“It’s going to be crazy. Everybody is excited about that. We will have time to play together and we will see. I am looking forward to it. The next game we play at home [against Burnley on Saturday] and we will see what is the coach’s decision. It will be difficult for him [to fit us all in] but that’s the game. When you have a good team it is like that and you have to make choices.”

So said Pierre Emerick Aubameyang of the prospect of forming a front three with Alex Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe. Aubameyang and Lacazette comfortably represent Arsenal’s biggest goal threats and at a cool £72m outlay, Nicolas Pepe will be expected to supplement that. The thought of that trio playing in tandem has fired Aubameyang’s imagination as much as it has fired the collective imagination of the Arsenal fans.

However, there was an undercurrent of curiosity, even caution in his words. “It will be difficult for him [to fit us all in] but that’s the game.” The attacking triumvirate are Arsenal’s three record transfers, but it’s not immediately obvious how they all fit together. Essentially, Unai Emery has the same issue he had last season- how to accommodate two players that want to play centre-forward, when the coach prefers to play with one.

Last season Emery settled on a 3-5-2 that acted both as scaffolding for a porous back line and a means of shoehorning his two outstanding attacking talents into the team. The system had mixed results at best and it is clear that it was not the coach’s preferred solution. The signings of Kieran Tierney and Dani Ceballos strongly suggest that Emery wants to revert to a back four and a more orthodox midfield shape.

Pepe is the easiest component of the formula. We know he plays as an inverted winger from the right-hand side and that suits a modern front three shape. The Ivorian is unlikely to fit any structure that accommodates a wing-back in a back three. He is the natural wide-forward Arsenal and Emery have craved and with that price tag, the plan will be to play him as often as possible.

This begs the question of how best to fit Lacazette and Aubameyang into this structure. Now, you could argue that it should only accommodate one of them, but Arsenal are currently locked in contract talks with both parties and that tells you that the club are not about to sideline one or t’other from the starting eleven any time soon.

This might mean that Aubameyang will have to settle for the left-forward spot as and when Emery decides to play his three supreme attacking talents together. There has been a lot of supposition, from me as much as anyone, that the Gunners could look to ape Liverpool’s world famous front three.

It’s natural that we look to successful sides and mentally re-mould our own teams in their image- see the previous Arsenal hierarchy’s brief obsession with copying Leicester City’s scouting principles when they won the title in 2016. Lacazette, it is argued, could offer a good working impression of the job Firmino does for Liverpool. He prefers to come away from the front line and knit moves together.

From there, Pepe and Aubameyang could play as inverted forwards a la Mane and Salah. Bellerin and Tierney offer good coverage down the flanks in the same way that Robertson and Alexander-Arnold do for Liverpool. However, I am not convinced it is as simple as that. For a start, Aubameyang does not quite have Mane’s dribbling ability.

The Gabonese is not interested in any element of the build-up play and while he can skin a man alive when there is green grass behind a full-back, in tighter situations, beating players is not his speciality. Liverpool’s midfield is also a crucial part of maintaining equilibrium on the flanks too. With Salah and Mane tucked in and Robertson and Alexander-Arnold pushed right up the pitch, the midfield interiors for Liverpool do a sterling job of covering the flanks and protecting Liverpool from counter attacks.

In Torreira and Guendouzi, Arsenal potentially have two players capable of performing a similar job. I am less convinced that Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos are tailor made for this kind of detail. It is a very physically demanding task and that’s why Klopp rotates his midfield so readily. He treats the season like a sprint relay for those midfielders. Arsenal cannot play an entire season with just two midfield players assigned such a role.

In any case, I am not yet convinced that Emery sees replicating Liverpool’s strategy as his Plan A. For the majority of pre-season, the coach has reverted to his preferred 4-2-3-1 shape. As Anam observes in his piece on the Newcastle match, Emery likes his wide forwards to move in-field and create a box shape with the midfield double pivot, while the number 10 behaves a little like a decoy.

Pepe could fit that style, Aubameyang less so if played from the left. I also think Arsenal lack firepower when Aubameyang is not playing, Lacazette is an effective foil but I’m not fully convinced he is the guy to lead a front line on his own. He likes to move backwards towards play, the Gunners lack presence in the box without their Gabonese striker.

That said, Emery has played Aubemayang from the left often enough to know that he is not suited to playing the role as Nelson and Mkhitaryan did at St. James’ Park. Emery said as much during pre-season, “Aubameyang can play like a striker alone, like a striker with two and can play as a winger on the right or the left.

When we are deciding to play with another player maybe they are more of a one-to-one winger or a player like Mesut, a player who goes deep to take the ball and keep our possession with him in the pitch. It’s different in each moment and each match. But above all, with Aubameyang, we can take different options with him.”

Pepe’s participation in the African Nations means that the coach has not had time to work out how to integrate him with Aubameyang and Lacazette and Auba’s own musings (“when you have a good team it is like that and you have to make choices”) suggest it’s not yet been discussed in a defined way. If Emery is to use all three of his record signings at once, he might have to work it out on the hoof.

