Arsenal’s season-opening game against Manchester City is knocking on the door and the main discussion is what to expect from the new manager Unai Emery and the new signings Torreira, Leno, Lichtsteiner and Sokratis?
There are lots of questions, doubts, expectations and comparisons and one thing is for sure – there are millions of fans out there following every move that Emery is going to make.
Arsene Wenger’s echo is still present at the Emirates despite most supporters wanting him to leave, they are going to compare the Spaniard to him. That’s not something unusual having in mind that his stay in the club was 22 years, longer than some of them have supported the club.
The good thing for the new manager is that the expectations now are quite realistic after the ending of the worst season in the last 22 years for Arsenal. Wenger left the club right on time, so his successor has enough time to get to know the club’s organisation, the players and the fans. The hopes are going for more proper direction during the 2018/2019 season and getting the most out of the players.
Resemblance and diversity
After the few games of the pre-season, no significant changes were noticed. But that does not mean there weren’t any.
The resemblance is that the funds are limited once again. The difference though is that now Arsenal’s board wants a clear vision of what Emery wants to achieve and a focused action during the transfer window. That was the missing part in the last few seasons of the Wenger’s era. Buying inexperienced youngsters or strong players that he kept benched, changing tactics and player’s positions definitely don’t seem like a straightforward plan.
The thing we could notice going back through the years and also watching the pre-season fixtures (of course there is no way we can judge by few friendlies) is that both of them met problems bringing more confidence and structure in the defensive line. Although that is something that looks like the first checkpoint for Emery this season. The Frenchman couldn’t find the perfect match in the back-line, changing from three and four-man defences equally unsuccessfully.
This situation of the win against Chelsea shows the lack of structure in the Arsenal’s defence and also the difficulties they meet when they defend against pace. Hudson-Odoi received the ball and went forward. Aubameyang and Guendouzi couldn’t stop him. He decided to free himself off the offensive duel with Elneny and combined with Gary Cahill whose one-touch pass (the tactics Sarri is trying to implement) played him towards the box.
Once he reached there the only present of Arsenal’s defence was Mustafi who applied a pressing duel, but the 17-year-old escaped that one too with a turnover and a perfect cross towards Fabregas.
As the Spaniard received the ball you could see the gap left by the defence. Kolasinac and Sokratis man-marked the opponents and didn’t receive any support from Mkhitaryan who could run into the marked area and prevent the shot.
Although Arsenal’s players are good at the set-piece situations, they lack concentration when they happen in their own box. Not only Antonio Rüdiger scored a header in the 5th minute after a perfectly measured corner kick from Fabregas, but he was about to do it once again later on. Surely, we could see a little improvement during the International Champions Cup games against Atletico Madrid, PSG and Chelsea as the defenders felt a bit more confident and less naive when under pressure.
The chaotic Wenger’s tactics retreat for a calmer style of play with clearly defined positions and responsibilities, a high percentage of possession and pace. At least that’s what all hopes are for. The ex-PSG manager is most likely to use the 4-2-3-1 formation which I should admit looked like the right choice in the pre-season games.
Wenger is well known for his liking of young players and the way he wants to help them grow. That’s a great quality. But if it is helpful for the team not only the player. It happened that Wenger was often obsessed with some players and no matter how hard the others tried they were always a second choice. Unai is trying to focus on everyone’s strengths and how each one of them can affect the team performance.
Also, as far as we can see Emery is much better at motivating his players. For example, in the games against Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, the manager’s half-time talk was very important as the Gunners played better at the start of the second half. We couldn’t really see Wenger doing that successfully. Emery is active on the touchline too and is trying to give as many instructions as possible.
As I mentioned in my previous piece last season was the worst for the Arsenal’s defensive line as they conceded most goals out of the top-six teams and made most errors that led to goals. That’s still the team’s weakness in the pre-season so far. It seems like the midfielders and the forwards are doing pretty good with the only issues coming from the back-four again.
When put under pressure the defenders start to panic and don’t have the needed support from the front lines. In the 5-1 win over PSG the team struggled in their own defensive third, although conceding only one goal does not show the real situation. As I said they lack confidence and often feel pressured and give the ball back to the goalkeeper. That stops them to successfully build-up the attack.
For instance, Chelsea has Jorginho and Cesc Fabregas who are capable of playing under pressure and also progress the play into more advanced areas of the pitch. None of the Arsenal’s players was able to that. In lots of their games of season 2017/2018 they gave away a lot of free-kicks around the box just because they couldn’t stop the opponents and started playing aggressively.
This counterattack once again showed the lack of support and the not-so-good positioning of the defenders. The only player who managed to reach Hudson-Odoi was Bellerin, who couldn’t conquer him and was tempted into a rash tackle that led to a penalty kick.
The lack of pressure and organisation was present again when the new Chelsea’s signing Jorginho received the ball in midfield and had enough time to see the perfectly positioned Hudson-Odoi, making a through-pass in behind the wrongly high Arsenal defensive line.
If the team manages to fix that there are going to be a lot of positive changes. Bellerin was not as effective going forward as before, but now he may have more space with the likes of the new signings that should cover his back.
The new formation is pleasant for Mesut Özil who can do what he does best – create, without putting an uninspired effort in defensive actions. An issue in the midfield may appear, as Ramsey, Torreira, Elneny and the young talent Matteo Gouendouzi will all be vying for just two spots.
Work in progress
Tactical flexibility seems like a must-have quality for the new manager. As it happened against Atletico, the team shifted to 3-4-3 and that was crucial for their performance. Emery is trying to play as many players as possible, so he could see their qualities and give them the opportunity to prove themselves and show that they deserve a starting XI spot. It looks like the biggest battle will be for the goalkeeping spot as Cech and Leno both have chances to get it. But Cech’s great performance against Chelsea with two saved penalties may tilt the scales.
There is no doubt that the defensive line needs more support and that’s where we could see an improvement during the season – the transition to the forward line needs to be easier. Emery works constantly on his players’ weaknesses and that’s a great opportunity for Calum Chambers, Rob Holding, Alex Iwobi and Matteo Gouendouzi to learn and improve.
It looks like Shkodran Mustafi will partner Sokratis in the centre of the defence, while Hector Bellerin looks to be the first choice for the right side. Kolasinac and Monreal are both putting in solid performances in pre-season so far and that’s going to be another battle for a starting spot.
The creativity of the frontline was amazing during the second half against Chelsea and the importance of Mesut Özil was huge. He showed his well-known football intelligence with a great through-pass in the 84th minute. Once he felt pressured and with no options in front of him, he saw Calum Chambers to his right and didn’t miss the opportunity to give him a through ball.
Trying to maintain possession in the final third was the main goal for Arsenal against during the pre-season. And I must admit that their creativity was on a top-level. That happened against Chelsea with the finishing appearing as the only struggle for the Arsenal’s players. Their quick interplay and great off the ball movement showed once again that there is nothing to worry about in the frontline.
Bonus video: Moment of brilliance from Özil, Nelson and Lacazette
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) 2 August 2018