Lasting over two decades and cementing legendary status at Arsenal, manager Arsène Wenger decided it was finally time to bid farewell after another underwhelming campaign that saw the Gunners produce a series of poor performances, finish sixth in the Premier League, and fail to deliver Champions League football after bowing out of the Europa League at the semi-final stage.
The board at London’s most revered football club decided to replace Wenger with former PSG and Sevilla manager Unai Emery, whose high-pressing, defensively aware system is well-suited to both the strengths and weaknesses of the players currently at the Emirates.
However, he will not start his first job in England without struggles; as it stands, Arsenal are easily the worst club in the top six, with many underperforming players and holes in the squad that Wenger failed to fill during the later years of his time at the club.
Predicting Emery’s first attempt at resurrecting a fallen side is a daunting task, but after plenty of summer signings, the picture seems a little bit clearer and should be reminiscent of the team below.
Emery’s signing of Bernd Leno raises many questions. The German goalkeeper, once an international, undoubtedly has ability, but there are many claims that he is error-prone. Still relatively young at 26, he should be given the time to adjust to the role.
Luckily for Leno, he has plenty of experience behind him in Petr Čech, one of the most coveted goalkeepers in the history of the Premier League. David Ospina could be searching for a new club this summer in light of the new signing.
Despite the signing of the experienced Stephan Lichtsteiner, who will add plenty of experience and consistency at the back after years of starting for Juventus, Héctor Bellerín looks set to start at right-back for Arsenal.
Inconsistent throughout his time at Arsenal, the young Bellerín should benefit from a new manager, better defensive system, and Lichtsteiner’s signing, as the Swiss international will provide him with both competition and education.
Sead Kolašinac had a tumultuous first season in England after being touted as one of the signings of the summer, but this is his year to win back the starting place from Nacho Monreal, who was a stalwart in Wenger’s final years but is now 32 years of age and needs to be replaced for the long-term.
Assuming Bellerín and Kolašinac establish themselves as the fullbacks they have promised to be during their time at Arsenal, they will form one of the best duos in Europe for the better part of the next decade. They also have great mentors behind them who will offer excellent cover and presence in the dressing room.
New signing Sokratis Papastathopoulos is a well-considered bargain for Arsenal at £14.4 million. Much like Lichtsteiner, he offers experience at the top level and leadership qualities which have been sorely missed at the back for Arsenal over recent years. The Greek international leaps to the top of the pecking order.
By January, Laurent Koscielny will be returning from his injury and the hope is that he will pair Sokratis at the back, returning to his best in a steadier back line. Koscielny was one of the best defenders in the Premier League alongside Per Mertesacker but struggled after the retiring German was replace by his compatriot, Shkodran Mustafi.
Mustafi joined from Valencia as one of the best defenders in Spain but failed to replicate his form under Wenger, and now it is Emery’s job to discover the form that earned the German great plaudits and a World Cup medal in 2014.
Undoutbedly the first three options, Sokratis, Koscielny and Mustafi are understudied by three up-and-coming defenders in Rob Holding, Calum Chambers and Konstantinos Mavropanos, all of whom seem set to stay at Arsenal for another season and play at centre-back.
Emery’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation means that he will be reliant on two pressing central midfielders at the core of his side. New signing Lucas Torreira showed that he offers the previously missing defensive presence and youthfulness while playing for Uruguay at the World Cup, and he could be paired by Granit Xhaka, who, once again, signed as a deep-lying playmaker with metronomic presence but was misused and suffered under Wenger.
It is difficult to leave Aaron Ramey out but he simply fits better in the attacking positions, where he can roam free and deal damage. He becomes an option there, or in a 4-3-3 formation alongside Torreira and Xhaka, offering plenty of formational versatility to the side. In attacking midfield Emery tends to start a player with greater defensive awareness than a traditional “ten”, and as such it is also plausible that Ramsey starts bigger, more important matches.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles is a promising young midfielder who emerged into the first team in Wenger’s final years, while Mohamed Elneny provides squad depth and is still improving as a footballer.
Emery has an irresistible opportunity to get the best out of Mesut Özil, who has showed his ability and desire to play for Arsenal despite the media’s insistence on claiming that he doesn’t want to be there. Özil has something to prove after exiting the World Cup at the group stages with Germany and retiring from international football, citing racism as a main reason for his decision.
Flanking him on the left should be former Dortmund duo Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from the left and Henrik Mkhitaryan on the right. Typically found up top, Aubameyang will likely shift to the left and play a free role, finding runs beyond the striker to try and fashion chances on goal. With very attacking fullbacks, he will have great freedom and will likely play a role that mirrors Mohamed Salah’s rampant Liverpool exploits.
Aubameyang, one of the most clinical players in world football, will be opposed by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a player who joined from Manchester United in January 2018 at the expense of Alexis Sànchez. While Arsenal lost the heart of their side in Sànchez, Mkhitaryan is a nimble, hard-working and versatile footballer capable of producing spectacular moments both in terms of playmaking and scoring goals. He was poor at United but one of the best attacking midfielders in Europe at Dortmund.
Arsenal could benefit from the signing of a winger here, as they lack a natural wide player of requisite quality to change matches against stubborn defences. Alex Iwobi, Lucas Pérez, Joel Campbell are all in and around the squad and their futures are uncertain, but none thrive at whipping in crosses from the wing. However, this seems unlikely, and perhaps the likes of Reiss Nelson, who made his way into the squad last season and emerged as a top prospect, could benefit as a result.
Struggling to acclimatise after joining Arsenal last summer, Alexandre Lacazette showed his true capabilities towards the end of the season and managed to finish with 12 Premier League goals, which is hardly a disaster after a debut campaign. Leading a world class attacking midfield unit, Lacazette will hope he is the centrepiece of one of the best attacking setups in England.
Backing him up is the reliable Danny Welbeck, whose work rate and relentless energy makes up for his lack of finesse as a footballer. Aubameyang is much more likely to play here in Lacazette’s absence, with the possibility of Welbeck playing from the left.
The keys to Arsenal’s season will be the new signings and players who underperformed in Wenger’s final years. If the likes of Bellerín, Mustafi, Xhaka and Özil emerge among the best players in the league in their respective positions, Arsenal will be hugely boosted and will have aspirations of Champions League football.
Pushing it one step further, if Sokratis, Torreira and Leno have good campaigns, the Gunners will be very difficult to penetrate at the back, and combining defensive solidity with world class attacking players is undoubtedly a recipe for success.
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