It feels genuinely odd to be looking ahead to an Arsenal season without Arsène Wenger. The deterioration from eternal Champions League qualifiers to the sixth-best team in the league took time, but as 2017-18 came to a close, it was undeniable that Arsenal were no longer good enough.
It’s quite possible that the seeds were sown well in advance. The summer 2017 transfer window felt very typical and very Wenger. Alexandre Lacazette was the one big signing from Lyon, while the futures of key first-teamers Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain meandered. Eventually, Özil stayed and signed on for more, Sánchez went through the motions until his January move to Manchester United, and Oxlade-Chamberlain left for Liverpool and was not replaced. None of it was handled efficiently, and Arsenal’s season rarely threatened to rise.
The January window was very different. Could Wenger have really signed off on buying another striker so soon after the signing of Lacazette? It seemed out of character. The signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund and the negotiated swap of Sánchez for Henrikh Mkhitaryan shone the light back on new recruitment chief Sven Mislintat rather than Wenger, implying that plans were being made exterior to the manager’s office. On the pitch, the team’s form continued to be erratic, with results away from the Emirates Stadium becoming truly abysmal—seven Premier League defeats out of eight road games in 2018. Ultimately, Wenger’s legendary status enabled his departure to be labeled as his own choice, even if most suspected a decision had been made for him.
Unai Emery’s appointment as “head coach,” rather than “manager,” brings a tantalizing prospect of the unknown. Too frequently in the past, an Arsenal season has started with a familiar look to the squad, a lack of decisive signings, and ennui born of utter familiarity. This time around, there have been significant changes both strategically and in personnel, with plenty of uncertainty around how it will play out.
The Spaniard’s appointment came as something of a surprise. Media talk swelled around former Gunner and current Manchester City assistant Mikel Arteta, but with distance, it’s easier to see the logic in appointing Emery. He has won plenty of trophies in his career, and managing the egos at Paris Saint-Germain across two seasons, he has a solid pedigree for a large club.
Alongside a decisive transition in the coaching ranks, Arsenal moved quickly within the transfer market to sign five players. The last of which, 19-year-old ex-Lorient man Mattéo Guendouzi, arrived on July 11, nearly a month ahead of the transfer window closing this Thursday.
In signing two central midfielders, a right back, a center back, and a goalkeeper, Arsenal were getting straight to the core of what they needed to: the defense. It has been the biggest issue with the side for at least the past two seasons, and last campaign’s 51 league goals conceded was the worst recorded by the club since 1983-84. With goalkeeper Petr Cech 36 years old, it was certainly the right time to think about his successor, but is the answer really Bernd Leno?
Bernd Leno.— Colin Trainor (@colintrainor) December 30, 2017
This was requested and I thought I'd put it up here as it's unusual to see a GK underperform their post shot xG for 6.5 seasons. Bigger under-performance though over the last 1.5 seasons. pic.twitter.com/SysbKwjdey
He’s a goalkeeper that has never played in a side that has overperformed defensively against expected goal rates. Based on the shots he’s faced, he’s always allowed more goals than average. That’s not definitively scathing, but any positive statistical indicator here would be welcome. It feels like Arsenal are starting this season with this position still in transition, thanks to an aging keeper possibly in decline and a shaky replacement.
Elsewhere in defense, Sokratis has arrived from Borussia Dortmund. He is a competent center back, but he’s already 30 years old. When you add in that fullback Stephan Lichtsteiner (who arrived from Juventus) is 34, Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny (who is currently injured and likely out till the New Year with an Achilles problem) are both 32, problems about aging in the back rank haven’t really been solved at all; they’ve just been kicked down the road again.
