A new era begins at The Emirates on August 12 when Unai Emery takes his seat in the Arsenal dugout for the first time. While the ghost of Arsene Wenger will linger for some time – unsurprising given he was in charge from August 1996 through to May 2018 – the first kick in their season opener with Man City signals a new beginning for the Gooners.
Emery will bring a freshness to Islington that has been missing for some time – for far too long if you ask the majority of Arsenal supporters – but those hoping for a drastic change to the playing style may be disappointed. It will still revolve around short-passing and keeping hold of the ball – his philosophy is not a million miles away from Wenger’s – but in general, it’s a style that is a little more conservative and defensive without the ball. When out of possession he wants his sides to press high up the pitch, but in a calculated, structured way – not in the ‘heavy metal’ style of Liverpool, for example.
The new manager’s formation of choice across his career has tended to be a 4-2-3-1 although, given the players at his disposal, he opted for a 4-3-3 at PSG most of the time. With a squad that, compared to PSG, has a lower count of world-class ‘Galacticos’, the smart money is on him returning to his go-to shape.
The big question – the one that really needs answering – is around the Gunners’ ability, or otherwise, to respond to any adversity that comes along, usually when tackling other members of the top six. All too often under Wenger, they wilted when the going got really tough and developed a reputation for being fragile and prone to caving in when the brown stuff was flying.
Whether Emery is the man for the job is debatable, certainly if his spell at PSG is anything to go by. Exhibit A is the now infamous Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona when PSG lost 6-5 on aggregate despite going into the second leg in the Camp Nou with a 4-0 lead. This is the very thing Arsenal fans will be hoping to avoid, and if there’s one trait they hoped any new manager would bring to The Emirates, it’s mental toughness. On that score, the Spaniard has much to prove.
What he will bring however is an energy and drive that once typified Wenger, but which faded as his reign entered its second decade. Compared to Wenger’s calm, pensive, Geography teacher-type demeanour, Emery will appear a positive bundle of energy in the Gunners’ technical area. He may not reach Antonio Conte levels of exuberance, but Emery is cut from very different cloth to Wenger and will fidget, prowl and kick every ball from the edge of that technical area.
Arsenal fans will be hoping that energy feeds through to the players on the pitch, and they see a marked change from what had remained cultured but were still largely passion-less and thrill-less performances.
A trait of Emery’s previous managerial stints, which the Gooners will be hoping to see little of, is a lack of player discipline. At PSG there were almost constant rumblings of discontent behind the scenes, with the perception being that the players were allowed a little too much freedom and partly as a result, harmful cliques forming in the Parc de Princes dressing room. Similar tales emanated from his time at Valencia.
In terms of players coming in, at the time of writing there has been no massive money spent – certainly not on a Man City scale – but the defence has been strengthened by the experienced signings of Greek centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulous from Borussia Dortmund for around £17 million and Swiss right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner from Juventus on a free. In midfield, they have signed one of the stars of Uruguay’s World Cup campaign, Lucas Torreira, from Sampdoria for a fee rumoured to be in the region of £26 million and also French youngster Matteo Guendouzi from FC Lorient for a fee of around the £7 million mark. The goalkeeping department has also been strengthened in the form of German international Bernd Leno from Bayer Leverkusen for £22.5 million.
Whether or not these signings have made them stronger than last season will only be revealed once it all gets underway but in terms of numbers, the two midfield arrivals have simply plugged the gaps left by the departures of Jack Wilshere (to West Ham) and Santi Cazorla (Villareal). What will be a plus for the Gunners is that two of last season’s big signings – Henrick Mkhitaryan and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang – will have a full pre-season under their respective belts and be raring to go for their new manager. In addition, they will be hoping French striker, Alexandre Lacazette can improve upon his 14 league goals last season, achieved in a campaign beset by injury.
Emery will certainly need his men to hit the ground running because following the mouth-watering opener at the Emirates against Guardiola’s City, is a London derby away to Chelsea. That is followed by another London derby – at home to West Ham – before they face two tricky looking away games at Cardiff City and Newcastle United.
What this change and uncertainty has done to the good folk of the Emirates is make them outsiders for the title. The bookies have them down as the bottom team of the top six ‘league table’ and at a whopping +2000 for the Premier League title. It’s difficult to make a case for anything better.
But what they will have in their favour is new manager ‘bounce’ and football being the oddity it is, a flying start could catapult them on to a successful season. Whether that success equates to winning the title is highly unlikely but a good start as described could set them up for a tilt at the top four and a return to Champions League football in 2019/20, and it’s certainly not beyond them.
Pierre Emerick Aubameyang to score 25 or more Premier League goals – +350 with BetVictor
Arsenal to finish higher than Tottenham – +125 with BetVictor
Arsenal to score 65 or more Premier League goals – +150 with BetVictor