It always seemed to be fairly obvious where an Arsenal player fit in the hierarchy. Sure, there were always odd exceptions of players being played ahead of presumably better ones, left out or shunted to a weaker position, but you could always look to one factor to make sense of it.
With the end of Wenger’s seemingly endless tenure at Arsenal and new man Unai Emery in charge, things are suddenly in upheaval for the first time in a long time. Old shake ups included adding a top talent, a Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez, that would provide quality at the expense of older players. However, this year, true chaos reigns. Arsenal has been very busy adding new players and look to be on the verge of selling quite a few as well. The squad is in true upheaval as Emery starts to put his stamp on it.
Which can leave a lot of players in a precarious position. Unlike your Lucas Perezes or David Ospinas, who joined Jack Wilshere as ex-Gunners, many on-the-cusp players have everything to gain and everything to lose trying to make a place in Emery’s Arsenal. And as the old saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
Last summer, this was the fresh air transfer. FINALLY, Wenger would add a proper center forward to get the attack rolling. But his start was rather unimpressive, only potting a few goals in the first three months. Lacazette ended the season with a respectable 17 goals in all competitions, but it wasn’t the type of performance that would light the world on fire.
And it didn’t stop Wenger from bringing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to play ahead of him in the lineup. PEA doesn’t appear to be relinquishing that position any time soon either, as pre-season seemed to indicate that he clearly was going to be a first-choice attacker. And with Emery’s love of 4-2-3-1, it leaves Lacazette as a go-to sub rather than leading man.
What is left to Lacazette is to prove he’s worthy of that spot. There are few striking options behind him, with young Edward Nketiah being the next best, so Alex will remain the number 2, but whether he carves a spot for himself in the starting squad is up to him. Perhaps a partnership between him and Aubameyang could be formed. It is unlikely the 27-year-old Lacazette will be content playing second fiddle completely. He has a few prime years left and an international career to rebuild after being left of the World Cup winning France squad.
If he wants to make it at Arsenal, this season will be crucial to show his productivity. If not, a transfer could easily be on the horizon.
Fresh off a long-term contract extension, the young Iwobi has everything to prove at this club. He has found some regular first team action, but often his performances are either sparkling or forgettable. The consistency hasn’t quite come from the Nigerian, not exactly unheard of a player in their early 20s, but with a loaded midfield attack boasting Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Reiss Nelson, Aaron Ramsey, etc, Iwobi will have to find his gears to maintain that flow of starts.
He clearly has the skills to do it, too. The only real number 10 option to Mesut Ozil at the moment, his chance to nail down a lot of secondary starts in cup competitions might be enough to cement his spot in the squad. Emery’s systems would appear to favour Iwobi’s game, making him more essential than many other young players.
But, again, it’s all about consistency. New bosses don’t typically operate with the same Wengerian patience. Should Iwobi not fit, Emery and his new transfer staff don’t seem fussed about adding players in their upper 20s, and if that doesn’t work, bumping Iwobi down a rung in the ladder could prove very easy. It’s up to Alex to show them he’s finally ready to hold down the fort.
There are few Arsenal players who don’t seem to quite fit their actual performance as Xhaka. Deployed often as the deep-seated midfielder by Wenger, he never was quite defensive enough, or, given his card history, was too much so. Xhaka always seemed to put in a quietly good shift, then make glaring errors that everyone remembers. Overall, while he hasn’t been bad, it hasn’t seem like he’s quite accomplished what Arsenal have wanted from him.
The cause for optimism? Lucas Torreira. The arrival of the Uruguayan as a true defensive option who can hold and distribute the ball takes the world off Xhaka’s shoulders. Early looks have seen the potential for the two of them to work together in the deep midfield as a sort of a double pivot. Granit has every opportunity to take this partnership to lighten this work load, find more freedom to contribute to attack, and galvanize his spot in the first team.
