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.
Leno double save vs Spurs. We’ve finally got a keeper we can rely on. pic.twitter.com/Rk3Fqu5brg
— R (@NPepe19) April 6, 2019
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.
Leno looking good in all categories except stopping crosses/high claims. Thread https://t.co/Gb7taSnmtd
— Noon Kickoff on Monday Until November (@7amkickoff) June 4, 2019
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.