FPL 2020/21 – Pre-season Club Previews – Arsenal & Aston Villa

“At the very end of last season, Aston Villa secured another season of Premier League football at Villa Park.” (CC by 3.0). Image by Radi1981.

After last season and what was very probably the most unusual Premier League campaign any of us ever witnessed, the new 2020/21 season is now upon us. FA Cup and Community Shield winners Arsenal inaugurate the season at the home of new boys and London rivals Fulham on Saturday, September 12th, at 12h30 (UK time). In the build-up to the season opener, we will be taking an in-depth look at each of the 20 squads competing in the Premier League with a special focus on their FPL potential to help you select your FPL team..

The EPL club previews could also be useful if you’re entering FanTeam’s massive €1 million prize fund Fantasy Premier League game for 20/21.

In this first instalment, we’re kicking off with Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal and an Aston Villa side that secured their Premier League status with a massive 1-1 draw against West Ham on the final day of last season.

ARSENAL – The team

Where last season was the first one under new manager Unai Emery after the departure of Arsenal legend Arsène Wenger, this season marks the start of the first full season under Emery’s replacement, Mikel Arteta. The Spanish ex-Gunner signed a contract for 3.5 years back in December 2019 and his influence on the squad has not gone unnoticed. Despite a disappointing finish in 8th place in the league, he did lead his men to a silverware brace, namely the FA Cup (after beating Chelsea 2-1 in the final) and the Community Shield just a few days ago (defeating Liverpool after penalties in the final). On top of the prestige and the undeniable confidence this has injected in Arteta’s starting Arsenal project, the FA Cup victory also means the Londoners are qualified for 2020-21 Europa League group stage.

Emery came to the North London with an idea and most certainly a reputation, and even though the Spaniard managed to produce his distinguished mark of free-flowing attacking football at times, too often he he looked incapable of galvanising an admittedly unbalanced Arsenal side. Though spirited at times, Emery’s team too often felt unstable or maybe too undisciplined over 90 minutes to bring home the (three ) points.

Things seem different under Arteta, especially in that sense. Yes, the manager was Guardiola’s assistant at City and yes, he likes to play attacking football, dominating the ball and entertaining the crowds. But first and foremost what he wants or better said, explicitly demands, is dedication. Dedication to the club, dedication to each other, and dedication to booking results. Several of the more criticised Arsenal stars, such as Mesut Özil and Matteo Guendouzi, were left in no doubt of what Arteta expects from them. Other individual cases with a potential negative effect on the team process and therefore the team performances, such as Granit Xhaka’s confrontation with the fans and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s seemingly endless contract extension doubts, were handled swiftly by the new management as well.

As far as tactics go, Arteta has shown to be flexible, both in terms of starting formation and who to fill that formation with. Last season, he often switched between 3-4-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, with player rotation a Fantasy risk at every turn. In terms of rotation, we’re expecting pretty much the same this season, but we feel the 4-3-3 set-up might become more frequent. The Spaniard has been part of the staff overseeing one of Europe’s best formations of this type over the past few seasons at Man City and much of the club’s transfer activity could well point at a preference for this approach.

The defence has been an ongoing issue for Arsenal over the past seasons and for a long time, the club’s management simply didn’t seem to realise this or to care. While the attacking reinforcements kept coming, high-quality defensive injections were very much not part of the game. Until this summer that is, because on top of the talented William Saliba returning from his loan period at Saint Etienne, the Gunners contracted Pablo Marí from Flamengo and the coveted Brazilian central defender Gabriel Magalhaes from French side Lille for a combined fee of €34 million. Besides that, reigning European champion right-back Cedric Soares came from Southampton as a free agent. Another big-name signing was Chelsea winger Willian, as a free agent as well, while Real Madrid’s Dani Ceballos is about to extend his loan deal by another year and Atletico Madrid’s midfield enforcer Thomas Partey has been linked to Arsenal for months. On the outgoing side, it looks as if the expensive likes of Özil, Torreira, Mustafi, Guendouzi, and even Bellerin, to name a few, could depart over the coming month.

