Premier League

Arsenal’s Path Back to the Top is More Straightforward than it Seems

Identity is an underrated facet of football. Clubs build themselves around a certain set of ideals, styles, and objectives, whether it be relegation fighters like Brighton or Newcastle United, or superclubs like Barcelona or Real Madrid. If a club suddenly loses their identity, then serious problems can arise. Take, for example, Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson retired. A Premier League winning team suddenly floundered and flopped under the timid David Moyes, finishing seventh in the league.

For the past 22 years, the identity at Arsenal FC has been Arsene Wegner, for better or worse. The better included The Invicibles, a 49 game unbeaten streak, and innovative style and technique which have continued to impact Premier League to this day. The worse was the past decade; endless transfer problems, an inability to win trophies, and continually getting the doors blown off in big matches. When Arsenal finally pulled the cord on the legendary Frenchman, 22 years worth of identity vanished, leaving the London club with a clean slate.

Emery: an underrated pick

Hiring Unai Emery might not have been a “sexy” pick, especially with names like Thomas Tuchel and Arsenal favorite Mikel Arteta in the mix, but the Spainard is very experienced and reasonably accomplished, having won three Europa League titles with Sevilla and a couple of Ligue I titles at PSG. Furthermore, he will have a quite talented attack to work with, and if Emery can provide even a little defensive stability to a leaky back-line, then a top-4 challenge is not out of the question.

Most likely, Emery will line up in a 4-2-3-1, the same formation he used at Sevilla. This formation has two defining features – a hard working, almost defensive #10 and a pair of fast wingers that function as outlets for quick counter attacks. At Arsenal, Emery has Aaron Ramsey, and the Welshman’s outstanding strength and stamina, as well as a knack for goals, makes him ideally suited for that #10 role. A 15 goal league season is not out of the question for Ramsey, particularly if he can recapture and constantly play with the form he showed in the Europa League.

Plenty of questions, no perfect solution

The wingers pose a different challenge, as the glut of attacking middies Wegner collected leaves Emery with a lot of potential answers and no perfect solution. Mesut Ozil, despite the World Cup, is the best creator on the team and will surely be starting at the left wing position. This leaves Emery with a single position to choose one of Henrik Mkhitayran, Alex Iwobi, and one of either Alexander Lacazette or Pierre Emerick Aubameyang to choose from. Iwobi and Mkhitayran don’t posses the speed Emery wants, and Lacazette and Aubameyang would be out of position on the left wing. In the only preseason game so far, Aubameyang was on the left with Lacazette in the middle.

The double pivot has several options. Granit Xhaxa is the longest, and most accomplished, player, and he has the necessary range of passing and intelligence to perform in the double pivot, even if he hasn’t displayed that consistently the past two seasons. Next to him, Lucas Torria, fresh off an impressive World Cup, will have the defensive tenacity and tackling/intercepting to complement Xhaxa. Mo Elneny and Ainsley Maitland-Niles will provide cover.

Fixing the weakest link

The defense is, by far, the weakest link, and the area that Emery will have to use all of his coaching and luck to fix. Bluntly, none of the starters from last season, bar Hector Bellerin, are good enough to start for a Champions League team, and a few are not even competent enough to play in the Premier League. Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac are too often on the front foot and neglect their defensive duties, Shkodran Mustafi is error prone and too aggressive,  and Rob Holding and Callum Chambers are regulation material. Even the new signing Arsenal got this summer, ex-BVB center-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos, has his flaws, and at the age of thirty, is surely on the decline.

Wegner tried to apply a band aid to a gaping wound by playing three at the back, but that attempt lasted on 6 months before Wegner was forced back into his favored 4-2-3-1. Bellerin is the only starter that should be locked in – and even he has looked less and less like the next FIFA XI right back, and more and more like Deandre Yedlin. All other defensive spots are up for grabs, and one more signing for the London club would not be remiss.

A path back to the top table

If Arsenal do strengthen, then the pathway to the Top 4 could open up with some luck, and the backdoor entrance into the Champions League (a Europa League title) could be unneeded unlike last season, where a focus on the European tournament ended in disappointment. City and Liverpool look like title challengers, but Tottenham’s lack of signings and misfortune with the World Cup (all eleven starters will have shortened preaseasons) and Manchester United’s apathy/misery/Mourihno-third-season-syndrome means either could easily slip out of the race for the Champions League.

The end of last season saw Arsenal at it’s lowest in some years; trophy-less, legend-less, and with an uncertain future ahead. Sometimes, however, that low point is just what a club needs (see, Real Madrid in the 2000’s). A fall from grace is a jolt, a electric shock can restart a club, and under the guidance of Emery, Arsenal might not have too wait long until they are competing for the Premier League title once again.

This article was originally published here at CUGuyBlog. 

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