He could chance upon a similar 442 shape to the one deployed by the 1997-98 Double team, with Pepe playing a kind of Overmars role from the right. In that team, Ray Parlour shifted in-field from the right flank to form a midfield three with Vieira and Petit, freeing Overmars to break into inside forward positions. It is conceivable that Ceballos could do something similar from the left and form a three with two of Xhaka, Guendouzi and Torreira.

Emery might favour the Liverpool approach, of course. That he played with a 4-2-3-1 for the majority of pre-season and for the game at Newcastle might simply be a reflection of the players at his disposal. Arsenal fans will be understandably excited to see a PAL (Pepe Aubameyang Lacazette) front three, it might take some time to find the right balance, assuming that balance exists at all.

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The post P.A.L appeared first on Arseblog … an Arsenal blog.

Geez, Luiz

David Luiz, eh? I bet you didn’t see that coming. The circumstances in which he arrives at Arsenal are uncannily similar to the ones that saw him return to Chelsea in 2016. Having unsuccessfully cased Kalidou Koulibaly all summer, the Blues desperately needed a centre-half going into the last 48 hours of the window and David Luiz arrived back at Stamford Bridge, well, out of the blue.

Luiz is part of Kia Joorabchian’s stable of Brazilian players and this was significant in his unexpected return to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea reluctantly took Alexandre Pato, another one from the Kia rolodex, on loan at the tail end of the 2015-16 season. Within a year of that anomalous looking loan deal, Luiz had arrived at Chelsea and two more Joorabchian players, Ramires and Oscar, were sold to China for satisfactory fees.

Joorabchian has close links to Edu Gaspar dating back to his time at Corinthians, which I explained on a recent edition of the Arsecast. Kia’s friendship with Edu and closeness with Raul Sanllehi probably made this deal a relatively hassle-free affair for the Gunners. With other options exhausted, the deal makes some sense for Arsenal who are getting an experienced, Premier League ready centre-half.

At 32, Luiz is at the tail-end of his career at the top level but having spent £27m on 18-year old William Saliba this summer, one can appreciate the logic of an experienced short-term option. It is fair to say Luiz has divided opinion during his career, he is widely regarded as a player that veers between brilliance and catastrophe and that reputation is not without foundation.

In a system suited to his strengths, the Brazilian is an imperious player. Indeed, since returning to Chelsea in 2016, he has been largely excellent. As the central ‘pin’ in a back three, he thrived under Antonio Conte as the Blues sauntered to the league title. When Maurizio Sarri took over from his compatriot in the Stamford Bridge dugout, he reverted to a back four and Luiz was just as comfortable alongside either one of Rudiger or Christensen.

Luiz clearly enjoyed the tactical stylings of ‘Sarri-ball’, “I think his philosophy is amazing, it’s trying to play football,” Luiz said back in April. “It’s the way I love football, the way I enjoy football not just playing but watching and I think I love his philosophy.” Luiz loved Sarri-ball because it allowed him to express his strengths, not least his outstanding range of passing.

The Brazilian is far more than a line breaking passer, he is genuinely one of the Premier League’s most creative players. Luiz created 11 big chances in the Premier League last season, more than any Arsenal player. These are incredible numbers for a centre-half. Luiz’s stunning passing range allowed Chelsea to wean themselves away from Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic, whose lack of speed in transition held the Chelsea midfield back.

While it is true that Gunners fans will be more preoccupied with his defensive abilities, his distribution adds another dimension to the team. It might even allow Arsenal to manoeuvre Granit Xhaka out of the midfield in favour of more mobile options. As a defender, Luiz’s career shows that in the right setup and with the appropriate defensive partner, he can be a colossus.

His partnership with Thiago Silva for Brazil and Paris Saint Germain was the best in world football at the time. However, when Thiago Silva was suspended for the 2014 World Cup semi-final against Germany, well, we all saw what happened. Luiz’s international career fizzled out thereafter. Firstly because Silva fell out with the newly appointed Dunga and, without his teammate at his side, Luiz’s rash side crept to the surface.

Luiz spent a year in international exile, before being welcomed back into the fold in late 2015, when Silva’s relationship with Dunga had disintegrated to the point that he was no longer called into the squad. Luiz quickly violated that trust. First, because he was sent off in the dying minutes of a 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw with Argentina in Buenos Aires for a needlessly poor challenge. He followed this up with a rash performance against Uruguay in March 2016.

Brazil took a 2-0 lead in Recife before Luiz self-destructed. He allowed Luis Suarez to take him apart and the Uruguayans overturned the two-goal deficit. Dunga never trusted him again. He has made one Brazil squad under current coach Tite, but he was unused for those games. His penchant for petulance and his inability to function without Thiago Silva by his side made him disposable. Silva has since been reintegrated into the team.

This reputation for rashness has followed him throughout his career, in 2011 Gary Neville memorably described him as “playing like he is being controlled by a ten-year old playing the Playstation.” It is a comment Neville has since expressed remorse for and one that stuck in the public conscience. Despite his misgivings at international level, Luiz’s club career has remained on an even keel since signing for Paris Saint Germain in 2013.

Even when he left Thiago Silva behind to return to London, Luiz has looked comfortable in both a back three and a back four with multiple partners. He has been largely excellent during his second spell at Chelsea, demonstrating signs of maturity that were previously missing from his game.

