It’s not much longer now. Pre-season has concluded, a taste test of the Emery era has been served, and football that matters is only hours away. I’ve always believed that preseason should be taken with a grain of salt. I felt disjointed lineups and teams playing at half speed can lead to few concrete observations. I was truly speaking as a fan whose team had been led by the same man for 22 seasons.
It’s been so refreshing just to see something different under Emery. Even if deemed a failure by season’s end, I will still hold a sense of rejuvenation through stylistic change. The preseason sample size is small but large enough to know that Emery will commit to the following: High pressing/counterpressing, building from the back, establishment of a holding midfield platform, and a more condensed back 4 when defending deeper.
However stylistic in nature, these are exciting changes. The bigger mystery leading up to the start of the season will be in regards to personnel. What relationships will Emery wish to cultivate? Will Lacazette and Aubameyang start most matches together? Will Ozil get dropped in big away matches? Will Torreira slot right in as a shield for the back 4?
Unless you have connections to Emery’s inner circle, it’s impossible to know how he will approach certain matches personnel-wise. Based on the preseason body of evidence, I have included my opinion on the top 3 players who have helped and hurt their overall situations the most. I’m sure there are at least a couple unexpected shouts here.
1. Alexandre Lacazette
Despite ending the preseason as joint top scorer, I don’t feel Lacazette was particularly sharp but he flashed attributes this team is in dire need of: advanced link play and pressing. For all of the quality Aubameyang has, he does not excel in those two areas meaning Lacazette is a clear stylistic compliment.
First off, we knew Lacazette is comfortable playing back-to-goal, ball-to-feet while aiming to involve others. This preseason I was impressed with his ability to be a long-ball outlet when building from deep was unsuccessful.
Secondly, he presses and closes down to dictate opposition into certain areas of the pitch almost as well as Firmino at Liverpool. To play Emery’s high pressing game, players like Lacazette and Ramsey are invaluable.
2. Matteo Guendouzi
Guendouzi is the obvious shout. He is the player receiving the most praise after his preseason performances. It’s been well deserved as he seems to be a nice blend of security and progression. He keeps the ball moving from a deep-lying midfield role but can also pass through the lines and make bursts from deep. A true box-to-box #8.
It seems he has more layers and refinement to his game than Elneny, who many mention as a similar player. The main difference is advancement up the pitch. Not only is Guendouzi able to pass through lines but I’ve been most impressed with his ability to feel pressure, maneuver around a defender, and get to the next level on the dribble.
3. Rob Holding
This one can be attributed to circumstance rather than performance. The loan of Calum Chambers means one less centerback to compete with in a team devoid of any quality at LCB. I personally feel Chambers and Mavropanos are better overall defenders, but Emery most likely does not based on the loan and lack of minutes respectively. We do know he likes a CB confident in his ball-playing ability which is a skill Holding does possess.
1. Mohamed Elneny
Quite simply, Elneny was “out-Elnenied” by a 19-year-old kid from the second division of French football. Elneny’s attributes are no secret by now. He is a low-ceiling, high-floor player that excels at short-distance passing, being an ever-present option for teammates, and helping a team maintain possession. Guendouzi is efficient in all of the above areas and many more.
My issue with Elneny is that as more and more teams press us and overrun central areas, especially away from home, he is a liability. I feel under Emery we will be far more direct and not engage in sideways passing and overall slow-build play as often. We now require quick progression and Elneny is not that guy.
2. Ainsley Maitland-Niles
I’m a massive believer that Maitland-Niles will be a force to be reckoned with in due time. That said, it will come as a central midfielder, not a fullback. The injury to Kolasinac and Monreal’s health look to be forcing AMN towards an extended spell at left back. He’s no pushover as a fullback/wingback and has excelled at man-marking and winning 1:1 duels. I feel his overall progress as a CM will be inhibited under a new coach, in a very different system if all of his repetitions aren’t coming from central areas. Let’s stop playing this boy out of position!
3. Alex Iwobi
Sure he signed a nice new deal a few weeks back, but it always comes down to those two words with Iwobi: End Product.
He had a great game against Lazio and a nice overall preseason showcasing his ability to slot between the lines, play into quick passing triangles, and accelerate by opponents on the dribble. What he didn’t show was composure in and around the opposition’s box. The fact that it hasn’t improved, and actually gotten worse since his breakthrough ‘15-’16 season, is why he was a loser this preseason.
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