Arsenal approaches new era

When the World Cup comes to a close on 15th July, there will less than a month before the Premier League gets underway and a new era at Arsenal Football Club begins. I’ve been watching the drama in Russia and have to say it’s been one of the better World Cups. Despite the tournament having no great teams in it, there’s been sustained drama.

The fact that England have reached the semi-final stage pays testament to the lack of quality teams taking part, which, perversely, has made the tournament more interesting. Here we have a national team that could feasibly win the World Cup having played Tunisia, Panama, Belgium (reserves), Sweden, Croatia and Belgium (again).

People say you can only beat what's put in front of you, and while that’s true, England winning the World Cup may be memorable, it may be exciting, it may be dramatic, but it won’t be a great sporting achievement.

This England team is not very good even by its own low standards. It’s stilted and lacks creativity. It’s dull. The biggest threat comes from set pieces because England have little else to offer in open play. For me, the only positives about England are the spirit in which they play the game and the fact that, for once, the FA has put a long-term plan in place.

I don’t doubt that in four years’ time this could be a very good England side, but they’re not now, whatever happens in Russia.

There are some analogies between England and Arsenal. Arsenal, too, are average, and likely to be average for a good while yet. Like England, supporters have to hope Arsenal can compete for major honours when they’re not very good. In England’s case this has become a reality due to inferior opposition, but that’s not the case with Arsenal in a league where everybody is going metal to the pedal to catch one of the greatest sides English football has ever produced.

The club has had the interior decorators in. Behind the scenes, Gazidis has stripped the proverbial wallpaper, dug up the carpets and come out of the shadows to showcase a new management structure. But the squad will take more than a lick of paint. Five players have been brought in at a cost of £70m: Papastathopoulos, Torreira, Leno, Guendouzi and Lichsteiner.

Fiery defensive midfielder, Lucas Torreira, is the best of that bunch and a vital addition to the squad. Goalkeeper Bernd Leno is a speculative signing, defenders Papastathopoulos and Lichsteiner are welcome but short-term additions designed to add maturity and stability to a squad in transition. Guendouzi is a raw, undisciplined talent who may or may not make it.

Two big questions will be, how quickly can these players integrate into the squad and can Unai Emery radically improve on what he’s inherited? He needs to find out whether Ozil and Mkhitaryan have any longevity in a pressing system. Can Welbeck, Lacazette or Perez score goals consistently? Were Kolasinac, Xhaka, Mustafi and Elneny as god-awful as they appeared to be or just horribly coached? Can youngsters like Chambers, Holding, Mavropanos, Maitland-Niles and Iwobi break into the first team or are they not up to it?

Basically, anyone who predicts Arsenal will compete for the Premier League next season needs to seriously have a word with themselves. The changes the club are making and need to make are not cosmetic but profound. There’s likely to be a lot of disappointments along the way and progress is not going to be defined by trophies.

Expectations have to be adjusted amongst the fan base. Arsenal has been a sixth-place team for two seasons now. In Spain, they’re the equivalent of Villarreal or Betis. In Italy, they’d be Lazio. In Germany, Leipzig or Leverkusen. And in France, Bordeaux. Fancy any of them to compete for their respective leagues next season?

I’m fine with optimism, but at the same time, let’s be reasonable. Emery is not superhuman, but neither is he incompetent, which is a major step forward. If the Spaniard scrapes Arsenal back into the top four, he’ll have done an amazing job considering his starting position. Personally, I find that unlikely, but I’m looking forward to finding out and fully behind the team.


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End of days for Ozil in Emery’s system?

Traditionally, Unai Emery favoured a 4-2-3-1 system during spells at Almeria, Valencia and Sevilla, switching to 4-3-3 at PSG due to the plethora of attacking options available to him (enabled by a weak Ligue 1). Either way, employing a flat back four at Arsenal would deviate from Wenger’s traditional 3-4-3 and give credence to the rumoured signing of 34-year-old Stephan Lichtsteiner in a more traditional full-back role. The change in playing style would also require the addition of a defensive midfielder, giving Arsenal further defensive stability.

Emery favours two basic principles, possession and pressing. And while Arsenal players have been bred on the former technique, the second is often alien to them. One gets the impression that under Wenger’s reign, pressing was only adopted as a point of principle in specific games, and because the players had not been coached adequately on how and when to press, the philosophy usually succumbed to lack of will and/or premature fatigue.