That said, he was briefly exiled from the team towards the end of Antonio Conte’s reign after falling out with the Italian. He is far from the only player to fall foul of Conte’s perma-scowl, but then Luiz can be, shall we say, ‘expressive’ when he is unhappy. This might explain why Chelsea are willing to sell him to a direct rival.

Arsenal’s defence is in disarray and they need a shot of calmness and organisation. The question is whether Luiz can be that calming presence and a lot will come down to how well he gels with Sokratis. Defence is all about partnerships and you would imagine that those two be entrusted with plugging a porous back line. Aged 32 and 31 respectively, both are experienced performers, allowing space and time for Holding and Saliba to gradually replace them.

Luiz is generally considered to be a good character in the dressing room. He is known for his upbeat disposition and generosity. He has regularly showed a common, affable touch with fans. Luiz credits his happy go lucky outlook to his strong Christian faith. He has also been a strong advocate of the Chelsea Women’s team. He turned up unannounced at their Champions League match against PSG last season and mingled with fans and players alike.

Whether he can bring the same sense of lightness to an Arsenal defence that has looked incredibly stressed remains to be seen. As a short-term option, he makes sense for the Gunners. Luiz has had a complicated career, but he’s not a complicated character, when he is happy, he is good and when he is unhappy he is bad. Time will tell whether he can find happiness in North London.

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It’s Going To Be A Big 2019-20 For…

Following on from last week’s column, ‘It’s Going To Be A Big 2019-20 for…Youth Edition’, this week, I will assess three of the more senior players for whom this season represents a decisive one.

In pure personnel terms, it’s difficult to argue that Arsenal’s defence has improved ahead of this season. Laurent Koscielny was unlikely to be able to play the same volume of games he managed in the second half of last season anyway, but his imminent departure weakens the Gunners back line. Rob Holding should return to fitness soon which is great because it ought to mean less Mustafi.

However, we should be cautious about expecting Holding and Bellerin to come in and rescue an Arsenal defence that has conceded 102 goals in its last 76 Premier League games. In short, Leno is going to need to have a shit hot season. In fairness, he performed a reasonable impression of a one-man resistance during the second half of last season.

The worry is whether he can continue to defy metrics and perform above his career average thus far. In this Statsbomb post @MoeSquare writes, “The fear is that Leno’s performance this season was such an outlier compared to previous ones, that it’s more likely he experiences a decline moving forward. If Arsenal’s defence doesn’t improve, anything short of a repeat performance from Leno could spell further trouble.”

Many Gunners fans were ready to move on from Petr Cech last season and it was obvious that Leno was a much more modern goalkeeper when it came to distribution. It took a little while for him to emphatically win over the Arsenal fan base but nothing earns you the adoration of the Arsenal crowd quite like a breath-taking double save away at Tottenham.

The hope is that he can maintain that form going into this season. Tim from @7amkickoff pointed out the disparity between Leno’s stats away from home compared to games at the Emirates in a March episode of the Arsecast. It’s difficult to explain the discrepancy but, not unlike the team itself, Leno might have to spit on his gloves a little more for away fixtures. He quickly forged a good reputation with Arsenal fans in the spring, but he could just as quickly lose it if that spell proved to be a statistical outlier.

Xhaka is in a curious position as the most likely player to inherit the captain’s armband from Laurent Koscielny, but I think there is a fair chance that he is on trial this season. Mind you, given Arsenal’s recent history with the armband, perhaps it would be more curious if his medium-term future were not under question.

Xhaka’s good attributes are useful to Arsenal, but his all too frequent brain fades are, to put it lightly, inconvenient. There is a suspicion that the Swiss is just ill-suited to a league high on the drug of pressing. His passing is very good, but it takes entirely too long for him to collect the ball from the defence, turn and distribute on his favoured left foot.

Were I the manager, I would lean very heavily into making Guendouzi and Torreira my preferred partnership. I think that’s a duo that has a lot of upside and carries out a lot of the duties you would expect from a high functioning double pivot. Xhaka is embroiled in a battle not to become obsolete, much like high street retail.

Even if he manages to convince Emery (assuming Emery needs convincing) that his skills are what Arsenal require going forward, he still has other puzzles to solve. Most urgently, Granit needs to rid of his game of the kind of brain-dead errors that make you want to put your fist through a wall. In fairness to him, Xhaka managed to amend his disciplinary issues after three red cards in his debut season.

He turns 27 in September and is about to enter his prime years. The propensity to panic and self-destruct has to exit his game immediately. Xhaka is a bit of a control freak as a player, once he loses control of a situation, he has an unpleasant habit of switching into meltdown mode at the flick of a switch. It’s the same reason his disciplinary record was so poor in his debut season.

Xhaka has entered a phase where there can be no more excuses for his impetuousness. He often has three centre-halves behind him, he often has Lucas Torreira next to him, he can’t ask for much more protection. I suspect Emery still really likes to have Xhaka in his team because of his ability to spread play into the half-spaces and to find the wing-backs. That is useful to Arsenal, but he needs to repent for his sins in 2019-20 and show he can keep a cool head.