Arsenal’s opening fixtures in Sep & Oct are against Fulham (A), West Ham (H), Liverpool (A), Sheffield United (H), Man City (A), Leicester (H) & Man Utd (A).

ARSENAL – The FPL potential

Just like last season, and probably until his very last days in the Premier League, star man Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang (£12.0m) is the go-to man when talking about Arsenal investments. The Gabonese attacker has never been more expensive as an FPL asset, but what’s even more fascinating is that he is now listed as a midfielder this season. That’s right, the Premier League’s runner-up top scorer of last season (22 goals) and one of the best forwards in European football is classified as a premium midfielder this year. Not only did Auba score more than 20 goals in two consecutive seasons as a Gunner, he is also one of only four other players in the whole of Europe’s top leagues to net more than 20 times in his last five seasons. The other three? Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski. Is it too early, too risky, and too trustworthy of Mikel Arteta to call “set-and-forget”?

Usually, we’re not that quick to highlight newcomers during the pre-season club previews, but Willian (£8.0m) is really only a newcomer in North London. In the Premier League, he definitely isn’t. In 234 PL games for Chelsea rivals, spread over seven seasons, the Brazilian scored 37 goals and provided 39 assists. Last season, he got 168 FPL points, courtesy of 9 goals and 9 assists. The 32-year old winger signed a major 3-year contract allegedly worth £21.5 million and was a target of Arteta’s for months before the transfer was confirmed. The competition for a starting spot is fierce and as we wrote earlier, we expect plenty of rotation at Arsenal this season, but Willian should at least be on your watchlist.

Bukayo Saka (£5.5m) is one of Arsenal’s most talented and most promising young players, and he is still a bargain this season. One of Mikel Arteta’s quickest and possibly most meaningful actions as a new manager was getting the young Englishman to sign a new contract in July. The versatile midfielder/full-back/winger is now tied to the Londoners until 2024 and much is expected of the youngster. As for most players on the Arsenal roster, rotation will definitely be a worry for him from a Fantasy point of view, but his low price does qualify him as a budget enabler. On top of that, he had this status last season as well and still reached 71 FPL points (1 goal, 6 assists). We expect a bigger role for him on the pitch this season, so we recommend keeping an eye on him particularly after his quality performance in the Community Shield.

ASTON VILLA – The team

Despite being one of the new faces in the Premier League last season, expectations surrounding Aston Villa were relatively high. One of the reasons for that optimism was the club’s activity on the transfer market in the build-up to the seasons. The Villans spent a whopping €159.1 million on reinforcements, with the likes of Club Brugge striker Wesley, Bournemouth central defender Tyrone Mings and Manchester City midfielder Douglas Luiz joining the club in the first season back amongst the footballing elite since 2016. The Premier League is no simple sum of expenditures though, and in the end, it all came down to the final match day for Villa.

By gameweek 38, the Villans were still not sure of whether they would be maintaining their Premier League status for at least one more season. A surprise victory against a resurgent Arsenal side, courtesy of a fantastic Trézéguet strike, on the penultimate day put Villa in 17th place with an away game at West Ham still to go. At the same time, Watford were level in points and faced Man City, which meant that a draw against the Hammers would probably be enough to avoid relegation, assuming the Hornets would not manufacture a major upset against the Cityzens. They didn’t and absolute Villa talisman Jack Grealish scored at the London Stadium, helping his team to an extreme last-minute escape.

For a long time, Villa looked like one of the surest relegation candidates and that was mainly due to their sub-par defending. With a worrying 67 conceded goals from 38 games, only the Norwich defence fared worse in the Premier League last season. Offensively, things looked a bit better for trainer Dean Smith’s men, as they scored 41 goals over the season, leaving seven other teams below them. When taking a closer look at those attacking stats though, another worry arises: Grealish was directly involved in more than 36% of all of Villa’s goals (8 goals, 7 assists). For a squad in which so much money was invested at the start of the season and that avoided relegation by a thread, that is simply too much to rely on one person who also topped the Premeir League’s most fouled player stats.

