Preseason is always one of the most intriguing periods of the footballing year, but Arsenal fans haven’t enjoyed this level of positive uncertainty for an incredible 23 years – the last time a new manager was put in charge of the club ahead of a new season.
Add to the fact Unai Emery brings particularly fresh and foreign ideas with him to the north London dugout and these few weeks ahead of the new Premier League season represent a spell of frenzied speculation; who fits into the new gaffer’s plans, who could end up being sold, how exactly will he set up and which youngsters could earn permanent promotions to the senior team?
In a bid to answer some of those questions, here’s Arsenal’s Preseason Report…
Boreham Wood 0-8 Arsenal
Arsenal 9-0 Crawley (Behind Closed Doors)
Arsenal 1-2 Brentford (Behind Closed Doors)
Arsenal began their pre-season with a healthy win over Boreham Wood, which gave some insight into how Emery intends to set up his side. Alexandre Lacazette took the central strike role, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang bagged a hat-trick playing off the left-hand side. Supporting them was an incredibly youthful midfield of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Joe Willock and Emile Smith-Rowe, suggesting those three starlets are at least in contention for some kind of first-team role next season.
Arsenal’s other two friendlies thus far were played behind closed doors at London Colney in the space of just two days – allegedly as an exercise in building up the Gunners’ fitness rather than any real emphasis being placed on performance. The details of these games remain murky and speculative, although its claimed summer signing Bernd Leno dropped a clanger to allow Brentford a surprise 2-1 victory.
Atletico Madrid vs Arsenal
Arsenal vs PSG
Arsenal vs Chelsea
Arsenal vs Lazio
The next stage for Arsenal is participation in the International Champions Cup, which seems to grow in size and stature every year. The competition will give a much better idea of who Emery sees as integral to his starting XI and his overall plans for the coming season – simply because of the quality of opposition and the fact there really isn’t much time left to make calls on certain players.
We do know, however, that five players have been cut from the squad for the trip to Singapore – Carl Jenkinson, Chuba Akpom, Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Joel Campbell and Krystian Bielik. This quintet now look set to either be sold or loaned out before the season starts.
Once the ICC is over, Arsenal face Lazio in Stockholm on Saturday 4th. By this point in the summer, the Gunners should be back to full strength with their participants from the latter stages of the World Cup officially returning to club duties.
Not everybody has been available to Emery just yet due to the World Cup, but we do know that Leno featured in the defeat to Brentford, while 19-year-old acquisition Matteo Guendouzi and experienced centre-back Sokratis were both involved in the thumping win at Meadow Road, the former coming on as a substitute and the latter starting.
Perhaps the most excitement circles around Torreira, but he’s not made an appearance for his new club having reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup with Uruguay. Lichtsteiner too is still awaiting his first Gunners appearance and it seems likeliest to come in the Lazio clash.
With his contract due to expire in a year’s time, and with potentially just one game to prove himself after returning from his post-World Cup break, Danny Welbeck’s really up against it this summer to make an instant impression on the new manager. Mohamed Elneny and Alex Iwobi find themselves in a similar boat – especially as the Arsenal boss appears to have taken something of a shine to an alternative midfield option in youngster Smith-Rowe – although they will be involved in the Singapore tournament unlike the England international.
Hector Bellerin and Petr Cech find themselves under serious competition for a starting berth following Lichtsteiner and Leno’s respective arrivals, while Lacazette and Aubameyang are inevitably caught in a battle for the central strike slot.
Fellow forward Lucas Perez has been given a chance by Emery after spending last term out on loan at Deportivo and could well prove to be one of the surprise success stories of Arsenal’s preseason. Sead Kolasinac, meanwhile, after quickly falling out of favour under Arsene Wenger last term, now has the opportunity to put his Arsenal career back on track.
Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Konstantinos Mavropanos, Jordi Osei-Tutu, Willock, Smith-Rowe and Maitland-Niles will all see the change in management as their moment to push on from the youth team and become regulars at senior level.
Having been spared the physical burden of a World Cup, Aubameyang looks raring to go for the new season. He’s scored in all three of Arsenal’s preseason encounters so far and bagged hat-tricks in two of them, albeit against rather modest opposition in Boreham Wood and Crawley. Adeliade netted twice against Boreham Wood as well but Emery appears to have made his mind up on the youngster who is now expected to leave on loan. Perhaps though, after showing glimpses of his huge potential at Angers last season, the Frenchman will really make his mark elsewhere during the coming campaign.
It’s the big question on the collective lips on the Arsenal faithful that they’re hoping the preseason outings will eventually answer. Based on evidence thus far, which is admittedly very little, a few key trends are interesting if not exactly definitive. First and foremost, Emery fielded his side in a 4-3-3 against Boreham Wood, Willock anchoring two midfielders either side, and that falls in line with what became his customary formation at PSG.
Perhaps more curiously, he elected to play Lacazette and Aubameyang in the same starting XI, with the latter featuring out wide. That may switch around once the season begins, simply because Aubameyang is the more potent goalscorer, but it does seem the new Arsenal gaffer is eager to find a way of getting both into the same team.
The biggest positive for Arsenal fans, however, is surely the number of young players to have featured against Boreham Wood and the subsequent friendlies behind closed doors. With pretty much all of Arsenal’s summer spending focusing on defensive areas, Emery could look to supplement Arsenal’s midfield and forward ranks with youngsters rather than costly additions.