Özil has a very generous contract with two years still to run on it. He has retired from international duty having already won a World Cup and he enjoys life in London. In pure employment terms, Mesut is in an exceptionally comfortable situation. In career terms, he is under greater pressure and scrutiny than ever- and he has endured a lot of scrutiny throughout his professional life.

I think Özil’s recent malaise is down to several factors that have intermingled into an unpleasant soup. I do think that, frankly, his motivation has been lacking since he signed onto his current terms in January 2018. His retirement from international football may have fed into that sense of ennui as he has one less motivating factor.

I don’t think we can ignore the psychological toll surrounding the bitter end to his Germany career and the fallout from it. That has to have an impact. I also believe that he is just fundamentally not suited to the football Emery wants to play. In fact, Özil is slowly becoming a relic, because not many teams play with this kind of out and out number 10 any longer.

The physical demands of the position have changed and the likes of Mesut and James Rodriguez have found their careers dwindling with the fashion for high-pressing. It puts one in mind of the move from goal hanging ‘fox in the box’ strikers to channel running grifters in the centre-forward position some 15-20 years ago.

Yet Özil’s legacy is under pressure. If he continues to play as he has for the last 18 months or so, his story will be viewed as one of wasted talent, of an ethereal playmaker that did not apply his skill as much as he ought. Whether or not Mesut is motivated by that challenge remains to be seen, but after the mud that has been slung in his direction recently, there must be some willingness to cock a snook at the haters.

Arsenal cannot shift Özil as they would undoubtedly like to for obvious reasons and the player himself, understandably, doesn’t want to leave for a lesser contract. The two parties are stuck in an uneasy marriage, but it would be in both of their interests to try and revive the love affair they once enjoyed. Whether or not he is a “tactical fit”, Arsenal with a firing Mesut Özil is a far better team. His reputation is very much on the line.

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It’s Going To Be A Big 2019-20 For…Youth Edition

Every summer, just before the season starts, I write an ‘It’s Going To Be A Big Season For…’ piece focusing on three or four players for whom the upcoming the campaign represents a crossroads. Given Arsenal’s (enforced) focus on youth for 2019-20, I thought I would produce two of these articles, the first one analysing what the season ahead might hold for some of Arsenal’s academy graduates.

Circumstance is the midwife to opportunity for any young player looking to make an impression in the first team. For Willock, the departure of Aaron Ramsey sees him pushing against an open door for more minutes this season. Not only is Ramsey an obstacle removed for Willock, but Arsenal’s failure to manage the Welshman’s contract means they didn’t extract a fee and, therefore, have not been able to spend significantly on a direct replacement. (Though a goalscoring wide forward would at least replace his end product).

Willock looked quietly assured in his Europa League appearances during the 2017-18 season, forming an unfussy, tidy part of a midfield double pivot. Last season, Willock developed his attacking game and began to regularly produce goals and assists in the U-23s. This translated into the first team when he scored a pair of poacher’s goals against Blackpool in the FA Cup 3rd Round.

Joe has developed his touch in tight spaces and looks physically more robust. He seems to favour playing as a slightly more advanced number 8 and this is exactly the type of player Arsenal miss without Ramsey. Even with the loan signing of Dani Ceballos, there is not a huge amount of competition for that role in the team, especially if Mesut Özil’s fitful participation in away matches continues.

Willock has some qualities the first team misses and that is key for any young player looking to break through. “I really, really think that he made one more step last year during the season,” Unai Emery said earlier this summer. “He finished it very well with us, playing 12 minutes in the final against Chelsea with a big performance.”

Willock might initially aspire to Europa League group phase starts, but I think he can certainly expect to regularly feature in match day squads in the Premier League. He appears to have worked on his finishing over the last year or so, which is hugely encouraging. Often young attack minded players can lack in this area until their early 20s. Arsenal need more players making runs into the area from deep and they need more goal scorers from midfield.

If Willock fills a need and can add something to Arsenal in terms of end-product, then the same goes for Reiss Nelson. Emery’s squad has lacked goals from wide areas and Nelson looks like the mould of wide player that can give the team a little more fizz in the final third.

In Mkhitaryan and Iwobi, they had ‘final third entry’ types, who can progress the ball to the edge of the area, but neither stresses defenders enough in the final yards of the pitch. Even with the addition of Nicolas Pepe, Nelson is not exactly languishing at the back of a long queue.

Denis Suarez always seemed like a strange signing because he represented more of the same. Nelson, however, is far more in the direct mould of attacking wide player that Arsenal have missed. He takes players on and he looks to attack the area, either in search of a shot, or else to find a cutback opportunity.

Currently, only Lacazette and Aubameyang attack the penalty area with any sort of gusto for Arsenal and, in truth, even Lacazette is more of a link player. Nelson often hovers on the back post looking for scraps when the attack is building on the opposite flank which, again, not enough Arsenal players did last season.

There isn’t an enormous amount of traffic ahead of Nelson for a first team spot. Pepe, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi are the only established choices in the area he favours. Again, he should begin the season with the aspiration to start Europa League group matches and the early rounds of the League and FA Cup.

