It’s Going To Be A Big 2018-19 For… (Part 2)

Last week, I looked at big seasons ahead for Hector Bellerin, Alex Iwobi and Rob Holding. This week, three more of the current squad come under the microscope as they aim to make an impression in a new era under different management.

SHKODRAN MUSTAFI
Quite possibly the Arsenal player whose reputation suffered the most last season. After a positive start to life in the red and white, Mustafi’s performances petered out towards the end of his maiden season. But during the last campaign, his rashness came to define him. With Laurent Koscielny’s achilles tendon worn to a nub, Mustafi was more exposed and the results made for some poor optics.

We have now reached the stage where Mustafi is both punchbag and punchline in terms of supporter sentiment. Routine errors and an extreme disposition towards sliding around on his backside ultimately cost him his place in the Germany World Cup squad. Though in hindsight, being distilled from Germany’s summer horribilis has probably helped preserve what remains of his credibility.

Once people have in their minds that you are a liability, it takes them a long time to change their perspective. Mustafi has plenty of work to do. The signing of Sokratis Papastathopoulos looks ominous for Mustafi’s future. The Greek is a very similar profile to Mustafi in terms of style and he too prefers the right hand side of the centre back couplet.

Mustafi came very close to leaving last summer for personal reasons and it is easy to dismiss how far personal issues can impact on performance. The worry for Mustafi is that the errors have been so basic that it’s difficult to see him learning from them aged 26. The over exuberance of youth cannot be blamed for his impetuousness.

However, being a centre half in an Arsene Wenger team is a bit like being a chicken at KFC. Historically, it has been difficult to assess how good centre halves actually are in the PTSD inducing Arsene experience. The vague suspicion that Wenger’s wide open system has been a cause of his ills will erode if he repeats his David Luiz tribute act under Unai Emery.

There has been speculation that Mustafi could be sacrificed to raise funds, though that seems unlikely at this stage of the window. The German’s age and experience might just have handed him a reprieve. Sokratis is 30, Koscielny is borked and the other centre halves in the squad are greenhorns. Mustafi has a unique age profile in that he’s not a rookie, but neither is he eyeing up his pension.

Next summer he will be 27 with two years left on his contract, at that point the club would make a firm decision on whether to sell or extend his deal. Sokratis is by no means a long term signing at centre half, but it looks as though he has been trusted to mentor Arsenal’s younger centre backs. Everything points to Mustafi having one season to rescue his Gunners career.

ALEXANDRE LACAZETTE
Lacazette had a good first season at Arsenal, nothing more, nothing less. There were plenty of matches where he looked isolated and a little unhappy truth told. But like many of Arsene’s later signings, it is difficult to separate how far player inconsistency came down to a team muddling its way through a managed decline in a system that lacked tautness.

Lacazette had a good first season, it started well and tailed off a little. The player’s most indifferent spell seems to have been explained away by a knee injury that required surgery. But like Mustafi, Lacazette lost his place in his country’s World Cup squad (with the caveat that France are astonishingly well stocked in forward areas).

The current squad is tightly packed in attack and a big name is going to have to miss out on occasion. Lacazette will need to build on last season, because people will only tolerate Pierre Emerick Aubameyang on the left of the attack while the Frenchman is troubling the onion bag on a regular basis.

With the likes of Özil, Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and (hopefully) Aaron Ramsey around him, there is little excuse for anything less than an unerring season in front of goal. Lacazette left his boyhood club last summer, so there would have been an adaption period- psychologically as much as anything. It took a long time for Wenger to trust him physically too.

With a full season in England behind him, hopefully the cobwebs blasted out of his knee caps via surgery and a full pre-season, Lacazette is an excellent position to have an excellent season. Anything less and his position in the team could become vulnerable given the level of attacking talent available in the squad.

HENRIKH MKHITARYAN
Mkhitaryan left Manchester United in January because a) Jose Mourinho is an arsehole and b) because of intense competition in the United attack. Though it is still too early to assess the success of the swap deal with Alexis Sanchez, I think it was an arrangement that made sense for both clubs. Sanchez is a Mourinho style attacker because Mourinho likes his attackers to improvise based on their individual quality.

Sanchez does that. Mkhitaryan is not quite as productive, but he’s a subtler player arguably more suited to a team like Arsenal, with their intricate brush strokes. The video below, from Tifo Football, succinctly deconstructs the Armenian’s style, based on movement from wide areas into the half spaces.

When married with the video below, which is based on Lucas Torreira but expands a little on how Unai Emery likes to set up his front three, you start to build the idea that Mkhitaryan is, theoretically at least, an Emery type of player. Competition is intense in the forward berths, but I have a hunch that Mkhitaryan will become a very valuable part of the attack.

Primarily, because he is the only player Arsenal have remotely comfortable as a wide forward. But secondly, he is arguably the Gunners’ most rounded attacker. The forward line is divided into finishers (Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ramsey) and a creator (Özil). Mkhitaryan bridges this divide somewhat because he creates and scores at a decent rate.

An attack often needs a player that ties together the component parts, much in the way that Tomas Rosicky did in his occasional bursts of fitness. I think Mkhitaryan is going to become an important lubricant for the Gunners forward line. The Armenian is 29 and left United due to a lack of playing time (and because Mourinho is a dick) and he probably won’t settle for a similar situation at Arsenal.

It is good that there is plenty of competition in Arsenal’s attack, but I just have the nagging feeling that some of those forwards won’t want to be a rotation option at a club like Arsenal, when they know they could probably make a lateral move and expect to start elsewhere. It reminds me a little of the 2007-08 season when Arsenal had Gilberto, Diarra, Denilson, Flamini and Song as options to partner Fabregas in midfield.

On the face of it, those options gave Arsenal depth. But Gilberto, Diarra and Flamini all left inside a year. There is a fine line between creating competition and creating unrest. I think Mkhitaryan has a pretty unique profile in that he can play with any combination of colleagues in the forward line. Potentially, Mkhi could be a secondary creator and someone that chips in with 10-15 goals a season. But I’m projecting greatly, the proof will be in the pudding.

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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.