The Arseblog Season Preview: 2018-19

It’s time for the traditional Arseblog season preview post, but rather than just my feelings on where we are now as the opening game looms, I thought it’d be interesting to get the opinions of some of our regular writers and see how they tally up.

All of these have been written independently of each other, so there’s no cross-contamination! So, this is what myself, Andrew Allen, Tim Stillman and James McNicholas think of the squad as it stands and it’s readiness for the new season.

As ever we start with:

Goalkeepers

Save us …

Andrew Mangan: Over the course of the last campaign it became clear that this was an area which we would need to address. Ospina remained Ospina, but Petr Cech had an error prone season. It didn’t help playing behind a dysfunctional defence but even so a player of his experience made some bad mistakes.

It’s hard to imagine Arsenal going out to spend £22.5m for a goalkeeper to start as second choice, so hopefully Bernd Leno can make the position his own. Cech would be excellent back-up if that’s the case, while Ospina must surely find somewhere else to play football this season. There are some concerns over the new man, but a change of scenery, new coaching and the chance to take a step forward in his career give him an excellent platform for improvement and to establish himself as the number 1 for years to come.

Tim Stillman: Arsenal signed Bernd Leno this summer for a pretty serious wedge. I expect to see him installed as number 1 straight away. The Gunners paid the best part of £20m for the German and at the age of 26, he is hardly a greenhorn. He is an established goalkeeper with close to 300 professional appearances behind him.

When you pay that sort of fee for a 26 year old, you are not investing in potential (or you shouldn’t be) – even if a goalkeeper’s shelf life is a little longer than that of an outfield player. We know what Petr Cech can do and we have a reasonable idea that his powers are declining, even if they are declining from a high ceiling. Cech is a good professional to have around the squad and with the Europa League, he will not accumulate too much rust on the bench.

I am slightly surprised that Emi Martinez is still at the club, he is only 6 months Leno’s junior and has 1/6th his number of appearances, but I guess he’s not a bad third goalie to have around, even if the player should probably be thinking about taking the next step in his career. At time of writing, David Ospina is still an Arsenal player but I don’t think that situation will persist. Maybe a deal will be over the line by the time this is published. There is a reasonable assumption that, where Ospina is concerned, things have a way of crawling over the line in the end …

Andrew Allen: I thought Petr Cech’s time might be up after last season’s gaff-a-thon, but he’s looked very sharp in pre-season, particularly against Chelsea in Dublin. He’s even rediscovered the art of the penalty save. Perhaps the competition provided by new boy Bernd Leno and the arrival of keeper coach Javi Garcia has given him renewed motivation for the year ahead.

That said, I expect Leno to start the season and I’ll be curious to see how he copes with the physicality of England’s top flight. Our last German keeper went 47 games before experiencing Premier League defeat, I’d take that! Martinez is a very decent third-choice and I’d have no qualms letting Ospina go.

James McNicholas: Strength in depth is certainly not an issue in this part of the pitch. Arsenal have got loads of goalkeepers, with four in the first-team squad at the time of writing. It seems inevitable that David Ospina will finally leave the club this summer, while Emi Martinez is due to take up the third-choice slot.

That leaves a straight fight between Petr Cech and new boy Bernd Leno for the role of first-team goalkeeper. Cech may now have the number one on his back, but will face his biggest test to date. Ultimately, when you pay as much for a goalie as Arsenal have for Leno, it’s not to sit on the bench.

However, my hunch is that Cech still start the season in the first-team, with Leno being gradually eased in via the Europa League. Whether or not he has what it takes to be a long-term first-choice remains to be seen – early clues suggest he’s good with his feet but less comfortable controlling his penalty box. As the season wears on, I suspect we might end up being somewhat envious of the new elite goalkeepers on display at Liverpool and Chelsea.

Defence

Across the land, from parish to parish there were yells of anguish and torment and people did pull the hair from their very heads …

Andrew Mangan: We needed back-up/competition for Hector Bellerin on the right, and we have that in Stephan Lichtsteiner. It remains to be seen how the 34 year old will cope with the pace of the Premier League. At left-back we begin the season with the injured Sead Kolasinac while Nacho Monreal has a niggle too, meaning Ainsley Maitland-Niles will have to deputise. Kolasinac has yet to fully convince and Monreal isn’t getting any younger, so this may well be an area we have to think about in the longer-term.

