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, we’ve got a couple of other Arseblog regulars to give us their ten cents.
All of these have been written independently of each other, so there’s no cross-contamination. So, this is what myself, Andrew Allen and Tim Stillman think of the squad as it stands and its readiness for the new season.
Starting, as always, with:
Andrew Mangan: Last summer we went out and spent £22.5m on Bernd Leno, and although he didn’t start the season as first choice, by autumn he was the number one pick and never looked back. I think he had a good season, distinguishing himself with some fantastic saves, despite the fact as a team we conceded 51 goals in the Premier League. Few would attribute many of that total to him.
Fingers crossed the German will be less busy this season, but that’s dependent on us having a defence which is more resolute, and a midfield which can offer it proper protection – something which is overlooked when we consider the defensive side of our game.
I have no worries over Leno, and although Emi Martinez remains relatively inexperienced for a 26 year old, his loan spell at Reading last season was solid, and as back up he fits the bill for this season.
Tim Stillman: I am increasingly struck by how quickly opinions are set and reassembled in football nowadays (oldmanshoutsatcloud.jpg). Bernd Leno came into the team last season and looked decent enough. He had a more impressive spring, kick-started with an eye rubbing double save against Spurs and now everyone seems convinced that he is Arsenal’s undisputed glove butler.
As I wrote yesterday, it will be interesting to see whether his late season performances represented a mere burst of form or whether he can sustain and build on that. In an ideal world, I think I would want a stronger candidate in the deputy role to push Leno for his place. It’s not that I think Martinez is a bad goalkeeper, I am just not convinced he will ever truly push to be the first choice and that’s what you want in an understudy.
Either an experienced choice or someone with a decent chance of taking the role full-time. But the club had far more urgent surgery to do this summer and Martinez is good enough that we can park the issue for another year. It’s a big season for Emi to finally prove that he belongs at Arsenal. He’s 27 in a couple of weeks, it’s time and he knows that too.
Andrew Allen: I think Leno did enough last season to prove that he’s more than capable of coping with the physicality of English football and the ‘play from the back’ football that Unai Emery wants to play. There were whispers before he made his debut that he had been underwhelming in training, so that was a big relief. He’s a great shot-stopper, increasingly vocal and seems like a cool customer, unlike that other Teutonic fella we used to have in goal.
Emi Martinez, now the longest-serving first team player, has had to wait a long time to become the club’s number two. He’s done well on loan at Wolves and Reading and should be more than capable of handling the pressure of the League Cup and Europa League. He might be only a year younger than Leno, but I do worry about his lack of big game experience. If the German picked up a big injury we’d be relying on a guy with just six Premier League appearances to his name.
I’m not really sure if Matt Macey is any good. I’ve only seen him play once or twice and was mostly in awe of his size, seriously, he’s massive and wouldn’t look out of place in the NBA.
Andrew Mangan: The departure of Laurent Koscielny was not helpful, particularly the way it played out, and we’re still waiting for Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin to return from injury, so we’re not starting the season with as much depth as we’d like. The signing of David Luiz is not one that would have been everyone’s first or even second choice when the window opened, but he’s got plenty of Premier League experience at least.
We’ve brought in a left back for the future in Kieran Tierney, which probably means one of Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac departing before the European transfer windows close, and when you add Saliba to the summer mix, you can see that there is a reshaping of the personnel, leaning towards youth. Sokratis will have be important, we need him to strong but disciplined, and hopefully Holding can kick on when he comes back. He’d made progress last season before the injury, and if he can pick up where he left off he’s developing into a good central defender. The jury remains out on Calum Chambers and to a greater extent Dinos Mavropanos who may need a loan move, although injury appears to have put paid to that before January.
It’s hard not to worry that things are a bit makeshift back there though. We might find that something develops over the course of the season which provides stability, but right now we’ve got to hope we can protect our defenders more, because they’re going to need it in the opening weeks of the season.
