Premier League 2018-19 preview: Arsenal
Arsène Wenger has gone, Unai Emery is in charge and it is time for a new dawn to begin. It could be bumpy at the start and fans have no option but to trust in the new man.
Sports writers’ predicted position: 5th (NB: this is not necessarily Jacob Steinberg’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 6th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 20-1
The first thing to make clear is that the man charged with reviving Arsenal is not the Spanish equivalent of David Moyes. The second is that for any comparison with Manchester United’s struggle to adapt to life after Sir Alex Ferguson to hold, Arsène Wenger would have had to leave his successor a title-winning team, rather than one that failed to win an away game in 2018 until the final day of last season.
If Unai Emery’s task is daunting, it is only because the previous boss was well past his glorious peak. Whereas United’s travails since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 have exposed their structural failings, the unfortunate truth is that decay had taken hold at Arsenal long before the announcement of Wenger’s departure on 20 April. The folly of telling the Wenger Out brigade to be careful what they wished for whenever dissatisfaction rose had become impossible to ignore.
How, after all, did it make sense for Arsenal to turn a blind eye to Wenger’s decline simply because United hired Moyes? It was a disingenuous argument, a counterproductive way of thinking and a waste of time. As long as the status quo remained in place, there was no way for Arsenal to make real progress.
The price of inertia is that the squad Wenger left behind was the worst of his 22-year reign, which at least means that Emery can start with expectations at a realistic level. Arsenal missed out on Champions League qualification again last season and they will have to re-establish themselves in the top four before thinking about winning their first title since 2004.
That explains why there was little grumbling when Wenger left with a year remaining on his contract. It will be strange not to see the Frenchman in the dugout when Manchester City visit the Emirates on the opening weekend but the time had come for Arsenal to innovate – and it is telling that Emery’s title is head coach, with Raúl Sanllehí and Sven Mislintat placed in charge of transfers. This project is Ivan Gazidis’s baby. The club’s chief executive, who was linked with a move to Milan last week, finds himself in a strong position in north London, having found a manager willing to work under his structure.
Crucially, Arsenal have had a while to adjust. Emery was in place less than a fortnight after Wenger’s final game, allowing the Spaniard a full summer to work with his new squad, and it will be fascinating to see if the 46-year-old is capable of invigorating a team who have been crying out for more direction. Vague tactics have led to Arsenal becoming flimsy, immature and prone to collapse at the first sign of trouble.
While it might have been braver for them to press ahead with their early interest in Mikel Arteta, who has received quite the education as part of Pep Guardiola’s entourage at City, it is worth keeping in mind that the 36-year-old would have been learning on the job. Could Arsenal afford a gamble when they have already fallen so far behind their rivals? Not when Emery was regarded as the safer choice.
Perhaps that does not reflect too well on Arsenal. They have gone for experience but they have not appointed a sure thing. Emery is not a genius like Guardiola, a forceful personality like Jürgen Klopp or a ruthless winner like José Mourinho. He has won more than Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino and Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri, true, but even his achievement of leading Paris Saint-Germain to a domestic treble last season comes with the caveat that he lost the title to Monaco in his first season in France and made no impression in the Champions League.
Equally, however, PSG’s financial advantage can magnify their setbacks. Perhaps it was the wrong fit for Emery. His reputation as a demanding football obsessive might have stopped him from connecting with PSG’s egotists but it has helped him flourish in less suffocating environments. The experience of achieving three consecutive Europa League triumphs at Sevilla should prove helpful as Arsenal prepare for another Thursday-Sunday schedule.
Above all, Arsenal have turned to a coach who will work relentlessly on his players’ weaknesses, which should benefit stagnating youngsters such as Héctor Bellerín, Calum Chambers, Rob Holding and Alex Iwobi. There will be more intensity and Emery, who seems likely to favour a 4-2-3-1 system, has spoken about shifting the emphasis from dominating possession to showing remorseless hunger off the ball.
A new Arsenal are gradually starting to take form. There has been no major clear-out yet – Jack Wilshere has moved to West Ham after being told his opportunities would be limited and Santi Cazorla has returned to Villarreal in search of a fresh start – but the tweaks Emery has made so far show where he wants to improve.
That, however, is that as far as new signings are concerned. Funds are limited, meaning that Arsenal have required a focused approach, and Emery could find himself itching to replace a few members of his squad soon.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette could form a potent partnership in attack, Aaron Ramsey offers goals and energy from midfield and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson and Konstantinos Mavropanos showed promise last season. However, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Özil are not as consistent as their equivalents elsewhere, Danny Welbeck has struggled to stay fit, Granit Xhaka can be rash in central midfield, Shkodran Mustafi has toiled at centre-back, Laurent Koscielny is injured and Sead Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal are unconvincing options at left-back. There are holes to fill and a lack of quality depth.
Framed in that way, Emery has his work cut out and it remains to be seen if Arsenal have made up enough ground on their rivals. These, ultimately, are uncertain times in north London and it will only take a couple of bad results for people to start questioning the wisdom of parting with Wenger. But there is no going back, no room for doubt or panic, even if it is painful at first. In Ivan, Raúl, Sven and Unai they have to trust. They have no other option.