After a sparkling Arsenal summer, the pressure is now on Unai Emery
Three weeks ago, you would have been hard-pressed to convince anyone that Arsenal would go on to have one of the most shocking and effective transfer windows of the summer. And yet, as the dust settles on the transfer season in the Premier League, few clubs can claim to have improved and streamlined their squads as effectively as the North London outfit.
Manchester United managed to improve their defence, albeit at massive expense, but the sale of Romelu Lukaku to Inter Milan without replacement leaves the bulk of the goalscoring duties to Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Tottenham added a couple nice pieces of their own in Tanguy N’dombele and Ryan Sessegnon, but concerns remain over squad depth and an injury prone defence. Meanwhile, Chelsea were frozen in place by a transfer ban, while the class of the division, Liverpool and Manchester City largely carry over their title challenging teams from last season with little augmentation. In short, a case can be made that the Gunners have done more to improve the playing squad than any of their top six rivals.
However, on-paper improvement does not guarantee success for any team, and with Raul Sanllehi’s statement of intent this summer with his deft moves on the transfer market comes a whole raft of increased pressure on the coaches and players to finally return to the Champions League. For Unai Emery, no season will be more pivotal to his Arsenal future than the 2019/20 campaign. The club have a break clause inserted into his three year contract, meaning they can cut ties with their Head Coach after this season without financial implication.
Luckily for Emery, the club has done all it can to provide him with the tools he needs to field a balanced squad in his image. His desire for a “chameleon team”, capable of playing any way that’s required, was bolstered with acquisitions at nearly every level in the first team. Where there was a dearth of options last season, especially on the flanks, Emery is now almost spoiled for choice. Will it be enough for the Arsenal to finally hit its targets for the first time in three seasons? Or will the summer of 2020 involve yet another coaching search and identity change for the team?
Ruthless At All Levels
One aspect of this summer window that fans seem to have enjoyed the most is Raul’s dispassionate, ruthless take on squad building. While welcoming exciting talents into the ranks, fans have also had to say “good bye” to some of the players whose ties with Arsenal run deepest. Academy product and all-around good guy Alex Iwobi was sacrificed in the dying moments of the transfer window to help fund a window that saw the club agree to transfer fees combining for more than £140m (to be paid in installments over the coming years). Arsenal fan living the dream, Carl Jenkinson, has departed as well, along with 2018 club captain Laurent Koscielny.
While these moves have been generally praised by many as a long-overdue clear out of underperforming and overpaid role players, what is less often considered is that the club should now be taking this approach with everyone at the club, including the coaching staff and in the executive suite. For Unai Emery, the message Raul is sending could not be more clear: you’ve been given enough talent to reach our targets, now it’s on you to fit it all together properly.
After a season often blighted by struggles and poor performances, and a never-ending stream of tactical and personnel changes, Unai Emery has strides of his own to make in his second season with the club. His decision last season to change to a back 3 in a bid to shore up the defence was met with mixed results, and many of the concepts he appeared intent on instilling into the team had been discarded by January. What transpired was a self-perpetuating cycle of tactical tinkering, leading to confused players, which only served to cause Emery to tinker some more. The result was a team lacking in confidence by season’s end that looked nothing like the well-oiled machine the Basque Head Coach had laid out in his plans for the team last summer.
A Well-stocked Arsenal
If the previous paragraphs appear to paint a less than glowing portrait of the man tasked with taking Arsenal back to the uppermost reaches of European football, it must be noted that his first season was not helped by a rash of mid-season injuries and a fundamentally imbalanced squad that discouraged him from deploying his preferred tactics in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Luckily for the head coach and fans alike, this summer’s business has done more than just steal headlines away from rival clubs. Emery will have a far hungrier and more balanced squad to work with heading into this season, and once the new players have bedded in, one reasonably expects to see a team play in a way far more identifiable with Emery’s previous work.
The front line, already boasting two top line strikers in Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, has been bolstered by the addition of record signing Nicolas Pepe and Brazilian teenager Gabriel Martinelli. Behind the attackers, the creative hub of Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan has welcomed young Real Madrid star Dani Ceballos to the mix, adding an element of on-ball composure, dynamism and trickery that the elder playmakers can’t quite match. Ceballos also figures into the mix in central midfield, where Granit Xhaka should benefit from his ball skills. Stablemates Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi should be even better in their second season on English shores, and they will help the Swiss midfield controller to shield a back line that has been refreshed for the new season.
In defence, the team may have shied away from a top-line centre back on the heavily inflated transfer market, but the club have landed a steal for 2020 in William Saliba, who should return after another season at St Etienne an even hotter prospect next summer. David Luiz’ arrival should help cushion the loss of Laurent Koscielny, but it is at left back where the most seismic defensive move was made for this season, which Celtic star Kieran Tierney set to battle with Sead Kolasinac for the starting berth on the left of either a back 4 or back 5.
Bernd Leno has retained his place as the team’s number one goalkeeper, but he will now be backed up by Emi Martinez, who has long waited for the opportunity to earn significant minutes with the first team.
The Cream Will Rise
When viewed in totality, the squad appears to offer Emery a wealth of versatile options to deploy in any way he best sees fit. But perhaps even more important for a team looking to raise its collective level, the competition for places in the starting XI will be fierce and, at times, crowded. While having a 25 man squad full of starting calibre players can mean that some will inevitably be unhappy with the role they have been given, the benefits far outweigh such negatives.
Last season, Unai Emery worked to establish a culture of competition, where players would only play if they earned their place in training, but as injuries and minutes took their toll on the squad, it became almost impossible to enforce. There should be no such issue this season, as there will be competition for creative, midfield and defensive roles as Emery looks to find the mot efficient and dynamic XI possible.
Players like Mesut Ozil, Sead Kolasinac and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, all of whom should benefit from the quality additions around them, are fighting for their Arsenal futures this season amid a clear trend towards a younger, more athletic profile of player. If one does not perform, Emery will not hesitate to turn to other players for what he requires. If he is tempted to move away from twin striker formations in the name of balance, the dynamic duo of Lacazette and Aubameyang may find themselves competing against each other for the same spot in the team once again.
A Palpable Excitement
For some, this season might be a bit jarring when compared to the compassionate, familial approach that Arsene Wenger took to squad building during his wonderful time with the club, but in the present climate of the cutthroat Premier League, the Gunners have been forced to take some difficult decisions in the name of long term growth. For a success-starved fanbase hungry to return to its best days, this summer has been one of the most universally praised in recent memory.
All of the drama and the frenetic pace of the transfer news cycle will once again fade into the background as the season proper kicks off for the Gunners on Sunday. Will the good vibes continue into the season, when the matches start counting? Will the big-name signings live up to their price tags in an Arsenal shirt? These are questions we should know the answer to in time.
As for Unai Emery, should last season’s struggles rear their ugly heads once again, the excuses will be less willingly provided. This is now his Arsenal, being built in an image to his preference, and the club has seen three transfer windows to their conclusion with him in charge of the on-pitch performance of the playing squad. He has been supplied with talent. He has been supplied with competition in training. He has been supplied with versatility. From 11 August until the final match of the season, it will be Unai Emery’s job to make it all work. You can be sure of one thing: Raul will be watching.