Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Bernd Fingers

Having played their first 5 league matches of the season, Arsenal are about to enter a sort of second phase of the campaign, with the Europa League group stages and the Carabao Cup tumbling into the fray. While a little unloved, these competitions give fringe players their first real chance to make an impression on the season and for some, their first opportunity to impress the new manager in a competitive environment.

Young players such as Eddie Nketiah and Emile Smith-Rowe will look to continue to build their profiles with minutes in these games. Arsenal are very well stocked in attack, where at least one big player has to be omitted from the starting line-up every week, so the Gunners will probably be able to call upon whomever does not make the team from the preceding league match as a policy.

For other players, the Carabao Cup and the Europa League represent an opportunity to build the case for more regular inclusion. Last season, this bifurcate approach to the Europa League led to a distinct line in the sand in the squad. Emery is still getting a feel for his players, having made many alterations to his starting line-up and lots of early substitutions. I suspect the fringe players stand a better chance of muscling their way into the manager’s thinking this year.

Nobody will be smacking their lips more audibly than Bernd Leno, who has yet to make his debut between the sticks. He will almost certainly be afforded outings against Vorskla and Brentford. That Leno has not started life as first choice at Arsenal surprised many Arsenal fans- myself included. The German has a reputation for comfort in possession that runs corollary to Cech’s, who gives the impression of a man left to awkwardly cradle a friend’s baby just after it has fudged its pampers when the ball arrives at feet.

Leno is 26, has over 300 professional appearances and has 6 Germany caps, he is no greenhorn. That said, I have revised my opinion on the goalkeeping quandary in recent weeks. Given Cech’s age and seniority, when he eventually relinquishes his place in the Arsenal goal, it will be difficult to turn back. Cech is facing down the final curtain, once he goes quietly in the night it becomes tricky and a bit disastrous for Leno if he has to be reinstated.

Spurs managed a similar situation back in 2012 when Hugo Lloris was brought in to as a long term successor to then 41 year old Brad Friedel. Lloris bade his time on the bench for half a season or so. When your competition is close to pension age, it becomes difficult, politically, to lose your place to someone who is being gently ushered towards light duties.

If Leno can appear solid and competent in the games he is about to play, the clamour for his inclusion will grow. I suspect that, like a few members of the squad, Cech is kinda sorta being given enough rope to hang himself with. Though, as I wrote a fortnight ago, Petr is a highly capable learner. He can learn to play Emery’s possession style in my view, the question is how quickly he can do it.

Leno can put Cech’s place under pressure with some unremarkable, incident free performances and a basic level of competence with the ball at his feet. In pure goalkeeping terms, Cech has not put a hand wrong yet this season, the problem is that he has put a few feet wrong. His nervy passing against Cardiff made his ball playing skills A Thing now which has invited plenty of scrutiny.

If Leno manages not to chuck the ball into his own goal or roll the ball straight to the feet of an opposing striker, Emery will be under pressure to pull the Leno leaver. All over the squad, Emery is having to deftly handle some egos. Thus far he has struck a balance between being undeterred by dropping big name players, or making half-time substitutions, but he does not appear to be holding grudges and creating unnecessary confrontation.

After a training ground fallout with Mesut Özil, Emery reinstated the German for the match against Cardiff. He suggested Aaron Ramsey needed to focus a little more on his football and a little less on his contract prior to the Chelsea match before leaving him on the bench for the game. Ramsey has played in each game since.

Granit Xhaka was unceremoniously hooked at half-time during the Chelsea game, but has played in each match since. Emery has displayed soft power without allowing minor gripes to become major grievances- so far anyway. Let’s hope Aubameyang’s minor huff at Newcastle doesn’t escalate into a full blown hissy fit. Unai has walked into a delicate situation at Arsenal and his handling of the competition between Cech and Leno has also tested his diplomatic skills.

On the sub’s bench, Leno has been out of sight, if not out of mind. With the cup competitions swinging into life this month, he will be ushered into the spotlight. There are several other players for whom this also applies too. Stephan Lichtsteiner will have the opportunity to properly challenge Hector Bellerin for his place in the team.

There is still the sense that Bellerin is struggling in a defensive sense- my own view is that there are well founded reasons for that that are not entirely of his own making. But if Lichtsteiner can operate more securely in the same framework and maintain the attacking threat Hector has shown, the Swiss could make life more awkward for the ponytailed Spaniard.

Mohamed Elneny does not appear to have made an impression on Emery yet, which comes as a bit of a surprise. The Egyptian is capable of the hard running and stamina the coach appreciates and he is economical, if a little conservative, in possession. With Ainsley Maitland-Niles injured, Elneny has an even more presentable opportunity to stake his claim in the coming weeks.

The majority of the focus will be on Bernd Leno, many Arsenal fans will be willing him to prove himself. Cech has not totally convinced the fan base of his credentials as an outright number 1 and at 36, many are attracted to the idea of change between the posts. Leno’s arrival did not create enormous fanfare, but simply not being Petr Cech has probably boosted his reputation. Now he has not to ruin the fantasy in the coming weeks.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook.

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.

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