I watched as much of our pre season fixtures as possible and wanted to share some of my initial observations of what I’ve seen so far in the Unai Emery era. Before I do that, I would like to take the opportunity to point out that offering opinions that don’t blow smoke up the players backsides, doesn’t make anyone less of a supporter or mean that they aren’t getting behind the team. As some members of our fan base, have bizarrely suggested. However, suggesting that is the case, does make you look like a moron.
I’ve been expressing my Arsenal related opinions on various social media platforms for years and at no stage during that time, has my ability to get behind the team, been impacted by me doing so. It’s as important to recognise the weaknesses in our team, as it is our strengths. Perhaps more so because the only way to improve, is to work on those weaknesses and attempt to rectify them. I accept that it’s not the supporters job to do that but that doesn’t mean that we have to bury our heads in the sand by pretending that those weaknesses don’t exist.
After our five-one victory over PSG, the inevitable ‘we are dark horses for the title’ comments started to appear on social media sites but from what I’ve seen, we won’t be. That view is not a reflection of my thoughts on Emery or his managerial capabilities, it’s simply my acceptance that there is a lot of work to be done before we are anywhere near ready to challenge for the title. When Arsene announced his plans to step down, I said that defensively, he would be leaving a mess behind. We are now seeing just how big that mess is.
People need to understand that it takes time to mould a defence in to an organised unit. It can’t be done overnight and my early opinion on Sokratis Papastathopoulos, is that it will take far longer for us to become a solid unit, if he’s a regular in the side. I’ll refrain from writing him off completely just yet and will give him time and support but from what I’ve seen of him so far, he doesn’t appear to be an upgrade on who we already had. When you lack pace, it’s imperative that you have exceptional reading of the game and at this stage, I’m not convinced that he does. If the ball is near his head, then he’s fine, if it’s not, he appears to be ill at ease.
At the end of last season, Calum Chambers was our most impressive central defender so I’d be disappointed to see him lose his place in the side at the expense of Sokratis. I’d be even more disappointed and shocked if he’s sent out on loan. Ron Holding would be the one who would benefit more. To me, Calum is a better player than Sokratis and has far more mobility. In saying that, I believe we still need a new centre back. Although he’s not my dream signing, I’ll put forward the name of Newcastle defender Jamaal Lascelles as a realistic option. He’s young, already proven in the top flight of English football and looks to be a natural leader. I believe he would give us something that we still lack but there are of course, alternative options out there.
Hector Bellerin’s form and positional sense doesn’t appear to have improved over the summer either. If I was him, I’d be concerned about losing my place in the side. Again, I recognise that it’s still early days in the new regime and I’m hoping that Emery, assisted by Stephane Lichtsteiner, who is currently the better player of the two and should take Bellerin’s place at the start of the season, can find a way to improve those aspects of his game. Chambers aside, it’s difficult to put forward a convincing case for any of the defenders in the squad, to be given a regular run in the team based on their performances last season or during pre season.
The six to eight week injury suffered by Sead Kolasinac won’t help the defensive situation either. Emery needs to decide who he sees as his central defensive partnership and give them time to develop an understanding. My gut feeling is that he will pair Sokratis with Shkodran Mustafi against Manchester City but I hope that I’m wrong. I’ve never been convinced by Mustafi but like all the players, he starts with a clean slate under the new manager. It will be interesting to see whether he can rediscover the form he showed at the start of his Arsenal career. Personally, I didn’t think he was as outstanding as some did but he was significantly better than what we saw from him at any stage last season.
When we signed Bernd Leno, I purposely made a point of watching all the goals he conceded for Bayer Leverkusen last season. Surprisingly, they were littered with errors on his part. However, it was only a couple of seasons ago that he was highly regarded and believed to have a lot of potential. Let’s hope that a change of scenery will help him regain his form and focus and enable him to to finally fulfil that potential. At this stage it hasn’t been made obvious who will start the season as our first choice between the posts but personally, I would start with Leno. He’s far calmer and more confident with the ball at his feet and Petr Cech’s atrocious kicking, hurt us far too often last season.
Whilst the defence remains a concern, from what I’ve see of Lucas Torreira, he’s got the attributes to help protect those behind him. Good positional sense, mobility and bite in the tackle. I was delighted to see us signing a player of his type, we’ve certainly waited long enough. Another huge positive from pre season, has been the impressive form of Matteo Geundouzi. The prospect of seeing Matteo and Lucas paired in the middle is an intriguing one. Matteo covers an immense amount of ground during games, always making himself available to team mates and his ability to keep possession, is exceptional.
Some will say that we already had a similar player in Mohamed Elneny but Matteo has a far superior passing range and looks to go forward where possible. If he can continue in the same vein in the coming months, we may well have found the bargain of the season. I just hope that our supporters don’t start the usual “he’s the new so and so” nonsense that often appears when a young player shows any promise and that he’s allowed to develop in his own time as the first Matteo Geundouzi.
The performances of Emile Smith Rowe have also been a major talking point this summer and some supporters have been saying that he should be sent out on loan. Personally, I’d like to see him stay with us. At least for the first half of the season so that he can work with Emery and his coaching team and learn from the more senior players such as Mesut Ozil, Henrikh Mhkitaryan and Aaron Ramsey, if he remains an Arsenal player of course. It’s a year or two too soon but ironically it could be Smith Rowe who ultimately ends up being the heir to Aaron’s throne. For the record, no I won’t be putting any needless pressure on the kid for that to be the case.
Scoring goals wasn’t a problem for us last season, only two teams scored more league goals than us, and it won’t be a problem this season either. Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette have looked sharpe and will be a handful for any defence in the same way that they were towards the end of last season. It will be intriguing to see how Emery plans to use them and fit the likes of Ozil and Mkhitaryan in to the team too.
Those of us with intelligence knew that Stan Kroenke wouldn’t suddenly start spending huge sums on players, simply because we’ve appointed a new manager. Which is why it is so laughable to see some of his supporters attempting to say “I told you so” to those of us who wanted Wenger gone. The problems with our owners and the board, have been well documented but Kroenke and the board were not to blame for poor team selections and substitutions, players underperforming or Arsene’s tactical ineptitude.
Whilst I recognise that there are still several deficiencies in the team and understand that it’s going to time for Emery to implement his ideas, I’m still looking forward to the new season more than I have done for the best part of a decade. I have faith in Emery and his staff and within reason, I’m prepared to be patient. I’m looking forward to seeing how our promising crop of youngsters such as Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Konstantinos Mavropanos develop over the months ahead too.One youngster who has had more than his fair share of criticism, is Alex Iwobi. I agree that he showed very little last season but he seemed completely devoid of confidence and was poorly managed and often overplayed by Wenger. In the last couple of pre season games, he slowly looks to be regaining some of his confidence and has done well without being outstanding.
I’m not saying that he will ever be world class but it does seem that many of our supporters have decided he’s useless and deliberately refuse to acknowledge his good performances in games where he has done well. Why Arsenal supporters would want any Arsenal player to fail is beyond me but it does seem like some slate him regardless of how well he plays. Perhaps it’s to justify their opinions on him and convince themselves that he played badly against Chelsea and Lazio. The truth is, he didn’t.
Emery and the players have my full support but I won’t stop saying things as I see them, just because Wenger is gone. I’d like to see us add a wide player, a top class centre back and maybe a left back before the closure of the transfer window but realistically, getting in one of those would be an unexpected bonus at this stage. The start of the season is nearly upon us and I can’t wait. I’ve missed the beer, the camaraderie and togetherness that football days out offer and this time we have the added bonus of being able to get excited about the football side of things too…..