We head into the home straight this weekend: a week until proper football returns. None of this namby-pamby friendlies but getting down to the proper thud and blunder stuff.
It’s been a steep learning curve for Unai Emery. The squad returned in dribs and drabs, with the last bundles of joy back in training this week. Too soon for a full 90-minute runout against Lazio but in his own words, Xhaka, Torreira, and Monreal will “get some minutes”.
At that point, will we get an idea of how his preferred XI will line-up? Unlikely; both Ramsey and Kolasinac aren’t travelling to Sweden as precautionary measures.
There are public announcements of decisions already taken to come. I’m sure Unai Emery knows the best goalkeeper in his mind but is giving the players every chance to change it. After the Chelsea game, Petr Cech confirmed nobody has yet taken him to one side to tell him that he’s benched. “We still have games to play. Obviously, for every player you do your best, then the manager has his choice to make,” seems optimistic on his part.
Communication is a big issue and as with Leno, it’s something he must work on with the central defenders. There was one moment during the Chelsea game where he invited Sokratis to play the ball across an empty net so Cech could clear left-footed. The Greek opted for safety first and put the ball out for a corner instead.
Was his the right choice? It’s supposition but the less risky course of action. The understanding and confidence between the pair aren’t there yet to enable a centre-back to slide the ball across an unguarded goal to a goalkeeper takes time to build. Leno is in the same boat, although I believe he will be first-choice.
A Pair Is Better Than A Busted Flush
The defence is the area which continues to create doubts. It’s plural because, beyond left-back, I think there are questions hanging over each position. Hector Bellerin was left hopelessly exposed against Chelsea with neither Ozil or Mkhitaryan covering Hudson-Odoi or anyone overlapping.
That raised questions against the Spaniard when the real issue was further up the field. Maybe it’s pre-season and replicating the same intensity of performance we’ll see from next week onwards is tough. I’m assuming it is, but developing good habits now is the key to success.
Mind you, defining success is going to be very subjective. A trophy equates to success but is any improvement on last season a success? Where is the bar set for that?
Quite low, I should think. Returning to the top four ought to be the minimum target but aim low, and you miss badly. We’re not going to win the league and I don’t think anyone expects us to either. But if I look at Tottenham with their zero additions, Chelsea’s desperation for a goalscorer, and the disarray at Manchester United, at this moment in time, I’ll be disappointed if we don’t make the top four.
As the season unfolds, that view may change.
And we mustn’t forget either that for Unai Emery, it’s a steep learning curve. He’s got a new squad to get to grips with, working on minimising the errors and deficiencies. On top of that, getting up to speed on the Premier League for as much as new players must adapt, so too must the bosses and coaches.
These guys are at the top of their profession but we frequently hear players saying the intensity of the English game took them by surprise. It will be the same for coaches no matter how well prepared they are.
Are We There Yet?
As baptisms of fire go, the opening weekend meeting with Manchester City is right up there at the top of the list. Will Lacazette and Aubameyang start – yes, in my view. Let’s not forget, Unai Emery needs to see his squad in different formations as much as the first choice pairings. Injuries and suspensions wrecked previous campaigns and there’s no indication this one will be any different.
The places behind that pair will be filled more on form and who the opposition is than a name. There’s no Neymar at Arsenal; no-one with the clout to demand inclusion just because they cost a small nation’s GDP to sign. Emery has a team to manage from his squad rather than one man and ten others. It must be a relief for him.
Nine more sleeps to go, people. Get yourselves ready for the new season.