Tim Stillman: Arsenal have lost Laurent Koscielny and gained Calum Chambers and David Luiz at centre- half. The last minute grab for Luiz shows just how arid the market for top-class centre-halves is. In lieu of another Sol Campbell level signing being available to Arsenal, turning the defence around is going to be a long-term project I think.
On the face of it, having a year or two of 31-year old Sokratis and 32-year old Luiz, with Holding and Saliba waiting in the wings makes a certain amount of sense. I don’t expect the Gunners’ defence to be transformed, but I do think incremental improvement is a minimum requirement. Arsenal signed Leno, Sokratis, Lichtsteiner and Torreira last summer and the defence didn’t improve. That has to change.
I haven’t seen much of Tierney, but he seems to be a good profile in a position of need. Arsenal are still relying on Bellerin and Holding to return in perfect working order, which is a risk, as is putting a lot of stock in Ainsley Maitland-Niles at right-back. There is so much work to do on the defence that it was always going to take more than one window. I think Arsenal are potentially moving in the right direction here, but slowly.
Andrew Allen: There’s going to be a fair bit of upheaval in our defensive line in the opening months of the season as we wait for new players to settle and injured ones to return. Given we face Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester United before the end of September, it’s a situation that will definitely have me chewing my fingernails. On the plus side, an early-season lineup of Maitland-Niles, Chambers, Sokratis and Monreal could morph into Bellerin, Sokratis, Holding and Tierney by October.
Can Chambers bring his Fulham form to Arsenal? Will Holding pick up where he left off before his ACL injury? Is Maitland-Niles condemned to life as an auxiliary right-back? Will Hector still be as fast when he returns? Does Tierney’s arrival spell the end for Kolasinac? I have so many questions and very few answers.
Given the circumstances, I think signing David Luiz, who has titles to his name in Portugal, France and England, was pretty canny. We’ve replaced the experience of Koscielny with someone a year younger and we know he’ll be vocal, comfortable playing out from the back and has a goal in him. All positives. That said, he’s also an erratic decision-maker and we’ve got plenty of those already.
I know it sounds harsh, but I’ve given up on Mustafi and I don’t much fancy Mavropanos, who seems perpetually injured, either. At least William Saliba will be available to us in 12 months time.
Andrew Mangan: The emergence of Joe Willock has been one of the highlights of pre-season, and such is his progress and the quality of his performances that he has to be an option for Unai Emery. Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira should be better in their second seasons in England, even if we might not see that straight away due to their late arrival back from international duty this summer.
The arrival of Dani Ceballos on loan from Real Madrid helps fill the Aaron Ramsey gap, although they’re not the same kind of player. The Spaniard has qualities we need, and plenty to prove so I’m hopeful he works out. Mohamed Elneny may find himself expendable having played so little last season, but even so there’s plenty for the manager to work with.
The midfield now seems to be anchored by Granit Xhaka, and I’m curious to see if that’s still the case by the end of the season. The Swiss does have good qualities, but has a mistake in him at any moment, and his relative ponderousness might see him fall by the wayside if we’re trying to move the ball more quickly through midfield to an attack that has had an injection of pace and flair this summer.
Then you have the likes of Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, two players who disappointed last season. The departure of Alex Iwobi eases some of the pressure on them, but they have something to prove this year, and need to produce far more to provide anything close to value for what we’re paying them. Ozil, in particular, has the kind of quality which can win you games, so getting him back to something like his best is going to be one of Emery’s big challenges. Unless, of course, he decides to take his team in a different direction.
Tim Stillman: Quietly, Arsenal have made some promising additions in this area of the pitch over the last couple of summers. I think this has been an area of concern for some time, Cazorla and Coquelin was the last half-decent partnership the Gunners had in the engine room and one of that particular axis was doing a lot of the heavy lifting.
Arsenal’s midfield has been a bit Windows 7 lately, but Torreira and Guendouzi were solid additions last summer, while Dani Ceballos and the emergence of Joe Willock this give the midfield more of a 21st century look. I think weening ourselves off Granit Xhaka, however gradually, needs to be a priority this season.
