John Dykes cannot wait to see Unai Emery unveil his chosen formation when Arsenal roll into Singapore for the International Champions Cup this month.
Of all the themes likely to unfold in the 2018/19 Premier League season, one of the most compelling for me is the rebuilding process that is being undertaken by Arsenal Football Club. Thanks to their participation in the International Champions Cup (ICC), fans in Singapore will be able to witness the latest stage of that process.
I deliberately did not say “first stage” or even “early stages” as this is a process that has been underway for some time, long before veteran manager Arsene Wenger even left the club. Confronted by the inescapable evidence of a club in decline by its own Premier League and Champions League standards, Arsenal’s senior management acted late last year by putting a team in place to oversee the rebuild.
Sven Mislintat arrived from Borussia Dortmund in November to replace Steve Rowley as head of recruitment and he is working closely with Raul Sanlehi, who is the head of football relations. Sanlehi officially began work in February, having joined from Barcelona where he had been the club’s football director for a decade during which he oversaw massive transfers including that of Neymar. Also new on board – and, like Mislintat and Sanlehi working on his first summer transfer window – is contract negotiator Huss Fahmy.
All of the above will have a close working relationship with Ivan Gazidis, the chief executive, who offered some fascinating insights into the recruitment process that led to the unveiling of new head coach Unai Emery back in May. Gazidis insisted Emery was their first choice among the eight candidates interviewed and he also spoke admiringly of the depth of preparation Emery demonstrated in terms of his knowledge of and plans for Arsenal’s team.
I can’t see any reason why @Arsenal fans should be unhappy with the Unai Emery appointment. In tune with the modern game, a serial trophy winner at big clubs… surely that’s what they’ve been crying out for.
— JohnDykes (@JohnDykesFC) May 21, 2018
So, the signings of the head coach was just the latest step in Arsenal’s bid to re-establish themselves at the top of the Premier League and as a force in Europe’s premier competition. Emery’s work had yet to start last May and, even now, it is less relevant than that being undertaken by the Gunners’ recruitment team. It’s fair to say the Gunners’ short-term prospects will be hugely impacted by the success, or otherwise, of the recruitment team.
With Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Piere-Emerick Aubameyang still relative newcomers, Arsenal fans at Singapore’s Sports Hub will most likely also see other new faces, including goalkeeper Bernd Leno from Bayer Leverkusen and experienced defenders Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Stephan Lichsteiner, with the club also linked with moves for the likes of Lucas Torreira, Lucas Vasquez and Steven Nzonzi.
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) July 2, 2018
Arsenal have clearly slipped off the pace set by the Premier League’s front-runners in terms of player acquisitions over the last two or three seasons. However, that appears to be changing already under the new team. The next step will be for the Head Coach to mould these assets into a winning side on the pitch.
Recruitment is an incremental process. To go with Arsenal’s undoubtedly exciting attacking options, Mislintat has brought in an experienced centre-back and a 34-year-old right-back in Lichsteiner. These are players who will be expected to do a job, to lay a foundation, before younger and perhaps better signings can be made. Leno and Torreira (who is reported to be undergoing an Arsenal medical as soon as his World Cup adventure with Uruguay ends) are signings made with the longer term in mind. The key to Arsenal’s planning will be a short-term improvement in the team’s fortunes, allowing Gazidis and his team to seek funds form their board for more expensive future signings.
So, Emery now has to deliver in a similar way. Hence my point at the very start of this piece. The foundations have been laid and now, in games against PSG and Atletico Madrid, as well as in intensive training sessions, Emery will begin to craft the team along the lines we have seen him lay out at his previous clubs.
So, what can we expect from his Arsenal?
Emery undertook two very different jobs at Sevilla and PSG. He built something truly impressive in Spain but faced a difficult task handling egos and expectations in the French capital. His challenge at Arsenal will fall somewhere between his two most recent assignments.
He will get Arsenal more organised than they have been of late. He will drill them hard and insist on high levels of discipline in training and on match day. They will literally hit the ground running in Singapore, where their high press and intensity may prove too much for their ICC challengers. Perhaps, it will also be the case in their opening Premier League fixture against champions Manchester City.
Again, what we see in Singapore will be some way from the finished product but we can realistically anticipate one or two ways in which Emery will shape Arsenal. His tactical template at Sevilla was a 4-2-3-1 formation but he had such a wealth of attacking options to incorporate at PSG that he predominantly went with a 4-3-3.
With respect, he does not have players of the calibre of PSG’s available to him at the Emirates. He does have star quality in attack, especially in the pacey Aubameyang, but at PSG he was able to use Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani as the focal point, with the likes of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria sharing the roles of two inverted wingers. In his three-man midfield, Emery could call upon Thiago Motta to sit deep if the fullbacks (Dani Alves and Thomas Meunier) bombed on. Do Arsenal currently have a player who can successfully shield the defence? Remember too, the other PSG midfield slots were filled by quality operators such as Adrien Rabiot, Javier Pastore and Marco Veratti.
Emery may have to tweak the midfield mix to offer that added protection to a backline that too often fails against their Top Six rivals. He will also have to figure out how best to utilise the inventive Mesut Ozil, without compromising the team’s shape. Of all the things to look forward to at the ICC, seeing who stays put and who pushes on from that Arsenal midfield is one that especially fascinates me.
To conclude, fans at the ICC will be in the very privileged position of seeing one of football’s more compelling works-in-progress unfold before their eyes. Yes, Arsenal under Emery will be different from the Arsenal who came and thrilled Singapore under Wenger three years ago in the Premier League’s Asia Trophy but there will nonetheless be plenty to get excited about. Perhaps even more this time. After all, this may be just the latest stage in one of club football’s most compelling recent sagas, but it is a hugely-significant one as backroom manoeuvres take a backseat to the up-front entertainment provided by a new-look team out on the pitch for the first time.