Premier League preview: Can Unai Emery rejuvenate Arsenal?
It's the beginning of a new era at Arsenal. For the first time, a manager other than Arsene Wenger will stand in the home dugout at the Emirates. Wenger spent 22 years with the Gunners, 10 at Highbury,12 at the stadium whose construction he oversaw. There's no doubt Wenger has achieved legendary status amongst Arsenal supporters. In many ways, the Emirates Stadium will be remembered as part of his legacy, alongside the Invincibles. In truth, he stayed a few years longer than he should have.
Arsenal finished sixth in the Premier League last season. For a club of their stature, that's as bad as it gets. It was their worst season under Wenger, exceeding last season's fifth-place finish that had set the previous mark. Time for a change was long overdue. That doesn't mean Wenger should be disrespected for the job he did, only that Arsenal needed fresh ideas.
Unai Emery brought an impressive CV to his new job, then over £70 million in talent after taking charge. The Spaniard won three Europa League titles with Sevilla before moving to Paris St Germain where he added a Ligue 1 crown, two French Cups, French League Cups and the French equivalent of Community Shields. His Europa League experience will be invaluable to Arsenal. They are in the competition again after reaching the semi-finals last season.
The Champions League is where Arsenal need to be but if they can't find a place in the Premier League top four, then the Europa League could become very important. Emery knows how to win it.
Arsenal have released a few members of last season's squad without suffering a critical loss. Per Mertesacker retired. Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere were both allowed to leave the club on free transfers. Wilshere's departure surprised a few but the 26-year-old never fulfilled his enormous potential. The new brain trust decided now was the time to cut ties. In other departures, Chuba Akpom has left the club while Takuma Asano and Matt Macey have both gone out on loan.
Emery has brought five new players to the club, with varying levels of experience. Stephan Lichtsteiner arrived on a free transfer from Juventus while Sokratis came in from Borussia Dortmund for £14.4 million. At 34 and 30 years old, they will step in immediately to improve the backline.
Goalkeeper Bernd Leno has arrived from Bayer Leverkusen for £22.5 million. The German stopper is ready to battle it out with Petr Cech for the number one spot. At 26, he is primed to take over for the veteran. In midfield, Arsenal have signed Uruguayan international, Lucas Torreira for £27 million and 19-year-old Frenchman, Matteo Guendouzi, from Lorient for £7.2 million. Torreira will go straight into the first team while Guendouzi must bide his time before becoming a first-team regular.
With the transfer window closing early this year, Arsenal only have a few days to complete any further deals. It's thought Emery would like to bring in at least one more player. Domagoj Vida, who helped Croatia to the World Cup final, Ousmane Dembele of Barcelona and Steven N'Zonzi of Sevilla top the rumour list. If any are to make the move, it must happen in the next few days.
Several players are also thought to be for sale. Danny Welbeck, Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez are the primary suspects. More concerning is that Aaron Ramsey is also being touted as exit material. The Welshman's contract is due to expire next summer and it's thought Chelsea and Liverpool may try to tempt the Gunners with an offer to cash in on the midfielder before he leaves for nothing in 2019. After Wenger's travails with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, that is a reasonable assumption.
Lack of leadership in recent seasons haunts Arsenal. In Wenger's early years, the squad fielded leaders across the pitch. Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell, Robin van Persie are just a few. That presence is no longer there. Petr Cech's place in goal is Leno's to win. Laurent Koscielny, the man usually expected to take charge at the back, is carrying a knock. Aaron Ramsey's contract situation is a big problem. As already noted, there's no guarantee he'll be with the club when the season kicks off.
The Gunners' strength lies in attack. Mesut Ozil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alexandre Lacazette are all quality footballers. They are formidable but, to a man, not the type to rally the troops. More than one from Emery's first recruiting class must fill the void.
Watching Arsenal's second string in the League Cup used to be one of football's pleasures. For years they seemed to get drawn at home to a lower league side. They would always produce mesmerising football. Players like Cesc Fabregas and Carlos Vela came through that team. Like leadership, that youthful enterprise is missing.
The last player to really break into the first team was Alex Iwobi, now 22. Ainsley Maitland-Niles played 909 minutes in the Premier League last season. The 20-year-old has a chance if Emery is a fan. Arsenal will loan some players out after the window closes. Emery should decide his squad by Thursday evening.
Arsenal winning the fourth-place trophy became a bit of a running joke over the years. Now it's a deadly serious imperative. They absolutely must finish in the top four. Emery spent money on good players although not enough to mount a serious title challenge. That said, they have done better business to date than Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. Assuming you must buy every summer to keep pace, they should find themselves in the top four. Of course, it's never that easy.