Our first London rivalry of the season is on Saturday. We’re playing Arsenal, a team which, for once, happens to be going through the same kind of transition in which Chelsea often themselves. In anticipation of the match, we talked to pdb of The Short Fuse, which is SBNation’s home for Arsenal fans.
WAGNH: What should Chelsea exploit against Arsenal and what should they guard against?
TSF: If Eden Hazard’s eyes don’t light up at Arsenal’s center back pairing of Sokratis and Mustafi, I worry about his desire to destroy. They’re ripe for the picking.
As far as what they should guard against — don’t give any Arsenal player the space to create. Mesut Özil lives to find (and create) those spaces, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang loves to run into them and create havoc, and overall, if Arsenal are allowed to move and pass at will, they’ll make good things happen more often than not.
Last week, Arsenal also attempted to play a counterattacking game against City - which worked about as well as you’d expect given that it was against City. But Arsenal under Wenger were never really a counterattacking team, so Chelsea might want to make sure they’re ready for that, even though Arsenal are still building up their ability to do it.
WAGNH: What should we make of the loss to Manchester City? Same old Arsenal despite the new manager and players? Moments of attacking promise but also midfield lapses and questions at the back? Unai Emery tactical mistakes?
TSF: Short answer: There is no such thing as “Same Old Arsenal” any more. Longer answer: Other than the players, almost literally the only holdovers from a season ago at this time are longtime assistant coach Steve Bould and Gunnersaurus.
From coaching staff to fitness staff to Colney training ground staff to catering staff, the faces are all new, and the way of doing things is new as well. Arsenal were kicking off this new era — which, oh yeah, also included several new players and a current squad trying to learn a whole new coaching regime — against the most dominant team in the history of the Premier League, a team that can lose Kevin de Bruyne and not bat an eye.
So yeah, they lost to Manchester City. You know who else did that last season? Everybody. This was not unexpected, nor is it cause for either alarm or the creation of narratives. Arsenal are going to have a bit of a bumpy road in their first few months under Unai Emery as all this newness fades into routine. Emery inherited a defense that gave up more goals (51) than any recent-vintage Wenger team, so he’s clearly got some work to do, and that work will neither be quick nor seamless.
I expect this season to be The Season Of Treading Water — then, next summer, when Emery’s had a season with this squad and his system, he can more adequately identify what he needs and go get it and truly make this team his.
WAGNH: Your Aidan Gibson went on a rant about dysfunction in management when Calum Chambers was loaned and the CB position was left thin. The outsider’s view is that Emery is running the show. Is he? Is there dysfunction?
TSF: Emery is not running the show, and that’s by design. Arsene Wenger WAS the show for two decades — he was heavily involved in every single facet of Arsenal, from cafeteria menus to training regimens to personnel and all its associated tangents (recruitment, signing, etc). And he built a stadium.
About a year ago, Ivan Gazidis, the club’s CEO, decided that he needed to start succession planning, in no small part to decentralize Arsenal’s operations, so he hired Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi to, respectively, head up recruitment and be “head of football relations” — in effect a director of football.
What’s unclear right now is whose opinion wins — the noises Gazidis made last year were that Mislintat/Sanllehi would be working with the coach to find and sign players, but it’s not clear which side of the triangle is the lead side, as it were — is Emery able to say “go get me this guy”, or is the team’s direction/vision the property of Mislintat/Sanllehi, with Emery as a mere executor of said vision?
That part is not known, and while I would personally stop short of calling it “dysfunction”, it is much more opaque than Arsenal fans are used to the club being, which is unsettling to a lot of people.
WAGNH: Arsene Wenger owned Conte. Did that kill the mojo Mourinho had over Arsenal? How are Chelsea perceived these days?
TSF: Chelsea are perceived as kind of a sleeping giant - somewhat like Arsenal on the surface (outside looking in, Champions League-wise, underachieving in the league) but with substantially more upside. Arsenal are perceived as mostly just sleeping.
WAGNH: Emery has reportedly already been told he has time to get Arsenal in shape. Chelsea are going through a similar transition and we know it takes time. But with losing having been tolerated under Wenger for so long, was that the right message to send? Should there be more pressure for results?
TSF: First of all, define “losing”. I think winning two FA Cups in his last three seasons is, while clearly not where Arsenal wanted to be trophy-wise, forgotten a lot more than Wenger’s league shortcomings are remembered, and I really hate that. Arsenal underachieved in the league and Champions League relative to fan expectations, but those expectations were also often not grounded in all that much reality, so I’m not really worried about the club not living up to what Arsenal Fan TV thinks the club should be.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the Arsenal board always has one eye, sometimes both, on the long view, so I don’t think they’ll worry too much about a season in which Emery tries to find his feet. If things go as I said above, and Arsenal stay in sixth or move up to fifth this season, that will have bought Emery the board’s trust, and they’ll largely leave him and the Recruitment Power Team alone to do what they do.
If Emery takes Arsenal a step back this year, though, there may be a little more noise than we’re accustomed to from a board that has famously been quiet forever as far as Arsenal’s fortunes go.
WAGNH: Is Stan Kroenke an impediment to success at Arsenal?
TSF: I don’t think so, no. A whole lot of people hate the fact that Stan Kroenke is American, and a lot more people hate the fact that he’s silent. The Venn diagram of those two also overlaps into a darker-shaded area in which the commonality is that everyone in it hates what he does with all his teams — which is, basically, own them and do nothing proactive. He’s very, very hands-off as an owner, and that makes a lot of people itchy - even though a meddling, hands-on pain in the ass owner (or an incompetent owner) would arguably be a whole lot worse.
The other criticism of Kroenke is a lot more recent. He just bought out his only other shareholder of substance, which means he can (and almost assuredly will) take the club private. This will have no functional impact on the club — all it does is remove the requirement that the club have an AGM, at which angry fractional shareholders show up and vent about whatever they’re mad about on the day of the meeting.
But there’s a fear that Kroenke will, now that it’s his to do with as he wishes, use the club as a cash machine to fund his other ventures, like the LA Rams stadium. That fear, though, is unfounded — the funding for the buyout of Alisher Usmanov’s shares is not coming from the club, he has never shown a proclivity to take large sums of money out of any of his teams.
Overall, the fear that he’s going to pillage Arsenal so he can build a Scrooge McDuck basement in which he can swim through vast pools of gold coins and jewelry is a little bit overstated.
Thanks to pdb for taking the time to do this with us! Be sure to read our side of the conversation over on The Short Fuse.