Despite being the most successful Europa League manager since the competition’s inception, Unai Emery was unable to end Arsenal’s 25-year wait for continental silverware.
The Gunners were comprehensively beaten 4-1 by their London counterparts Chelsea in the final on Wednesday night, bringing a close to a season that promised so much but delivered very little.
In truth, the game felt more like a glorified pre-season friendly, but nevertheless Arsenal battled the Blue beast in Baku and came up short, ensuring a third consecutive season without Champions League football.
The installation of Emery was suppose to galvanise change at the Emirates, transitioning from years of stagnation under Arsene Wenger to a more ruthless, remorseless and rampant side.
Instead this once-habitual Champions League club have again failed to break through the top-four ceiling and will continue competing in the less exalted ‘Thursday night football’.
With their noses bloodied and vulnerabilities laid bare, Arsenal are in serious need of surgery this summer, but what positions urgently need tending to, and which players could fill the voids?
Competition for Bernd Leno
After an illustrious two-decade career between the sticks, Petr Cech will hang up his gloves this summer, bringing a close to a trophy-strewn 20 years in the game. He was unable to add one final European gong to his mantelpiece but at 37 years of age, the timing feels right.
And with that, Arsenal will need a replacement. There are still question marks over David Ospina’s proposed permanent move to Napoli, while Bernd Leno endured a somewhat tentative maiden campaign.
Most errors leading to goals made by goalkeepers in the Premier League in 2018-19:
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 12, 2019
Drafted in last summer from Bayer Leverkusen to suit Emery’s play-out-from-the-back style, the German has certainly added a more fluid flavour to the Spaniard’s rhythmic porridge, but his goalkeeping exploits have proven far too inconsistent.
Five errors leading to goals was the most of any shot-stopper in the Premier League last term, with the 3-1 Wolves debacle in April a notable low point.
The 27-year-old has certainly improved since the start of the season, and looked a fine shot-stopper on multiple occasions, but with obvious flaws still in his game and a Cech replacement required, why not bring in someone who could genuinely rival the German rather than sit on the periphery?
It would seem daft to blow the entire transfer kitty on a single goalkeeper – they are not Liverpool with Loris Karius or a Thibaut Courtois-less Chelsea – so maybe a quick knock on the door of an old friend could help convince Walter Benitez to join the club from Nice.
With the most clean sheets (16) in Ligue 1 last season, the Argentine would be a fine acquisition, not to mention he completed the most successful passes (708) – imperative to Emery’s tactics – and perhaps more importantly, only made one error leading to a goal.
Patrick Vieira will not want to part ways, but the lure of Premier League football – and European competition – may very well be enough to tempt Benitez.
A new centre-back
Perhaps the most urgent area that needs serious reinvigoration. Despite finishing fifth, Arsenal conceded a quite alarming 51 goals, only the ninth-best defensive record in the league, worse than Everton, Leicester and Newcastle.
They also kept just eight clean sheets – the ninth-worse in the league – less than Cardiff (10), Bournemouth (nine), and level with Burnley.
Shkodran Mustafi has been the emblematic player of Arsenal’s defensive shortcomings and aberrations, looking nonplussed at times when the ball is fired over the top or when a certain Wilfried Zaha runs at him.
"I'd take an XI of me over Mustafi" 😂
Cheer up, Arsenal fans, see the funny side of things over on the Squawka YouTube channel. 📺
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 5, 2019
Sokratis Papastathopoulos has seriously beefed up the backline since coming in last summer, bringing a bullishness and tenacity that was solely lacking, but he will need an adequate partner to truly flourish. Laurent Koscielny has seen better days, Rob Holding continues his recovery from a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament, and Konstantinos Mavropanos is still not the finished item.
Emery has already expressed a desire to add a more physical element to his squad to compete with the big dogs, so expect some considerable movement in the defensive department: “In the Premier League, technical quality without physicality is not enough. City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea… All the top teams here are physical and technical. Arsenal need to be the same.”
