Arsenal Season Preview: the Unai Emery era

With the 2018-19 Premier League season just around the corner, The Football Lab spoke to Arsenal fan Dez (@DezilDezz).

This has been a significant summer for Arsenal with Arsene Wenger leaving after 22 years at the helm. Given that his relationship with fans had strained in recent seasons, were you pleased – and at all surprised – that his tenure finished with such a warm reconciliation?

I was pleased, but not suprised. Majority of the fans never really had any hatred or real dislike for the great man, it was all mainly frustration at a lack of success that most believe we deserved. As well as not only the decline in the style of football we played but in results over the last few years. It was the right time for him to leave, and as soon it was announced the World saw the true feelings that Arsenal fans have for him, and I’m happy that Wenger had that kind of send off because it is what he deserves for overall the fantastic job he did for this club.

The man stepping into Wenger’s shoes is Unai Emery, who has won three Europa Leagues with Sevilla and is known for his attention to detail. Are you excited at having a head coach with such meticulous methods in charge?

I believe that style of coaching is what most players respond to now, micromanagement both in the training ground and on the pitch to make sure that the players are put in the best situation to succeed.

Such planning for and during games means that when players find themselves in certain situations during a game, they could have a solution already planned and therefore it helps the players to solve problems on the pitch more easily and also to be more calm and feel less pressure in negative situations that occur on the pitch. As not only are these situations expected, but they have the solution.

For example you look at a Pep Guardiola team at Barca and you see how patient they are in possession even when it’s 0-0 against a team sitting so deep, because it is what they expected and know eventually with patience and their planned approach the space will open for them to exploit.

Bernd Leno joins after impressing for seven years at Bayer Leverkusen. Are you pleased to have a goalkeeper who can distribute the ball well?

I haven’t seen enough of Leno consistently to have the best judgement, but I trust that Sven Mislintat should know a lot about him. What I have noticed is that Leno’s distribution and willingness, because you need both the quality and commitment to play a certain way. I have seen him show this in different games, so that is a major positive for Arsenal especially compared to Cech who lacks such quality and desire to play that way, and it has been detrimental to our build up play over the past few years.

Stephan Lichtsteiner has signed on a free from Juventus. Do you think his arrival represents the kick that Hector Bellerin has perhaps needed over the last two years?

Lichtsteiner has both experience and a great character so Bellerin should gain from that. If you notice during the tunnel at times before games, you’ll see and hear Bellerin being vocal towards his teammates so I believe he can be one of the leaders.

Having a player with Lichtsteiner’s character around him can only further bring that side out of him, whilst offering him the backup that he has not had for a few seasons now which has forced us into overplaying him. Bellerin should benefit from the extra rest during the season.

Sokratis Papastathopolous joins from Dortmund. With Laurent Koscielny out injured, you think he’ll be a good mentor for your younger centre-backs, such as Konstantinos Mavropanos?

There is a possibility that Sokratis is past his best, with his style of aggressive defending you need to be at your best physically and at 30 with years of football that may not be the case.

However, he may still have a few seasons left and playing under a coach who might be more defensive than his previous he could still produce for us. In regards to what he can offer to the younger players, Sokratis has already came out and said he will try his best to support Mavropanos.

Mertesacker has retired and Koscielny has a long term injury so with Chambers/Holding/Mavropanos we needed the experience, of course Mustafi is still around and could improve. I have been impressed with Mavropanos from the little I have seen, just like I was with Gabriel but the language barrier didn’t help him, so it should be helpful to Mavropanos that he has a fellow Greek in Sokratis at the back with him.

Nacho Monreal doesn’t look as quick as he used to be. Do you need to bring in a left-back capable of providing width, or do you believe Sead Kolasinac or Ainsley Maitland-Niles can step up?

I believe a left back should be a priority. If we are going to be playing without a left winger who can offer width on that side then we need width from the left back and Monreal does not have the legs to offer that anymore. Kolasinac looked promising at the start of the season but declined after being dropped. It should be interesting to see if he regains that form or improves under a new coach, but ideally we sign a new left back as we have to replace Monreal long term anyway.

Granit Xhaka arrived two years ago with the reputation for, as well as a good passing range, being very combative. Do you think more intense training methods under Emery will help bring out the aggression in his game?

I don’t believe aggression is what is lacking from him, in fact he needs to be less aggressive when defending as it allows him to be easily bypassed by quicker players because he is slow and easily falls for the feints from forwards which drag him out of position. I like the player and he still has a spot in the squad, but I do not believe he will be first choice next season, especially if we sign N’Zonzi or another CM.

Lucas Torreira had an excellent World Cup with Uruguay while Matteo Guendouzi arrives highly-rated by Lorient, while popular figures Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere depart. Was it important to freshen up the midfield?