As the season progresses and he gathers more minutes, there is no reason for him not to aspire for more and he should look to put pressure on Iwobi and Mkhitaryan. Nelson is still very much a rough diamond. It is quite typical of attacking wide players that they can drift in their youth. Their decision making still needs to develop and Nelson needs to learn to pick his moments a little more prudently.

In recent seasons, Arsenal have shed Sanchez, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and even Danny Welbeck. That presents Nelson with a golden opportunity to build his case as a first-team player. In this context, someone like Serge Gnabry would have easily become a first-choice player for Arsenal, but he had a lot of senior players in his position at the point of departure. The same is not true for Nelson and it’s a gift horse he needn’t look in the mouth.

If opportunities look plentiful for Nelson and Willock, then Eddie Nketiah found himself in a strange holding pattern last season. He almost certainly would have gone on loan were it not for injury to Danny Welbeck. Emery decided to keep Nketiah as an insurance policy (understandably so) but that rainy day never arrived as Aubameyang and Lacazette stayed fir for the remainder of the campaign.

My own impression is that Nketiah’s confidence was hurt as a result. He barely managed the odd cameo from the bench, even when Arsenal really needed a goal. It seemed clear that Emery was not a huge fan of Eddie but had no choice but to keep him in the ‘break glass in case of emergency’ box. On the occasions that he did play, he looked overly keen to make an impression, affecting his performances in front of goal.

During the Blackpool FA Cup 3rd Round tie, Eddie’s all-round game was very impressive, but he missed a host of presentable chances. His finishing lacked the elán that is necessary at the top level. It stands to reason then that when he scored with the last stroke of the season at Burnley in May, he sank to his knees and pointed to the sky.

His finishing still needs work and perhaps Pepe’s ability to play as a striker presents Eddie with a chance for another loan spell, allowing Tyreece John-Jules to become the fourth choice striker with occasional first team appearances. I think Nketiah needs to play regularly now so he can develop some end-product on a consistent basis.

He won’t play ahead of Lacazette and Aubameyang, but Arsenal really need back-up for their striking pair. However, Unai Emery could give him the Europa League and League Cup matches and reassess at Christmas whether he needs a loan spell. That might also be determined by the injury situation at that point.

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Arsenal Men

We’re very excited that Edu is joining the team. He has great experience and technical football knowledge and most importantly is a true Arsenal man. He understands the club and what we stand for to our millions of fans around the world.
Raul Sanllehi

The clamour for ex-players to be appointed to roles within a club where they enjoyed success is a common and understandable one. Fans are nothing if not sentimental and nostalgia has a powerful pull on all of us. So much about being a supporter is tied up in self-identification that we are easily given to fond reminiscence.

Being a fan of a club is one of the few true constants in life and, therefore, we miss times gone by very easily. I don’t just miss the ‘Invincible’ era because Arsenal were really good and very successful, but because this era coincided with my days at university, one of the happiest times of my life. We miss the old days for our football teams because we miss being young, frankly speaking.

It’s the same reason for the retro shirt boom. Kit manufacturers are always trying to make suggestive nods to the past when they release a new shirt. Nostalgia sells. The arrival of Edu Gaspar this summer was preceded by two other former players- Steve Bould and Freddie Ljungberg- swapping jobs for the upcoming season. In the summer of 2018, Per Mertesacker became head of the Arsenal Academy.

Much has been made of the ‘Arsenalisation’ of the new broom behind the scenes. Chelsea and Manchester United have recently appointed inexperienced head coaches who happen to be club legends. When Raul Sanllehi said, of Edu, that “most importantly he is a true Arsenal man,” I do hope this was a bit of harmless PR speak.

That Edu played for the club for five years nearly 20 years ago is nice, but it is absolutely not the most important thing about his appointment and the same goes for Ljungberg, Mertesacker and Bould. Most important is that they are qualified for their roles. I would like to think everyone would agree that competence for the role is the most crucial factor.

But how important is it to be ‘an Arsenal man’ when undertaking a coaching or executive role? Is it of any marginal importance whatsoever? Well, the first thing to say is that it’s nothing new. Arsene Wenger had George Armstrong, Pat Rice and Liam Brady in leading roles and later on, Steve Bould replaced Rice as assistant manager. Wenger said it was important to him to keep those ‘Arsenal values’ inside the club while he found his feet.

With Arsene now gone and Arsenal owned by a distant entity, a lot of supporters have begun to feel that the club is mired in an identity crisis. Promoting Freddie Ljungberg and appointing Edu, with Mertesacker already in situ, is a neat way of handling that identity crisis in PR terms. As much as fans clamour for old faces, what always strikes me is how it’s never the players you expect that return.

For all the talk of Tony Adams, captain fantastic, returning to the club, it’s Steve Bould who has enjoyed more than a decade in a coaching role. Gilles Grimandi became one of Wenger’s most trusted lieutenants. From the Invincibles era, the talk has been of Vieira, Henry or Bergkamp making a hero’s return. I am not sure many would have bet money on Edu and Ljungberg being at the forefront of a new era for the Gunners over a decade after their playing careers at the club concluded.

