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Unai Emery is going to have a wealth of attacking options

How Unai Emery uses his attacking players could define Arsenal’s season

Arsenal v Olympique Lyonnais - Emirates Cup Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

If, as expected, Arsenal complete the £72m signing of Nicolas Pépé, they will have an incredibly expensive attacking team. Between Mesut Özil, Pépé, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Alexandre Lacazette, there will be over £220m worth of talent on Arsenal’s books. Unai Emery is going to have a wealth of options, both literally and figuratively.

In the throes of the transfer news, it is difficult to figure out how Arsenal will fit everyone in, especially when you add the loan move of Dani Ceballos, who is going to play; at least, that’s what Unai Emery told him. To add to the complication, Mesut Özil has looked promising during pre-season, and there have apparently been clear the air talks. Given Özil’s wages, he is not going to leave the club; given Özil’s wages, it is problematic if he is left out of the side. And yet it seems difficult to bench Pépé, Lacazette, or Aubameyang. And given Emery’s predilection for a 4231 system, one he has used in the majority of pre-season games this summer, someone is either going to sit out, play out of position, or, if it’s the latter, is going to change how Arsenal play.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Arsenal have needed a player of Pépé’s quality and characteristics for months. He adds another goal threat, bagging 22 last season, as well as an ability to run at pace. Yet Pépé is also not secure in possession; neither is Aubameyang or Lacazette, for all the latter’s link play and creativity. Thus, if Emery plays all three, there is going to be a trade-off elsewhere. Playing all three would require more security in possession, especially from the midfield three. This could mean playing two of Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira or Matteo Guendouzi, with Dani Ceballos, a better number 8 than number 10, as a number 10. This would certainly fit Emery’s previous habits; he usually plays two number 6s, with a number 8 playing in a number 10 role.

This is the challenge that faces Emery. His natural conservatism clashes with Arsenal’s strength in attack. Last season, this manifested itself in not playing Aaron Ramsey or Mesut Özil for a large swathe of the season. Emery eventually figured out that it would be better to double down on Arsenal’s strength, their attacking quality, and for a stretch in March and April, playing Ramsey with Granit Xhaka and Özil behind Aubameyang and Lacazette saw Arsenal show their most impressive form of the season, a period that ended when Ramsey came off with a hamstring injury.

A summer on, Arsenal’s squad is similarly top-balanced. Ramsey is gone; Ceballos is in, and Pépé looks set to join. Playing a front three of Lacazette, Aubameyang and Pépé will require a secure midfield behind, but it’s one that can be achieved by playing both Özil and Ceballos. Both are excellent passers and technical players, and in both, Arsenal have the possibility of playing through the middle, and not reducing Özil to providing cutbacks.

A season on, the wiggle room for Unai Emery is gone. This season will be defined by how Emery utilizes his strengths—the Arsenal attack—to mitigate the weakness of Arsenal’s defence. With the arrival of Nicolas Pépé, it cannot be argued that Emery isn’t being financially supported.