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Premier League restart preview No 1: Arsenal | Nick Ames | Football


What was the situation like when the league was suspended on 13 March? Had Mikel Mikel Arteta’s positive test for Covid-19 late on 12 March led a rapidly-unfolding series of events that brought the league to halt hours later. We will never know just how consequential that was to wider public health; for their part, Arsenal were already on red alert after several players had been forced to self-isolate, causing their match at Manchester City the previous day to be postponed. Casting this as the latest twist in a turbulent season seems slightly tawdry, but Arsenal were already at the point where one wondered what on earth could come next.

A campaign that began with Mesut Özil and Sead Kolasinac’s carjacking had continued with the messy demise of Unai Emery’s tenure and the extraordinary Granit Xhaka fallout. The appointment of Arteta struck a more positive note and results, if not always performances, improved markedly. Before the shutdown an eight-game unbeaten run in the league had sparked hope of a late salvage operation for the European spots. But the manner of their Europa League exit to a mediocre Olympiakos was a reminder that, in keeping with everything about their past 12 months, all bets are off regarding what happens next.

What about now? Arteta’s case of coronavirus was, thankfully, mild and he was soon back to work. In some ways the hiatus has been a blessing: Arsenal played 15 games in the two and a half months since his arrival and there had been scant time to communicate his ideas at length. Players were given instruction on footballing and cultural matters, individually and collectively, before training restarted and Arteta spoke of the need to “have a big reflection on all the departments we have across the club”. As long as Lucas Torreira and Kieran Tierney have an uneventful next 10 days, Calum Chambers should be the only long-term injury when football restarts. But uncertainty lingers. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bukayo Saka are yet to be tied to new contracts, while Arsenal will hope they will not need to request further financial sacrifices of their squad after a 12.5% pay cut was uneasily agreed by the majority.


What needs to be done to have a successful end to the season? There is no dancing around it: the stakes could be no higher for Arsenal in the next 10 games. If qualification for the Europa League, at the barest minimum, was imperative before the ravages of Covid-19 it is hard to overstate how problematic a failure would be now. A £230m wage bill is, with or without the agreed cuts, impossible to sustain if they fall short and there will be further issues if the 2020-21 season proceeds without crowds; matchday revenues were £96m during 2018-19. There is a reason for Arteta’s admission that there are “one, two, three different scenarios” for which he must plan ahead. So picking up where they left off is a must, and what a boost it would be if they can claim an early scalp at the Etihad. By March Arsenal were finding ways to win tight games and that knack simply must continue across the summer. The shape of their medium-term future depends on it.

Have players and staff behaved during lockdown? There have been some exasperating lapses. David Luiz, Nicolas Pépé, Granit Xhaka and Alexandre Lacazette were all censured for violating social distancing rules in April and Lacazette, whose long-term position looks distinctly uncertain, was spoken to by the club last month after appearing to be videoed inhaling nitrous oxide.

Any unsung/community heroes? Arsenal’s work in Islington continues to do them enormous credit. As soon as lockdown was imposed they made sizeable donations to local charities and offered a range of assistance to schools, youngsters and NHS staff. They have helped to deliver 15 tonnes of emergency coronavirus supplies, including 30,000 meals, throughout the borough.





Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back in training at the end of May.



Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back in training at the end of May. Photograph: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC/Getty Images

Key player in the run-in? There is no question. If Aubameyang is firing then Arsenal always have a chance. He has rediscovered the love under Arteta, who is cautiously optimistic about talking him into a new deal. A crucial late miss against Olympiakos cut deep but was mainly noticeable for its rarity.

End-of-season-prediction Sixth place and Europa League qualification, maybe with an FA Cup win thrown in. But will that be enough to head off the vultures circling around Aubameyang, Saka and more of their young stars?

Remaining fixtures (all times BST): Weds 17 June Manchester City (a) – 8.15pm, Sky Sports Sat 20 June Brighton (a) – 3pm, BT Sport Thu 25 June Southampton (a) – 6pm, Sky Sports Wed 1 July Norwich (h) – 6pm, BT Sport TBC Wolves (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Liverpool (h), Aston Villa (a), Watford (h)



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