Patience Required in a World of Instant Judgements

Arsenal Goalkeeper Petr Cech Causes a Stir

With the arrival of a new head coach and the start of the new season, I was very excited going to the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. The stadium was full again, the atmosphere felt fresh and there was genuine intrigue as to how Arsenal were going to play. Unfortunately, as soon as the game started there was a fairly severe reality check.

Manchester City were a team at complete ease with their system and tactics whereas Arsenal were at the start of the process, with the gap between the teams highlighting how much work needs to be done by Unai Emery. Patience will be required.

Given there weren’t many opportunities in the match to see how Arsenal’s attack will shape up under the new manager, a lot of the post-match discussion has centered around the team playing out from the back. This was the clearest ‘new’ thing Arsenal were trying and it wasn’t without its teething problems as Petr Cech almost scored an own goal that would have broken the internet with gifs, memes and retweets.Arsenal Goalkeepers Bernd Leno & Petr Cech

Manchester City were arguably the worst team in the league against which to try and play this new style as Pep Guardiola’s team are suited to pressing high up the pitch, so a lot of the time it felt like the Gunners were playing in the hands of the opposition. The side of the fan brain that expects the worse came the fore as there was a palpative sense of nervousness as soon as another goal kick was played to one of the centre-backs, with a long goal kick being cheered near the end of the first half.

This is where the patience is required from supporters. I didn’t enjoy watching the team almost shoot themselves in the foot with the passing around the back, but having made the changes in the coaching staff over the summer, there are likely to be embarrassing mistakes as the team adapt to new ways of thinking.

In a world where social media judgement is instantaneous, it seems strangely appropriate that an Arsenal player was involved in a bit of a social media storm when we need to take the longer-term view.  Petr Cech is one of the last players from the squad I’d have suspected to be involved in calling out others on Twitter, but as someone who comes across as a principled man (despite having played for Chelsea under Mourinho!), I don’t blame him to responding to Bayer Leverkusen’s attempts at banter.

The goalkeeper has been one of the major points of discussion after the game and some fans and pundits have been very quick to write off Cech. The reality is that, for all of his experience in the game, he is being asked to play a style of football that he hasn’t done before in his career.

This is where I hope there has been some joined-up thinking between the Head Coach and the Head of Recruitment. If Unai Emery was clear that he was going to play out from the back in this style, then he needed a goalkeeper well equipped to do that. Bernd Leno may well be that guy in the future, but if he isn’t deemed ready to start a Premier League game ahead of the more experienced option in Cech, then we have to trust the judgement of the coaching staff.

For all of the criticism of Cech last season, he still had some very good games and remains an excellent goalkeeper. He’s the best Arsenal have got in terms of the fundamentals of goalkeeping, but the expectations on players in that position are changing.

Cech will start again on Sunday, and I think that’s the right decision. Despite the money spent on Leno, I still had a gut feeling that Cech would start the season as the number one. While plenty of changes were required and have been made in the squad, it makes sense for any new manager to have some experienced players to rely on to help the transition between eras and help Unai Emery’s own adaptation into the Premier League. With Laurent Koscielny out injured, Cech’s leadership, both as one of the five captains below the Frenchman and to help organise the defence, will have worked in his favour in Emery’s selection.

In the long term, I expect Leno to replace Cech as the number one, and that could happen later this season if he does well in the Europa League and cup competitions. But for the moment Unai Emery has understandably opted for a safer pair of hands, albeit not necessarily a safer pair of feet.


New Season Optimism Dampened by Events off the Pitch

By Sam Limbert

In the week leading up to the first game of every new season, I get an irrational burst of optimism that makes me think Arsenal will win pretty much everything. Even in the more challenging years under Arsene Wenger when the squad was nowhere near ready for the opening match, I’d get that excitement that anything was possible.

Up until Tuesday, I definitely had that blind optimism going into 2018-2019. In reality, a top-four finish is the aim for Unai Emery in his first season, but that doesn’t stop fans dreaming ahead of the new campaign.

