Arsenal Season Preview: Point kaizen will be key to success in Unai Emery's second season at the helm

  • Thursday saw the shutting of one of the whackiest transfer windows in recent times... for Arsenal Football Club, that is.

  • And in his first season at Arsenal, Emery marginally improved upon his predecessor's performance in his final season by finishing fifth in the league.

  • The addition of some exciting new imports will certainly bring in new tactics, if not overall strategy, and will be fascinating to watch.

Thursday saw the shutting of one of the whackiest transfer windows in recent times... for Arsenal Football Club, that is.

Thursday also saw the culmination of the will he-won't he Kieran Tierney saga — with the 22-year-old Scottish left back swapping the green and white of Celtic for the red and white of Arsenal — and the (no, I refuse to say 'out-of-the-blue') unexpected arrival of Chelsea defender David Luiz at the Emirates.

But before getting into the transfers in and out of N7, let's go back to 30 May. It was the morning after Arsenal limply surrendered to Chelsea in the Europa League final at Baku and the club faced a fairly grim few weeks ahead. Perhaps the most heartbreaking, worrying and infuriating (in equal parts) news for Gooners the world over was that Aaron Ramsey was allowed to depart for Turin at the cost of a smile and no more.

An 11-year Arsenal career marked by some of the most sublime goals and marred by injuries (including one of the most horrendous ones seen in the Premier League) had come to, many felt, its illogical conclusion. In a dark twist, a hamstring injury in the second leg of the Europa League quarter-final against Napoli relegated the Welshman to watching the sun set on his career in the red half of North London from the sidelines.

Transfer woes turn to woahs!

 Arsenal Season Preview: Point kaizen will be key to success in Unai Emerys second season at the helm

Thursday saw the shutting of one of the whackiest transfer windows in recent times... for Arsenal Football Club, that is. AFP

Elsewhere, Petr Cech announced his retirement and Danny Welbeck — whose contract was not renewed — was out of a job for a while until he found a new home up the Metropolitan Line at Watford. Veteran right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner was allowed to leave after a disappointing year and Denis Suarez's blink-and-you'll-miss-it loan spell somewhat mercifully came to a close.

All of this would have been fine had it not been for the fact that while neither the management nor owner had publicly confirmed it, the transfer war chest reportedly comprised a paltry £40 million. In today's highly-inflated economic climate, £40 million can get you just about half a Harry Maguire. As June rolled by, panic turned to frustration and eventually gave way to resignation. After all, apart from finding a centre-back or two (given Shkodran Mustafi's gaffe-filled stint at Arsenal so far, Sokratis Papastathopoulos' limitations, Rob Holding's fitness and skipper Laurent Koscielny's age), a midfielder of the calibre of Ramsey, a right-back (considering Hector Bellerin's injury and Ainsley Maitland-Niles' inability to essay that role so far) and a left-back (with an eye on Nacho Monreal's age and Sead Kolasinac not being a perfect fit at the position), it emerged Arsenal may also need a second-string goalkeeper. David Ospina had secured a transfer to Napoli after a year spent there on loan.

And while a not-insignificant chunk of Arsenal fans was contemplating what life in mid-table obscurity might actually look, on 2 July, the club announced its first arrival of the window: Eighteen-year-old forward Gabriel Martinelli, snapped up from Ituano FC, who ply their trade in the fourth tier of the Brazilian Football League. Martinelli was clearly brought in with an eye on the future, but was a forward really the need of the hour in a team that boasted the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, with a tenacious Eddie Nketiah pushing hard to make the first team?

'One brings two' goes the saying, but the second signing came nearly four weeks later, during which time, Arsenal had completed their pre-season tour of the US and lost their captain (more on this very shortly). St Etienne defender William Saliba arrived at the Emirates at the end of the month... and returned shortly after. Set to spend the 2019-20 season on loan with St Etienne, Saliba also appeared very much to be one for the future. What of now, wondered baffled fans and pundits alike.

However, the past fortnight took on a distinct roller coaster feel with the club wrapping up an audacious coup to sign Ivorian Nicolas Pepe from Lille (around £75 million), a shrewd loan deal for midfielder Dani Ceballos from Real Madrid and the defensive duo mentioned at the top of the piece. Contributing to the whackiness of the transfer window was the fact that names like Sami Khedira, Gary Cahill, Phillipe Coutinho continued to pop up as potential transfer targets. The website Transfermarkt estimates Arsenal's total outlay on incoming players to be around £140 million and the money earned through departures (greatly boosted by Alex Iwobi's deadline day move to Everton for £28-32 million) at over £45 million.

