The Gunners Ready to Fire after Pre-season
Joe Willock (£5m) – A player I flagged when the prices were released as one to watch, albeit he had not been valued, cemented my positive feelings during the pre-season. I think he was Arsenal’s stand-out performer in the friendlies. Unai Emery appeared to think so, giving him the starting berth in the more ‘high profile’ fixtures, and allowing him to experiment is multiple roles. Against Barcelona, he was deployed deeper in a double-pivot alongside Xhaka, whilst in the Emirates Cup match he was pushed further forward as a more traditional number 10. Regardless of where he plays, two things stand out: his physicality, and his ability to dictate play. He looks to have matured in both areas, with his diligent pressing of the Bayern midfield in Arsenal’s second friendly highlighting his tactical discipline and stamina. It is difficult to say how often he will feature during the season, given the plethora of options in midfield, but his versatility will mean he is almost a certainty to feature in the matchday squads. In terms of FPL value, had he been priced 0.5m lower, it would have been easier to make a case. Unfortunately, there are just better options out there at this price and lower.
Aubameyang (£11m) – In my pre-pre-season preview (more pre’s than a night out at university), I opted to highlight Lacazette over Aubameyang. It has been the Gabonese goal-machine, however, that has really caught my eye. 3 goals and an assist don’t do his performances justice. Whether deployed on the right wing or down the middle, he has looked remarkably sharp. His relentless pace is easy enough for anyone to see, but the timing of his runs seems to have improved. First obvious against Bayern, his decision-making about when to cut in from the right and burst in behind, in combination with the lethal threat he posed on the counter, is something I had not expected to see so early on. I think he is another who has really benefited from the switch in formation to a 4-2-3-1, as the wide areas feel less crowded than the previous wing-back reliant formation. The connection with Lacazette appears to be firing already, typified with Aubameyang’s goal against Madrid which was assisted by a lovely flick from the Frenchman. Lacazette’s minor knock before the final friendly gave him the starting berth centrally, which he took with both hands. Aside from a world-class finish, the profile of his runs, shifting the defence left and right, created space in behind him for Ozil to do ‘good Ozil’ things, and not ‘bad Ozil’ things (although don’t worry, he did some of those later on when moved wide). Overall, I think he is the main Arsenal asset I come away from pre-season convinced by. I implore you, if you have been considering a premium striker, not to be put off by the possibility of him being played on the flanks. The signings of Pépé and Ceballos only add to the chances he will get, the new formation appears to suit him much more, and he doesn’t appear to have any of the pre-season sluggishness you might expect of someone who’s most notable asset is his electric speed.
Mesut Ozil (£7.5m) – I caveat this as an EXTREMELY tentative recommendation. There isn’t a font bold enough, nor air quotes heavy enough to emphasise that. The Asterix is so large it would make a Belgian cartoonist blush. I know he can’t travel north of the Watford gap, I know he can’t play after 3pm because he has a Fortnite stream scheduled on Twitch (ask your kids), and I know he is flakier than a Mr Whippy (ask your ice-cream obsessed British friends). The fact still remains that I would be lying to you if I didn’t say I hadn’t been impressed by how he has performed in pre-season. The key here is the 4-2-3-1 formation. Allowing Ozil the freedom essentially to create without the responsibility of much defensive labour has, unsurprisingly, meant he has looked much better. In defensive scenarios, rather than being forced to track back as a wide player, the side switches to a more traditional looking 4-4-2. The German stands alongside the striker and looks to cut the passing lines. He is asked to press at times, but the responsibility on him tracking back is much less. The disparity has been apparent even within games. Take the Barcelona fixture as an example. In the second half, he was pushed wide and the entire team seemed less comfortable. Defensively, Arsenal looked much weaker and the structure seemed compromised. As I previously mentioned though, when playing as a more traditional 10, he did ‘good Ozil’ things. The energy provided from the wingers gave him progressive passing options, and having a dynamic player like Willock in the double-pivot meant he wasn’t constantly dropping deep to pick up the ball. The ultimate goldilocks player found his tepid porridge, added some lovely caramelized walnuts, a few blueberries and a little sprinkle of cinnamon. The problem is, how often does anyone have those ingredients available? Confusing breakfast metaphor aside, the question is how often will Emery play in a way to fit Ozil’s preferences. If he does, the German is a very real consideration, especially when Pépé, Lacazette and Aubameyang are all integrated. These are the exact kind of players he has been crying out for. Look back to his best periods at Arsenal, and it is when he was surrounded by pacey attackers – previously Alexis and Walcott (whom he somehow managed to make look passable as a striker) – and a forward comfortable dropping deeper and linking play – formerly Giroud. I would argue the current attack is certainly an upgrade on the previous system in which he ‘shone’ (in the same way those energy saving lightbulbs do after you give them about 10 minutes to warm up). I’m not saying put him in your side, but if you did you would have my utmost admiration and respect*.
*not redeemable for any form of monetary value, although if you tag me on twitter I will reply with an amusing GIF (which is basically millennial currency anyway).
Best of the Rest
I will stand by my pre-pre-season recommendation of Ainsley Maitland-Niles (£5m), if nothing else because of that price. With Hector Bellerin still a couple of months away from returning to the first team, that right back spot is firmly his. In terms of pre-season form, the meme-able mistake against Barcelona in the final fixture has attracted a lot of attention, but that overlooks what was a very good first half display. Emery has been working intently on ensuring he is comfortable in a back 4 and it appears to be taking affect. His lackadaisical style worries me at times, but then again nothing about Arsenal’s ‘play it from the back’ system ever fills me with a lot of confidence. Pépé’s signing will add to his attacking threat, with the Ivorian keen to join a club where he could build a relationship with an overlapping fullback. Thankfully he also isn’t adverse to tracking back either, which will provide greater support for Maitland-Niles than the likes of Mkhitaryan.
Lacazette (£9.5m) has also done nothing to dissuade me from thinking he represents good value. Although his pre-season was broken up by a minor ankle knock, the minutes he did get showed exactly why the partnership between he and Aubameyang provides great FPL potential. 3 assists and a goal given his game time represents a decent return, and his link-play will only improve with more dynamic runners – in Nelson and Pépé – to provide support. Notably, he took a penalty (which he won) against Real Madrid, but to say he will continue to do so throughout the season would be a guess on my part.
Reiss Nelson (£5m) was perhaps not the most notable of the young players on show in the US tour, but certainly showed flashes of the prodigious talent he possesses. Personally, I would hope he would replace Mkhitaryan as the wing rotator, and I expect that he will start the opening fixtures until Pépé is ready to be integrated into the side. A dynamic dribbler, he is confident at taking players on, and provides the creative midfielders with a good outlet as he cuts in from the left flank. Especially in the first half against Lyon I thought he played exceptionally well, producing a few nice tricks before bursting past a couple of defenders more than once. If you wanted to shop in that bracket, I would prefer to start the season with him than Ceballos(£5.5m). The Spaniard has had limited game time with the squad, and picked up a slight knock in the final friendly which kept him out of training the subsequent session. Further, I see him being deployed in a deeper role than the supposed ‘Ramsey replacement’ that many have been touting him as (although given the alliteration, I wish I didn’t). Think of him more akin to Santi Cazorla, occupying a spot as the deep-ball progressor, rather than necessarily a number 8 who will burst beyond the striker.