The fact that Arsenal changed their manager after 22 years this summer has, to this point, felt a little bit like a fever dream. A press conference here, a couple of social media friendly training snaps there. Pre-season friendlies that, like dreams, swiftly fade from the memory banks like a handful of sand seeping out from between your fingers, forgotten as quickly as they are absorbed.
It still doesn’t quite feel real. But it will do on Sunday, when Unai Emery strides into the Arsenal technical area and starts the long process of dislodging Arsene Wenger’s arse groove in the home dugout. Incidentally, I love the way that language has remained untainted by progress over the years when it comes to the coaches and substitutes lodgings.
There hasn’t been a “bench” or a “dugout” in the Premier League in any true sense of the word for a generation. But I digress. There will be a new man in mummy’s bed come Sunday and the revolution will truly have taken hold. This is tremendously exciting after the groundhog seasons of Arsene Wenger’s epilogue.
Not least because, even though we have pored feverishly over pre-season, we have very little idea of what our manager’s long-term thinking entails. We may not be wading elbow deep into the mystery box per se, but we are blinking into the light of a brand new era and I for one cannot wait. Here are some immediate questions for the opening weeks of Unai’s reign.
I plan these columns very meticulously and as you will see from my notes (above), this is a simple issue to distil, but not necessarily a straightforward one to solve. Can we stop defending like twats? Arsene’s better defences were usually carried by elite defensive individuals; Tony Adams, Sol Campbell and Laurent Koscielny probably just about creeps onto the lower end of that spectrum.
With Koscielny borked, the current defence lacks elite individuals. Sokratis has been charged with being the major of the back line, but it’s not really a role the Greek relished in his Dortmund days. Mustafi needs to be able to cut his own meat without accidentally jabbing himself in the eye with a fork before he can concentrate on supervising his younger colleagues.
— Lewis (@LGAmbrose) July 28, 2018
Chambers, Holding and Mavropanos have varying degrees of potential, but all could use the guidance of a senior colleague. That represents a big challenge for Sokratis and Mustafi- neither of whom have convincingly taken on such a role before. I still happen to think that, with a lack of natural width and no outstanding leaders in defence, Arsenal’s squad is best suited to a back 3.
I doubt that Emery shares my tactical vision for the team, which is utterly unacceptable if I’m honest. Yet I am probably still suffering the effects of my own Arsene Wenger Stockholm syndrome. I have become accustomed to some, ahem, pretty loose defensive constructs. If the Gunners defence lacks elite component parts, hopefully a tighter, more defensively serious unit around them can offset that.
Someone like Lucas Torreira could be key here. Arsenal’s defenders weren’t so much exposed under Arsene’s system as they were tossed into a lion’s cage wearing a steak loincloth. If Emery can tighten up some of the nuts and bolts around the defenders, maybe, just maybe, Arsenal can stop defending like twats.
Arsenal don’t have to become Capello’s Milan back there just yet, much like their troublesome away from, simply not being absolutely terrible would see a significant gain in the short term. Arsenal’s primary aim has to be getting back into the top 4 and, realistically, they will need to do this through a series of marginal gains. The away form and the defending seem like the two areas with the most wiggle room.
THE ATTACK AND THE MIDFIELD
Aubameyang, Lacazette, Özil, Mkhitaryan and Ramsey. Is this town big enough for the five of them? If so, in which positions? Will Arsenal persist with Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, one of Europe’s elite centre forwards, in a wide forward position? It’s certainly not his best position, but if it means getting him and Lacazette onto the pitch, with Özil providing the ammunition, then the Gunners surely won’t be short of goals.
It’s a delicate equation. Aubameyang, for my money, is not at his strongest building play. He is not particularly good at taking players on, nor retaining possession. He seems to operate better bursting into short spaces in the penalty area. He is more sprinter than marathon runner. Yet, it might turn out that losing a little from Aubameyang’s attributes in return for adding Lacazette’s qualities could still prove to be a favourable result overall.
Lacazette has that ability to drop away from the front line and link play, which potentially allows Aubameyang to burst in from wide forward positions, much in the way that Firmino provides a foil for Mo Salah. And what of Mesut Özil? He has finally plundered the number 10 jersey that he has coveted since joining the club, but there would be an inherent irony if he were moved away from the position most associated with those digits.
Will he start centrally, or as a wide forward on the right hand side with license to roam in field? Can Özil and Ramsey both start in central positions in Emery’s midfield? If so, there would be a knock on effect further back, with Torreira and Xhaka fighting for one spot. I suspect we may see a “horses for courses” approach from the new boss.
For home matches against the lesser lights, we will probably see Özil and Ramsey starting in midfield, Aubameyang playing as a lopsided strike partner for Lacazette, with Mkhitaryan on the right. Arsenal will probably only need one of Xhaka or Torreira for such games. But I wouldn’t be surprised if, at Stamford Bridge, Özil will play as a right sided forward if he plays at all, while a choice could be made between Aubameyang and Lacazette.
As supporters, we will need to adapt to such an approach. We will need to not overreact when one of our favourites is omitted from the starting line-up or isn’t played in his preferred position. It’s natural that, as fans, we have favourites and we like to construct fantasy starting line-ups that accommodate our favourites in their preferred positions. But if Özil or Ramsey or Lacazette needs to be sacrificed for a tough away game, we will have to learn not to treat it like a seismic affront.
My other (totally uninformed) hunch is that the back-up central midfielders will deputise for particular individuals. So, for instance, I think Maitland-Niles might understudy Torreira and Elneny / Guendouzi would fill in for Granit Xhaka. Antonio Conte did something similar with his three centre halves at Chelsea, each individual had a direct replacement to replicate the qualities of the first choice.
But the real beauty is that we don’t know. We don’t know how Emery’s approach will differ in the first two games against Manchester City and Chelsea, compared to the West Ham game. That is, indeed, if his approach differs at all. How will Arsenal press? Where will the defensive line be positioned? Who will play?
For the first time in a generation, the Gunners begin a season with a pervasive sense of mystery and I, for one, am truly excited for it. The worst Arsenal can do is a fail in a different way, which already feels like a kind of progress.
Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.
We will be having a launch event for the book, alongside Dan Betts, author of ‘Almost Invincible’ the story of the 1990-91 season, at the Gunners pub from 7pm on Sunday. David Hillier will be there signing copies of both books too.