A Big Season for Big 17

Alex Iwobi – an Arsenal Man

By Sam Limbert

One of the most intriguing things about the new season is how it is difficult to know what Unai Emery is going to do with his team selection and his tactics. Under Arsene Wenger, everything became very predictable. The 70th minute substitution, which players would get selected and the style of play became quite easy to guess by the end of this tenure at the club.

That isn’t to say that what Wenger was doing was wrong, but because of how long we’d all watched the team under his management, what he was going to do was clear and familiar.

Alex Iwobi Celebrates his goal against Chelsea
Alex Iwobi – Is he the new Arsenal Man?

This isn’t the case in the early part of this season as we all try and second guess what Unai Emery is thinking. From his team selections and substitutions in the first few games, it seems like reputations are being ignored and he’s picking players based on what he wants in certain games. That was evident at Chelsea on Saturday with one of the most surprising names on the team sheet being Alex Iwobi.

After bursting into the first team in 2016, Iwobi didn’t continue his rapid development and drew criticism last season. While Arsene Wenger was great for his career in that he was promoted to the first team at a young age, Iwobi last season looked like a player that would benefit from the voice of a different coach. As a result, he is the player in the squad I’m most interested to see how his game develops under Unai Emery.

In a squad that is lacking in wide players, there is an opportunity for Iwobi to really establish himself in the team and gain confidence from being an important member of the squad. When he is at his best, everything looks natural and like he isn’t having to overthink his game. Much like Theo Walcott, Iwobi’s decision making isn’t great when he has plenty of time to think about what to do. More detailed tactical coaching from Unai Emery could be just what he needs to make that decision making second nature.

I was delighted to see him score at Stamford Bridge because that will give him confidence and was an important contribution from him in a big game. Iwobi’s end product has been a major area of his game with room for improvement as he can panic in front of goal, but he timed his movement into the box perfectly against Chelsea and finished clinically.

Physically he can also become an imposing figure in the team. He’s quick, strong and has the stamina to do his defensive work when playing on the flank. While Chelsea were regularly attacking Arsenal’s right side on Saturday with Henrikh Mkhitaryan not offering much protection to Hector Bellerin, the Blues got much less joy on the other side as Iwobi worked back to help Nacho Monreal. With Danny Welbeck possessing the athleticism to work back but lacking the same technical quality and Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil not being genuine wide players, Iwobi offers balance to the team. He is someone who suits the pressing tactics but picking him doesn’t come at the expense of footballing ability when the team regains possession.

The other main I hope Alex Iwobi can progress this season is that he is also an Arsenal man. With Jack Wilshere gone and Carl Jenkinson realistically only going to get a game if there is an injury crisis after his latest setback, Iwobi can take on the mantle of being a fan in the first team and being an example of having a dream as a kid, coming through the academy and playing for your boyhood team.

For someone that has the nickname BIG 17 and has a strong social media game, he doesn’t always play on the pitch with the same amount of expression, especially when he has the talent to do so. The changes at the club over the summer have given Iwobi an opportunity to change that. He’s recently signed a new long-term contract and while that will partly be to protect any future value in the transfer market, it was a show of confidence in his ability and potential.

Not knowing what Unai Emery is going to do, Iwobi could easily end up out of the team against West Ham on Saturday if the head coach wants to get Aubameyang and Lacazette into the same team. But Iwobi was trusted by Emery in a big away game and he repaid that faith with a strong performance. If he continues to take his opportunities in the team, Iwobi can progress towards the player we hoped he’d be when he first broke through into the first team.

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Patience Required in a World of Instant Judgements

Arsenal Goalkeeper Petr Cech Causes a Stir

By Sam Limbert

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.