The cause for pessimism? Lucas Torreira. If he works with Xhaka, he might be a good option alongside other CMs such as Aaron Ramsey, Matteo Guendouzi or Mohamed Elneny. Should Torreira become the heart of the midfield, Emery could easily find any number of midfield options to work with him, meaning Xhaka’s starts could find themselves scarcer. Ramsey would appear to be the favourite to displace the Swiss midfielder, but injuries are a plague for the maybe-but-probably-should-be captain, meaning Xhaka should find some starts to prove his worth.
A few bad mistakes that stick in the mind, though, and Xhaka could easily find himself on the outs.
The Young Centerbacks
Arsenal’s defense is in disarray. Last year, because it was poor, this year because who the hell knows who Emery will play. Leading man Laurent Koscielny is broken. Nacho Monreal and new additions Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sokratis Papastathopoulos are, well, old. Only Hector Bellerin appears to be a clear first choice, especially now that Sead Kolasinac has gone down to injury as well. It is a real pick ‘ems group.
Which should be a huge opportunity for Arsenal’s clutch of young centerbacks in Rob Holding, Konstantinos Mavropanos and Calum Chambers. Each has loads of technical ability but lacked the experience and consistency to break into a starting position last year. The few instances of them playing were adventures to be sure. However, under new direction, any of them could find new life.
(Note: except Calum Chambers who now appears to be headed out on loan to Fulham.)
Shkodran Mustafi has not be solid and Lichtsteiner may not bounce easily into the first team. Should Holding or Mavropanos get a run going, they could easily find themselves in the good books and finally take a place as a starter. At least until Koscielny returns, assuming he can still run. Good a shot as any should they take it.
Speaking of center backs, few defenders have been as maligned as German international Shkodran Mustafi. After joining the club in 2016, Arsenal enjoyed an immediate 18 game unbeaten run when Mustafi started. However, the carriage quickly turned back into a pumpkin, and he has been mercurial ever since. He has moments where he looks like a sound physical aerial threat (see: home leg of the North London Derby last season), and moments where he looks utterly inept (see: away leg of the North London Derby last season).
With Laurent Koscielny’s untimely injury and the loan of Calum Chambers, Mustafi will be counted on ever more this season to lead the back line. He will desperately need to find a consistency he has lacked since his first few months with the Gunners, lest he cedes his starting position to Rob Holding or Konstantinos Mavropanos. If he can minimize his errors and not get into his own head, he could find himself back on top.
There’s no questioning Ramsey’s skill. When in form, he is one of the more devastating attacking midfielders with his ability to come from deep and utterly punish teams who have no idea he’s there. There’s no questioning this is a controversial thing because it puts him “out of position” as though that wasn’t supposed to be his position as coached by Wenger. There’s also no question that he really can’t be relied on to be healthy all season.
Still, add it all up and Aaron Ramsey is a more valuable player than his price on the market. He helps make Arsenal tick and could be invaluable in the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 Emery teams, especially should Torreira settle in as a great DM. Ramsey’s Arsenal future should still be bright. So why is he here?
Because Aaron Ramsey doesn’t have a contract yet.
Reports fly about on “disatisifaction with offers” or “huge contract demands” or “wants to be made captain” to various levels of credibility. But the fact remains, not signing on early in a new manager’s team could be a risky ploy if Ramsey wants his future to be at Arsenal. Emery should love him, but with some sparkly performances from new boy Matteo Guendouzi, should things actually become acrimonious, the idea of life without Ramsey is far easier for Emery than it would have been for Wenger.
One would expect a contract will get done and Ramsey will remain in the squad, but every day these negotiations drag on further, the more doubt will enter into the equation. Play well, and Aaron could find himself among the best paid Gunners; play OK or even poorly, and he might not find the contract he wants and, instead, see the door to “greener” pastures.
That’s a lot of uncertainty around a lot of guys! But if even half of them can up their game a bit under Unai Emery, Arsenal might be in better shape than we had hoped.