A rival fans' perspective on Arsenal's forthcoming campaign

A rival fans' perspective on Arsenal's forthcoming campaign

A detached and balanced perspective on how Arsenal will perform in 2018/19 under new manager Unai Emery.

dave-comerford
David Comerford

The end of a 22-year era at the Emirates has not ushered in a sense of anxiety, but one of optimism.

By the end of Arsene Wenger's tenure, there was a painful familiarity surrounding Arsenal's flaws. Widespread apathy had taken hold. 

But there is a genuine, and indeed well-founded, hope that Unai Emery's arrival will reinvigorate the club and transform the mood in the stands.

There is cause for real excitement, then, but here is an impartial view from someone outside of that discussion - a Liverpool fan.

Let's first assess each department in the squad.

Goalkeepers

Petr Cech is a reasonably solid 'keeper and, certainly compared to what Liverpool have had in recent years, doesn't drop too many clangers. But he doesn't seem like someone who will actively win you points over the course of a season, which is, of course, the mark of the very best between the sticks. He's past his prime.

Bernd Leno is someone who's been well-regarded for a number of years and is always in and around the Germany squad. That's impressive enough given how well-stocked Joachim Lowe is in that department. However, the wider reaction when he arrived gave the impression he was actually a fair bit poorer than many believe. On paper, 10 clean sheets is decent enough, but he does seem to be vulnerable.

It looks like Leno is going to compete with Cech, and generally I'm not sure that approach works. It's important for centre-halves to form a settled partnership with the man in goal, and rotation will only perpetuate the existing instability.

 

Defenders

The Arsenal defence remains the real concern for me. On the one hand, experienced, solid hands have been recruited, but on the other there's an apparent lack of youthful energy and power. 

The 34-year-old Stephan Lichtsteiner seems like he'll be much more cautious and positionally-aware than the much-maligned Hector Bellerin, but you worry both will get exposed by quick wingers on the counter. 

I think Sokratis will also struggle, though I admit I'm basing that largely on the pre-season game against PSG. Promising youngster Timothy Weah ran him ragged that day, and relentlessly got in behind. When you think how many rapid strikers there are in the Premier League, he could get exposed far too often.

Then you have Shkodran Mustafi, who struggled last season, Rob Holding and Calum Chambers, both of whom have time on their side but lack the quality to be starting for Arsenal. Still, this team is crying out for a top-drawer centre-back, particularly given that Laurent Koscielny looks to have had his heyday. There might be financial limitations in place, but it's a weakness that the club desperately need to address. 

I like Sead Kolasinac - there really aren't many better full-backs in the final third, but he does seem to pay the price for charging upfield. He's probably best utilised as a LWB with Nacho Monreal slotting into a back three, but Arsenal have too much attacking talent at their disposal to be playing five-at-the-back.

 

Midfielders

The overriding impression I get is that Granit Xhaka offers little other than his capacity to score screamers. That might seem harsh, but on social media (not the most reliable indicator of fan sentiment, I accept) he is constantly getting criticised for not doing his job properly.

There's a fair bit of excitement around Lucas Torreira. He strikes me as a gutsy individual who can grab a game by the scruff of the neck. Arsenal have noticeably lacked players with that temperament. I'm looking forward to watching him.

Meanwhile, Aaron Ramsey is someone Arsenal absolutely have to tie down. When he's fit, he scores and creates so many goals from midfield. He's a top player. Losing him for nothing, or for a cut-price fee in January, would be a bit of a disaster.

If I were Emery, I'd probably lean towards a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 with Torreira doing a lot of the defensive dirty work, but that might be too risky. That's why I really think Arsenal could so with someone like Steven N'Zonzi, who can sit alongside the Uruguayan and give Ramsey that attacking licence. Having a pairing like that would do much to remedy Arsenal's defensive frailty. 

Looking further forward, we come to the divisive Mesut Ozil. He's someone who looked disinterested, to put it mildly, under Wenger, and for supporters that's inexcusable. But the arrival of Emery might just be a proverbial kick up the backside (he could have had done with a literal one at times).

Arsenal have supported him well after he took the difficult decision to retire from international football, so maybe he'll view the Emirates as his real home now and finally begin to thrive. He's capable of regularly producing the kind of magic David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne so often came up with last season.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan is another who has had a troublesome time in England, but he looks much happier at Arsenal after being treated poorly by Jose Mourinho. I think he'll produce some good numbers this season.

 

Forwards

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a top-class striker without a shadow of doubt. It was an excellent bit of business from Arsenal given that he was producing quite frightening tallies for Dortmund year-on-year. I can see him getting 25 goals at least and, potentially, being the difference-maker in Arsenal's top-four bid. 

Emery should work to accommodate both Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Their chemistry is clear and if both are deployed properly, it's a potential 50-goal partnership. 

Attacking cover is still needed, though. It's quite scarce at the moment and with the eternally frustrating Alex Iwobi one of the usual deputies, Arsenal lack strength-in-depth.

I'm not sure Ousmane Dembele is the answer. It may be better to seek out someone Premier League proven rather than a young winger who's low on confidence.

 

Youngsters

It's important for Emery to give the young players he's inherited a real chance to push the first-teamers. They can't be allowed to settle and feel like their place is totally secure, as many did under Wenger. 

Matteo Guendouzi and Emile Smith-Rowe, to name just two, have earned the right to impress at the top level after their performances in pre-season.

 

A time of transition?

Wenger was a crucial figure at Arsenal well beyond the training pitch, but if Emery has done his job properly over the course of the summer there shouldn't need to be a 'bedding-in' period, at least in terms of implementing his style. It will have been worked on relentlessly. 

Attitudes, though, may take longer to change. The players need to demonstrate infinitely more commitment and the fans, in turn, need to rally behind them. The Emirates has to be a positive, patient environment.

Generally, I can see Arsenal doing the business at home against the teams outside the 'big six', though they will have to be very wary of counter-attacks for reasons stated above. Towards the end of last season, they started to blow teams away at the Emirates, and that should continue.

Their away form was horrendous last season but should be much better this time around, particularly if they're more resilient than they were under Wenger. They can't allow themselves to be cowed when facing a collective onslaught. 

The likes of Mkhitaryan and Ozil can provide the pass which cuts open a deep-lying defence, and Aubameyang and Lacazette could be devastatingly potent on the counter.

Arsenal have the quality going forward to beat the big teams as well, but Manchester City, Liverpool and Spurs, when on form, will overwhelm their defence.

Still, there'll be a couple of memorable results I'm sure.

 

So where will they finish?

That, I think, could hinge on the last week of the window. Arsenal have the sixth best squad, but should be able to compete with Chelsea and an already beleaguered Manchester United for fourth place.

If Maurizio Sarri can add an attacking midfielder to his ranks to sit in front of N'Golo Kante and Jorginho, Chelsea will probably prevail in that scrap. 

Likewise, if Arsenal bolster their squad further and Chelsea and United fail to do any meaningful business, they can spring a surprise.

Overall, I think Arsenal will likely finish sixth again, but they'll enjoy a much better and much more competitive season. It was a very distant and lonely sixth last season, but they'll stay in touch this time around.

It'll be key for Emery to strike the right balance with the Europa League. He has priors in that competition, of course, and given that there are few stronger teams in there, it looks to me to the best route back amongst the European elite.

So that's how I see it panning out. Sixth place, with a Europa League victory as an immense sweetener. And that might be just the start. 

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