Had a few requests for this yesterday so here's Arsenal's age-utility matrix. Biggest worry is that almost the entire attack is 27 or older, not surprised to have seen them linked with Guedes and Dembélé this summer. pic.twitter.com/xH5EmUD6Ve— Ray Hamill (@FinerMargins) July 30, 2018
In fact, signing older players has been a hallmark of the entire Mislintat regime, with January arrivals Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang both now 29. This is not to denigrate their clear quality, but these are signings you might make to move the needle while in “win now” mode. After finishing sixth last season, Arsenal simply aren’t in that position. They are trying to get back on an even keel to compete for a top-four slot and ideally need a rebuild, not a quick fix.
The one extremely promising signing Arsenal have made is Lucas Torreira. The Uruguayan international links up after a promising spell in Serie A for Sampdoria, and at 22 years old represents the future and the present at the same time. His addition could be the key to bringing stability to the center of the park. For any fans that may have mourned the loss of another central midfielder this summer, Torreira offers exactly what Jack Wilshere once promised. He is an ideally balanced combination of defensive positioning and action with good passing vision and an ability to keep passes ticking over at a high volume. In one fell swoop, he should solve the question that has dogged Arsenal since Mikel Arteta’s pomp: do they want a passer or a tackler in central midfield? Torreira can do both. He’s also a competent set-piece taker. In a wide-ranging interview with French website Culture PSG, translated here, Emery outlined his three principles for set-pieces: “playing it quickly before the opponent organizes themselves, playing it short in order to displace the opponent and create spaces, or playing it directly according to certain ploys.”
Özil may remain the chief set-piece taker on the team, but Torreira will be a useful addition here to contribute to his coach’s philosophy.
Nine of the first-team squad have signed for the club within the past three transfer windows and Arsenal have a new coach. It’s a lot to blend together into a cohesive unit, and it has to happen quickly. The club starts this season with an incredibly tricky pair of fixtures: first champions Manchester City visit the Emirates, then they travel to Chelsea. Knowing what kind of setup Emery will deploy against them is near-impossible to predict, and he may well change his approach once these fixtures are behind him. While at Paris Saint-Germain, he favored a general 4-3-3, however at Sevilla beforehand, he generally operated a 4-2-3-1. Both have been used in preseason for Arsenal, but out of possession, the team has shifted to more of a 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-2 at times. It appears most likely that flexibility will be required at least early on while Emery learns the strengths and weaknesses of his charges, and positional adaptability in personnel may be key. It seems like Arsenal have the personnel to run two central midfielders in Torreira and perhaps Aaron Ramsey and load up their attack, especially against lesser teams, but players like Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny, as well as young Guendouzi, may all figure prominently. Do Alex Iwobi—smartly signed up to a new long-term contract recently—or Mkhitaryan have the adaptability to drop into a midfield trio if the 4-3-3 gets used? Can Lacazette and Aubameyang operate prosperously in the same starting lineup? There are many questions that are simply unanswerable ahead of the season without knowing what Emery will favor.
Arsenal’s 2017-18 season was mediocre. You have to go back more than 20 years, before the time of Wenger, to find another season in which they picked up below 65 points. For eight of the past 10 seasons they’ve landed above 70 and improvement to that level or beyond shouldn’t be that hard to achieve. Having drifted under a departing manager, it feels like their actual talent level is better than their results showed. With Emery in and a move away from Wenger’s laissez-faire principles, reestablishing themselves as top-four contenders should be the aim. Long term, the squad still needs significant work, but it is probably good enough to get back into the mix and compete for now.
Injuries will be key, and that’s an area that Arsenal have struggled with over the years, but their best starting XI should be able to compete in the bigger games. As ever, getting that team on the pitch and playing consistent minutes together could be the challenge, as will managing the Europa League. Last season, Wenger rotated hard for Europe, but with turmoil abounding, it had no positive effect on their league form. With no Champions League, the option of heavy rotation is still viable, at least in the early stages, and keeping key men fresh for the league does make good sense.
Over the past year, Arsenal have seen significant changes in their off-field decision-makers and in their coaching and playing staff. They now need to find a way to turn all that process into on-pitch results.