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.

The World Cup Was Great but It’s Time for the New Arsenal Era

Even the most skeptical international football fans would have to concede that the World Cup was brilliant. There were great games, amazing goals, controversial moments, major upsets and a deserving winning team at the end of it. Over here in England, the tournament took on a life of its own with ‘It’s Coming Home’ and the Three Lions song from Euro 96 initially becoming popular again as a bit of self-deprecating joke, before we did dare to dream that England could actually reach a World Cup final.

Over the years I’ve developed a strange relationship with the England national team. I’ve gradually felt more and more detached from the players and the culture around it, and while football didn’t officially come home in the form of the trophy itself, it was great to have the country feel positive towards the national team again, driven by Gareth Southgate.

But on England’s departure from the tournament on Wednesday (which was made a lot easier to take because I could blame Harry Kane for spurning a one-on-one chance and Dele Alli for generally being rubbish against Croatia), my thoughts immediately turned to the fact it was only a month until the new club season. I couldn’t let myself be too disappointed by England because the tournament made for a fun event over the summer, but club football will always press my buttons more than the international game. I invest way too much emotionally into Arsenal that I couldn’t cope if I did the same with England.

It’s convenient then that the end of the World Cup coincided with the start of Arsenal’s pre-season and a visit to Boreham Wood of the Vanarama National League. I was a huge fan of Arsene Wenger and while I appreciated it was the right time for him to depart at the end of last season, I was still very sad about it. But with the changes that have happened at the club over the summer, there’s no point dwelling on what has gone before as we are entering into a genuinely exciting period. None of us really have any idea how things will pan out with Unai Emery now in charge. In the spirit of embracing the new era, it felt right to go to Meadow Park on Saturday and get used to seeing a different man in the Arsenal dug-out at the earliest opportunity.

So long as Arsenal weren’t embarrassingly beaten by the non-leaguers, the result of the game didn’t really matter as it was mainly a training exercise to get some match sharpness and work on Unai Emery’s system, highlighted by the fact the team reportedly returned to London Colney in the evening for a further training session. Nonetheless, an 8-0 victory was still very enjoyable. I got the sense that the players weren’t just going through the motions, as can often happen when there is such a gulf in quality between two sets of players. With different XI’s playing the two halves, each player went out with a point to prove to the new head coach as everyone can view this pre-season as an opportunity.

The most encouraging thing for me was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s rapid first half hat-trick and his link-up play with Alexandre Lacazette. Having Aubameyang as he is at the peak of his powers is realty exciting, and for the first time since Robin van Persie was at the club, it feels like there’s a striker that, if he stays fit, will comfortably score 20+ league goals in the season. He played predominantly from the left on Saturday in a 4-3-3, with Lacazette down the middle, and while it’d be interesting to see if those two could play together in as a genuine striking partnership, I suspect that Aubameyang will play from a wider position if the two start together.

That suspicion also comes from the transfer business that Arsenal have done so far. All of the new signings made so far are interesting in their own ways and all make a lot of sense, but after his impressive showings at the World Cup, it is the arrival of Lucas Torreira that stands out. If Unai Emery mainly uses a 4-3-3 formation, Torreira appears to be well suited to playing at the base of the midfield three, with places then available for Xhaka, Ramsey, Elneny or Maitland-Niles either side of the Uruguayan. To then balance out the side, it would be difficult to have two out and out centre-forwards, making it likely for Aubameyang to start in a wide position if Lacazette is picked up front.

There’s still plenty of sort out in terms of trimming the squad and getting Aaron Ramsey to sign a new contract, but it’s refreshing for Arsenal to have got a number of deals done and, barring any significant departures, have completed the arrivals by the start of pre-season. It’ll allow the squad to feel settled and for the new coaching staff to really assess and prepare the players ahead of a big start to the season. With Manchester City and Chelsea as the opening fixtures, Arsenal couldn’t afford to be slow in concluding deals, and credit to the club for the efficiency in which they’ve done it this summer.

With a new era starting at Arsenal, there’s also a new one starting with The Big Diag and the Arsenal Review USA Podcast. I’m delighted that The Big Diag joins Arsenal Review USA as a content partner, so you’ll be able to find my blog and The Big Diag podcast with James Bale and I on our section of the Arsenal Review USA website. There’s also going to be some different content coming across the season, so hopefully the positivity that’s developed around the club over the summer will continue and we’ll have an exciting first season under Unai Emery to write and talk about.