It’s no longer a secret how good Arsenal are. Last season, the Gunners surprised the Premier League with a title challenge that few saw coming. A year later, things could not be more different.
Equipped with arguably football’s worst kept secret after confirming the signing of Declan Rice, expectations are high at the Emirates. The further additions of Kai Havertz and Jurrien Timber have done little to quell them. Pandora’s box is open and the pressure is on.
However, the Gunners do not seem like a team with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Their early training camps in Nuremberg and Washington DC have exuded the kind of joy and confidence that comes with a genuine sense of ease with where they are. Few personify that more than their captain Martin Odegaard.
“I think it’s more from the outside, though,” he says of the expectations for him and Arsenal in the coming season. “I felt really confident and excited about the season last year. The pre-season that we had last year was great. We had some great results and played some great football so I was confident we would do well. So I think it’s more from the outside.
“Now with the new contracts and what we did last year, I think the expectations will rise. It’s part of the game and we have to deal with it. All we can do is focus on our job and continue to work hard every day and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The stable atmosphere around the group has been decisive for Arsenal’s additions to the value of 200 million. Havertz has already made his debut against FC Nurnberg, while Rice and Timber could follow on Thursday against the MLS All-Stars.
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As captain Odegaard says, he has done a lot to ensure that newcomers quickly get up to speed with the club’s requirements.
“I try to talk to them to see if they need anything or if I need to explain something to them on the field about how we do things,” he says. “Just making them feel welcome and helping them understand our game model.
“I think when players come in it can be difficult to understand everything we do, so it’s just helping them with little things, but I think this team is great at welcoming new players. We’re like a family, we’re really together. I feel like they’re already happy and part of the team and the family.”
The newest member of the family is perhaps the most exciting. Arsenal have made a real statement about their project by signing Declan Rice for a club record £105m. Odegaard can certainly see why.
“Every time I played against him, I saw the quality,” says the Norwegian. “He’s also a leader so it’s great for me to work together and hopefully we can help each other a lot.
“Every time I played him it was a tough one. We had some tough games so I’m happy to have him in the team and hopefully we can find a good connection very quickly.”
Despite all the excitement surrounding the club, however, the reality remains that Arsenal still have a point to prove. Despite leading the Premier League for 248 days last season, the Gunners eventually fell short, failing to beat Manchester City along the way. This adds weight to the head-to-head clashes with Pep Guardiola’s side, which will be even more serious than last season. Once again, Odegaard insists that he does not feel the pressure.
“You have to approach every game the same way,” he says. “Every time we play we want to win. It’s the same now for the pre-season, the league or the Champions League. We want to build a winning culture and there’s a big chance to do that in the pre-season. It’s what we do every day in training. Every game or every tournament everyone wants to win. We start to build that culture. It can’t just be when you play the big teams. It has to be every game. That’s the PL. If you have an off day, it will be difficult to beat any team.
“What we have to do is learn from last year, use the disappointment, the anger and all the bad feelings. We must use them in a good way. We had a good season and took some big steps. I don’t think there were too many who believed we were going to fight for the title before the season started. But we were so close.
“It still hurts and it’s still painful for us. It’s important to use it in a good way to come back even stronger and show that we’ve learned and improved.”
Whether he likes it or not, the pressure is on Odegaard and the rest of the Arsenal squad to channel the pain of last season into a positive. However, the Norwegian insists that he does not listen to the noise from outside. His focus is only on what his side can do.
“I don’t know what other teams are thinking, but expectations will always rise when you perform,” he says. “We have to be ready for it and deal with it. It’s part of football and we all enjoy the added pressure. Hopefully we can just keep doing well.”