This season, there is arguably no team in Europe’s top 5 leagues more enigmatic than Arsenal. On paper, the current situation looks quite favourable for the North London giants, as the Gunners currently sit in third place in the Premier League on 15 points from eight matches. The squad was given a serious injection of talent over the summer, and the public relations campaign of club director Josh Kroenke and Head of Football Operations Raul Sanllehi has given fans a rare feeling of positivity over the direction the club is headed.
And yet, there is a feeling among some supporters that all is not quite so rosy with the club. This sentiment is backed up by the perception of the team within the media, with pundits pointing to the inconsistent performances and porous defensive shape that Unai Emery and his staff must help to eradicate before Arsenal’s top-four credentials are taken seriously.
Are Arsenal really good enough to be the third-placed team in the Premier League? Has Unai Emery gotten the most out of his players? Or are we just witnessing the early season growing pains of a supremely talented squad re-building its shaky confidence after a disappointing second half to last season, merely waiting for it all to click?
In this first of a two-part series, we take a look at three reasons why Arsenal supporters should be optimistic about the way the early season has unfolded.
Even Better Than Expected
Arsenal stole headlines this summer by scoffing in the face of months of reporting on the dire financial situation to splash out over £100m on transfer fees to be paid in the coming years. However, it was clear that if the Gunners were to truly take the next step while adhering to the “efficient squad building” credo laid down by Sanllehi, the club would have to integrate as many of their vaunted young academy graduates and recent teenage signings as possible into the first-team mix. So far, Unai Emery has done just that.
At the moment, Matteo Guendouzi appears to be the young player who has worked his was furthest into Emery’s plans, and while he is far from the finished article and not nearly the ready-made superstar some fans make out, he oozes potential and is unafraid of taking the initiative. Of late, Bukayo Saka has been giving the Frenchman a run for his money as the most beloved young player in the squad, as the 18-year-old has seemingly made leaps in confidence each time he’s taken the pitch. He had a coming-out party against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League, scoring once and bagging a pair of assists to help the Gunners roll that night at the Emirates Stadium to the easy victory.
The contributions of both players have been exceptional, but they are far from the only ones making waves. Gabriel Martinelli, the nearly unknown 17-year-old attacker that Arsenal signed from Brazilian minnows Ituano, could turn out to be the best of the lot in a few years time. Yet he is already showing a surprising grit and tenacity for a player as skilled as he, and his nose for goal is undeniable – having come close to a hat trick of goals against Standard Liege in Arsenal’s second Europa League match. Joe Willock has also impressed mightily in the midfield this season, his effortless running on the ball and smooth acceleration bringing a certain elusiveness to the centre of the park that has been lacking in recent years.
In short, the youngsters have almost universally risen to the challenge when called upon by Emery, and the signs are that much more is yet to come. The maturation of the whole group has been so dramatic that Reiss Nelson, once thought to be the crown jewel talent in his age group by many fans, has effectively been passed over by some of his fellow youngsters. These players have been partially responsible for making the Gunner’s heavily rotated team for cup competitions at times look the more dynamic and confident version of the team. With a first-team consisting of World Cup winners, international captains and a top goal scorer, that is no mean feat.
A Unified Squad
While there have undoubtedly been whispers of possible confusion and dissent between some players and Emery, there have been almost none at all about disharmony within the squad. One only has to watch the way the players interact and laugh on the training pitch or celebrate goals en masse to see the positive vibe running through the squad. Gone are the days where the arrogance and aloofness of one player becomes so severe, that it seeps into the way the team plays, as it did when Alexis Sanchez was shooting his way out of the club.
Like all modern football dressing rooms, there are cliques within this Arsenal teams, as past friendships, position groups and native languages can all play a role, but there is still a sense of unity that encompasses the whole squad. Players like Hector Bellerin, David Luiz and Granit Xhaka have been citing as constant, positive influences behind the scenes, and for a club trying to incorporate new signings and the influx of youth into this team, their impact can not be overstated.
As the minutes pile up this season and the matches become ever more important, a team that continues to pull in the same direction and push each other to improve will be far better able to cope with the hardships a congested schedule can throw at them. It may be often overlooked in this day of the “mercenary” player and inflated wage packets and egos, but team spirit is every bit as important today as it has ever been.
Reinforcements Still To Arrive
It might be a little odd to say for a team that, on the surface, is sitting in a strong position near the sharp end of the table, but Arsenal are in many ways still waiting to take that next step. Fortunately, help is already in the process of arriving as Bellerin, Kieran Tierney and Rob Holding have all made their return from injury and are working their way back up to full fitness and, presumably, starting roles. If each hits the heights expected of them, they should constitute a 75% overhaul of the back four that has struggled at times both on and off the ball.
Tierney and Bellerin are expected to not only offer a whole new dimension to the attack and in build-up going forward, but both also figure to be defensive upgrades on their current deputies in Sead Kolasinac and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Bellerin’s return should have the added benefit of returning Maitland-Niles to his preferred midfield position, where he should give Emery a more dynamic option to add to the mix.
In addition to the defensive trio’s long-awaited return, the next month should see Alexandre Lacazette return from an ankle injury that has kept him out of action for most of September. He and Emile Smith Rowe are expected to be available for selection shortly after the current international break, and should give Emery the good kind of a selection headache in attacking positions.
Barring any major injuries or unfortunate events in the next few weeks, Emery should have near enough a full-strength squad to work with, and the team can then focus their efforts building on good performances and results. Whether fortuitous or not, Arsenal have largely survived the damage limitation portion of the season, and the onus will soon be shifted onto the head coach of the performances don’t improve. But for now, it is possible to be cautiously optimistic.
At least until part 2…