Ahead of the Europa League final, we caught up with Nathan Reynolds of The Short Fuse, SB Nation’s Arsenal blog, to chat a bit about the season, the game, and the future. Be sure to check out the reverse edition over on TSF, we we talk Sarri and Hazard and Petr Čech.
WAGNH: It cannot be easy to follow a mythical figure like Wenger. We only have to look to United’s foibles in the post-Ferguson era. How did Unai Emery cope?
TSF: Looking at the table, Arsenal improved by seven points this season, has two more wins and three fewer losses. Goals for and against were almost identical. The club has progressed farther in the Europa League this season and were just one result away from being back in the top four. There weren’t any game-changing signings last summer, so overall I think it’s been a decent year for Emery. Not spectacular, but a solid season to build on.
WAGNH: The contrast between the top two and the rest of the top six was quite glaring this season, especially during the run-in. What went so wrong for Arsenal in those final few weeks? And, in a more general sense, just what on Earth was going on with all those teams in the so-called “race” for the top four?
TSF: While Arsenal were getting good results in Europe, they seemed to be less driven down the stretch in the Premier League. I think a combination of fatigue (physical and mental) and pressure led to a lot of the points dropped by the clubs 3rd through 6th. Additionally, three clubs were still pushing for European finals.
WAGNH: Chelsea are facing a transfer ban, so it might be a fairly quiet summer in West London. How are Arsenal’s plans shaping up for the summer and what can we expect next season?
TSF: Reports indicate that the budget will fairly small this summer, outside of potential player sales. I think three or four new players is a reasonable expectation — a new center back, a midfielder and an attacking winger are the three most likely spots. The model of targeting the likes of Lucas Torreira and Mattéo Guendouzi should be the club’s focus for the next few windows.
WAGNH: This final is being described as far more important to Arsenal than Chelsea. What happens if you don’t get back into the Champions League for a third successive season?
TSF: The final is very important to Arsenal and the supporters. Being in the Champions League is the goal, but it also allows the club additional funds to buy players and will attract a different caliber of transfer targets. Also winning a European trophy, over a London rival, would be a great achievement for the club and help build this new post-Wenger era. Missing out on the Champions League will mean a slower rebuild, looking to find younger talents that could develop into stars or provide future profits.
WAGNH: What can we expect from the Gunners in terms of tactics or strategy?
TSF: With Aaron Ramsey and Henrikh Mkhitaryan unavailable, I’d expect three center backs. Arsenal will look to absorb Chelsea’s attack and have a CDM that can shadow Eden Hazard.
WAGNH: What would be the biggest key to an Arsenal victory?
TSF: No blunders from the back three. Arsenal can, and should, score goals on Wednesday. But lapses in the back, pushing up too high, and failing to communicate on defending set pieces has been their undoing this season. The reason why the Europa League is their path into the Champions League and not the Premier League top four.
WAGNH: What would be the biggest reason for an Arsenal defeat?
TSF: Mustafi. If he has a great, but rare game, Arsenal should be okay. Perhaps an early and needless red card. But it really all comes down to the Arsenal backline and if they can stay switched on the entire match.
WAGNH: Would you start Čech or Leno and why?
TSF: Čech. Leno has played better over the course of the season, and if Čech wasn’t retiring I would strongly consider going with Leno. However, given Čech has been the Europa League keeper all year, gotten us to the final, and is retiring after this match, I would stick with him.
WAGNH: Any score, lineup, attendance predictions?
TSF: Arsenal 2-1, all three goals in the second half. Čech | Kolasinac-Sokratis-Koscielny-Mustafi-Maitland-Niles | Xhaka-Torreira | Ozil | Lacazette-Aubameyang. Attendance will be around 40k. Meanwhile, Wembley sits empty and Mkhitaryan has to watch from London.
10) Liverpool or Spurs?
TSF: Easy question. Liverpool.
Personally, I’m hoping the game gets canceled on account of an alien invasion.
Thanks again to Nathan for the Q&A.