There’s no better time for ridiculous amounts of optimism than in August as you can’t embark on another long season already feeling downbeat. At this point in time, we haven’t lost any games and we’re not a few points behind in the title race. It’s the hope that keeps us coming back and supporting the team after all.

And there is plenty to be positive about from the summer. Unai Emery’s first pre-season has been quite interesting with some decent results, a few different formations and combinations to observe and new signings arrived early in the window. There are still a few uncertainties around the futures of
Aaron Ramsey, Danny Welbeck, and other squad players, plus the departure of Calum Chambers on loan has got me scratching my head, but on the whole, there’s been some good business done by the club.

Then there are the attacking options. There’s a full season of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to look forward to. Alexandre Lacazette has looked really sharp in pre-season. Mesut Ozil will hopefully play freely, unburdened by all the negatives that impacted on his summer with the German national team. Along with Mkhitaryan, Iwobi and Ramsey, if Unai Emery gets the system right, this should be a very exciting team to watch and one that could score plenty of goals.

There also appears to be a really good team spirit building among the players. I know the club aren’t going to put out any negative social media content from pre-season, but on the evidence of players’ own social media activity and the reaction of the squad on the pitch during the pre-season games, there does seem to be something genuine there. The squad looks united, there are some good characters in it and that makes it a lot easier to get behind them.

But just as my excitement was approaching fever pitch this week, the news came that Alisher Usmanov was selling his shares in the club to KSE, enabling Stan Kroenke to eventually take full control of Arsenal. It had been mooted that this was a possibility over the summer, and was probably inevitable in the long run, but it does feel like the timing has caught a lot of people out and really impacted on the mood around the club.

In the spirit of being positive before the new season, it’s not impossible that Stan Kroenke taking on full ownership of the club will be a good thing. If he fulfills the ambitions and promises mentioned in the statement released with the news of the deal, then that’ll be great. The majority of clubs have a similar ownership structure, so much like the changes that were made with the hiring of different football executives in the last year, this deal arguably is another step into the modern footballing world for Arsenal.

Although this isn’t an exciting new owner who is swooping in looking determined to make Arsenal Football Club the best club it can be. This is a man who has had a lot of power at the club for years and overseen a period of stagnation on the field. This is where the key issue lies for me. If Kroenke showed himself to be determined to make Arsenal truly competitive again on the pitch in the Premier League and the Champions League, and Arsenal was going to be the main focus of his work, then I’d feel more positive about this. But Arsenal is just another business investment in his portfolio of sports teams, none of which have been significantly successful in recent years. For those of us who emotionally and financially (either through going to games or TV subscriptions, merchandise etc) invest a lot in following the club, that’s a worry. As Kroenke has not properly engaged with Arsenal fans in all the time that he’s been the majority shareholder, it feels like there is a lack of empathy from him to the supporters.

In addition, it is sad to see the club no longer have any fans as shareholders, and for the transparency that came with the club being on the stock exchange to come to an end. This is another source of the negativity around this deal as I don’t trust Stan Kroenke to make decisions that are in the best interests of Arsenal Football Club, in the best interests of the fans or in the pursuit of sporting success, and the fans might not know about some of these decisions as the club will be a private company.

I’ll get to the Emirates Stadium on Sunday and I’m sure I’ll get hit by the child-like excitement I have before every season. It’s still Arsenal Football Club and there are some things to be genuinely excited about. But the atmosphere on Sunday will be an interesting one. Whereas on the footballing side, there should be plenty of positivity and everyone should be behind the team and the manager, there could be an underlying unease that this is now the start of a new era in more ways than one.

New Arsenal Signings Unchanged Expectations

By Joel Middlehurst

If you’re Sead Kolasinac or Alexandre Lacazette, you could be forgiven for thinking “what a crazy game that was!”. Do these new additions study their future surroundings before signing up, as we do? Going over and over the styles and patterns of play? Discussing and debating the characteristics and strengths of their suitors? Maybe they do. The “glass half empty part” of my character finds it easier to believe they focus more on status and remuneration. But if I’m wrong (I hope I am), then they won’t have been surprised by this past weekends “oh so Arsenal” whirlwind of a curtain raiser.

