Monday, July 16, 2018

The World Cup Was Great but It’s Time for the New Arsenal Era

Even the most skeptical international football fans would have to concede that the World Cup was brilliant. There were great games, amazing goals, controversial moments, major upsets and a deserving winning team at the end of it. Over here in England, the tournament took on a life of its own with ‘It’s Coming Home’ and the Three Lions song from Euro 96 initially becoming popular again as a bit of self-deprecating joke, before we did dare to dream that England could actually reach a World Cup final.

Over the years I’ve developed a strange relationship with the England national team. I’ve gradually felt more and more detached from the players and the culture around it, and while football didn’t officially come home in the form of the trophy itself, it was great to have the country feel positive towards the national team again, driven by Gareth Southgate.

But on England’s departure from the tournament on Wednesday (which was made a lot easier to take because I could blame Harry Kane for spurning a one-on-one chance and Dele Alli for generally being rubbish against Croatia), my thoughts immediately turned to the fact it was only a month until the new club season. I couldn’t let myself be too disappointed by England because the tournament made for a fun event over the summer, but club football will always press my buttons more than the international game. I invest way too much emotionally into Arsenal that I couldn’t cope if I did the same with England.

It’s convenient then that the end of the World Cup coincided with the start of Arsenal’s pre-season and a visit to Boreham Wood of the Vanarama National League. I was a huge fan of Arsene Wenger and while I appreciated it was the right time for him to depart at the end of last season, I was still very sad about it. But with the changes that have happened at the club over the summer, there’s no point dwelling on what has gone before as we are entering into a genuinely exciting period. None of us really have any idea how things will pan out with Unai Emery now in charge. In the spirit of embracing the new era, it felt right to go to Meadow Park on Saturday and get used to seeing a different man in the Arsenal dug-out at the earliest opportunity.

So long as Arsenal weren’t embarrassingly beaten by the non-leaguers, the result of the game didn’t really matter as it was mainly a training exercise to get some match sharpness and work on Unai Emery’s system, highlighted by the fact the team reportedly returned to London Colney in the evening for a further training session. Nonetheless, an 8-0 victory was still very enjoyable. I got the sense that the players weren’t just going through the motions, as can often happen when there is such a gulf in quality between two sets of players. With different XI’s playing the two halves, each player went out with a point to prove to the new head coach as everyone can view this pre-season as an opportunity.

The most encouraging thing for me was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s rapid first half hat-trick and his link-up play with Alexandre Lacazette. Having Aubameyang as he is at the peak of his powers is realty exciting, and for the first time since Robin van Persie was at the club, it feels like there’s a striker that, if he stays fit, will comfortably score 20+ league goals in the season. He played predominantly from the left on Saturday in a 4-3-3, with Lacazette down the middle, and while it’d be interesting to see if those two could play together in as a genuine striking partnership, I suspect that Aubameyang will play from a wider position if the two start together.

That suspicion also comes from the transfer business that Arsenal have done so far. All of the new signings made so far are interesting in their own ways and all make a lot of sense, but after his impressive showings at the World Cup, it is the arrival of Lucas Torreira that stands out. If Unai Emery mainly uses a 4-3-3 formation, Torreira appears to be well suited to playing at the base of the midfield three, with places then available for Xhaka, Ramsey, Elneny or Maitland-Niles either side of the Uruguayan. To then balance out the side, it would be difficult to have two out and out centre-forwards, making it likely for Aubameyang to start in a wide position if Lacazette is picked up front.

There’s still plenty of sort out in terms of trimming the squad and getting Aaron Ramsey to sign a new contract, but it’s refreshing for Arsenal to have got a number of deals done and, barring any significant departures, have completed the arrivals by the start of pre-season. It’ll allow the squad to feel settled and for the new coaching staff to really assess and prepare the players ahead of a big start to the season. With Manchester City and Chelsea as the opening fixtures, Arsenal couldn’t afford to be slow in concluding deals, and credit to the club for the efficiency in which they’ve done it this summer.

With a new era starting at Arsenal, there’s also a new one starting with The Big Diag and the Arsenal Review USA Podcast. I’m delighted that The Big Diag joins Arsenal Review USA as a content partner, so you’ll be able to find my blog and The Big Diag podcast with James Bale and I on our section of the Arsenal Review USA website. There’s also going to be some different content coming across the season, so hopefully the positivity that’s developed around the club over the summer will continue and we’ll have an exciting first season under Unai Emery to write and talk about.