Arsenal: a return to the glory days or a false dawn?

Arsenal have made an encouraging start to the new Premier League season, winning both of their opening games and playing some tidy football in the process. They face Liverpool in the late kick-off on Saturday in what will be their first real test of the season. Although only 3 points are at stake, the psychological impact of the result and display on both Arsenal, and the rest of the league’s perception of them, will be massive. Does evidence suggest that they will stand up to the challenge and reinforce the idea that the glory days might not be too far away again, or that little has changed since the end of the Wenger era where they had an unenviable record in the biggest of games?

2018/19 season – a mixed bag

We had a brief glimpse into a potential bright new dawn under Unai Emery last season with the Gunners going on a 22-game unbeaten run that was eventually ended by Southampton. This sequence of results contained some impressive results – most notably a win over fierce rivals Spurs and a good draw against Liverpool. In contrast to the end-of-Wenger era, Arsenal showed that they could pick up points against the other top teams and wouldn’t necessarily get overrun like they had done in recent times gone by. Unfortunately though, as the second half of the season came to an end the results spoke for themselves; another finish outside of the top 4 and a miserable performance when it most mattered, the Europa League final pasting by Chelsea, 4-1.

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Nevertheless the majority of Arsenal fans didn’t turn on Emery, understanding that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and that there was a lot of psychological scar tissue still present in the Arsenal squad from some of the poor results against other top teams during the back-end of Wengers’ reign. Although on paper, the season wasn’t a triumph, there was a creeping sense of optimism around the Emirates that with a good summer of recruitment, and another season of Emery working on this squad, Arsenal could become more prominent at the top-table of English football.

Strong recruitment

From a neutral’s perspective, Arsenal appeared to have a very good summer of business; especially when you consider the (relatively) little transfer budget that they had to spend. Although it’s early days, Nicolas Pepe already looks like an exciting talent that has the potential to light up the Premier League. Although £72 million seems like a lot of money, in today’s market it’s a reasonable price and a good season or two from the Ivorian will ensure that any future fee commanded for his services would well exceed this figure. His record at Lille was very impressive and early glimpses of his quick feet and pace emphasise why he was able to achieve the stats in the League 1 that he did. At £8 million, David Luiz could yet prove to be one of the shrewdest signings of the transfer window. Although he is known for his occasional clangers, he is an improvement on the central defenders around him and will add a presence to the Arsenal back 4 that has been missing for a long, long time. He’s not going to solve all of Arsenal’s defensive problems by any stretch, but adding his character and experience for a relative pittance is good business from the Gunners.

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In adding Kieran Tierney to the back four, Arsenal have a very good signing which future-proofs the left-back position that has been occupied by the ageing Nacho Monreal and the unconvincing Saed Kolasinac over the last couple of seasons. Tierney has demonstrated during his time at Celtic that he is a very good defender but very able to add an attacking threat down the left when required. For £25 million in today’s market, this looks a great signing. Finally, the last-minute loan signing of Dani Ceballos adds another potent creative weapon to the Arsenal armory and based on the evidence of his performance against Burnley, he will add significant value to Arsenal’s league campaign.

Almost as impressive as the players that Arsenal have managed to bring in, was the players that they managed to offload in the summer; particularly for the amount of money they managed to bring in. Although Arsenal fans were emotionally attached to Alex Iwobi from his rise through the Arsenal academy to (fairly) regular first-team player, most of them would have seen the £27 million paid by Everton as good business. Offloading squad fringe players such as Carl Jenkinson, Kristian Bielik and David Ospina for a combined total of £15 million is a decent return but the savings on their combined salaries are arguably more important than the revenue generated from their sales.

When you consider that Danny Welbeck, Aaron Ramsey, Peter Cech and Stephan Lichsteiner are all no longer part of the Arsenal wage bill, Arsenal have managed to free up a big chunk of their wage budget without really losing anyone that was too critical to their fortunes last season. In stark contrast to many of their previous seasons, Arsenal fans can be rightly pleased with their summer transfer activity.

Acid test

Before we fall into the trap of unnecessary hyperbole, it should be remembered that one game doesn’t make a season. However, it’s clear that for Arsenal to truly challenge for the top honors this season, they need to be getting something from Saturday’s game against Liverpool. Although Liverpool’s results so far this season indicate that they have not been at their sharpest, the most likely outcome of any game at Anfield is still a home victory and so Arsenal will have to be at their best to get anything. That said, if Emery can get it right tactically, I for one can see them picking something up in this game. Their confidence is high and the new players have settled in well so this won’t be easy for Liverpool.

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Norwich and Southampton have already highlighted a fragility in the Liverpool defence that we rarely saw last season, and there aren’t many teams better than Arsenal at exploiting chinks in the defensive armor. However when you look at the Liverpool front three, with Mane in blistering form, it’s hard to see Arsenal keeping a clean sheet so it’s imperative that Arsenal do take full advantage of any defensive rustiness from Liverpool.

Can David Luiz, and Kieran Tierney help to shore up the Arsenal defence of previous seasons to withstand the Liverpool barrage? It will be fascinating to see. If they can, it may just be the start of an exciting season for the men from North London. If they can’t, we’ll all be saying ‘same old Arsenal’. It’s not hyperbole, this game really could shape the rest of Arsenal’s season. We’re all looking forward to seeing whether they are up to the challenge.

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