With common consensus suggesting that the Gunners are in for a rough ride, an alternative view on potential success
2018-19 was very Arsenal. Even after the incessantly negative echoes of “Wenger Out” had slowly began to fade into the distant past following a 22-match unbeaten run to start the season, the inevitable end to the campaign was all too familiar for Gunners fans.
Now, off the back of a Europa League final drubbing and ongoing uncertainty regarding the club’s hierarchy and transfer budget, it is being widely questioned whether Arsenal will be able to stay in realistic contention for the top four this time around. However, there are plenty of reasons to suggest the contrary: Arsenal are arguably in as good as a position as anyone to compete for the two remaining Champions League spots, as it is accepted that the top two are likely to continue on an altogether different level.
It may be an easy question to pose as a non-Arsenal supporting fan, but one thought always springs to mind as the Gunners never seem far from ‘crisis’ talks. Why are people so persistently negative about them? From the outside, it seems that there is so much to be positive about, especially in relation to their other second-rank top six rivals. The positives — which shall follow — are plentiful and talks of a crisis are very much premature in comparison to the depths of despair that were reached at times during the back end of the Wenger era.
Arsenal fans’ primary reason for optimism is their manager. Unai Emery is one of Europe’s elite tactical masterminds and was greeted with a groundswell of optimism this time last year, swiftly backed up by his impressive start to life in the Emirates dugout. Despite subsequently leading his side to a baffling crash out of the Premier League top four and a considerably disappointing Europe League collapse, a limited amount of blame can be placed at the Spaniards door for these failures, just as sole credit for the manager’s efforts had to be tempered after their blistering unbeaten start to 2018-19.
However, a common thread to Emery’s career and a vital factor to him gaining his reputation prior to his arrival in England was his second season record. Setting aside a short-lived spell with Spartak Moscow, Emery’s improvement in his second full season in charge is apparent. He took Valencia to sixth in his first season and then third the following campaign, before a glorious spell at Sevilla saw him crown a second consecutive fifth-place finish with Europe League victory in 2013-14. At Paris Saint-Germain, he backed up a strong first season (finishing second and winning both domestic cup competitions) by winning the domestic treble. If he can get things right once again, silverware could well be on the way.
On top of the perhaps expected improvement because of the manager’s history, Emery will largely be working with the same group. Despite losing Aaron Ramsey to Juventus, Arsenal’s number one has identified a chance to blood talented younger players in pre-season, adding a freshness to a squad that fell away last time around. Players such as Eddie Nketiah, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli have all impressed in equal measure on Arsenal’s tour of the United States, with Nketiah in particular scoring a late winner against Bayern Munich.
Of all the Under-21 stars who have featured in recent weeks, 19-year-old Joe Willock stood out for one significant onlooker. When asked which opposition player had impressed him the most following his Real Madrid side’s defeat of the North Londoners, Zinedine Zidane acknowledged that Willock “handled the tempo of the game and showed important physical traits. A top talent for sure.” Some praise indeed, and if Emery’s hand is to be forced by a limited transfer budget, the increased introduction of these younger stars could be a blessing for the Gunners and an ideal boost for the team and its fans.
Given the club’s transfer restrictions — it has been widely reported that the Gunners have a budget of just £40million this summer — the necessity to include some of the club’s younger talent has been more apparent than ever. Arsenal have been admiring Wilfred Zaha and while it is unlikely they will be able to convince Palace to sell the winger for around 50% of their asking price, the Gunners have had to make smart moves elsewhere. A prime example is the loan signing of Dani Ceballos, confirmed on Thursday afternoon. Spain and Real’s majestic midfield maestro has previously worked with Emery and will provide a touch of class and creativity to Arsenal’s midfield that was often lacking last term.
Out of apparent transfer ‘crisis’ could come shrewd business and positive additions to the squad. Ceballos can be the sort of signing to start a new, smarter approach to transfer business, perhaps following the Liverpool and (whisper it quietly) Spurs models of bringing in hungry young players that can be developed under astute tactical management.
If last season taught us anything, it’s that Arsenal have the best strike partnership in the Premier League. Between them, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored 35 league goals and set up 13, often for each other. The latter claimed a share of the golden boot with 22 goals in his first full season at the club, backing up his 10 goals from 13 games in his debut season. With the pair bouncing off each other and combining almost effortlessly, Lacazette’s touch and strength compliments Aubameyang’s raw pace and clever movement.
Both are master marksmen in front of goal and have carried that form into pre-season; the pair grabbing one each as Arsenal raced into a 2-0 lead in their most recent outing against Real. What’s more, both of Arsenal’s goal-getters have had sufficient time to recuperate this summer prior to the commencement of pre-season, with Aubameyang’s Gabon not qualifying to compete in the African Cup of Nations. The Laca-Auba partnership is flourishing, always improving, and an ever-reliable source of goals for Arsenal as the most prominent genuine double-act in the Premier League.
Home is where the heart is. Much is said about the effect of Anfield’s 12th man on Liverpool’s performances. While this is undeniable, it is somehow lost on fans that Arsenal’s home record since the start of 2016-17 is better than Liverpool’s, second only to Manchester City in the Premier League. In that time, City finished third before securing back-to-back league titles, famously earning 198 points in the process. Arsenal, meanwhile, have finished fifth, sixth and fifth again, albeit the first two of those were under the slowly dying stewardship of Wenger. Regardless, the clear Achilles heel for Arsenal is their away form. If they can cut out sloppy away performances to accompany consistently impressive results at the Emirates, third place and potentially a trophy could be within reach.
For the fans, patience and a sense of perspective are required; they must trust in their manager. While a lack of leadership and the feeble loss of key figure and club legend Ramsey didn’t seem to make much sense, optimism must be born out of the current situation. With the loss of Ramsey and uncertainty regarding club captain Laurent Koscielny’s future after he refused to join his team mates in the US, it is time for others to stand up and be counted. The core of Arsenal’s side is strong, and while their inability to spend big like their rivals is far from ideal, a smart signing in the centre of defence could cap off a largely positive summer.
Further, Emery’s hardline stance with Mesut Özil could be beneficial on two fronts. The manager was forceful with the German and uncompromising regarding his work rate last season, but if he can get the number 10 back on side again, he would feel like a new signing, with regards to both quality and leadership values. This pre-season has gone some way to doing that, as Emery has made efforts to reintegrate the man who when at his best is undeniably Arsenal’s most skilful player, giving him the captain’s armband. If Özil can find form and strike up a midfield partnership with Ceballos, this could provide a tantalisingly more creative aspect to an already sharp, goal-laden forward line.
With a new, fresh feel to a squad led by a manager driven by success and with a stellar second-season record, the time could well be now for Arsenal. Limited big-money signings can be a good thing, as Emery seeks to establish a hungry, settled squad without having to forcibly bed any new players in. Familiarity could be essential for Arsenal, but above anything the fans have a key part to play. They have a history of exaggerated pessimism and the fact is a lot of Premier League club’s fans are likely jealous of a number of things going on in the red half on North London.
It’s a festering, self-fulfilling prophecy and a habit that can just as easily be got rid of. Positivity has to drown out talks of crisis, and a progressive pre-season will go some way to kickstarting that. With games against Liverpool and rivals Spurs coming within the first few weeks of the season, it is time for Arsenal to step up.