The Premier League is high on the fumes of the gegenpress and a midfield three featuring Ozil and Xhaka is too glacial in 2019. Guendouzi, Torreira and Willock represent a more modern medium-term future, while Dani Ceballos ticks a few boxes with the attributes he brings. Arsenal need a software upgrade in midfield and I am cautiously encouraged by the moves they have made to address this area.
Andrew Allen: We know that Emery wants the team to play out from the back and that he favours a 4-2-3-1 formation. Given we now have a year’s experience of the former, I’m tempted to say we’ll be a bit more organised but it’s still hard to say whether we’re stronger in midfield going into this season compared to last.
Given Granit Xhaka is set to be made captain, I expect he’ll be a regular in one of the deep-lying midfield positions. Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi both have a year of Premier League football to build on and neither can rest on their laurels because Dani Ceballos and Joe Willock provide stiff competition for the spare anchor role.
From what I’ve seen of the Spaniard, he has Cazorla-like ability to wriggle out of tight spaces which will be useful if we’re building from the back and looking to break through the lines. Willock has a decent engine and an eye for goal which will be useful because we’ll miss Aaron Ramsey. I know he had his injury problems and wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea but the Welshman, who scored 65 goals and made 65 assists in 371 appearances, was a vital link between our defence and attack.
I’d rather Mkhitaryan had left than Iwobi, but I’m not going to lose much sleep about it. The Nigerian’s decision-making and poor finishing often infuriated me. After his ‘annus horibilis’, Mesut Ozil says he’s settled and happy and that was reflected in some decent pre-season showings. Unlike this time last year, he also knows that he won’t play if he doesn’t do what Emery wants so the onus is on him to knuckle down and lead the team. For what it’s worth, I don’t see Mohamed Elneny with much of a future at the club and I expect him to leave for foreign climes before September and if Emile Smith Rowe recovers from his injury problems, I reckon he’s nailed on for a January loan deal.
Andrew Mangan: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang shows no signs of slowing down, and you wouldn’t be against him scoring something close to the 31 he got last season. Alexandre Lacazette was player of the season last year, and although we’ve lost Danny Welbeck, we do have young, hungry options to fill that gap.
If it were me, I’d have kept Eddie Nketiah and use him in Europa League games and the EFL Cup, but it’s also easy to make a case that a season on loan and regular football is exactly what he needs at this point. Leeds will be a good move for him.
The signing of Nicolas Pepe is hugely exciting, and the qualities he brings to our attack should give us an extra dimension up front. Not only does he make us a better counter-attacking team – assuming we’ve got players who can move the ball quickly when we win possession – his direct running, trickery, and dribbling are things which defenders hate. Especially now that VAR is a factor, someone who can make the opposition run towards their own goal and force them into last ditch challenges could be very useful.
There’s also a lot of young talent for Emery to call on, with Gabriel Martinelli, Reiss Nelson, Bukayo Saka, Tyreece John-Jules, and Emile Smith Rowe bubbling under and all capable of playing in a front three, or off a central striker. Hopefully we see plenty of them in the Europa League, allowing us to keep the main men fresh and ready for the Premier League which absolutely has to be our priority this season.
Tim Stillman: The addition of Nicolas Pepe transforms a static attack reliant on two elite individuals to produce isolated moments into something potentially more rounded. Arsenal were 12th in the Premier League for dribbles attempted and 11th in the division for shots on goal, so signing a wide player with Pepe’s profile was a huge priority for this summer. I’d have liked to hold onto Iwobi in an ideal world but selling Iwobi to pay for Pepe seems like a sensible deal to me in lieu of being able to move Mkhitaryan on.
Pepe adds a much needed pinch of paprika to the mix. The Gunners also need someone other than their two star strikers to add goal threat and he seems to do that. I’m interested to see how the front-line fits together, losing Iwobi probably leaves us short of genuine options from the left. I wonder if Arsenal might ape Liverpool’s famed front 3, with Lacazette dropping into a false 9 position and Aubameyang and Pepe playing as inside forwards.
