After three months away, the Premier League is finally back for another season.
To say a lot has gone on since our last top flight game at Fulham in May is an understatement.
In that time we’ve swapped Rafa for Bruce, Rondon for Joelinton, Perez for Saint-Maximin, Joselu for Carroll, Barecca for Willems, released Diame and signed a new right-back in Emil Krafth.
There’s been some low points this summer – Rafa’s exit, the lack of communication, fruitless takeover talk, the initial lack of transfer activity and the loss of our two top scorers, however a late flurry of signings has at least given us an injection of short-term hope ahead of the new campaign.
That said, boycott plans are still in place (see here) and several tickets have been left unsold – and rightly so. Supporting Bruce and our team is one thing, but Mike Ashley can’t make a series of unforgivable mistakes and expect things to suddenly be hunky dory after essentially using some last ditch sticky plasters and PR stunts to paper over the cracks he’s created at this club.
It’ll be nice to see Premier League football return to St James’ Park tomorrow, but the NUFC owner still has a lot to answer for after what has been a reckless and risk-taking summer in the main.
Arsenal arrive on Sunday – a club buoyed by what they believe to have been a very productive summer window – while Steve Bruce will be in the home dugout for his first competitive game as the club’s head coach.
It will be interesting to see what the atmosphere is like, how Bruce is received and how the team get on from a tactical perspective against a top 6 side.
As for the new boys, I am excited by the prospect of Allan Saint-Maximin – a real maverick with pace to burn, incredible dribbling and explosive talent – and have been VERY impressed by what I’ve seen by Joelinton; a striker who looks to have several strings to his bow when you consider his size, his mobility, his bright movement and impressive work ethic.
Bruce has gone with a 3-5-2 system over pre-season and has hinted that this will be the formation used initially at least.
It makes use of our solid centre-back options, allows two wing-backs to give us width, makes the most of talented midfield trio in Longstaff, Shelvey and Hayden and gives the central striker support up top, with Almiron already linking up nicely with Joelinton in our final few pre-season friendlies.
That said, the current system – a 3-5-2 – does not seem to accommodate Almiron, Joelinton AND Saint-Maximin, so it would not surprise me if we opted for the 3-4-3 system that worked so well for Rafa not long ago.
In midfield we look well set, with Hayden and Longstaff playing box to box roles either side of deep-lying playmaker Shelvey in our final pre-season friendly match, however I would be tempted to bench Jonjo and switch to a 3-4-3 – something that would allow Saint-Maximin to start.
In defence, Ritchie seems to have made a miraculous recovery after limping off at Hibs so should start down our left. Willems is a capable option but he may have to be eased in – especially for this one if Arsenal’s new £70m man Nicolas Pepe is playing!
Manquillo has impressed over pre-season so should get the nod at right wing-back while we wait for Krafth to settle in, while Lascelles and Schar look nailed on for 2 of the 3 centre-back slots. The final centre-back spot will be taken by Fernandez or Dummett. The former actually started in our final summer friendly vs St-Etienne, but the latter seems far more suited to that left-sided centre-back slot, with that extra mobility and turn of pace needed against what could be an electric Arsenal attack.
Preferred NUFC XI – (3-4-3) – Dubravka – Schar, Lascelles Dummett – Hayden, Longstaff – Saint-Maximin, Joelinton, Almiron.
Here’s a few ‘ones to watch’ in Unai Emery’s Gunners side:
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: The Gabonese international – once linked with a move to Tyneside during his St-Etienne days – is absolutely deadly. Not only is he lightning quick with intelligent movement, he’ll gobble up any half chance that comes his way – and that’s forgetting fellow emphatic finisher Alexander Lacazette (who may or may not be fit for this one).
Nicolas Pepe: It sounds like he’s touch and go for this one, but it’s hard to ignore their new £70m man who bagged 23 goals and 12 assists last season. He’s big, a direct and devastating dribbler and loves to cut in on his left foot.
Nacho Monreal: With Kolasinac and Tierney unable to play, I’d back Saint-Maximin and/or Almiron to get some real joy down our right if Monreal does start at left-back. The 33-year-old has been a goo servant at Arsenal, but he could seriously struggle with our pace if we can isolate him out wide.
Predicted Arsenal XI – Leno – Maitland-Niles, Sokratis Chambers, Monreal – Xhaka, Guendouzi, Torreira – Mkhitaryan, Lacazette, Aubameyang.
Matt Ritchie is available after recovering from a hamstring injury picked up at Hibernian last Tuesday, but Dwight Gayle (calf), DeAndre Yedlin (only just returned to training after surgery) and Christian Atsu (knee) will miss out.
Bruce has confirmed that Andy Carroll won’t be fully fit until September, while Florian Lejeune is also out, with him progressing well after ACL surgery but not yet back in first-team training.
As for Arsenal, it looks like Emery will make late calls on Alexander Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe, however Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding are still out, with the game also set to come too soon new signings David Luiz and Kieran Tierney
Elsewhere, Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac will miss Arsenal’s trip to Newcastle over security fears following a recent attack in London
Arsenal could well have several first-team players missing for this one, with a fair few ruled out and a couple of new signings unable to play.
From our perspective, we look good on paper and both Bruce and the players seem raring to go and in good spirits, so it will be interesting to see how we gel on the whole and how the new signings cope on their Premier League debuts.
We look more dynamic in attack, with us adding some pace and flair over the summer, but I do hope we can continue to look strong at the back after improving no end in that area during Rafa’s reign.
Their leaky defence fills me with hope – especially when the likes of Almiron, Joelinton and Saint-Maximin could be running at them – however we do have the small matter of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang to deal with at the other end.
I expect a game of goals and fancy it to be a high-scoring draw here.
Prediction: Newcastle 2-2 Arsenal
Howay the lads!