Iwobi's departure, despite the financial boost it brought, wasn't an ideal scenario, considering the Nigerian's potential and youth. On a more sentimental note, seeing a player who has come up through the club's ranks, all the way from the junior level to the first team is always sad. But, the decision was likely taken after the transfer of Pepe was sealed, with an eye on the serious lack of minutes Iwobi would have on field.

Overall though, it's been a hell of a transfer window for a club that can't even offer Champions League football.

The Laurent Kocsiel-ndrum

When Arsenal announced its 29-member squad for the pre-season tour Stateside, one name was conspicuous by its absence — particularly when you consider said name is suffixed by '(C)' on team sheets. The mild-mannered and measured Koscielny had gone on strike and refused to be part of the tour. While it was widely reported that the Frenchman was agitating for a move back to his homeland, that he was furious at only being offered a year's contract extension, that he was unhappy with the way he was rushed back from injury and so on, the defender, to his credit, did not air his dirty laundry in public.

Former players, pundits and fans raged at how 'ungrateful' and 'unprofessional' Koscielny was being towards the club that made him. All the while, Koscielny and his agent/s kept their peace and he continued to train with the junior team. The saga stuttered and stumbled to its conclusion and the 33-year-old was off to Bordeaux. Days can go into discussing and dissecting every aspect of the acrimonious last month, so let's attempt to wrap it up with four questions.

Was his protest unbecoming of a respected leader like him? Sadly, it was.
Will the manner of his exit leave a bad taste in the mouth of Gooners? Unfortunately, it will.
Was he wrong to want to move back to be with his family and secure his future and theirs for more than 12 months? Not at all.
Will the events of the last few weeks — including the removal of the Arsenal jersey in the Bordeaux announcement video — tarnish his status and reputation in the club's lore? In this writer's opinion and after everyone's had enough time to calmly reflect, it won't.

How the team will set up

What Koscielny's exit does mean, however, is that head coach Unai Emery will have to seek out a new skipper. Granit Xhaka, Nacho Monreal and Mesut Özil have all worn the armband under Emery and it seems likely he'll fall back on one of this trio at least in the first few weeks of the new season. Where we go from there will depend on a combination of whether the designated skipper is able to avoid injury, poor form or ennui, and demonstrates some ability to lead.

As for how the rest of the team — barring goalkeeper Bernd Leno, whose presence is guaranteed — sets up, your guess is as good as mine.

Arsène Wenger made 126 signings — from Nicolas Anelka to Aubameyang — in his 22-year spell managing Arsenal Football Club. This breaks down to around 5.7 players per season, which in turn translates to less than three new signings per transfer window. Emery, on the other hand, brought in five new players (Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira, Leno, Sokratis and Lichtsteiner) in his very first transfer window, moved for the ill-fated Suarez in the winter window and has now completed six signings (five, if you exclude Saliba, who won't be at the club in the 2019-20 season).

In the process, he has overseen the departure of numerous Wenger favourites like Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Iwobi, Koscielny and Ramsey. While Le Professeur's preferred policy was to bring in a few new elements at a time so as not to disrupt the flow of the team as a whole, the former Sevilla gaffer's policy seems to be to make wholesale changes and dispassionately do away with underperformers or wantaways in an effort to redesign the flow of the team.

And in his first season at Arsenal, Emery marginally improved upon his predecessor's performance in his final season by finishing fifth in the league with 70 points (as compared to sixth with 63 points) and took the team to the final of the Europa League (as compared to reaching the semi-final). Common to both seasons was the fact that the Gunners' defence was shambolic for a team with aspirations of playing in the Champions League again.

Success in the 2019-20 season will be represented by small incremental improvements that make a larger overall impact — point kaizen, if you will. Addressing the holes in defence will be a major area of focus (it is hoped that Luiz and Tierney are able to plug some of them), but greater productivity in midfield, less profligacy at the front and a smoother, swifter transition from defence to attack are areas in which Emery will be eager to improve. While qualifying for the Champions League and winning a trophy — Europa League or the FA Cup — will demonstrate progress, it is hard to see the club making inroads into the Premier League top-three with Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur likely to be on top of their respective games.

The addition of some exciting new imports will certainly bring in new tactics, if not overall strategy, and will be fascinating to watch. That said, this writer still lacks so much as the sniff of a clue about how Emery will set out his team. Fortunately, the first match of the season is only around 36 hours away.

Updated Date: Aug 09, 2019 19:36:31 IST