In anticipation of the 2019/2020 Premier League season’s kick-off between Liverpool and New boys Norwich, at 20h00 on August 9th at Anfield, we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at the 20 squads that’ll be competing this year. In this first instalment, we’ll get the ball rolling with an Arsenal who have failed to qualify for the Champions League for the third consecutive season and newly-promoted Aston Villa.
Arsenal – The team
Last season around this time, when we took a look at the expectations regarding Arsenal for the 2018/19 campaign, much of our analysis was surrounded by uncertainty as it was the club’s first season under Unai Emery, after a Wenger era that spanned 22 years. After a first year of relatively few expectations and plenty of time to adapt to the new manager’s ideas, the pressure will really be on Emery and his men to deliver this season. Another prize-less season in which a top-four finish in the league seems more than anything like a distant dream for most of the campaign won’t be accepted as easily this year.
Emery has a clear idea about football, which is what the Arsenal board was after when looking for Wenger’s replacement. He likes possession-based strategies, disciplined attacking wing-backs, and a double pivot on the midfield. He also likes a high-energy press and a relatively high line when defending. What he doesn’t like though, is a fixed formation, which has turned the Spanish manager into a Guardiola-esque nightmare for FPL managers. Just ask those who triple-captained Aubameyang in last season’s gameweek 27. The Gunners boss is flexible when it comes to formations, as he often switches between different systems, and in terms of filling in the positions on the pitch, but the basic principles always remain the same.
Despite the increased involvement of the wing-backs offensively, this pre-season’s number one issue to resolve for the Gunners will be their defensive solidity. Under Wenger, Arsenal were just as often lauded for their fluid attacking displays as they were criticised for their sub-par defensive performances, and the back line still seems to be the team’s Achilles heel. Arsenal finished fifth in the Premier League last season, but their stats for Expected Goals Against (xGA) place them in tenth place overall for that metric. That can be interpreted in a few different ways, but it’s safe to say that it looks like the Gunners finished in fifth place more despite their defence than thanks to their defence.
The role of the wing-backs, of course, has an impact here. Teams that employ their defensive wings high up the pitch will inevitably get caught on the break every now and then, especially against better opposition. The problem here is that Arsenal lack quality in the centre of the back line, especially when it comes to leading that line while covering large spaces in its back. With Koscielny getting older and seemingly on his way out, and neither Mustafi nor Sokratis looking like they can fill that particular gap so far, Arsenal are running the risk of another leaky season. The academy graduate Rob Holding could be an option, but he’s currently recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury, so it’ll be interesting to see what the Gunners will do before the transfer window closes on August 8th.
So far, the North London club has had a quiet summer as far as transfers go. They have lost a few senior dressing room members in reserve goalie David Ospina (to Napoli), out-of-contract Aaron Ramsey (to Juventusu), goalkeeper Petr Cech (retired), right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner, and forward Danny Welbeck (both end of contract), and they have so far compensated these considerable losses with just the acquisition of young Ituano striker Gabriel Martinelli and the return (from loan to Hoffenheim) of winger Reiss Nelson. Arsenal have some world class talent in their ranks already with the likes of Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Torreira just to name a few, but they will need to strengthen, especially in the back, if they want any hope of a stable season and a top-four finish. We can’t imagine this summer’s transfer balance will remain as it currently stands, with Gunners interest in players like Tierney and Zaha popping up in the news daily, so keep an eye out for Arsenal news.
Arsenal – Potential FPL stars
First on this list is striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (£11.0m), who is the star of this team and the man on whom the hopes of many a Gunner are pinned. There’s a lot of talk about Liverpool’s Salah and Mané, and the fact that they both ended last season with 22 goals, but we sometimes forget that PEA was up there with them as well. The Gabonese forward scored 22 goals (4 of which were penalties) and provided 7 assists, which led him to a points total of 205. Arsenal’s opening schedule is far from easy and Emery will surely be rotating like he did last season, but PEA’s price tag is relatively acceptable and he’s probably the Gunners asset most worth looking at.
Second on this list is Aubemeyang’s preferred partner in crime Alexandre Lacazette (£9.5m), who, despite his 13 goals and 12 assists last season, has not changed in price. An area of particular concern for Laca last season was that he was so often subbed off by Emery, a few times even before reaching the sixty-minute mark. This frustrated FPL managers all over and probably explains why his ownership remained relatively low. Still, 166 points from 2497 minutes of Premier League football is pretty decent. While Emery will surely keep rotating between the league and all the different cup tournaments Arsenal compete in, Lacazette has looked like the preferred option for the number nine position during pre-season.
Seeing as we’re avoiding the Arsenal defence for now, we are left with three to four positions in the midfield and forward areas that can be filled by a range of talented players. With the double pivot being of lesser interest to most FPL managers, we’re keeping an eye on Henrik Mkhitaryan (£7.0m) in the build-up to the opener away to Newcastle on August 11th. Like the majority of the team, the Armenian midfielder is not nailed on, but he’s getting plenty of minutes during the pre-season. Despite playing just 1637 minutes last season, Miki still scored 6 goals and provided 4 assists, totalling 98 FPL points. Look out for indications of a starting place in the first eleven for him, because in that case, he could be a complete bargain at his current price
Aston Villa – The team
Aston Villa are the first of the three promoted teams to be covered in this Club Preview series. It’s always a bit of a guessing game when it comes to predicting starting line-ups for gameweek 1 of a new season, and for newly-promoted teams even more so. The Villans finished fifth in the EFL Championship last season and were promoted to the elite after beating Frank Lampard’s Derby County 2-1 in the final of the play-offs, courtesy of goals by John Mcginn and new signing Anwar El Ghazi.