This, also, is nothing new. From the era defining team of the 1930s, Hapgood, Bastin and James never returned, but the less revered Jack Crayston and George Swindin did. Neither were hugely successful as the Gunners failed with a policy of nostalgia, designed to try and rekindle their 1930s heyday in the more difficult post-war era.

The appointment of George Graham in 1986 was a more successful ploy, as an ambling team were immediately told to pull their socks up, shine their shoes and don their Arsenal blazers. Graham was very strict on the idea of rekindling club traditions and, it has to be said, that really worked. It was the right approach for that time. It’s just that nobody who saw Graham as a player expected for one minute he would become the disciplinarian coach to enforce it!

Don Howe enjoyed a fairly unremarkable two seasons as a player at Highbury in the mid-60s. Few on the North Bank at that time would have earmarked him as the future coaching mastermind behind a domestic double as an assistant and the manager in his own right some-time after that. This illustrates how difficult it is to judge how a player’s career might shape up once they have retired.

Their suitability for certain jobs is not revealed by how they play, but who they are away from our eyes. Ljungberg came to Arsenal as a spiky haired 21-year old with a Sid Vicious aesthetic. I remember vividly Nigel Winterburn chewing his ear off as he made his way off the bench for his debut against Manchester United in 1998.

In a 2-0 win over Ipswich in April 2002, as the Gunners closed in on the title, I recall Tony Adams coaching Edu through the game, constantly encouraging him. The sense of old passing onto new has always been there and it has always been important. Arsenal have been quick to play up Edu’s old boy credentials, but he is far more a Corinthians man than an Arsenal man. He played for them across two spells and then became their Director of Football. His son Luigi played for their U-14s last season.

There is a sense that passing on values is important in any organisation. Ajax and Bayern Munich place a big emphasis on creating a golden thread from their past. It is difficult to judge just how much influence that has on their success, it isn’t the main reason, of course. Yet they clearly believe that it is of marginal importance at least and not just to create a ‘story’ for their brand.

Arsenal have made a virtue of redeploying former players before. Sometimes it has worked (Graham, Howe, Rice) sometimes it hasn’t (Swindin, Howe, Lehmann). The main factor is competence of course, but context also has a part to play. On occasion, a club needs reminding of its values and all of the things that once made it successful. Occasionally, that is the wrong hand to play.

The teams of the 50s and 60s spoke of feeling oppressed by the spectre of their 1930s forefathers- so much so that they changed their home shirt to an all red affair in the mid-60s in a deliberate attempt to sever ties with that era. Owned by KSE and locked into the transition of the post Wenger era, there is an argument that now is the right time for Arsenal to reinvigorate former traditions.

So long as Arsenal realise, as I am sure they do, that Ljungberg and Edu’s Arsenal lineage is a small cherry on the cake and not the flour, butter and eggs. Graham did not just reinvigorate mid-1980s Arsenal with club ties and blazers, he did it through good coaching and the approach required for the players he had at his disposal.

Edu, Ljungberg and Mertesacker have become important pillars for Arsenal’s medium-term future and they will be judged on their tangible skills. How much their intangible attributes count for is for future historians to decide. “When you talk about mentality, it’s not only the players. The club has to have the same mentality of the players,” Edu told Arsenal.com this week.

We have to have the mentality of Arsenal, we always had to have winning in front of us.” Whether deliberately or otherwise, Edu used the past tense in that final sentence. Upon his departure from the club, Petr Cech admitted that losing didn’t hurt enough at Arsenal. That being the case, more characters within the club who played under a very different atmosphere is welcome, but it will not be the determining factor in their success.

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We Care, You Don’t

Earlier this week, several Arsenal fan groups and websites came together to formulate and sign a letter addressed to the club and its ownership. The campaign adopts the hashtag #WeCareDoYou. It is fair to say that Arsenal fans have been divided in recent years, but that division has manifested into a faintly ridiculous micro-argument about precisely how disenfranchised we feel and how exactly to express it.

That supporters, speaking very generally, feel disengaged is scarcely up for debate. Some of that disillusion has its roots in the direction of elite level football in general, not least as we lurch closer to a European Super League- more on which later. One thing I think I have learned through social media is that, if enough people have a perception of you and your behaviour, then that is an issue that you own.

Even if you are convinced that it stems from misunderstanding, that’s a consequence of miscommunication on your part. The choice you are then faced with is whether you care enough to correct it. If you do, it is fair to say that deeds carry greater weight than words. The reason Arsenal fans ‘feel like the club is an investment vehicle’ is because that is precisely what it is. It is the truth the club’s executive branch dare not utter.

KSE’s ambitions for the club are to see it competing consistently to win the Premier League and the Champions League’ the fan statement recites from KSE’s own takeover document, before following up with the aside, ‘we see little evidence of how this is to be achieved.’ Again, the truth the club and KSE dare not speak is that there is no active plan for any of these things and we know it as well as they do.

A lot of Arsenal fans report feeling disengaged from the club, that they are not sure what its purpose or its mission is. To my mind, this is not a communications issue per se. Arsenal have been plenty communicative and, next week, will host another supporters’ Q & A. The problem is that what we’re grasping for, as fans, goes way beyond words and straplines.