It’s the centre of our defence that really worries me though. Calum Chambers is gone on loan to Fulham just weeks after signing a contract extension which is strange in itself, and we have to hope that new signing Sokratis Papastathopoulos can hit the ground running. When you look at the list of centre-halves: Sokratis, the error prone Shkodran Mustafi, the still raw Rob Holding and the even more raw Dinos Mavropanos, it’s hard to feel confident that we have the requisite quality, or depth, in this key area of the pitch.

On paper it’s probably the poorest looking collection of centre-halves we’ve had at the club for some time, but football is played on a pitch so let’s hope that once they get out there we find a partnership and a system that works.

Tim Stillman: Arsene, bless him, knew he couldn’t really build a defence, or a defensive system that didn’t leave his centre halves gently sobbing themselves to sleep at night. His best sides relied on elite defensive individuals like Sol Campbell and Tony Adams (maybe Koscielny just about creeps into that company). Jurgen Klopp has done something similar at Liverpool, spending serious money on Alisson and Virgil van Dijk to beef up their back line.

Arsenal don’t exactly possess elite defensive individuals on paper. But, I have seen defences with far less storied individuals work well enough in the confines of a solid unit. I think we are banking on this team not exposing them quite as badly. That said, I have probably only seen Sokratis play all of 3 times, so I remain open minded about his quality, even if more fastidious Bundesliga observers than I have expressed concerns.

Hector Bellerin played in a very unforgiving formation last season, but I would still expect to see him play somewhere closer to his potential under a new coach. Left-back remains a concern. Personally, I think Arsenal’s lack of natural wide players, their two very good strikers and their lack of dominant centre halves means a back 3 is more suited to this squad, but I don’t think that’s what Emery will do.

Andrew Allen: I have concerns. Serious concerns. We start the season without Kolasinac and Koscielny, Monreal has barely had a pre-season, Bellerin was taken to the cleaners by a 17-year-old in pre-season, Mustafi is still Mustafi and Mavropanos and Holding are still raw. I had Chambers down as a decent bet to start the campaign as a first-choice centre-back but he’s now gone to Fulham.

I’m still scratching my head about that. Lichtsteiner and Sokratis might be a timely injection of bastard but I’d much rather have had an injection of pace. I can only hope that an Unai Emery Arsenal is better at defending the defence. If we’re as gung-ho in midfield as some of Arsene’s sides have been then the above personnel will be ripped to shreds by the quick breaks of our ‘top four’ rivals.

James McNicholas: There was little doubt that Arsenal’s defence needed reshaping this summer. When the Gunners moved to sign the experienced duo of Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, it looked like a strong start. Both might be a little past their best, but they bring experience and aggression to the back line.

However, at that stage we still believed there would be more defensive signings. It was widely anticipated that Arsenal would bring in two centre-halves, not one – and there was no last minute arrival on transfer deadline day. The decision to loan out Calum Chambers feels bizarre, and the fact that Shokdran Mustafi is still in our first-choice back four fills me with dread.

The addition of Lichtsteiner means that we are relatively well-covered at full-back. Even the injury to Sead Kolasinac is not a significant concern, as Ainsley Maitland-Niles has already proven he can cover effectively at left-back. It’s the centre of our defence that still looks problematic. Our best hope is that they’re afforded protection by a new-look midfield.

Midfield

Please be good …

Andrew Mangan: We’ve long cried out for a defensively minded midfielder, and we appear to have got that with the £26m purchase of Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria. He is the most exciting of our summer signings and looks to have qualities that our midfield could really use. It wouldn’t be a surprise for him to take some time to adapt to English football, but if he can get settled quickly he should become a key component of our midfield.

We may need some time to see exactly how Unai Emery is going to use him. The anchor man with two ahead of him? As part of a deep-lying two? It does seem as if it’ll be a three man midfield of some construction or other, and the players are there. Granit Xhaka signed a new deal, Aaron Ramsey remains a quality option even though he has yet to put pen to paper, Mohamed Elneny is solid and reliable if unspectacular, Ainsley Maitland-Niles is maturing nicely, and even though there’s been a lot of pre-season hype over Matteo Guendouzi, a 19 year old making the step up from Ligue 2 needs time and patience.