Torreira arriving offers us a natural defensive minded player, this is a profile we lacked in the squad so it was important that we signed him. Guendouzi looks like a good talent from videos I have seen on him, it should be interesting to see him work his way up from cup games.

Cazorla has been a great player and character for the club and I wish him all the best and hopefully he recovers properly from that injury. Losing Wilshere was not easy because he is a part of Arsenal, we as fans had high hopes for him. However, at this stage in his career he has to start playing games regularly for a club that relies on him if he ever wants to end his career with the feeling that he constantly tried to fulfil his potential.

A lot of the wide men you used last season – Danny Welbeck, Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan – always seemed to want to cut inside. Would you welcome the addition of a classic wide man like Gelson Martins or Cristian Pavon?

Another profile we lack in the squad is a winger, a player capable of receiving in wide areas and creating situations with 1v1 and dribbling skills. A player like this improves the team because our attack is very narrow due to the profile of players we have in those areas. A winger could bring variation in the way we attack and is still a position we are yet to address. It would be a shame if we again ignore the importance of such a player.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang appears to have had a bigger impact on the side than fellow striker Alexandre Lacazette. Do you expect the latter to begin the season as second-choice, or could the duo start up top together?

Aubameyang is a goal machine. He started the season at Dortmund with 13 goals and 3 assists in 16 league games, then joined Arsenal and hit the ground running with 10 goals and 4 assists in 13 league games.

I believe Lacazette is a capable second choice, but also because of his technique and link-up play outside and inside the box he is able to play with Aubameyang whenever we need the extra goal threat.

What Lacazette can offer playing with Aubameyang is a player who can be a reference up front during the build up play in the final 3rd, which therefore creates more space for Aubameyang who is more an outlet in his style to exploit.

Lacazette himself would benefit from another presence up front which also creates more space for himself, he has actually scored 5 goals in the 7 games since Aubameyang arrived, they seem to have a good relationship both on and off the pitch.

Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock all had breakthrough seasons last year. Which of those three academy graduates can you see making an impression on the new boss?

I still put Niles in this bracket and believe he could impress Emery the most, especially if we do not bring in anymore midfielders. He offers energy, dribbling from central areas and offers himself defensively which are all useful.

I like Nketiah, but with Aubameyang and Lacazette at the moment his opportunities would be rare, likewise Willock. Nelson could be the breakout of those 3, as I mentioned earlier we lack the profile of a wide player with 1v1 attributes, with such a narrow attack it’s possible that Nelson can be relied upon to offer a variation in our attack off the bench.

Emile Smith-Rowe is a player not on that list, but who I believe could be one to watch and has impressed in the youth ranks. He is going on the pre season tour to Singapore. I also want to see how the young CBs Holding/Chambers/Mavropanos develop under a new coach.

Gunners aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Premier League season as a whole? How do you assess your competitors?

Man City still look like favourites, the squad is very young and with strong depth so complacency should not be an issue. However, a large number of their players were at the World Cup and that could affect them as they would mostly miss pre season.

The same goes for Spurs, they still maintain a good squad but without much investments so far the likes of Liverpool/Chelsea could move past them.

Liverpool have a great coach, and they have improved the weakest parts of their team with Alisson, Van Dijk, Fabinho and Keita. Whilst also adding depth to their sensational attack with Shaqiri and a motivated and fit Sturridge.

Chelsea have acquired Sarri who plays an attractive style of football, with the squad they have and additions of Jorginho and possibly Higuain, they should have a fantastic season. Sarri could also dismiss the Europa league as he did with Napoli last season, which would give their best players more rest.

United have a better team than it seems at times, they finished 2nd and added Fred a player who can offer balance between Pogba and Matic likewise to the presence of Matuidi for France to an extent.

With additions at RW and possibly CB/LB I believe United could challenge this season. It might not be as easy as it was for City last season, in that case we could have a very exciting title race with 6 strong teams.

Where will you finish?

4th-6th. I feel City/United/Liverpool are very strong and already established, whilst Arsenal and Chelsea could be going through a transition phase in style of play. It depends how that plays out. Spurs are established already, and could quite comfortably take the 4th spot ahead of 2 teams in transition. Should be an exciting season.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Arsenal have a potent attacking quartet, including a borderline world-class forward in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who could challenge for the golden boot, while deep-lying playmaker Granit Xhaka may move up another level alongside Lucas Torreira. The Gunners have better squad than last season suggested and perhaps Arsene Wenger’s exit, combined with the arrival of a meticulous coach in Unai Emery, could rejuvenate the club sufficiently to inspire a title challenge. 2nd