The international break gives us time to reflect on the form of our teams. It’s why the matches before the two-week hiatus always feel as though they have extra importance. At the end of the day the points are worth the same, but the potential ramifications for a club’s season are perhaps much bigger than any other win, loss, or draw. Owners have time to ponder whether a manager is the right person to lead the club; as fans so do we. It also allows us to take stock of the performance of the players; eight matches are a more representative sample size than just four. I thought I’d tackle the duelling dichotomies at the Emirates at the moment in this little respite: there are as many reasons to be worried as there are to be optimistic.
Over at Stamford Bridge, Frank Lampard is being hailed as a managerial maestro for playing young players like Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham. Laudable as this is, he doesn’t really have a choice. Not in the sense that he lacks options; to the contrary, these players are displacing more experienced colleagues. Rather, that is the only halfway logical reason to give Lampard that job in the first place. He wasn’t appointed on his managerial pedigree; it was basically nepotism with the bonus he played lots of young players in his one managerial season. If he started every game with a front three of Giroud, Pedro and Willian, Abramovich would just have been appointing a Tim Sherwood with GCSEs (a gilet-con for fans of left-wing French politics).
Unai Emery meanwhile has received little media attention for his blooding of youngsters. In a less dramatic fashion, players like Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, and Gabriel Martinelli have all been given decent amounts of competitive football. Unlike Chelsea’s, these kids have little senior experience. Even Reiss Nelson only had a stunted spell at Hoffenheim, whilst Martinelli has been thrust into first team action from Brazil’s lower leagues. Perhaps they receive less attention because the team as a whole is less vibrant offensively, but individually they have all shown great promise.
Bukayo Saka had just four senior appearances prior to this campaign, with only one start. He has already made his Premier League debut and become the youngest starter in a fixture between Arsenal and Manchester United, and looks set for a great campaign. He was one of the surprise inclusions in Arsenal’s preseason tour, and certainly the surprise to emerge from the trip to the U.S. Amongst Arsenal fans there had been talk about the promise of this generation, but Saka was never the name at the top of the list. Most people thought he probably wasn’t physically ready for senior football. Lacazette’s injury left a spot open in the Arsenal frontline, and through his excellent performances in the cup competitions he deservedly earned the left-wing spot over more experienced colleagues. Since then he hasn’t disappointed. With all the vim and vigour of someone not burdened by expectation he brings much of what Arsenal fans hope Nicolas Pépé will provide when he is fully integrated. In a system that can stifle creativity, he combines pacey on the ball dribbles with impressive chance creation. I think part of what has served him well is that he goes looking for the ball. It is easy in the system that Arsenal play to become disjointed from the midfield, but Saka doesn’t let this happen. He searches for the ball and has the confidence to try to beat his opposite number in the deeper areas of the pitch. His vision is also extremely impressive for a winger who could so easily be categorised as a ‘pace merchant’. He averages more key passes per 90 minutes this season than Sadio Mane, Heung-Min Son, and Raheem Sterling – all players I think he has attributes of. In pre-season, I remember watching him delicately dink a goal after running beyond the last defender reminded me so much of Mané’s ability to master those same runs. He has the same ability to drive from deep as Son, as well as echoes of the Korean’s ability to create openings for his teammates. I think he could develop a similar move to Sterling’s ‘show and go’ where he lulls the defender into think he has the chance to take the ball from him, before breezing past him with a burst of acceleration. The return of Lacazette after this break will prove the real test. Has this been a marriage of convenience for Emery, or has the young Englishman done enough to earn a regular spot as a Premier League starter?