Last season, Smith showed a strong preference for a rather attacking 4-1-4-1 (or 4-5-1) with Douglas Luiz as vacuum cleaner with passing range in front of the defence. John McGinn slots in beside him, but the Scot is generally more involved higher up. Like we said earlier and, as the team stats show, Jack Grealish is the beating heart of this Villa team and retaining him at Villa Park will be priority number one this summer. Most of Villa’s attacking moves flow through him at some point or another. The return from injury of goalkeeper Tom Heaton will be a huge boost for the team, while the central duo Konsa-Mings showed promise last season, despite the many conceded goals.

Smith has announced a more pragmatic game approach coming season, but that doesn’t mean the club isn’t planning to spend big again this summer to avoid another last-ditch escape from relegation. A proven top-level striker will be on the wish list, while a dangerous and more importantly consistent winger would be welcome as well. The likes of Trézéguet and El Ghazi performed great at times, but not often enough for Villa to leave the relegation worries behind them. On top of that, a new experienced full-back could come in as well. At the time of writing, no new names have been announced yet, but expect fireworks at Villa Park over the coming weeks with potentially striker Callum Wilson and defender Matty Cash joining.

Do be aware that Villa have a BLANK gameweek in Gameweek 1 and don’t start their EPL campaign until Sunday 20th September (at home to Sheffield United) with the remaining fixtures in Sep and Oct against Fulham (A), Liverpool (H), Leicester (A), Leeds (H) & Southampton (H).

ASTON VILLA – The FPL potential

Jack Grealish (£7.0m) is hands down the most appealing and most proven FPL asset on the Aston Villa roster. As we wrote earlier, the 24-year old is the key man and the one all eyes turn to when attacking and when things get tough on the pitch. Not only did he score 8 goals and provide 7 assists last season (149 FPL points), he also won more fouls in a single season (167) than any other player in Premier League history. He was obviously chosen as Villa’s Player of the Season 2019-20, and he was recently called up for England’s Nations League games against Iceland and Denmark as well. We honestly expected him to be priced a bit higher for the coming season, maybe at £7.5m or even £8.0m considering Villa should do better this season than last, so at £7.0m we consider Grealish a name that should be on every FPL manager’s watchlist.

Between December 2019 and March 2020, midfielder John McGinn (£5.5m) missed no less than 91 days of football due to a serious ankle injury. In terms of creative impulses from the midfield, the Scot is Grealish’s main support and his absence was felt by the Villans. Despite his injury, and partly thanks to the unexpected coronabreak last season, McGinn still managed to get 28 Premier League games under his belt in which he scored 3 goals and provided 3 assists (84 FPL points). At his current price tag, he could be a good budget enabler, for example as a fourth or even fifth midfielder in your squad. There are a few cheaper options available, but practically none of them carry the assured starts and playing minutes on a weekly basis.

We will have to see to what extent Dean Smith will manage to improve Villa’s defensive set-up, but should he be able to do so, then left-back Matt Targett (£4.5m) could be an interesting pick. The young Englishman was bought for €15.5 million from Southampton in the summer of July 2019 and is expected to retain his starting berth coming season. He featured in 28 Premier League games during the 2019-20 campaign and was part of 5 clean sheets. On top of that, he recorded 1 goal and 3 assists for a total of 80 FPL points. Realistically speaking, Targett will probably not feature in many FPL teams in gameweek 1, especially considering his blank gameweek in GW1, but between gameweeks 9 and 15 he could well be worth a punt as your fourth or even fifth defender. Due to the 20/21 fixtures if you think playing at Home will be an advantage, consider rotating Targett with a Crystal Palace defender. Last season Aston Villa and Crystal Palace combined for 13 clean sheets at home but managed only four away.