At last, some optimism has returned to North London. On the back of a gruelling defeat to Chelsea on the shores of the Caspian Sea, Arsenal endured a difficult summer, punctuated by the tumultuous departure of club captain Laurent Koscielny, a renewed fan revolt against the aloof ownership of Silent Stan and a limited €50 million spending budget at Unai Emery’s disposal. But the Basque remodeled his team with a single marquee signing, a loanee, bargain buys, and homegrown youngsters to infuse the club with a new-found confidence that, this season, things will be different.
Last Saturday that rebooted Arsenal defeated Burnley 2-1 in the London sunshine, showing glimpses of a bright future, even though the familiar moments of defensive fragility were never far away. Loanee Dani Ceballos provided buzz to Emery’s eleven, elegant in his movement but with the requisite composure and vision to dictate the play from deep in the midfield, the way Emery likes it. The young Spaniard, surplus in Madrid, demonstrated all the attributes of a modern midfielder in a man-of-the-match performance, alternating positions with Joe Wilcox.
Emery remembers Ceballos from his time at Sevilla when the midfielder played for city rivals Real Betis. The Arsenal coach values the tactical flexibility that Ceballos offers his team. Ceballos can be deployed as a number eight or a number ten, allowing Arsenal to be more dynamic and tight-knit in midfield and connecting the rearguard with the attack. Against a limited but valiant Burnley, Arsenal looked balanced with Ceballos’ box-to-box qualities.
Higher up the pitch, record-signing and Ivorian youngster Nicolas Pepe had a 26-minute second-half cameo. Arguably, he showed little, perhaps too little, except for raw talent, which Arsenal expect to blossom once he has settled down in his new club environment and adjusted to the characteristics and particularities of the Premier League. The Ivorian played alongside Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the club’s previous record signing.
Last season, Emery played with one number nine before he tweaked his attacking strategy and fielded two strikers. Together Lacazette and Aubameyang scored 50 goals — 35 of them in the Premier League. In France, Pepe found the net 22 times in Ligue 1 and provided half a dozen assists. The trident’s firepower is unquestionable and it is tempting to draw a comparison with the front three of Liverpool or Manchester City, the two title candidates par excellence.
As a super club with unlimited financial resources, City’s philosophy is too different. Liverpool have proven that a different approach is fathomable. They have been sly in the transfer market and the progressive results under the excellent management of Jurgen Klopp have reignited a compelling club culture. The Liverpool blueprint — the commercial deals and the projected expansion of Anfield — is one Arsenal can identify with. Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane symbolise much of Liverpool’s success. They are almost brash in the image of their German Klopp, assertive, yet never overbearing.
The trio brings freshness to the club and an idea around which Emery can build. It would be naive to think the Arsenal coach will play his new front three in Liverpool. Pepe still needs to regain fitness after the Africa Cup of Nations. The three haven’t had enough time together yet to gel. Besides, Aubemayang’s wing play is problematic. The right-footed striker possesses the required pace and mobility, but tends to drift into the centre. The Burnley game was a case in point. Upfront, Lacazette was isolated and Aubamayeng’s first proper shot in the second half came after a central run into the box. It begs the question: Will Emery sacrifice Aubemayang’s goalscoring prowess and effectiveness in front of the goalmouth for a marginalised role out wide in a bid to shape a strike force that could reestablish Arsenal in the English elite?
It is a fascinating puzzle and the solution will go a long way in deciding the fortune of this rebranded Arsenal, where the line between a renaissance and perpetual implosion remains very fine.
Updated Date: Aug 24, 2019 11:47:30 IST