The versatility of Alex Iwobi, Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan means all three can play back in midfield too, so having addressed that key DM issue, I’m happy with what we’ve got in this position.

Tim Stillman: From the little I have seen and the vast swathes that I have read, Lucas Torreira looks like a very astute addition and the sort of player Arsenal have lacked for a few years now. I think Arsenal’s midfield has an adaptability about it and we might see a horses for courses approach. At home to the shit munchers, I think we’ll see one of Xhaka or Torreira anchoring the midfield, with Ramsey (please stay) at number 8, Özil at number 10 with Aubameyang and Lacazette chiselled into the forward line.

But a tighter midfield 3 of Xhaka, Torreira and Ramsey strikes me as a balanced option for games against more formidable opponents. Maitland-Niles, Elneny and Guendouzi provide an interesting blend of squad players. I think Arsenal have a good level of adaptability and fluidity here and Torreira can hopefully help us to cope with some of our issues adjusting to a high octane approach from our opponents.

Andrew Allen: We’re pinning a lot of hopes on Lucas Torreira settling quickly and being the disciplined enforcer we’ve been crying out for since Coquelin’s brief renaissance. I’ve not seen enough of him to make a gut-judgement on that just yet, but if he comes good the options around him are really interesting. I’d love Maitland-Niles to get more minutes, Guendouzi already has people purring and I’ve always liked Elneny’s energy and selflessness. Xhaka will start ahead of them, but they are solid squad options.

There is enough creativity between Mkhitaryan, Ozil, Iwobi and Nelson to create chances aplenty, but when it comes to goals they aren’t exactly Pires and Ljungberg. Ramsey gets into great positions and should be getting at least 15 goals a season, I hope the contract situation is sorted soon and doesn’t overshadow our season.

James McNicholas: All summer we waited for a decision on Aaron Ramsey’s future, and ultimately none was forthcoming. That suggests that for next few months at least, he’ll form part of a new-look Arsenal midfield.

The signing of Lucas Torreira is the one that has most Arsenal fans buzzing. The hope is that his disciplined style could finally bring the best out of both Ramsey and Granit Xhaka. With the likes of Mohamed Elneny and Matteo Guendouzi also available, Arsenal have plenty of depth here.

A dysfunctional midfield proved Arsenal’s undoing on many occasions last summer. Hopefully Torreira’s arrival will bring some much-needed balance.

Forwards

And goals were scored, the goals were good, and the people did celebrate the goals …

Andrew Mangan: In Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang we have one of the top strikers in Europe, and with Alexandre Lacazette entering the peak years of his career, we have two excellent options here. The question is how will Emery deploy them? If he plays both, it seems Auba will be the one shifted wide, and seeing a top class striker chasing back to do defensive work in our final third is jarring. It’s obviously not where you get the best out of him, so we’ll have to wait and see what the new boss has planned.

Our other options in that front three include Iwobi, Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Danny Welbeck, Reiss Nelson, and Eddie Nketiah, so there’s a nice mix of quality and experience to give us plenty of strength in depth. This is a forward line up with lots of goals and creativity in it, which will hopefully go some way to offsetting defensive uncertainties.

Tim Stillman: Certainly the most talented area of Arsenal’s squad, but possibly the least balanced. It reminds me a little of the outset of the 2014-15 season when Big Weng tried to crowbar Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla and Ozil into the same team – the latter taking up a wide berth. “Someone has to go wide,” Wenger shrugged. It’s a similar situation now.

Either one or both of Aubameyang and Ozil will spend some time starting from wide positions this season, which probably doesn’t get the best of either player. That said, I think Aubameyang’s presence in the Arsenal squad has been underestimated. He arrived at an underwhelming time and now much of the debate is focused on whether he and Lacazette can play in the same team.

However, the Gabonese is absolutely in the same bracket as the likes of Aguero and Kane. Nobody would be surprised if he scored 25 Premier League goals and Arsenal haven’t had a forward like that since Robin van Persie took a shit in Gazidis’ hat. The goals Aubameyang can provide, be it as a wide forward or a central striker, could go a long way to propelling a fairly work a day squad back into the top 4. Luis Suarez almost swept a side coached by Brendan Rodgers to the Premier League title, lest we forget.