The reason we cannot grasp the mission or the purpose of Arsenal under KSE is that they cannot admit their mission and purpose publicly. The truth is that KSE’s ‘ambition’ is to grimy hold onto the elite status Arsenal enjoys thanks to Stan’s historic predecessors, take the TV cash and gratefully accept an invitation to the European Super League when it inevitably arrives.

This is why choreographed statements don’t cut it anymore. It’s all been said a million times before and exposed as nothing more than rhetoric. That the owner didn’t even bother to turn up to the Europa League Final tells you everything you need to know about his ‘ambition’ for Arsenal and his level of engagement. There are no words that conceal this level of active inaction.

You might reasonably ask why it matters? After all, Kroenke appoints a highly paid executive team to run the club on his behalf. I perfectly understand the ‘devolved’ model, it’s not uncommon in the corporate world at all. Lots of executives and directors have interests in more than just one company. It is and has been a problem for Arsenal though, as you are seeing through this managed decline.

Distance is not necessarily an issue per se. Disengagement is and that disengagement has been hugely costly to Arsenal. Principally because it allowed an under performing manager and under performing CEO to remain in position for too long. Much of the current malaise has its roots in allowing that CEO and manager to spend the club’s self-generated (a cynical manipulation of the proper term ‘fan generated’) money very badly indeed.

That makes it much more difficult for the new broom to sweep up the mess. We have also seen a raft of poor appointments behind the scenes, which has resulted in even greater upheaval. Darren Burgess and Sven Mislintat are, by all accounts, not bad at their jobs. Both were appointed to great fanfare and neither lasted so much as a year. This is what dysfunction looks like and it’s all happening on KSE’s watch.

Everyone knows that we have a Champions League wage bill on a Europa League budget,’ Josh Kroenke’s open letter to the fans read on Tuesday, as if this was a circumstance presented to him and KSE by happenstance rather than as a consequence of their persistently poor decision making. Excuse me if ‘we’re in a mess right now because we’ve been running the club really very badly indeed’ didn’t feel like a rallying cry for a brighter future.

The club’s ‘brand’ is badly damaged at the moment. This is having an impact in the transfer market. Nobody is lining up to take Arsenal’s players because a) their salaries are too high (this is a problem at lots of top clubs right now, in fairness) and b) because the market views Arsenal players as damaged goods.

Look at the players the Gunners have shifted to Barcelona over the years; Alex Song, Alex Hleb, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Thomas Vermaelen- guys they didn’t keep from the door. They weren’t crucial players but Barcelona saw Arsenal as a club worth buying from- that’s a consequence of your ‘brand.’ Arsenal’s is very damaged. The reverse is true of Liverpool right now, who could probably sell second-hand chewing gum to Southampton or West Ham or Bournemouth for £20m.

When you have a disinterested owner, it leads to executives in high positions effectively performance managing themselves.

‘Hey Ivan, how’s it all going there?’
‘Great, I am doing my job brilliantly!’

If the likes of Sanllehi and Edu underperform in their roles, the likelihood is that KSE won’t know, or pay any attention to it until the damage has already been done. That’s the price you pay for detached ownership.

The reason supporting a football club invokes such strong personal feelings in us, is because it fosters a powerful sense of shared identity. The sense that you are a part of *something* greater than yourself. This is why supporting at distance is easy to do. That feeling of kinship crosses borders easily. The problem for Arsenal fans is that we don’t really have anything to rally around because we know, because we can see, that Arsenal under KSE doesn’t stand for anything. You. Can’t. Fake. This. Shit.

It is not that Arsenal are trying and failing, it’s that they are not trying to stand for anything that we can rally behind. Think about why adidas’ promo video for the new home kit was so well received. The video made real that sense that Arsenal is a global club based in a global city. It meshed together the local and the global very well, drawing on the club’s history and customs in doing so.

The painful truth is that it wasn’t just a slick marketing video (I mean, it was exactly that), but it reminded us of something we’d forgotten. It reprised something in our memory banks and the deepest recesses of our Arsenal supporting souls that has been asleep for so long we forgot it was even there. A sense of what Arsenal is, or what it is supposed to be.

Yet that is only a piece of crafted communication. Its sentiment and nostalgia can only sustain us for so long. Besides which, it is not really adidas’ job to re-connect us with our football club. No amount of communications or high production values can do that, only deed can. Yet we will continue to be frustrated in that respect because of the truth that we all know and dare not speak. Stan Kroenke and KSE don’t care and under their stewardship, Arsenal is very much just an investment vehicle.

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Charging Through the Midfield

People occasionally ask me whether these columns are more difficult to write in the summer, when Arsenal are not playing. My reply is always the same, ‘absolutely not.’ If anything, it is easier to write about Arsenal during pre-season. The fixture list is hectic and often two to three games can happen between articles. The season can be compressed and chaotic when it comes to formulating one’s thoughts.

The pace is so relentless that talking points whizz in and out of view and it can be difficult to pin them down and isolate them. George Orwell once said the biggest challenge in life is seeing what is balanced on the end of your nose and that is how the season can feel at times. In the summer, the pace slows and you’ve time to meditate on your thoughts and adjust your lenses.

