The Arsene Wenger train has pulled into the station, and it is all change at the Emirates this Summer. A new Head Coach, a largely different backroom staff, a switch in formation, and potentially a new captain put the club in unchartered territory. So which players could benefit from these seismic changes?
The injury-prone Welsh midfielder received his footballing education under Arsene Wenger, having rejected an offer from Sir Alex Ferguson before signing for the Gunners in 2008. When he was able to maintain his fitness, in recent seasons he has been able to put together a run of games that demonstrated some of the promise he showed as a youngster. This is despite often being forced into a deeper role, partnering Granit Xhaka in either a 5-2-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation. Although this would allow him to break forward beyond the main attacking line, it also lowered his offensive potential requiring him to maintain a degree of defensive discipline he neither likes nor is suited to. Under Unai Emery, I think there is real potential for him to flourish. Ramsey has previously expressed his desire to play in Spain due to the style of play, so Emery’s experience in La Liga should help bring some of the continental features to Arsenal. Likely to be deployed in a three-man midfield, alongside Xhaka and new signing Lucas Torreira, Ramsey should be given greater license to roam forward without the burden of tracking back. Emery’s intensity should not only aid Ramsey on the pitch, with his engine enabling him to perform a high press, but also off the pitch. He has sometimes looked an exasperated figure, but the feverish nature of the new coaching staff on the touchline will require the occasional lapses in effort to be minimised. Add to these factors the lure of a big wage increase and the captaincy, I get the feeling this could be Ramsey’s best season in an Arsenal shirt. Who knows, it could even earn him that move to Spain?
Granit Xhaka appears to be the marmite midfielder: you either love him, or you hate him. Whilst there are clear limitations to his game, in particular his lack of recovery pace, these were woefully exposed in an Arsenal side with almost no defensive rigidity. Frequently, Xhaka would be left as the sole protector of the back four, a role which he is not suited to at all. Yet, he was persistently played and instructed to be the main defensive midfielder, starting all but one of Arsenal’s league games last season. This lack of rotation further weighed him down, particularly when Arsenal’s Europa League campaign entered the latter stages. Despite this, there was a notable improvement from January onwards. He began to improve his decision-making, committing less of the rash fouls he had become known for. Ending the season with 88% pass accuracy and notching 7 league assists should be commended for the man often tasked with distributing the ball from the defence. He has described himself as a ‘false ten’, meaning he prefers to act as a deep lying playmaker, where he has more time on the ball to pick a pass as well as the freedom to find pockets of space in the middle of the pitch. This is a role I can see him being given under Emery. Like Ramsey, I believe he would immensely benefit from a three-man midfield, where the defensive burden is lessened, allowing his natural game to come to the fore. I imagine there would be a greater rotation than under Arsene Wenger, meaning that if he has a poor spell of form or needs to rest, he will be given that opportunity. A fresher, freer Xhaka would install a great deal of trust amongst the rest of his teammates, the coaching staff and the fans, amongst whom he has been seen as a major liability.
Cited as one of the five ‘untouchables’ in the current Arsenal squad by the new Head Coach, Bellerin’s progression under Unai Emery should be significant. At only 23, Bellerin already has three full seasons of Premier League football under his belt and over 150 senior appearances. Yet, doubts still remain as to his defensive ability. His pace and dribbling ability make him a serious threat going forward, and although his recovery pace is impressive, there have been times when his one-on-one tackling has looked suspect; a Champions League tie against Bayern Munich, where Douglas Costa tore him to shreds will undoubtedly stick with him for a while. Inconsistencies are all part of developing as a young footballer, but having a coach who places more of an emphasis on the defensive aspects of the game will help to iron these out. As a whole, you can expect more defensive cohesion from Arsenal, as supposed to the laissez-faire approach that has typified the side over recent years. This will arguably be most important off the pitch, where the personal coaching Bellerin will receive should bare fruit on the pitch. Emery has a history of his wing/fullbacks performing well, most notably Alberto Moreno whom produced exceptional offensive output in Emery’s time as Sevilla manager. The signing of the experienced Lichtsteiner bodes well for the Spaniard as well. Having an experienced back-up will give Bellerin the opportunity to be rested, a stark contrast to last season where he was played exhaustively despite consistent niggling injuries. I think the Spanish link is also important. Emery is still learning English at this stage, and so having a native Spanish speaker to help translate and transmit his ideas on the pitch is very important. It wouldn’t be surprising if this saw Bellerin take up a more important leadership role amongst the squad, particularly in the early part of the season.
