Arsenal are looking a wholly different side this season than they have in a while.
This is Unai Emery’s second season in charge, but after a flurry of transfer activity late in the window, this could be said to be the first season where he’s operating with ‘his’ squad and not just Arsene Wenger’s leftovers. So what have we learned about the Gunners so far this season?
1. The strikers are NOT messing around
Any time you start a season, you need your best players to buy in. This is especially true when you’re a club like Arsenal trying to secure a top four place amongst fierce competition in the Premier League. If your star men don’t buy in and believe in you then no matter how sharp your tactical plan is, you won’t last long (e.g. Andre Villas Boas and Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea).
At Arsenal, not only have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette bought into Unai Emery’s system but they are delivering. Despite not being guaranteed a starting spot every week, the strikers take their rotation (however brief) with good grace and continue to absolutely ball out when on the field.
Since Emery has been in charge no Premier League player has scored more goals than Aubameyang’s 24; he has two in two this season and looks like he’ll score every game. Lacazette meanwhile missed the first game of the season but scored a brutal goal to open the scoring for Arsenal in their win against Burnley, all muscle and determination. With these two playing like this, who knows how far Arsenal can go.
2. Defence wins titles but attack wins fans
The old saying is that defence wins titles, and that’s true enough. Being able to shut opponents out means you’ll largely need to expend less energy attacking as you generally need to score fewer goals. Lowering these mental stress levels allows you to pace yourself through the long grind of a league season. Look at Liverpool 2017/18 compared to 2018/19.
But whilst defence wins titles, attack is where it’s at for picking up fans. Again, look at Liverpool 2017/18 compared to 2018/19 – which side was more fun? The former, right? Arsenal don’t have a great defence still, even after all their transfer business, but they are riotously fun to watch in attack. It’s not just Aubameyang and Lacazette either. There’s so much flair involved and everyone is just having the best time; Nicolas Pepe is primed to become one of the most gif’d players this season and his main rival for the position is probably Dani Ceballos.
3. Dani Ceballos!
Ceballos was arguably the second or third most talented player on the European market this summer. The Spaniard is outrageously good and the fact that Real Madrid were ready to let him leave, even on a loan with no option to buy, is ludicrous. Still, that worked for Arsenal’s benefit and the Gunners now have an absolute gem on their hands.
He’ll only be there for a year but Ceballos will make it a year to remember. The Spaniard is a dancing machine on the field, weaving in and out of defenders as though they were training cones. His passing and pressing are exemplary, allowing him to function at the base of midfield, in a three or a two. He can do everything, really. Arsenal haven’t had a midfielder this complete and press-resistant since Santi Cazorla was in his pomp and unlike the delightful Asturian, Ceballos doesn’t have ligaments made of balsa wood.
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4. Emery will give the kids a chance
Ever since Arsene Wenger took over, Arsenal have become a great club for youth development. The Frenchman would always trust youngsters in almost any scenario. In fact Wenger was trusting to a fault, and whilst Emery doesn’t have that level of commitment, he has shown that even though Arsenal hit the market hard, promising youngsters will still get their shot.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles has become such a staple in the side that if you told people he was only 21 they’d be surprised. Emery has shown no qualms about making the midfielder into his default right-back whenever Hector Bellerin is sadly injured. In defence Calum Chambers is finally getting a run of games in the side and looks like he could finally have a breakout season for Arsenal.
Midfield sees Joe Willock, a youngster who first emerged during Wenger’s final season, incredibly propelled up the pecking order. He shone in pre-season and has hence earned a spot in Emery’s midfield rotation alongside seasoned pros like Granit Xhaka and big money buys Lucas Torreira and even Mesut Ozil. And then there’s Reiss Nelson, the dribbling phenom that Emery has so much faith in that he let Alex Iwobi leave the club to join Everton on deadline day.
5. They are going to get better
Arsenal have won two games out of two so far. That’s pretty impressive and the first time they’ve done that in forever. The Gunners have kept their first clean sheet away since Watford in April – their only one of 2018/19. So things are definitely progressing but they’re not quite there yet. David Luiz isn’t fully settled into the defence, and hell they haven’t even debuted new left-back Kieran Tierney.
Pepe has only been seen in cameos. Blockbuster cameos, sure, but he’s not tortured defenders for an entire game yet. Ceballos is being introduced slowly, Luiz has played just once and despite scoring some seriously impressive goals Lacazette and Aubameyang haven’t really been at their scintillating best either.
In other words Arsenal are pretty good at the minute, but they are going to get much, much better. That should terrify people, most notably Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. Arsenal’s transfer business gave them an edge over United but the way they’ve applied those players has them looking like they might even vault over Spurs for the first time since 2015/16.