Under Emery, the players will be trained to press the ball until it becomes fundamental to their playing style - second nature if you will. Of his time at PSG, Emery highlighted his team’s lack of competitiveness in important moments due to not being “confronted with enough moments of adversity”. Unlike Wenger, Emery seems prepared to accept that his side is not always superior and has to adapt his tactics, even playing long balls if necessary.

A good example of the difference in thinking lies in how Emery is willing to concede that a defensive midfielder’s signature attributes are obviously less important when dominating a game. However, whereas Wenger would disregard employing a defensive midfielder altogether, Emery would adapt by employing different types of defensive midfielder. One game might require a destroyer of play, the next a DM that can make a more offensive contribution while retaining those key defensive attributes.

In offensive terms, Emery appears to prefer the idea of “provoking” the opponent – a possession-based philosophy based on winning the ball back with aggression. Players are trained on where to be positioned when out of possession, not necessarily to allow the opposition possession in order to counter, but to win the ball back at speed in order to pursue an attacking philosophy. In this case, aggressive pressing is as much a defensive strategy as offensive.

However, in any pressing system you absolutely cannot carry passengers. Whether pressing collectively or segmentally, if one individual is unwilling to share the workload, the whole system becomes fundamentally defective. From that standpoint, you have to ask questions about certain members of Arsenal’s squad and wonder if they are willing or able to adapt to a pressing style of football.

For certain, this raises huge question marks over the suitability of Mesut Ozil in particular, and several other players – notably Mkhitaryan, and Xhaka, whose defensive ambivalence is shocking and foul ratio atrocious. Due to their long-term injury records, Welbeck, Wilshere (assuming he stays) and Ramsey would likely spend more time on the treatment table than out of it. Personally, I’d be surprised if they could even get through the training sessions.

For me, this gives Emery a major headache and explains why a lot time and patience will be required before the Spaniard’s tactical philosophies are able to reach fruition. He may well have to concede certain elements, accepting his players’ physical and mental limitations while slowly bringing in the ‘right’ players over a number of years. While that would hardly be an unusual management strategy, he is particularly up against it due to the frailness of the squad he’s inherited. It would take a brave man to say, to hell with Ozil and replace him with Iwobi, for example, but Emery might have to do just that - even in adversity.

At PSG, Emery may well have tolerated Neymar’s liassez faire attitude to training, but he scored 28 goals in 30 games and assisted 16, Ozil scored 6 and assisted 12 – denoting he’s not worth making an exception for. As with Klopp and Guardiola, when it comes to employing a pressing game the collective is far more important than any one individual. Industry, motivation and character are equally essential as talent and technique, hence why Ozil’s days at Arsenal are likely numbered despite his recent contract extension.


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Wenger denies Emery £86m in transfer funds

The fact that Arsenal are looking to sign the likes of Stephan Lichtensteiner (£0) and Sokratis Papastathopoulos (£15m) this summer is evidence of the dire financial consequences of having to play Europa League Football for what will now be two consecutive seasons. New manager Unai Emery has a quoted summer transfer pot of £50m, which appears to be reasonably accurate.

When Arsenal’s accounts were released in September last year, they demonstrated a cash balance of £180m. More in the bank than most clubs, but from that had to be subtracted debt repayments of £35m and £42.7m outstanding from transfer instalments. This brings the cash balance down to around £100m, therefore, considering a reasonable amount of operational cash flow has to be withheld, the £50m transfer spend figure seems fairly logical.

Having said that, this amount should increase by around £10m when you take into account the fact that Per Mertesacker (retired) and Santi Cazorla (left) are no longer sucking a combined £170k per week from the wage bill. Should Jack Wilshere also depart, this would add another £5m to the pot, taking Emery’s available budget to around £65m.

Of course, this amount of money doesn’t buy you much these days, and we can now see the disastrous effect that Arsene Wenger’s final few years has had on the club due to non-Champions League participation. Considering Arsenal would normally achieve Round 16 status in the CL, the club has lost out on around £106m worth of funding over two seasons.

The Europa League brings in some income, but not much. Despite going as far as the semi-final, because Arsenal lost, the club will only inherit a feeble £5.7m in prize money. Even if the Gunners were to win the Europa League in 2018/2019, the very most Arsenal could make over two seasons combined from Europa League participation is £20m. Therefore non-CL participation has denied Unai Emery a minimum of £86m in transfer funds.