Chambers’ Arsenal career has been very up and down. After some break out performances at the outset, he found himself called up to the senior England national team. As a central defender he showed great promise, but he was shunted out to right back where his lack of pace was woefully exposed. The nadir of his career at the Gunners was undoubtedly away to Swansea in 2014, where Jeferson Montero (remember him?) left Chambers dumbfounded time and time again. It was amongst the worst defensive performances I can remember seeing, and since then he hasn’t seemed to be the same player. The confidence that characterised much of his early performances disappeared, and he started just twice the next season before being loaned out to Middlesbrough the year after. Under Karanka at ‘Boro, he showed again why he is best centrally putting in decent performances. Although used reticently by Wenger last season, when he was drafted in towards the latter stages of the campaign Chambers really impressed. Superseding the much-lauded Rob holding in the hierarchy, he improved on the ball significantly. Emery clearly has seen this promise, as he was rewarded with a new four-year contract at the end of June, just when speculation had been building over a move to Fulham. With Mertesacker retired, Koscielny ageing and injured, and Mustafi unconvincing, I think this is a sign that Chambers is set to become more of a regular starter. Although he is better as part of a back three, he has shown his adaptability. A trait clearly noticed by Emery, who has told Chambers he may be deployed more as a defensive midfielder and has begun to train him in this role. Arsene Wenger mentioned when signing him how this was a possibility, but Emery appears more willing to give Chambers the opportunity. In fact, in Arsenal’s first pre-season friendly, he played as the deepest midfielder and put in an impressive performance, albeit against Boreham Wood.
There was a lot stacked against Aubameyang at the start of his Arsenal career. Not only did he join in January, giving him little time to get used to the change in style, but he was unable to play in Europe for Arsenal. This meant he was consigned to starting Premier League matches of little consequence, with focus switching to Arsenal’s bid for the Europa League crown. Compound this with the fact that he was occasionally played out on the left-wing, causing much confusion and anger amongst Arsenal fans, and his tally of 13 goals and 3 assists in 16 games for Arsenal is even more impressive. Coming off a very good half-season for a struggling Borussia Dortmund side, his goals to games ratio puts him amongst the best in the world. In the 2016/17 Bundesliga season, he scored 31 goals in 31 games, and managed 7 in 8 Champions League appearances.
His pace is there for everybody to see. The way he frightens defenders with his speed has meant he can still be effective when played on the flanks, where Emery started him in Arsenal’s first pre-season game. This adaptability extends to formations as well, with his versatility making him capable of shifting between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 with ease. The attacking vigour with which Emery’s sides have played has the potential to get the very best out of Aubameyang, and his energy will suit the high intensity the new Head Coach has promised to play. Depending on the situation, there is also the very exciting prospect of a strike partnership forming with Lacazette. The two have already shown a great understanding on the pitch in their short time together and, with a full pre-season behind both of them, this will undoubtedly improve. Their styles complement each other and playing them as a front two would only add to the chances Aubameyang would get. A new found attacking freedom for Aaron Ramsey would benefit Aubameyang greatly, especially were he to be played as the sole striker. Ramsey’s breaks beyond the forward line would enable greater link-up play, and take some of the attention away from the Gabonese forward. The same can be applied to Bellerin. Should the Spanish speedster benefit like Emery’s previous full backs, Auabameyang is likely to have a much greater supply from the flanks to utilise his lethal poaching ability.