Arsenal 2017/2018 look every inch a team straight out of Arsene Wenger’s second half of his reign in North London. To make matters simple, sometimes excellent going forward, often dreadful at the back.

Harsh? Maybe. But undeniable fragilities exist throughout Wengers later years in charge.

Opening games at the Emirates these days are met with as much anxiety as excitement, Last season’s opener was a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool. Last night the score line was reversed, but the lopsided nature of a bonkers game was very familiar.

In their defense, the new additions acquitted themselves very well. Both look like players able to make a large imprint on the starting XI this season. Kolasinac in particular, looks able to supply attributes the Gunners have been without for a long time. Brutish physicality, coupled with surprising speed and a good touch. Hopefully we can witness his primal style stomping down the left-hand side rather than at CB, as we did this weekend. But I think Arsenal may have a real fan favorite in Kolasinac and an absolute steal on a Bosman, even more so in a world where Kyle Walker costs £50 million!

Lacazette looks like a real penalty box technician, able to do all things well and a few things excellently. Critically, finishing is his area of excellence. He doesn’t chase the ball all over the front third. He stays up top, mostly central. Moving, watching, waiting for the moment that he can receive the ball in a position where he’s able to release a shot on goal. He looks intelligent and efficient, and a goal in 90 seconds instantly removes an obstacle that can grow in size in a striker’s opening forays in this league.

Unfortunately, Arsenal without the ball, still look like they can concede goals to almost anyone. This weekends absentees are significant players, especially at CB. No doubt that will be considered, but the frailties look similar whoever has played in Arsenals unprotected defense for years.

Of course, there are still several weeks of potential transfer incomings to agonize over. Although Wenger always seems to have more faith than most in his “internal solutions”, I think he would be genuinely misguided to wake up on September 1 without a new CM. Preferably one with strong defensive tendencies. I think it’s wishful thinking for Arsenal fans to want 2 more signings, but a new, elite CB would be as exciting as it would be surprising. Strengthening these two positions in the first XI would give the Gunners a spine. Something they’ve been accused of not having for over a decade. There have been players on the market that fit this remit perfectly (Bakayoko, Matic, Bonucci), and many remain available (N’Zonzi, Van Dijk, Krychowiak, Manolas). These aren’t players moving out of Arsenals scope. They’re not moving to Real Madrid or Barca or Bayern Munich. They are within their reach, and in some cases moving to their direct rivals.

As good a squad options as Elneny and Coquelin are, a third top level CM would push Xhaka and Ramsey and allow rotation and cover with no quality drop off. If you must sacrifice one of either Elneny or Coquelin, so be it. The same can be said at CB. Koscielny, Mustafi, plus one more elite CB, allows Monreal/ Mertesacker to be experienced backup, and Rob Holding to pick and choose the best games for his development. As it was, Rob Holding was thrown in with 2 left backs this past weekend and made the errors a 20 year old is expected to make. He should be played WITH the best Arsenal have, not thrown in AS the best Arsenal have.

All in all, Arsenal look like the same beast as in the last few seasons unless they address the personnel issues in the next fortnight or so. The attack looks dangerous and varied. Sanchez will enjoy playing with Lacazette. Ozil is Ozil. Sometimes wonderful, but games pass him by too often. Iwobi and Welbeck add depth. Are there 2 better impact players off the bench than Giroud and Ramsey? Especially when chasing goals.

Cech is solid. Koscielny is one of the Premier League’s best. Xhaka is growing in stature, and instigates most of Arsenals attacks. The first-choice front 3 is up there with the best in the league.

But a new pair through the middle is what will make this side different from previous years. Add physicality and defensive nous and maybe Kolasinac and Lacazette will not become as used to Arsenal’s opening night performance as the rest of us have.

Ivan Gazidis promised change at the Emirates this summer. Let’s see on September 1st if he was serious.