In the past, I have released Arsenal’s wage bill and thought about doing that this summer too. However, I’ve come to realise that this is largely a waste of time. Wage bills are made up of many wildly variable factors. Theoretically, the fairest comparison would be to only compare first team player wages between clubs – as it’s on the pitch where spend is most easily equitable. However, even that comparison is questionable due to the fact that very wealthy clubs end up paying disproportionately higher transfer fees and wages. This distortion means you cannot accurately discern whether a club is getting true value for players no much how they spend, and fails altogether to include the impact of world-class managers like Klopp, Guardiola or a manager that punches well above his weight like Pochettino.

On the positive side, this shows there is still plenty of room for a club like Arsenal to improve and advance despite having a relatively limited transfer budget. Indeed, one only has to look at Tottenham who have managed to usurp Arsenal by achieving CL qualification on half the commercial revenues, with a £250k transfer deficit in 2017/18 (compared to Arsenal’s £15m profit) and a wage bill closer to Burnley than their North London neighbours.

Over to you Emery.


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Emery fits Arsenal like hand in glove

So it seems that unless there’s another crazy twist of fate, the recently departed 46-year-old PSG coach Unai Emery is set to be the next Arsenal manager. Was Mikel Arteta ever really in the running? Perhaps as a last resort. He provided a lot of smoke, leading to a lot of outlandish and unproven assumptions about his suitability, but the whole circus proves you can’t ascertain much by what the media says.

In my opinion, the appointment of Emery is beyond criticism. Personally, I would have preferred Ancelotti or Allegri, but assuming they ever held discussions with the club, there’s a high chance they would have analysed the mess Wenger left behind and decided the squad needed a £200m rebuild. That would leave Arsenal with little choice but to seek a coach that was more grateful for the job offer.

The fact is Wenger has dragged Arsenal too far down the table to attract a world-class coach. As hopeless as Arsenal were even when they regularly qualified for the Champions League, that stature would still have enabled them to attract the likes of Klopp, but the board sat on its hands too long and missed the opportunity. Emery is not Klopp, but he’s the best ‘fledgling’ manager Arsenal could get at this juncture and certainly fits where Arsenal is situated right now.

Gazidis and co. could have opted for Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim or Jardim at Monaco, but who is to say an approach was not made or either wanted to come? With that mind, assuming the board has done its due diligence, it’s made a very good choice.

I wanted a coach that would turn the ship, not risk sinking it, and Emery did just that at Valencia and Sevilla – two big Spanish clubs that performed extraordinarily well under his stewardship. Let’s put what Emery achieved there into perspective. At Valencia, Emery took a club that has the same stature as Everton (with severe financial restrictions) and qualified for the UEFA Cup in his first season. This was followed by a third-place finish the following two seasons, despite losing David Villa and David Silva in 2011/12.

Emery then took charge of third-rated Spanish side Sevilla, leading them to fifth in his first season before managing the unique achievement of winning the Europa League for three successive seasons, including a 3-1 victory over Liverpool in 2016. Within three years, Emery had won more European trophies for Sevilla than the club had managed in the previous 120. Of course, fans don't want Arsenal to be competing for the Europa League every season, but this is the situation Arsenal finds itself in and Emery's achievement is no less astonishing.

At PSG, Emery won Ligue 1 in his second season, losing only three of 38 games. But this is France, where you would expect any chump to win the league with a club possessing as much financial firepower as PSG. However, money is not the be all and end all, despite Emery being penalised for his so-called embarrassing performance in the Champions League, specifically PSG’s famous 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Barcelona.

Amidst this ‘failure’, it’s worth factoring that PSG is pretty much the equivalent of Celtic. The club plays against utter dross in its domestic league virtually every week and has zero European pedigree. If any club has the right to panic under the unrealistic expectation of the European stage, it’s them. Even in a league where clubs are tested on an almost weekly basis, Manchester City, with all its financial muscle and the best coach in world football, has been unremarkable in the Champions League.

Taking all this into account, the Arsenal board has moved for a coach that has a fantastic pedigree in turning around the fortunes of other clubs in similar situations. He’s highly experienced for his age, is excellent working on a modest budget and favours a modern pressing game – defending the ball in the midfield zone with quick transitional plays.

Am I excited? No - still need to chemi-clean the stench of Wenger from my nervous system. Should you be excited? Far more than you were on the 20th April before his sacking.