Joe Willock is the breakthrough player that fills me with most excitement. From a footballing family, with brothers from Manchester United’s academy and Benfica’s B team, Joe was the least touted of the trio. Brother Chris was one of Arsenal’s most promising prospects before he departed a few seasons ago for Portugal, and since then Joe has filled his sibling’s shoes. He was on the fringes of the Arsenal first team squad for longer than most, making his first fleeting appearances under Arsene Wenger, but his rise really begun at the tail-end of last season. As Arsenal folded in the Europa League final like a mid-price chain restaurant in a post-Brexit economy, it was the young Englishman who replaced Mesut Ozil and provided the vaguest hint of a spark. One of the fears over Willock was his frame. He often looked lightweight, and as though his mum had bought him clothes a size too big, promising he would grow into it. Over the Summer, that’s exactly what he did. He must have been mainlining Weetabix in the offseason because he now looks like a fully-grown man, with the physicality to match his assuredness on the ball. There was a lot of speculation as to how Aaron Ramsey would be replaced, with many assuming Ceballos’ signing was the answer. I mentioned at the time I thought Willock had the potential to fill the role Emery wanted perfectly; he has all the qualities to act as a dynamic creator. Played slightly deeper than one imagines a stereotypical playmaker, he pivots as a hybrid dribbler and creator to allow a deep ball-progression few others in the squad can. It was club legend Freddie Ljungberg who instigated this change in the youth ranks, and his promotion to the senior coaching set up indicates Willock will be given this role going forward. Preseason saw him grab his chance with both hands. Used in almost every midfield role imaginable, he came back from the USA excursion as the most impressive performer by some distance. He managed to make Xhaka look passable as his deep-lying partner against Bayern Munich, scored in a more advanced role against Fiorentina, and didn’t look out of place against a Real Madrid side with some of the most renowned talents in the world (and Thibaut Courtois). The common thread was his unerring ability to switch roles within a game. When playing deeper he shows how he can dictate the tempo for his team, whilst still utilising his athletic ability to do the energetic side needed when partnered with a footballing-millstone like Xhaka. What we have seen as the competitive season has begun is more of the box-to-box side of his game. Rewarded with a new contract in mid-September, his Europa League performances are perhaps the better indication of the player I hope he will turn into. Rather than Ramsey, I think a better comparison is a hybrid of Abou Diaby (sans-injuries), Jack Wilshere (sans-nightclubs, injuries, and smoking habit), and Patrick Viera. With the towering stature of the two Frenchmen, he uses his size to dispossess opponents in the centre of the park. Then, like the best of Wilshere, he has the control to drive the team forward with the ball at his feet. The tinge of Ramsey comes into play with his ability to burst into the box, having the ability/lazy pundit cliché to ‘be in the right place at the right time’. His finishing needs improving, but that will hopefully come with time. What makes him such an exciting prospect is that he embodies the energy and dynamism that most Arsenal fans want to see in the midfield. Place him in a trio with Guendouzi and Torreira, and there is a real possibility of a partnership growing that will solidify the centre of Arsenal’s midfield for years to come. It is partly why Xhaka draws so much ire from Arsenal fans, myself included. It isn’t just the mistakes he makes on the pitch. It is the sense that his continual inclusion in the side is blocking what has the prospect to be a really exciting midfield, that is ready to compete in the new age of the Premier League.
I’ve managed to wax lyrical about a couple of prospects without even touching seriously on players that emerged last season, namely Guendouzi and Holding. The Luiz lookalike has taken another impressive leap this season, showing he can take control of a game when all those around him look lost. He did just that against Spurs and Manchester United, with an incandescent rage that almost made him look on the verge of tears. This youthful passion has its downside (see the memes post-Watford), but combined with his technical progress he embodies all that is exciting about the crop of young players coming through. Rob Holding faces a big battle to return to the form that saw him establish himself in the centre of the defence. Albeit currently that looks as difficult as beating a Giraffe at hide and seek, but the knee ligament injury he suffered in January will take time to recover. The physical aspect is one thing but regaining the confidence to trust your body when sliding in for those fifty/fifty challenges is another matter entirely. His fearless nature marked him out when he broke through; I remember fondly his battle with Diego Costa in the FA Cup final a few years ago. If he is to recapture that it will require patience from fans, the manager, and his fellow players. But he undoubtedly has all the makings of great ball-playing centre back, and one who could partner new signing William Saliba in a physically imposing and technically accomplished duo.
In December of 2012 Arsenal announced new contracts for what was coined ‘the British Core’. Five players who were deemed to be the future of Arsenal. The fanfare was huge as their pictures were plastered across the outside of the Emirates Stadium. I could come up with a witty joke about what happened to them, but all you really need to know is that amongst the quintet was Carl Jenkinson. Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey made up the rest of the ‘Famous Five’. None of these players ever fulfilled their potential at Arsenal, and Ramsey’s departure in the Summer was a huge part of the ennui rampant amongst supporters over the Summer. A connection to the club was lost. The hope is that the new wave of players breaking through into the first team can not only improve the side with their quality but help re-engage fans who have felt disconnected.
So lads, just the future of the club and the emotional joy of the fans on your shoulders. No pressure.