Baku doesn’t seem that long ago. Nor the preceding weeks which saw us throw away a top four finish in Unai Emery’s first season in charge.
However, a turbulent summer is over and the new season is upon us. Meet the new squad; is it the same as the old squad? I hope not.
In a month, the summer changed from the brink of a disaster to far better than we expected.
We lost Aaron Ramsey, Petr Cech, and Danny Welbeck; probably in that order of importance.
Like Ramsey, Laurent Koscielny was a stalwart of the later Wenger period. Unlike Ramsey, the centre-back displayed an overblown sense of his importance. He got his way in leaving but to the detriment of his bank balance, Arsenal received a fee.
Alex Iwobi and Carl Jenkinson joined Ramsey in giving him a lesson in exiting with dignity. And with genuine passion for Arsenal Football Club.
Replacing them is a sign of the new era we face. Willy Saliba, 19 and untested, is a signing for the future at a price which invites financial profit if he proves as good as the club thinks.
It’s harder to see Nicolas Pepe turning that big a profit. £72m is a big fee; he’s going to need to be the greatest showman since Michael Crawford ruled the West End.
Pepe is the headline act but the emerging youngsters are vital to the club. The likes of Willock and Nelson will feature more frequently than Burton, Saka and Medley. Our hopes don’t rest on the kids but they offer more depth than we previously had.
They are the main reason Alex Iwobi was released, beyond 38-million smackers, is their ability and potential. Rarely have we seen such a promising crop of youngsters come through at once? The mid-80s?
The defensive shambles of last season continued for a large portion of the preseason. Ten-man Real Madrid threatened to spank us as soon as Sokratis received his red card.
The same disarray engulfed us in the second half at Camp Nou. Yet the opening forty-five minutes saw us perform in a disciplined manner. The defence and midfield worked in tandem; god knows what happened at half-time but that display is the benchmark.
David Luiz is seen as the answer. I’m still not able to get past the Sideshow Bob whose calamities stick in my mind using Mustafi glue. Hopefully, he won’t be the heir of Silvestre and Squillaci; new Arsenal is buying solid older players. For the moment…
Kieran Tierney is out for 4-6 weeks but his reputation even as a young player is such that I already have high hopes he will play a big part in settling us down.
Hector Bellerin’s return at a similar time will add potency to our attack. Emery likes his full-backs to bomb on. We were undone by the lack of defensive nous from other players in these situations.
This is a key area for Emery on the training ground. Our naivety in succumbing to counter-attacks was disheartening; we learned nothing as the season progressed. That’s unacceptable for professionals and isn’t just down to one centre-back.
It’s about footballing intelligence and coaching ability. If he can’t cure this ill, questions will rightly be asked of Unai.
Like a number of players, he has a point to prove. Last year was tough on many levels, particularly the change at the senior levels. Now, more settled behind the scenes, is the time for Unai to deliver.
He’s been backed in the market to a greater extent that we thought probable. It’s on his shoulders now.
Targets for the Season
But what is ‘it’? What are realistic targets for us?
Primarily, a top four finish. The club’s finances dictate we need to achieve that for next summer. Robbing Peter to pay Paul as we did this year isn’t a sustainable philosophy; only a return to the Champions League can. That’s the unpalatable reality.
We’ve gradually improved in the Europa League. Losing semi-finalists, losing finalists; one step further would go some way to erasing Baku from my mind, at least.
Of the ‘existing’ players in the squad, Lucas Torreira is the one who I hope/expect to reach the next level. The Uruguayan had a ‘bedding in’ season last year but being the first name in the midfield on the teamsheet is surely his target?
In short, usurping Granit Xhaka from team. The Swiss on form is a great link player. However, more often than not, he seemed ponderous; was he overrun by the defensive aspect of the game?
Certainly, when I’ve seen him for Switzerland he seems more confident and attack-minded. Will that improve at club level if we tighten up our play?
One thing which helps is an identity, a style of playing. In preseason plus the signing of Pepe, we are looking at playing with pace, using the full width of the pitch. If we can get a midfielder to join attacks, we might score even more goals.
I’m not sure Ceballos fulfils that role. Like Pepe, his YouTube reel looks good; not many goals though.
And goals we need. New contracts for Auba and Laca is probably the best business of the summer. We, however, need to keep them injury-free; Eddie Nketiah’s loan to Leeds robs us of wafer-thin depth in the squad. It’s the only area we look genuinely light.
Until the defence develops some backbone, we won’t be resting easy with one-goal leads.
Same old Arsenal? We’ll see which Arsenal we get very soon now.