Countdown to EPL season: Unai Emery is no miracle worker as he starts new era with Arsenal
August in football offers hope. Clubs and players dream of trophies and legacies. The 27th English Premier League season will be no different as Manchester City aim to become only the third EPL team to win back-to-back titles. The Straits Times begins its countdown with one of their main challengers, Arsenal/New Arsenal boss will improve stagnating players but lack of depth in squad remains
LONDON • The crucial thing to make clear about the managerial transition at Arsenal is that it cannot be compared to Manchester United's struggle to adapt to life after Alex Ferguson.
For that to be possible, Arsene Wenger would have had to leave his successor a title-winning team.
So if new Gunners coach Unai Emery's task is daunting, it is only because the previous boss was well past his glorious peak.
Whereas United's travails since Ferguson's retirement in 2013 have exposed their structural failings, the unfortunate truth is that decay had taken hold at Arsenal long before the announcement of Wenger's departure on April 20.
The squad Wenger left behind was the worst of his 22-year reign, which at least means that Emery can start with expectations at a realistic level.
Arsenal missed out on Champions League qualification again last season and they will have to re-establish themselves in the top four before thinking about winning their first title since 2004.
It will be strange not to see Wenger in the dugout when Manchester City visit the Emirates on the opening weekend, but the time had come for Arsenal to innovate.
Arsenal have gone for experience but they have not appointed a sure thing. Emery is not a genius like Guardiola, a forceful personality like Jurgen Klopp or a ruthless winner like Jose Mourinho.
Crucially, the Gunners have had a while to adjust. Emery was in place less than a fortnight after Wenger's final game, allowing the Spaniard a full summer to work with his new squad, and it will be fascinating to see if the 46-year-old is capable of invigorating a team who have been crying out for more direction.
While it might have been braver for them to press ahead with their early interest in Mikel Arteta, who has received quite the education as part of Pep Guardiola's entourage at City, it is worth keeping in mind that the 36-year-old would have been learning on the job.
Could Arsenal afford a gamble when they have already fallen so far behind their rivals? Not when Emery was regarded as the safer choice. But that does not reflect too well on Arsenal either. They have gone for experience but they have not appointed a sure thing.
Emery is not a genius like Guardiola, a forceful personality like Jurgen Klopp or a ruthless winner like Jose Mourinho.
1 THE AUBAMEYANG THREAT
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was a January signing last season and, given that the focus was mainly on Arsenal’s struggles, the bright start that the Gabonese striker made was much overlooked.
He scored 10 goals and recorded four assists in 13 league appearances and is poised to be the Gunners’ main attacking threat this season.
2 TEST OF EMERY’S MANAGERIAL CREDENTIALS
Unai Emery has been handed a tough task as Arsenal will take on champions Manchester City and FA Cup winners Chelsea in their first two games.
With Gunners fans expecting a swift change in fortunes following Arsene Wenger’s departure, the demands on Emery could not be greater. How he copes could well determine his season.
3 SOLVING THE OZIL ISSUE
Mesut Ozil is a player who tends to go “missing” in games and it was surprising to see Emery handing him the armband during the International Champions Cup game in Singapore against Paris Saint-Germain.
But the German led the side to a 5-1 victory and even scored a goal, with Emery suggesting later that Ozil can be the regular captain for Arsenal.
The manager may have found the solution – give Ozil more responsibility and he may just shine.
He has won more than Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino and Chelsea's Maurizio Sarri, but even his achievement of leading Paris Saint-Germain to a domestic treble last season comes with the caveat that he lost the title to Monaco in his first season in France and made no impression in the Champions League.
His experience of achieving three consecutive Europa League triumphs at Sevilla, however, should prove helpful as Arsenal prepare for another Thursday to Sunday schedule.
Above all, Arsenal have turned to a coach who will work relentlessly on his players' weaknesses, which should benefit stagnating youngsters such as Hector Bellerin, Calum Chambers, Rob Holding and Alex Iwobi.
There will be more intensity and Emery, who seems likely to favour a 4-2-3-1 system, has spoken about shifting the emphasis from dominating possession to showing remorseless hunger off the ball.
A new Arsenal are gradually starting to take form. There has been no major clear-out yet but the tweaks Emery has made so far show where he wants to improve.
The arrival of Stephan Lichtsteiner, the experienced Swiss right-back, on a free transfer from Juventus should harden a naive side, while Arsenal have looked to toughen their soft centre with the signing of the Greece centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos from Borussia Dortmund and the acquisition of the talented Uruguayan midfielder Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria.
Bernd Leno is expected to take the No. 1 spot from Petr Cech after joining from Bayern Leverkusen while Matteo Guendouzi, a 19-year-old French midfielder, is one for the future after arriving from Lorient.
AUG 12 Man City (home)
AUG 18 Chelsea (away)
NOV 3 Liverpool (h)
DEC 1 Tottenham (h)
DEC 4 Man United (a)
DEC 29 Liverpool (a)
JAN 19 Chelsea (h)
FEB 2 Man City (a)
MARCH 2 Tottenham (a)
MARCH 9 Man United (h)
And, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette could form a potent partnership in attack, with Aaron Ramsey offering goals and energy from midfield, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil are not as consistent as their equivalents elsewhere.
Danny Welbeck has also struggled to stay fit, Granit Xhaka can be rash in central midfield, Shkodran Mustafi has toiled at centre-back, Laurent Koscielny is injured and Sead Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal are unconvincing options at left-back. There are holes to fill and a lack of depth in the squad.
Framed in that way, Emery has his work cut out and it remains to be seen if Arsenal have made up enough ground on their rivals.
These, ultimately, are uncertain times in north London and it will only take a couple of bad results for people to start questioning the wisdom of parting with Wenger.
But there is no going back, no room for doubt or panic, even if it is painful at first. In Emery they have to trust. They have no other option.
ARSENAL'S TRANSFER BALANCE
KEY SIGNING: LUCAS TORREIRA
Midfielder (Sampdoria, £26.5 million, S$47.11 million): Arsenal have solved their defensive problems with the acquisition of defenders Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sokratis Papastathopoulos plus a promising goalkeeper in Bernd Leno. But Uruguayan defensive midfielder Torreira (below) will provide extra tenacity, be able to stop opponents from even getting to the backline and provide defensive cover.
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