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LeGrove puts forward the case for Mikel Arteta, but…

Don’t normally attach much credence to other blogs, because by and large they’re sh*t, but LeGrove is a thoughtful, incisive and well-written blog that today puts forward a compelling, but perhaps misguided, case for the acquisition of Mikel Arteta to replace Arsene Wenger. With Juventus coach Max Allegri increasingly distancing himself from the role, Arteta has now emerged as a frontrunner for the post alongside Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann.

Personally, I have severe reservations. At first glance, Arteta does not excite me. He obviously has zero managerial experience and did not excite or impress me as a player or club captain. However, he does excite Pep Guardiola – and it’s impossible to ignore the achievements of that man, the brand of football he creates and, perhaps more importantly, the decisions he makes regarding the teams he builds around him. No man is an island, apart from Arsene Wenger, which is why he got sacked.

The fact that Guardiola speaks so highly of Arteta and bust a gut to employ him is a major affirmative, but then we’re also in danger of attaching credibility to an individual that does not yet warrant it. When Guardiola acquired Arteta in 2016, he spoke of him in glowing terms, stating: “Arteta is one of the best midfielders there has been and he knows English football. He’s got 12, 13 years in both Scotland and here. He knows what Boxing Day is like.”

I find the initial portion of that statement quite frankly absurd. Arteta played 50 games for Rangers and failed to establish himself at middle-tier Spanish side Real Sociedad before carving a career at lower-middle tier Premier League club Everton. Then he moved to Arsenal between 2011 and 2016, earned himself the captaincy and won a solitary FA Cup medal in a final against Wigan. Arteta doesn’t have a single cap for his country either – he was always a bang average midfielder.

The fact is, Guardiola needed a right-hand man when he joined Man City and looked around to find an available suitor. Arteta is no-doubt an intelligent chap, spoke both Spanish and English, understood the dynamics of the English game and happened to be available – he was a logical choice. But, that doesn’t make Arteta anymore an intellectual genius than Steve Bould – who has evidently not been given permission at Arsenal to do anything other than put the cones out on the training ground.

It’s a big leap to equate and attribute the qualities inherent in Guardiola’s makeup with those that serve under him. After all, Steve McClaren served under Alex Ferguson for three years, flopped at England and has been largely perceived as a laughing stock ever since. Another Ferguson assistant, Carlos Quieroz, lasted under a year at Real Madrid, where he failed dismally in all competitions.

Arteta has also watched and learned from the one of the great managers of the game in Guardiola, but it would be rather naïve and simplistic to imagine he would be able to implement a similar strategy at Arsenal. If all you had to do was watch, observe and translate, number twos at all the big clubs in world football would be swanning around ripping it up in their respective leagues – I see little evidence this is uniform.

I recognise that none of us know Mikel Arteta, whereas Pep Guardiola does know him, and whilst you can take what managers say regarding their staff with a pinch of salt – loyalty goes a long way in football and managers and players tend to be gushing in their love and respect for each other, we also have to recognise it’s plausible that Arteta is rightly considered a very special managerial prospect.

However, I don’t believe there is any way we can discern this from the outside looking in and it’s naïve to forward-project that the former Arsenal captain is a shoe in for this job or anywhere near capable of bringing the qualities that Arsenal need to, first, clear up the detritus Wenger left behind, then go next-level and start creaming the opposition Klopp-style within three-years.

If Arteta was to be appointed, I’d be underwhelmed, but would obviously have to give him the benefit of the doubt and be supportive. I just feel that even if Arteta has a grand vision for the club and the talent to implement it, there are many facets of football management he cannot possibly have acquired. Mainly, how to respond when your players don’t, how to make big decisions in a pressure cooker environment and how to elicit the respect and motivation of a group of Arsenal players that are mentally weak, badly educated and prone to taking liberties.

Another aspect is trusting the foresight of Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis, who has taken a decade to acquire a pair of balls and seems to have very little knowledge or insight of the game beyond his financial expertise, which in itself is not exactly impressive. Personally, I feel Arsenal is in a precarious position at the moment. The club is going backwards and it’s weak. Player contracts are expiring left, right and centre and acquiring top-quality replacements is getting increasingly difficult due to the club falling behind all of its competitors and having zero credibility on the European stage.

I feel the club needs to be cautious and hire someone with gravitas and experience that can attract players through reputation alone, steady the ship, turn it and perhaps spend the next two-to-three years preparing the foundations for a young and compelling manager that can operate and flourish in a more stable environment. For me Carlo Ancelotti is still that man, Arteta can wait however good he may or may not be.


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