- It may not have been an extravagant summer in terms of spending, but for the first time in a long time, Arsenal’s squad appears to have balance and depth. Now, as it begins a new era without Arsene Wenger, this north London club is about to find out who it really is.
Imagine the season doesn’t start well for Arsenal. Imagine it gets to October and finds that nothing much has changed, that it’s bobbing around sixth and that that there is a significant gulf to the five teams above them. It’s not impossible, even, that Everton gets its act together, or Leicester or West Ham or Burnley has a good season, and it starts to become apparent that it is only notionally a member of the Big Six and that really it’s a Big Five. What then? Who do fans blame?
For years it was easy. Dust off the “Wenger Out” banner and go and brandish it on a roundabout or float it from the back of a plane. But there is no obvious scapegoat now and Arsenal faces a major question: just what was the cause of the stagnation and decline of the past decade? Was it an ageing manager struggling to keep on top of the modern game whose power at the club made it almost impossible for the board to make modernisations? Or was it a board happy to cream off its dividends with little interest in improving the squad beyond the level necessary to guarantee their income, despite charging the highest ticket prices in the Premier League?
“Both,” of course, is a perfectly valid answer, but the focus up until Arsene Wenger’s departure at the end of last season tended to be on the former. That, after all, was something readily visible and relatively easy to change. What the appointment of Unai Emery means in that regard is far from straightforward.
On the one hand he is a bright, youngish manager with a very decent track record who might be ready to make the step up (his time at Paris St Germain can be treated with a bewildered shrug given the raft of idiosyncratic problems that dog that club); on the other, it may be that Arsenal has simply appointed a Europa League manager because it has accepted it is a Europa League club.
Certainly Arsenal’s spending this summer has had a Europa League feel in terms of price, but each of the four senior arrivals answers an obvious need, which wasn’t always the case with much more expensive business done under Wenger. Stephane Lichtsteiner offers cover at right-back for Hector Bellerin, but more than that he adds experience and cynicism. Sokratis Papastathopoulos offers a height and aerial presence in the middle of defence that Arsenal has been lacking since Per Mertesacker’s legs deserted him.
The arrival of the goalkeeper Bernd Leno will at the very least put pressure on Petr Cech, who has been showing signs of age. Lucas Torreira is a mobile and dynamic young holding midfielder and possibly the answer to a question Arsenal has been struggling with since Gilberto Silva’s departure.
There are still issues. Neither Henrikh Mkhitaryan nor Mesut Ozil have produced consistently over the past couple of seasons, and it remains to be seen how Ozil will react to the ongoing fall-out to the photograph he posed for with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which led to outrage in Germany and ultimately his retirement from the national side. Granit Xhaka often seems to lack the discipline to play as a holding midfielder. Danny Welbeck is rarely fit. Shkodran Mustafi struggled last season at center-back. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette linked well, but can the two play together without leaving a shortfall in midfield?
For the first time in a long time, Arsenal’s squad now looks to have both balance and depth. The sense of familiarity, perhaps even, complacency that so often hung over London Colney should be banished by the energy and intensity of Emery.
His work with Valencia and Sevilla was remarkable, achieving a consistency that is extremely hard to achieve on a budget. His time at Spartak Moscow was disappointing, while the fact his two years with PSG yielded only one league title and no discernible progress in the Champions League will be held against him. PSG, though, is a particular case. Emery is not a man to indulge stars. He is a coach who looks to develop players, who demands pressing and will work rigorously on getting the shape right. That may come as a shock for some at Arsenal, but it may be one they need.
The absence of Wenger from the dugout will feel strange, but it is a change Arsenal needed. The question now is whether he was the major problem or whether he was a useful decoy for deeper-rooted issues. Arsenal this season faces a potentially troubling revelation of exactly what, as a club, it is.