A third year of Europa League football beckons for the Gunners but Unai Emery’s side looks in good shape ahead of the new campaign. It could be a season of opportunity for some less established players, as well as a chance for more seasoned stars to prove their worth, but what can Arsenal fans expect from the 2019/20 season?
Despite reports of a £40m budget that, at the start of the window, left fans concerned about what business Arsenal would be able to do, Head of Football Raul Sanllehi has become a cult figure of almost Ornstein-proportions after pulling off some fantastic business. Promising Brazilian winger Gabriel Martinelli was the first addition, followed by centre back William Saliba from Saint-Etienne where he will spend another year on loan.
Replacing Aaron Ramsey, both in terms of quality and squad depth, was going to be a challenge and Arsenal have found an economical solution in Dani Ceballos, the gifted Spaniard joining on a year’s loan from Real Madrid. Whilst there is no obligation to buy as part of the deal, there’s no reason to think that a successful loan spell couldn’t turn into a permanent switch to N5.
Arsenal fans probably reached peak excitement as rumours of winger Nicolas Pepe, a rumour that was roundly dismissed earlier in the window, began to gain traction. Even then it seemed hard to believe it until the Ivorian was pictured in an Arsenal shirt, but the man from Lille is a huge statement and his £72m signing has smashed the Gunners’ record outlay. A tricky winger with pace and strength to match, he offers a genuine wide option that Arsenal lacked all too often last season.
To say it would be the perfect window would be stretching it somewhat, however. Arsenal have defensive frailties they have yet to address with the Kieran Tierney saga seemingly no closer to a resolution and weaknesses at centre back a real cause of concern. Reports this week of a rejected bid for RB Leipzig’s Dayot Upemecano have raised hopes that this is still an area being worked on, and if Arsenal can bring in either Tierney or a centre back it would make it possibly the best transfer window since Thierry Henry signed. Signing a centre back seemed dependent on offloading wantaway Laurent Koscielny and wanted-away Shkodran Mustafi, and with Koscielny this week getting his move back to France it has perhaps freed up room for a new addition.
Where the season will be won and lost
One could suggest that it can be won and lost over the next few days. If Arsenal bolster their defence before the window closes it would address a key weakness. Arsenal’s problem with the position is three-fold; there is no obvious candidate to partner Sokratis, there may not be the resources to buy a centre back, and the position is bloated with a lack of experience or quality. Selling Koscielny has freed up room to bring in a top-level centre back, but if there isn’t time then the Gunners could find themselves plagued with the same defensive problems they faced last season.
However, going forward Arsenal look ever stronger than they did last season. Nicolas Pepe offers genuine quality out wide, which was an area where Arsenal needed to improve. At times last year, there was too much reliance on individual moments of quality and overlapping fullbacks to provide the width, which became predictable and ineffective. It also often forced Emery into using a three-at-the-back system, which created an imbalance in midfield and forced players out of position further up the pitch.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil often had to play slightly wider where they are much less effective, and at times the midfield could get overrun. Emery prefers a 4-2-3-1 system and the signing of a genuine wideman, with pace, trickery and a direct style of play will be crucial in implementing that. It will help bring a balance to the side and variety to the attack, something that was sorely missing last season.
It’s hard to say whether Arsenal’s strength going forward will be enough to compensate for their defensive issues; on paper it’s arguable only Manchester City and Liverpool have stronger attacks going forward, but if the Gunners don’t shake their poor habits at the back it could once again cost them a top-four spot. Too many times last season were Arsenal exposed away from home by sides more physical and better organised, and even the most optimistic Gooner would admit there is little evidence that will change.
One to watch
Joe Willock is a name that passed through Hale End with endless amounts of excitement and expectation, but his progress had stalled slightly over the last couple of years, with limited first-team opportunities and little to show for the opportunities he did have.
But Unai Emery has put faith in the 19-year-old midfielder over the summer; Willock has featured regularly and impressed throughout pre-season, showing plenty of maturity and ability on the ball to suggest he could feature regularly in Emery’s plans. He has plenty of competition of course, with Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira, Dani Ceballos and Matteo Guendouzi all more established within the first team. But there will doubtless be opportunities for Willock to establish himself, and if he performs to the same standard as in pre-season then there is every chance of him becoming a more permanent fixture in the team. In all likelihood, he will get a chance to impress in the Europa League, with Emery almost certain to rotate in the group stages.
Willock is a midfielder who loves to get about the pitch and combines his work rate with fantastic technical ability and composure on the ball, and can be used in a number of different roles. He’s arguably at his best as part of a midfield two, comfortable receiving the ball on the half-turn and in tight spaces where his close control and strength can take opposition players out of the game. The Hale End graduate has been spoken of in the same breath as Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith-Rowe as part of an exciting generation of Arsenal prospects, and Willock could be the first to cement a first-team spot.
Going by the starting line up against Barcelona, Calum Chambers looks like he could be given a chance to partner Sokratis at the back, and having spent two seasons out on loan it might be now or never for the 24-year-old. With Rob Holding still on the comeback trail, Koscielny gone and Mustafi out of favour, it’s almost by process of elimination that Chambers could get the nod against Newcastle. Perhaps not the biggest endorsement, but it’s an opportunity nonetheless for the former Southampton man.
Chambers has all the attributes to be a top-class modern defender; athletic, tall, intelligent and good on the ball. He has yet to perform consistently in an Arsenal shirt, though. There are signs he may be more suited to a midfield role where he stood out in an otherwise dreadful Fulham team last season, but a combination of Arsenal’s need for a centre back and competition in midfield makes this unlikely.
Any first-team opportunities could be scuppered if a centre back is brought in this week, but as it stands Chambers could well get the nod on Sunday. A series of good performances could kick start his career at Arsenal, and solve a huge headache for Unai Emery.
What to expect?
Arsenal last season were incoherent and completely unpredictable, yet away from home opposition found them all too easy to set up against and entirely predictable. A good transfer window has rightfully raised expectations around the Emirates, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that the imbalance between defence and attack won’t plague Unai Emery’s side once again this season.
The long-established truism that the Gunners are “one or two players away” from competing for once has an actual basis in reality; signing Tierney or a centre back would almost certainly elevate Arsenal above the other sides fighting for a top-four spot. However all the while that issue remains unaddressed, doubts will be cast over Arsenal’s potential.
That being said, Arsenal are objectively stronger than they were last season, and their rivals for a top-four place also have glaring problems. Manchester United have strengthened but still have their midfield problems, whilst Chelsea have lost Eden Hazard and are operating under the restraints of a transfer ban, with an inexperienced manager at the helm. If ever there was a time for the Gunners to climb back into the Champions League, this season is it.
In the cup competitions, Arsenal will once again be expecting to go far in the Europa League and compete in the FA Cup, whilst Emery will most likely look towards the League Cup as the stage to blood youngsters who impressed in pre-season like Willock and Bukayo Saka.
Another area for optimism is the sight of a reinvigorated Mesut Ozil, who last season seemed to play within himself amid rumours of a clash with Emery. Throughout pre-season Arsenal’s number ten has looked somewhere close to his best, and has played with an energy and freedom not seen in quite a while. A fit and firing Ozil is capable of lifting the whole team to another level and could be the difference this season.
No doubt it will be another season that will have Arsenal fans’ emotions all over the place again, but there is plenty of reason to be excited. A top-four spot and a Europa League or FA Cup in the trophy cabinet would represent significant progress for post-Wenger Arsenal.