The winners and losers of Arsenal’s pre-season campaign
If Arsenal were a club that rated trophies by the same standards as some of their rivals, Arsene Wenger would be able to stroll into the new Premier League season with three fingers aloft.
According to the laws of quantity over quality, the Gunners collected a treble of trophies this summer as they picked up the International Champions Cup, the Emirates Cup and the Community Shield.
Not a bad haul for a team bouncing back from their first-ever failure to finish in the top four under their long-serving manager, now into his 21st year in charge in North London.
In reality, they are a club with much to prove when it comes to competitive football following a off-season transfer window that saw Arsenal add two players to their squad in the positions that needed the most attention and a run of warm-up games that showed encouraging signs of life on the pitch as well as off it.
Below are the winners and losers of the summer for the Gunners this year.
The flying Bosnian left-back was hyped as the best player in his position in the German Bundesliga last season. So far, he has looked the part for the Gunners in a summer of friendlies and warm-up games that peaked with his game-changing impact at Wembley against Chelsea in the Community Shield. Kolasniac is already well on his way to becoming a fan favourite at the Emirates.
After a strong end to his first campaign in English football, the deep-lying Swiss dreadnought has picked up where he left off before the summer to shine as one of Arsenal’s most impressive performers during pre-season, although not without his faults.
It was Xhaka’s imprecise hoof of the ball that played Chelsea in to score in the Community Shield. Despite this, he stood out as the man of the match at Wembley, and won plaudits for his outing against Bayern Munich in the International Champions Cup too.
The Nigerian winger lost his momentum in the first team last season following a bright start to the first two months of the new campaign last year but has shined in a summer that saw him score a last-minute equaliser and then the winning penalty against Bayern and piling on more pain for Benfica in the Emirates Cup. In the Community Shield, Iwobi took to the Wembley pitch full of confidence as he danced around Chelsea’s defenders.
Given the uncertainty over Alexis Sanchez’s future, he must be prepared to take the opportunities that could come his way if the Chilean leaves – or fight for minutes while he remains in the squad or decides to stay. On the evidence of his form in pre-season, he is a footballer ready to kick on and cement his place in Arsene Wenger’s plans.
The next generation of young Gunners
Iwobi wasn’t the only academy graduate to step into the spotlight this summer. Reiss Nelson starred against Bayern, Benfica and Chelsea, Ainsley Maitland-Niles was involved if not exactly eye-catching but his qualities are already known after a couple of breakthrough performances last season, while Joseph Willock and Cohen Bramall also showed flashes of what they are about.
Wenger has spoken about the need to trim down his squad before the end of the transfer window but with players such as Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs and Mathieu Debuchy still lingering around the Emirates, there is plenty of deadwood to shift. The next wave of talent to come up through the youth ranks stand in good stead to benefit from any openings created by these clearances after a pre-season campaign that reminded the world that Arsenal still boast one of the best-equipped academies in Europe.
What began as a half-baked Plan B has become Arsenal’s primary way of playing. Before the summer, Wenger had promised to reshuffle the team and try out some other shapes. Instead, he stuck by the formation that sent the Gunners to Wembley to win the FA Cup and almost salvaged their league season with a late surge to target the top four.
Going by how well it fits the club’s best players, continuing with the 3-4-2-1 rather than reverting back to a back four for reasons other than pragmatism would be a wise move from the Frenchman.
It’s the same old story for Wenger’s protege. Fitness problems prevented Wilshere from having any real role on the pitch during pre-season although he has been training throughout the summer. Rather than making his presence felt with his football, the Englishman has spent the last couple of months linked to a wide array of clubs in the transfer market.
Sampdoria were interested in taking him for next season on a cut-price deal but the Gunners wanted more. It may be time for Arsenal to cut their losses, for the sake of both player and club.
After having helped to take England into the semi-finals of the Under-21 European Championship this summer alongside Alfie Mawson, Chambers’ minimal impact on his club’s pre-season campaign was understandable, but given the central role played by Rob Holding at the back worrying for his future at Arsenal all the same.
The former Southampton defender spent last season out on loan with Middlesbrough and he could be on his way back out for a temporary spell away from the Emirates again this year. More opportunities to play can only be a positive for his professional development, although given the rise of Holding – already a Wenger favourite – Chambers may have already lost his place in his manager’s long-term plans.
Colombia’s number one sought to throw his weight around last season to try and posture for a promotion at the Emirates. Not content with being the main man at international level. He had designs on taking Petr Cech’s place in the team, especially given the uneven form of the former Chelsea goalkeeper.
Yet this summer has seen Ospina forced into a climb down. A move to Fenerbahce collapsed at the last minute with third-choice ‘keeper Emiliano Martinez leaving for a loan spell with Getafe instead. The Colombian now seems stuck at the Emirates and will have to see out the final year of his contract before being able to make the power play he had wanted to deploy for a move this summer.
The “#WengerOut” crowd
It isn’t all sweetness and light at the Emirates. Wenger still has his critics, and they are a sizable faction that cannot be easily dismissed as a vocal minority. However, the free signing of Kolasniac and the belated capture of Alexandre Lacazette has gone some way to relieving the pressure around the manager’s new contract.
A year after he finally brought in a defensive midfielder in Granit Xhaka, the Frenchman has made a decisive signing to sort out the left side of the pitch while bagging the poacher that his critics have demanded he sign for at least two transfer windows.
Of course, if Alexis Sanchez were to leave this window, there would be riots on the streets of Islington, but it is becoming increasingly unlikely that he will be allowed to leave this summer. Mesut Ozil is also going nowhere. For the next nine months at least, Arsenal will have a stronger squad than ever. It’s up to Wenger to ensure the quality available to him is turned into a higher tally of trophies won – if he doesn’t, the “out” crowd will be louder than ever.