Reiss Nelson is also an interesting addition here, essentially replacing Welbeck. He is some way from the finished article, but he also seems to add directness and scoring potential from wide positions. We are a bit light at centre-forward if either Lacazette or Aubameyang get injured, but I do think Nketiah needs regular football and if he doesn’t get it now, he’ll have little to no chance of making it.
Andrew Allen: Lacazette and Aubameyang are great fun to watch together and having bagged 50 goals last season, we know opponents have good reason to fear them. Both have had a full pre-season so I expect them to pick up where they left off. What we now need is more goals from those around them.
Thankfully, in Nicolas Pepe, we appear to have a guy who has all the qualities we’ve been crying out for. He can counter at pace, drive directly at defences with his dribbling ability and finish moves himself. I still have to pinch myself that a summer that started with links to Ryan Fraser has ended with us breaking our transfer record for a guy who was one of the most coveted players in Europe. As was the case with Laca, I think it might take him a bit of time to get used to the physicality of the Premier League, but I’m hoping he can make an instant impact.
It’s going to be an interesting season for Reiss Nelson. After his time at Hoffenheim, expectations are high. With Pepe returning late from the AFCON, his best chance of getting Emery’s attention is in the opening weeks of the season. After that, I reckon he’ll be a bench regular with 20-minute cameos in the Premier League. In Nketiah’s absence, Martinelli, Saka and John-Jules make for an exciting trio of youngsters.
Andrew Mangan: There’s a lot to like about this squad up front and in midfield. We have some serious quality, and depth, which should allow Emery to rotate well, but also create a genuinely competitive environment. There’s plenty of football to go around, but securing a first XI place should be a real driver for these players.
As above, it’s difficult not to worry defensively at the moment, but as and when Bellerin, Holding and Tierney are fully fit and consistently available, I think there’s something very interesting for the manager to work with there.
Hopefully what we’ve done in the transfer market this summer will ensure more expansive, attacking football from Emery who was too conservative at times last season. We now have players with the personality, character and quality to take the game to the opposition, particularly away from home – an area we’ve been too weak in for a couple of seasons. The focus on attack should help offset some of the defensive deficiencies too.
I don’t think we’re going to challenge for the title, but I feel a lot more confident about our chances of getting back into the Champions League than I did just a few weeks ago.
Tim Stillman: Arsenal were never going to solve all of their issues in one transfer window- it’s for this reason that I still question the decision to write off January in the way that they did earlier this year. I think the club were ultimately correct to prioritise midfield, wide forward and defence with the signings they made and I never for one moment entertained the idea that someone would take Ozil, Mkhitaryan or Mustafi off our hands.
The young players give me a dash of hope and excitement. Not because I expect any of them to become the next Lionel Messi, but because having young players in squad roles represents smart squad management. Having Reiss Nelson rather than paying £17m for Lucas Perez and Joe Willock as opposed to £10m Mohammed Elneny strikes me as the way to go.
Arsenal look very “business at the front, party at the back” and that is going to create pressure on the attack to deliver. I think Arsenal will be embroiled in a fight for 3rd or 4th with Chelsea, Spurs and United again and I think, again, it will be decided by small details.
Andrew Allen: In last year’s preview, I said we were facing a tough transitional year and that the balance of the squad wasn’t right. I think most people would agree that the latter still stands. While the end of the last campaign was a disaster that left me thinking we were at a crossroads, our summer business has given me renewed cause for optimism.
Playing out from the back isn’t a whole new concept, there’s creativity in midfield, our front three are up there with the best in Europe and we have a host of young, exciting players ready to make a mark with a helping hand from a rejigged backroom team.
We’re not going to be challenging for the title, but Unai, who’s job is on the line, definitely has the personnel and foundations for a top-four finish. Looking at our rivals, Chelsea look noticeably weaker and United are still a mess. I also expect us to challenge for the Europa League. So much so, that I’ve already researched flights to Gdansk.