The Gunners wrapped up their excellent pre-season on a high note with a grinding victory over Lazio 2-0 on Saturday. Unai Emery has continued to put his stamp on the team, with the players displaying an increased comfort on the pitch with what is being asked of them. There is a palpable excitement surrounding this team for the first time in several seasons, and supporters are looking forward to the momentous task of beating Pep Guardiola’s Premier League winning Manchester City in the opening match of the season next weekend.
Emery Experimentation Continues
With the Lazio match presenting the last scheduled opportunity for Unai Emery to tinker with tactical concepts for his new team, the Basque coach once again tried a new formation to open the match. Beginning in a 4-2-2-2 with Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah up top, Emery had his team less focused on the ruthlessly high line they deployed against Chelsea, instead combining play out from the back with quick strike attacks that seem to spring from nowhere.
While Emery has been working through different systems throughout the pre-season, his philosophies are starting to emerge in his team’s play on the pitch. The back-line has played much more compact this summer than under Arsene Wenger, with the wide players tasked with tracking back wide (something Alex Iwobi did quite well on Saturday) and the fullbacks taking up much more conservative positions in most situations. When the Gunners look to switch the point of attack, they are doing so in a much quicker fashion than they once did. Too often last season, the attack bogged down, leading to the ball travelling around the back-line in the dreaded passive “u” shape that does little to bother an opponents’ defence.
As many have pointed out, Emery will incorporate a lot more pressing in his defensive schemes than Wenger used to, as defending from the front has become essential in the modern game. This may require more work from forwards like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil than perhaps they would prefer, but it could also lead to an increase in quality chances created high up the pitch from turnovers. When combined with an increased emphasis on quick-strike counter attacks and frequent tempo switches, it is clear that Emery is not only going to continue on with the beautiful football ingrained under Wenger, but he is intent on providing his players with multiple solutions on the pitch to function in all match situations. This, as much as any other signing or change this summer, is responsible for the level of optimism swelling up through the ranks of supporters, who are now desperate to see what this team can do when the matches start counting.
Guendouzi Earns First Team Place With Excellent Pre-Season
Perhaps no player has done more during the pre-season to catch the eye of Arsenal supporters than 19 year old Matteo Guendouzi, and the hype continues to grow after another rock solid performance against Lazio by the young Frenchman. Hailing from PSG via a season at Lorient in the French second division, Guendouzi has excelled in Emery’s midfield throughout the summer. The ease with which he makes himself available to his teammates suggests a mature football IQ well beyond his years, and he already appears ready to compete for a starting role.
Long, rangy and with a barnet that could even make Marouane Fellaini jealous, Guendouzi cuts a striking figure out on the pitch. Thus far, it appears that his future lies more in a holding or defensive role as opposed to a marauding, Ramsey-esque one, but his versatility means he could theoretically play anywhere in the midfield. While the excited chatter that Granit Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny are now surplus to requirements is a bit overboard considering Guendouzi has yet to play in real competitive match, it is a testament to how good the teenager had been this summer that it is even being discussed. A bright future undoubtedly awaits Arsenal’s newest young talent.
Torreira (and Lichtensteiner) Time
With the match against Lazio the last of the pre-season, supporters were finally treated to the debut of the player they have looked forward to seeing most since he signed for the club: Lucas Torreira. The Uruguayan made his first start in an Arsenal shirt alongside fellow newcomer Stephan Lichtsteiner. While both are naturally lagging behind the rest of their teammates in match fitness, each showed glimpses of why fans are so excited to see them in the team.
While Torreira mostly focused on closing down the ball in defence and shuttling the ball forward in attack, the diminutive midfielder showed glimpses of what Arsenal spent £25 million on earlier this summer. Torreira has a bit of pitbull in him, always pestering the opponent in his area and the toughness to absorb fouls as he escapes the press. There is a long way to go for Torreira to become essential to the starting XI, but the emergence of Guendouzi will take some of the pressure off of him to do too much early.
Lichtsteiner, for his part, wasted no time showing the grittiness and sharp elbows that attracted the club to his services in the first place. However, the Swiss international also showed that he is capable of excellent distribution with either foot, twice putting an accurate long ball right on his forward’s feet. While he clearly lacks the pace of Hector Bellerin, his defensive instincts and veteran experience will be a great addition to this Arsenal team, as well as provide Bellerin with much needed rest.
A Fascinating Position Battle
For many Arsenal supporters, nervousness about the goalkeeper position has been more or less de rigeur since Invincibles shot stopper Jens Lehmann aged beyond his prime and left the club more than a decade ago. Last season was especially bad for Arsenal goalkeepers, as Petr Cech and David Ospina combined with a leaky defence to concede 44 goals during the Premier League campaign.
Bernd Leno was brought in this summer to mixed reviews from Bayer Leverkusen to provide competition for Cech, who has declined noticeably in each of the previous two seasons. However, it appears the helmeted one has no intention of losing his place to his new teammate, and he showed up to pre-season training having added considerable strength to his frame (though not nearly as much as a photoshopped photograph from an earlier friendly suggested) and has looked rock solid during pre-season.
The Gunners now have a healthy competition for the starting spot on their hands after Bernd Leno overcame a few early hiccups in his Arsenal tenure to put in 3 solid performances in a row. While he has had less to do in his match time so far than Cech, he has shown enough quality to see plenty of minutes this season. At the moment, seniority and excellent distribution from the back should see Petr Cech get the nod for the opener against Manchester City
Familiar Issues Continue With Aaron Ramsey
With Unai Emery’s arrival in North London, and the continued focus on injury prevention and recovery behind the scenes with the club’s training staff, the Gunners had been lucky to avoid injury for much of their pre-season training. However, that changed in their penultimate friendly of the summer against Chelsea, when a minor calf issue caused Aaron Ramsey to tap out of the starting XI in warmups, while Sead Kolasinac suffered a 4-6 week knee injury during the match.
Kolasinac’s absence could present its own problems at the start of the season with Nacho Monreal the only true left back in the team (Ainsley Maitland-Niles got the start on Saturday against Lazio), but it is Ramsey’ who has fans not concerned. Having undergone a procedure last season that was supposed to help clear up his frequent muscular injuries, there was hope that he would maintain his health and fitness this season as he is essential to Unai Emery’s plans. The race is now on to get the Welshman fit for the Gunners’ massive Premier League opener against Manchester City on Sunday, where he would be expected to start in Emery’s new look midfield.
Of course, supporters have something far worse on their minds when it comes to Ramsey’s future at the club. With 4 days left in the transfer window, Arsenal have yet to come to an agreement on a new contract with their star midfielder. The memory of excruciating negotiations with both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil last season has left the club and fans unwilling to go through a similar situation with Ramsey. If the club is unable to come to an agreement with the Welshman, they will have just 4 days to extract anything approaching his market value from his sale. Ideally, however, a long term extension will be reached between player and club, and Arsenal can enjoy the beginning of a season not marred in the media circus of another high profile contract dispute.