Last season, Villa manager Dean Smith mostly played in a 4-1-4-1 formation, at times switching to a 4-3-3, like in the play-off final. This tactic was usually employed when Villa needed a more direct style of play, instead of the more possession-based approach that Smith usually prefers. They generally try to play out from the back, which is illustrated by just 12% of their passes being long balls on average per game. When the ball is lost, Villa likes to exert immediate pressure in order to win the ball back as quickly as possible. If this tactic doesn’t bring success in the first seconds though, they quickly drop back into a solid 4-5-1 formation. From there, they like to launch counters, though often the ball is played backwards if no immediate option presents itself, so possession is maintained.
This year though, it’s the big-time. Despite the Championship probably being one of the toughest leagues in European football, the Premier League is still something else and Smith will be looking to simultaneously strengthen his roster and tweak his tactics in preparation of what will likely be a season-long fight for survival. Villa’s football is modern, but not over-complicated, in the sense that they try to create goals from open play through a highly-rated passing game, but they will launch the counter-attacks when they can. With players like Hourihane and Grealish in the middle, they possess the players to do so. Especially in the front line, a lot of positional changes take place, which fits players like Ajax-educated El Ghazi, new boy Jota (not the Wolves man) and, again, Grealish, and the play can move very fast at times. It’s hard to say how Smith will have his men turn up against Spurs on August 10th, but based on the pre-season so far, we expect Villa to play a bit more direct this season, with a bit less emphasis on ball possession, especially against the stronger teams in the league.
From a defensive point of view, Aston Villa will be aware that the high press they played so often last season would more or less equal suicide in the Premier League, where the attackers are more lethal. This stands in direct relation to the previously discussed attacking set-up, as the Villans are likely to employ a tactic that is more based on counters. They will need to create a defensive foundation first and for that, they will likely remain deeper and start to press only once the opposition crosses into their half.
Villa have, so far, been one of the more active clubs during the transfer window and some of their acquisitions reveal a bit about the kind of game they will be playing the coming season. They spent a combined €38.50 million on attackers El Ghazi (Lille), Wesley (Club Brugge) and Jota (Birmingham), all three of them being versatile, quick attackers who can both create and finish. In combination with Ivory coast striker Kodija, these transfers allow Smith to play a counter-attacking strategy without losing quick positional changes and the ability to hold the ball up front. As far as the defence goes, just over €51 million was spent on bringing in Mings (Bournemouth) after his loan period at the club, Targett (Southhampton) and Konsa (Brentford). The signing of Targett, in particular, reveals something about the role wing-backs will have coming season, namely that there will be space to gallop when the opposition allows it.
As for every newly-promoted team, the first Premier League season is a battle for survival. It’s going to be a long season for the Villans, but if they can put a lock on the backdoor and the new guys up front start connecting with each other and the rest of the team, we might see them back next season.
Aston Villa – Potential FPL stars
We’re starting this part off with the man who is touted as Villa’s hope on a surprisingly comfortable return to the Premier League, Jack Grealish (£6.0m). The still just 23-year old attacking midfielder is considered the star man at Villa Park, which makes him the most prized asset among the Villa ranks, something that’s underlined by the £60 million escape clause in his current contract. He scored 6 goals and provided 8 assists in 34 games in the Championship last season, and he’ll be part of the foundation for the coming season. Villa starts away to Spurs on August 10th, but their schedule after that is relatively forgiving, with home games against Bournemouth, West Ham, Burnley and Brighton, and away games versus Palace and Norwich amongst the fixtures before their away clash with City in gameweek 10. Picking assets from newly-promoted teams is always risky, but Grealish could become a popular early-season pick.
Our next two picks are potentially even riskier, because they are not just part of a newly-promoted team, they are new boys in their teams and the competition. The first is striker Wesley (£6.0m), who was brought in from Belgian club Club Brugge for a club record fee of about £22 million. His is the task of filling the considerable gap left behind by Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham, who scored a whopping 26 goals last season in the Championship. The powerful Brazilian forward had a decent season as well though, as he scored 10 goals and provided 9 assists in 28 games in the Belgian league. He’s the kind of striker that manager Dean Smith likes, one who can finish an attack but who can also create space and opportunities for his team mates. If he ends up linking up well with the rest of the attack, his price tag and seemingly guaranteed starting spot make him worth considering, for example, as your third striker.
Our final recommendation from the Aston Villa roster is ex-Ajax winger and Dutch national team player Anwar el Ghazi (£5.5m). The Dutch-Moroccan forward already spent a season on loan under the orders of Dean Smith, and with good results: 34 games played, (including three play-off games), 6 goals scored (including the opener in the play-off final), and 6 assists provided. As soon as promotion to the Premier League had been achieved, the Villans converted El Ghazi into a permanent part of the roster for about €9 million. The pacy winger looks like he will be benefiting from Villa’s more direct approach this season, as the deeper midfielders will be looking for chances to release the likes of El Ghazi, Jota and Wesley up front. For £5.5m, with a good opening ten gameweeks and a decent chance of being in the starting eleven, the winger (who is classified as a midfielder in the official game) could be an interesting enabler in many squads.
Don’t forget to keep up to date with all the latest news on FISO’s FPL forum.