier League opener on Friday.
Their opponents for the highly-anticipated curtain-raiser will be newly promoted Brentford, who won May’s Championship play-off final, defeating Swansea City 2-0 thanks to goals from Ivan Toney and Emiliano Marcondes.
Here football.london previews the match, detailing how the Bees are likely to set up and what Arsenal can do to win the game.
Thomas Frank is renowned for his tactical flexibility, with his Brentford side switching between a 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 system throughout the 2020/21 campaign. The Danish coach favours an attacking free-flowing approach, with the Bees scoring 79 goals in the league last term, the most of any Championship outfit.
However, their offensive strengths don’t make them a weak team at the other end of the pitch either, in fact, Brentford recorded the lowest xGA (expected goals against) of any team in the English second-tier, finishing the season with a tally of 42.26, meaning they would be expected to concede less than a goal per game.
Frank’s style is clearly highly influenced by German coach Ralf Rangnick, the same man that much of Jugen Klopp’s playstyle borrows from. Brentford utilise fast-paced, attack-minded football that integrates counter-pressing and fluid counter-attacks, extremely similar to how Klopp’s Liverpool played between 2016-2018.
The Bees are extremely efficient when it comes to creating opportunities for themselves as their positional play allows the players to be flexible with their positioning, often overloading in central midfield areas, dragging in opposition players before playing a through ball for Toney or Bryan Mbeumo to run onto.
By packing the midfield with players who are accomplished both offensively and defensively, Brentford create space out wide for their wing-backs to exploit, something that Arsenal will need to be wary of given their tendency to play a high defensive line.
The west London club also deploy a dangerous counter-press, one of the facets of their game that allows them to score plenty of goals as they aim to win the ball in dangerous areas. Tony and Mbeumo will likely target Bernd Leno’s on-the-ball inefficiencies, swarming him and cutting off passing lanes in an attempt to force him into making a mistake.
The Gunners will also have to be wary of the Bees’ set-piece threat given they notched an impressive 21 goals from dead-ball situations last term, with nine of those coming from the penalty spot. This will be a huge concern for the north Londoners as they have struggled to defend from set-pieces in pre-season, conceding three times across five games, a worrying record.
Like any team that deploys an intense pressing system, Brentford’s energetic style can often be their own downfall. By committing so many bodies forward to win the ball back for their team, they are regularly exposed in transition due to their high-defensive line, which has drawn some similarities to Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa.
This intensity can also see them looking heavy-legged towards the end of games, something that will most certainly be punished in the English top-flight when teams have a plethora of top-quality players to bring off the pitch and punish tired legs.
Furthermore, Frank is currently without one of his most talented midfielders in the form of Josh Dasilva, who is sidelined with a hip problem. Dasilva, who graduated from Arsenal’s esteemed Hale End academy before leaving for Brentford in 2018, possesses a notable ability to link the midfield to the forward line, meaning the Gunners will likely win the midfield battle, allowing them to focus on their opponent’s dangerous widemen.
Arteta had previously preferred to line up with a 3-4-3 system which helped the Gunners triumph over Chelsea and Manchester City on their way to winning the 2020 FA Cup, although in recent months he has abandoned this approach in favour of a 4-2-3-1 formation to try and combat his side’s lack of creativity in central areas.
Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka will likely drop deep in the build-up phase, forming a back three with centre-backs Pablo Mari and Ben White to give goalkeeper Leno another option when playing out from the back, something that the German often struggles with.
Xhaka’s deep-lying position in possession will also allow Scottish fullback Kieran Tierney to roam forward and double up with Bukayo Saka, who will likely give Brentford’s right-wing-back Sergi Canos a lot of problems given their exceptional link-up play and inch-perfect crossing ability.
Effectively, Arsenal will be deployed in a 3-2-5 formation when on the ball, similar to Arteta’s mentor Pep Guardiola, who ensured that no more than two players are aligned vertically in any phase of play so that you are not susceptible in transition. However, unlike Guardiola’s City side, the Gunners often struggle with the spacing of their defensive line, allowing opposition teams to counter-attack with ease given Xhaka and Mari’s lack of athleticism.
How should Arsenal line up?
What has been made clear over the last 12 months is that veteran forwards Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette do not play well together, with the former also clearly not his best when he is deployed as a left-winger. Therefore, the solution should be to just play one of them and in this case, it makes sense to start Aubameyang given he is a more prolific goalscorer than Lacazette.
In fact, the Gabonese frontman played 18 times through the middle last term, averaging 0.64xG (expected goals) per 90 minutes, scoring nine times in the process. Comparatively, he was utilised from the flank on 17 occasions, registering just 0.28xG per 90 minutes and scoring just five times, illustrating that he is much more dangerous when playing centrally.
Most of the rest of the team picks itself, with attacking trio Emile Smith Rowe, Nicolas Pepe and the aforementioned Saka possessing a solid balance between chance creation, direct dribbling and intelligent movement, with the 20-year-old Smith Rowe likely to pick up pockets of space between the lines to drag out Brentford’s centre-halves, in turn allowing Aubameyang more space to run into.
Xhaka will be handed a large portion of the ball progression responsibility in the middle of the park given Ghanian maestro Thomas Partey suffered a nasty ankle injury in the pre-season friendly against Chelsea. Arteta has often placed his trust in Mohamed Elneny in Partey’s absence but given the Egyptian’s inability to consistently delivering vertical passes the Spaniard should instead opt for new signing Lokonga in the starting XI.
Not only does the 21-year-old possess a superior passing skillset but his tendency to glide past players means that the Gunners will become more press resistant and will be able to progress the ball into the final third of the pitch more frequently.
The Belgian’s athletic prowess will also help Arsenal when Brentford counter-attack as no Championship team had more shots from fast breaks than the Bees did last term.
Arsenal will have to be alert when playing out from the back, with Brentford’s intense pressing likely to make it difficult for Arteta to implement his patient build-up play from goal kicks. However, the impressive ball-playing ability of White and Mari should make finding Lokonga and inverted fullback Calum Chambers between the lines more feasible.
If the north Londoners can beat their opponent’s press then they will have a good chance at scoring given Frank’s inability to defend against a fluid counter-attack. Saka and Smith Rowe should try and occupy positions in the pockets of space behind the Bees’ midfield three to help feed Aubameyang in central areas.
However, the game could hinge on the Gabonese forward’s position as playing him on the left flank could be costly for the Gunners. Brentford’s aggressive defensive line is more likely to cope with Lacazette’s playstyle of wanting the ball to feet, with Aubameyang’s ability to run in behind the high-line more likely to cause them problems.
Source by Football London