Andrew Allen: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s start to life in London fills me with confidence. He should challenge for the Golden Boot this year even if Emery decides to utilise his pace from the left side of attack. I’m also really pleased that Alex Lacazette has bounced back from last season’s knee injury and that, rather than get disheartened by the arrival of Auba, he appears revitalised.

We might not have much of an aerial presence anymore – that could be a worry in tight games – but both are deadly in and around the six-yard box. I’m also backing Eddie Nketiah to consolidate his first team credentials; the boy is a natural goal-scorer and should get plenty of time off the bench and in the cup competitions. I’d keep Welbeck despite the temptation to cash in. His physicality proved useful against opponents in the Europa League; a competition that is tedious in the opening stages and draining in the latter.

James McNicholas: You’ll notice I didn’t discuss Mesut Ozil among the midfield, and that’s because I feel he’ll generally be used as part of a three-man attack. Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are the three most expensive players in Arsenal’s history, and it’s not unrealistic to suggest they could all be fielded together as part of an exciting attacking trio.

There’s no doubt the final third is where Arsenal are strongest: aside from those three, there are also the likes of Alex Iwobi, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Danny Welbeck to call upon. Youngsters Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah will also hope for more first-team chances. This is a team that ought to score a lot of goals. One concern will be the lack of a pure winger. Arsenal haven’t really replaced the pace of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out wide, and that may be why Aubameyang ultimately finds himself starting from the flank.

Overall

El Jefe …

Andrew Mangan: Last season Arsenal finished 13 points off the top four, and if Unai Emery were to bridge that gap and get Champions League football again, that should be considered a successful season (even if top four was boring to most people not too long ago!).

Midfield and forward options look good, but I have concerns about us defensively. Better organisation, structure and protection from midfield would go some way to improving the defensive record, but the new boss also has to find a way to make the back four and goalkeeper functional and less error prone. If he can do that, I think there’s enough uncertainty around a few of the other ‘big six’, and enough quality in the rest of our team, to get that top four finish.

And of course we’ll win the Europa League because that’s what Emery does.

Tim Stillman: Overall, I think Arsenal’s squad is a little top heavy and a bit unbalanced, but it was always going to take a few windows to tidy up the relative chaos and high turnover of the end of the Wenger reign. The aim should be to make some marginal gains and away form that is not terrible and not treating off ball duties as an optional extra seem to be the obvious quick wins. If Arsenal can get Özil and Aubameyang firing and Torreira can add that much needed pinch of spice to midfield, lots of ground can be made up. I think Arsenal will be in the top 4 conversation, possibly up until the last day, but I have a sneaky feeling they might just finish 5th.

Andrew AllenFor all the positive noises coming out of London Colney, I can’t escape the feeling that this is going to be a tough transitional year. I’m not sure the balance of the squad is right just yet, we’ve a tough start, our rivals – in particular Liverpool and Manchester City – look incredibly strong on paper and we know how draining the constant Wednesday / Sunday Europa League scheduling can be. If we can get to a point where in the second half of the season I’m not enveloped by a sense of doom when we travel away from home to a big team…well, that would be a marked progress on recent seasons!

Right now, I’d take 4th in the Premier League plus a success in either FA Cup or Europa League…that would be a step in the right direction, albeit a small one.

James McNicholas: Arsenal made such an efficient start to their transfer dealings, but it does feel like they were left with unfinished business. Another centre-back and a winger would have felt like a comprehensive overhaul of the squad. As ever, it feels like we’re “two signings away”.

I suspect there will be plenty of positives this season—we’ll surely be more robust away from home, and I think we’ll witness the team visibly working harder on the field. However, I’m not sure we’ve done enough to sufficiently close the gap between us and the top four. If we’re to break back into the Champions League via the domestic table, we’ll need one of United or Tottenham to screw up. Frankly, either of those outcomes would be tremendous fun, so let’s hope it happens.

So, there you go. As ever your thoughts and opinions are very welcome, feel free to comment in the arses and let us know what you think.