Liverpool have shown just how much a world class centre-back can transform fortune with Virgil van Dijk, and so Arsenal should not skimp here. If they have serious aspirations of making it back to the summit, then an all-out assault on Bayer Leverkusen’s ranks for Jonathan Tah should be high on their agenda.
The 23-year-old made the third-most successful passes of any defender in the Bundesliga last term (2,236) as well as the second-highest number of touches (2,868).
Comfortable on the ball, an excellent passer, and intrinsic vision, Tah combines physical prowess with a competent ball-playing ability. The question is: will he trade Champions League football for the Europa League?
Arsenal’s head of football Raul Sanllehi has already conceded letting Aaron Ramsey leave for free was a big mistake, but will the club sanction the funds for an adequate replacement?
Emery has already explained how his goal is to “transmit energy, passion and the determination to win” creating “an emotional connection with the fans” – well, Ramsey had all those attributes and a special bond with the supporters.
The Welshman brought an intensity and determination that will be hard to replace, but one thing that is for sure is Emery needs leaders, and Ramsey was certainly one of those.
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But besides the heart on sleeve mentality, the 28-year-old was one of the club’s most creative attacking outlets, and with no remuneration from Juventus, Arsenal will need to be shrewd in the market.
One player who wouldn’t break the bank is Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Adrien Rabiot, who is set to run down his contract and leave the Parc des Princes on a free transfer next month.
The France international would certainly remedy the Ramsey void and bring a creative impetus back to the club, but the wantaway 24-year-old is highly sought-after and Arsenal don’t have the pull of Champions League football.
But Emery has previously worked with the 24-year-old during his stint in the Parisian dugout, where he was a prominent member of the Spaniard’s XI, so there may be a huge amount of leverage there.
Arsenal have just one traditional out-and-out winger: Alex Iwobi. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is more of an inside forward while Mesut Ozil is a wide playmaker when positioned on the byline, and well, that’s it.
Danny Welbeck is leaving, and although Reiss Nelson will return from Hoffenheim, the club is still in need of some real zeal and zest on the flanks.
Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser has been heavily linked, and with good reason; the Scottish winger registered the second-most assists (14) in the Premier League last season, while creating the third-most chances (93) and delivering the third-most crosses from open play (143).
The 25-year-old would not come cheap, but buying from home would mean Arsenal have a ready-made Premier League player to slot in fluidly to their system.
Failing that, the Gunners could put all their eggs in one basket – though not advisable given the number of areas that need addressing – and attempt to lure David Neres to north London.
Arsenal – like Manchester United – are still a big club, and so Champions League football may not always be a deal-breaker for some players. The appeal of donning the strip of one of world football’s most iconic clubs is still a very tempting proposition.
Neres is being courted by a number of clubs after his exceptional exploits during Ajax’s semi-final run in the Champions League this term, including the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea.
But the Gunners are believed to be in the race for his signature and with the club set to recruit former midfielder and Arsenal Invincible Edu as director of football after the Copa America, the Brazilian may have some influence in swaying his compatriot’s judgement.
For Emery’s fluid philosophy to work he needs floated full-backs capable of surging up the byline but also able to track back when being countered.
Hector Bellerin will return next season after his lengthy lay-off, while Stephan Lichtsteiner’s contract expires next month, and well, for all his promise and ability, Ainsley Maitland-Niles is not a defender, a fact made evident against Chelsea.
So where should they look? The Gunners could return to the Allianz Riviera and ask questions of Youcef Atal. The Algerian only joined Nice last summer, but has proven one of the best right-backs across Europe.
He scored more goals than any defender in Ligue 1 last season (6), took on the most shots (36) and had the most touches in the opposition box (97 – 40 more than the next player). With an attacking full-back of that ilk on their books, Arsenal would be a serious threat going forward.
But with the most duels won as well (270), Atal is more than just an all-out attacking defender – he could prove a revelation in the Premier League.
And so, with Emery wanting “chameleon football”, a team who are “able to play in possession, in static attack against close opponents, or to counter-attack”, can he find the correctly-shaped pegs to fill the gaping holes in north London?