If the football season is an endless tray of tequila slammers, then pre-season is a scotch and a cigar. In this space, on the margins of the season, your imagination can dance. Transfer rumours are so popular because they essentially serve as fan fiction. Transfers allow us to project to a brighter future, where the new man can cure all ills, shortly before the player ruins our reverie by playing actual games and demonstrating his real-life flaws.

Transfers are cool, but transfer rumours or any kind of transfer talk rarely interests me. That is not to judge anyone that is interested in transfer chatter, it just never floated my boat. I like the grass, the patterns of play, the tinkering, the stadium and everything around the match day. I like the game and so my imagination tends to wander towards the players I already know, that Arsenal already has.

Last week I wrote a piece looking at how Unai Emery can make marginal gains with what he already has. I cannot see a large squad overhaul this summer because I cannot see Arsenal selling the players they need to sell to generate a purse. Instead they will have to generate a purse from a sow’s ear, so to speak.

I wondered if pairing Torreira and Guendouzi in midfield might modernise the Gunners engine room. Alex Iwobi scored for Nigeria in the African Nations Cup, running from a central midfield position to do so. I don’t want to get carried away by the goal itself, which is a mere isolated moment. We have seen Iwobi score similar goals for Arsenal at sporadic intervals and there is no proof that he could score such a goal regularly. Unai Emery has not found a direct replacement for Aaron Ramsey in that five second clip.

It did get me wondering about repurposing the Nigerian as another type of central midfielder, however. If Emery wanted to move to more of a 4-3-3 shape, I began to ponder whether Iwobi had the qualities to form a midfield trio with Guendouzi and Torreira who, in my pre-season stoner state, I have also projected as ‘the answer’ to all of our troubles.

I have written many times in recent months that Arsenal needs an injection of athleticism into the spine of the team. It could also do with a ball carrier. Iwobi, Guendouzi and Torreira certainly gives Arsenal greater athleticism and I wonder if Iwobi could become the ball carrier the heart of the team has missed since Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky departed the club.

As a wide forward, Iwobi has lots of useful qualities, but he sorely lacks end-product. At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, he showed, to my mind, his best form in an Arsenal shirt, when he was the kind of creative water carrier to Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott, who took care of the end product.

Iwobi gave an interview at the AFCON, where he seemed to suggest that he felt more comfortable in the central compartment of the team. “Growing up I’ve been playing as an attacking midfielder, more central in the midfield. I wouldn’t say if I’m most comfortable there but that’s where I grew up playing. I’ve always seen myself as a midfielder but wherever I’m being told to play in the middle or somewhere, I will always give my best.”

Alex doesn’t quite have that bending far corner shot motion that wide forwards at the top end of the Premier League need. Nor does he have a propensity to cut in and shoot. Wide forwards either need to make runs in behind or else fashion their own shots and Iwobi doesn’t really do either. He is more facilitator than provocateur.

Iwobi’s ball reception is his most obvious midfield trait. He is excellent at receiving on the half-turn and spinning away from pressure- which are qualities the Arsenal midfield lacks. When Iwobi broke into the first team in 2016, Mikel Arteta spotted the same quality, “I played with him in the Under-21s recently and I was surprised he could play in central midfield as well.

“Forwards don’t normally have that 360 degree vision you need in midfield. Alex is capable of reading the game well, understanding his positioning and his body shape when he plays.” Iwobi’s use of his body helps him to link play because he has a knack of receiving the ball at the right angle to move it on quickly. This is an attribute typically far more prized by coaches than it is supporters.

Under Emery, that quality has been used in the half-spaces to find an overlapping full-back. I do wonder if it would be useful to help link the midfield to the attack. I want to be careful about trying to ‘fix’ Iwobi through a feat of imagination. He has always been an inconsistent player and there is a good to fair chance that inconsistency is just baked into his game, whichever role he plays.

Arsenal have seemingly made a new wide forward a priority this summer, with Reiss Nelson also having returned from a loan spell and Gabriel Martinelli, probably slightly earlier in his career trajectory, procured. Assuming Arsenal are not able to sprinkle lots of transfer gold dust on their midfield this summer, I think Iwobi in a midfield three is worth a try.

I don’t want to be accused of suggesting that rebooting Alex as a central midfield player is the ideal scenario or anything like it. It will not propel the Gunners to the next level, but there is a sense of getting real and understanding that the club is not in a position to do anything transformative at this time. Arsenal cannot buy super quality, but they can coach potential and they can seek to become more than the sum of their parts through better balance.

In a sense, it is a shame that Iwobi is away on international duty, which denies Emery the opportunity to experiment with this thought in pre-season (assuming he were so inclined). I fully understand why Iwobi frustrates a lot of Arsenal fans, largely because his end-product is not where it should be for a wide forward at a top 6 club.

However, I do think he has qualities that go unappreciated. As Michael Cox outlined in this piece, we struggle to appreciate Iwobi because we struggle to define him or compare him to anyone else we are literate with. “Iwobi seems more of a specialist; albeit a specialist for a position that doesn’t actually have a name.” Playing Iwobi as a slightly advanced number 8 might work, it might not, but Arsenal are very much in ‘worth a try’ territory.

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