The Season Just Gone
Arsenal’s 2017-18 was a unique campaign in Premier League history. Never before had a top side been so obviously good and yet so obviously so far from sufficient. Never before had we been simultaneously able to admire and pity a team of such elite quality. Never before had we seen such a big, modern stadium with such obscenely high ticket prices and yet known without a shadow of a doubt that the fans were handing over gigantic oodles of cash to watch inevitable, embarrassing disaster.
Despite having shaken off the shackles of post-Emirates financial constraints and regained the ability to pay top dollar for and to top players, Arsenal posted their worst Premier League finish since the mid-1990s: sixth in the table, a whopping twelve points off a Champions League place and an even more embarrassing 37 points behind champions Manchester City. The Gunners, for so long contenders and standard bearers in the Premier League, were almost entirely irrelevant to the rest of the division. Manager Arsène Wenger, seemingly bullet-proof for so many mediocre years, finally fell on his sword, and a new era beckoned.
That isn’t to say it was all doom and gloom. Their home form was largely very good and Wenger’s sacking was announced with just the right wording and timing to inspire a deluge of goodwill and moving tributes to the Gunners’ most successful and longest serving manager. The final few weeks of the season saw a drawn-out goodbye for Wenger but they were characterised not by pitiful idiots frothing at the mouth on Arsenal Fan TV, but by a stately, dignified and teary-eyed sense of nostalgic positivity.
Furthermore, Arsenal emerged from January as ‘the winners of the transfer window’, which is apparently now a thing and means more to some supporters than lifting minor silverware. Although talisman Alexis Sánchez and handsome mascot Olivier Giroud departed, their positions were filled by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is far more an Arsenal-type player than Alexis ever was, and the undeniably exciting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is frankly phenomenal. More importantly still, Mesut Özil committed his future and the rest of his prime years to the club, signing a new contract which put him on parity with the highest earners in England.
Their swashbuckling January megaspend was further bolstered by the summer arrivals of Bernd Leno, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Lucas Torreira, suggesting that Arsenal will indeed return to being a force to be reckoned with in the not-too-distant future.
New manager Unai Emery arrived from Paris Saint-Germain, slightly bruised from his Parisian ordeal but with a point to prove. Emery was clearly not the right man to lead the glitzy showmen of the Parc des Princes forward but he has exactly the right profile to oversee Arsenal’s regeneration, in tandem with Sven Mislintat, Head of Recruitment, and Raul Sanllehi, Head of Football Relations – and thus fill the gigantic void left by Wenger.
The Season Ahead
No-one thought that Arsenal would instantly shake off the effects of a long, heavy, depressing malaise, and yet the meek and staggeringly familiar nature of their collapse at home to Manchester City last weekend was somehow shocking. The sense that Wenger had never left was palpable, and left no doubts as to the scale of the task facing Emery and company. Sure, the Gunners have an enviable squad but the culture of success and the simple resilience is not there.
After years of moaning about being happy with “the fourth-place trophy”, many Arsenal fans would accept that If they can qualify for the Champions League and restore a bit of pride with some fighting performances along the way, that would be enough.
Unai Emery has long been a devout 4-2-3-1 man, characterised by his critics as a coward, pedantically focused on defensive duties and so worried about catastrophic collapse that he causes his own team to implode. Incredibly, there were some long-time Emery watchers among the journalists covering the miraculous Barcelona 6-1 PSG game who wrote afterwards that they were not surprised Emery’s side had crumbled: it has always been in his nature to play so defensively under pressure that he surrenders seemingly insurmountable advantages.
In his first league game as Arsenal boss, Emery didn’t play with such reckless defensiveness but still got things badly wrong. He sent his side out in a bizarre, unbalanced 4-2-3-1/4-3-3, with Granit Xhaka anchoring the midfield alongside competition-winner-cum-backpacker-finding-himself-in-Asia Mattéo Guendouzi. Aaron Ramsey nominally played in midfield but regularly took up advanced positions alongside striker Aubameyang, only to find himself cut out of the game: when Ramsey was subbed on the hour, he had only touched the ball 19 times and made a mere eight successful passes.
Furthermore, Arsenal’s insistence on playing out from the back exploited the poor passing and technique of Petr Čech, who endured similar struggles as Chelsea’s goalkeeper during André Villas-Boas’ short but traumatic time at Stamford Bridge. Manchester City simply marked Čech’s nearest passing options and stole the ball from them whenever the hapless keeper gave them possession.
There is no doubt, even after one game, that either Emery’s ideas or the personnel must change if Arsenal are to avoid similar embarrassment when they play the other big teams. We should probably expect a more stereotypical Emery side in this game.
For all the obvious and valid jokes about Arsenal’s many flaws, they remain an incredibly talented attacking unit and to underestimate them is to hand them victory. Mesut Özil is probably the best pure number ten in the world not named Lionel, and Mkhitaryan must be close behind. Aubameyang is among deadliest finishers in the game and while questions hang over his attitude and his professionalism, his movement and composure aren’t in doubt. Alexandre Lacazette is a supremely well-suited backup.
In theory, Emery and his new signings should see the Gunners beef up and defend with something approaching competence and determination over the coming months, thus allowing them to return to relevance. Watch this space.
Manchester City at home is hardly the best way to start any season, let alone the first season in a lifetime under a new manager, but the fact that Arsenal’s defeat was even more harrowing than expected showed how deeply embedded their mediocrity and their unparalleled capacity for slapstick remain. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as Maurizio Sarri will be well aware, and Chelsea should fancy themselves massively here.
It’s still too early in the season to predict anything with any certainty, but the teams should look something like this.
(Ed.note: Hazard as center forward and Fàbregas ahead of Kovačić or Barkley would certainly cause a few debates, to say the least.)
Both of these sides have had their pants pulled down by Manchester City already this season but Chelsea looked something like their old selves last weekend. All logic points to a home win, but something tells me Aubameyang and Özil are going to steal the three points on the break. Chelsea 1-2 Arsenal.