For his first weeks at the club, Emery was able to work with the bulk of the Arsenal squad as only Welbeck, Ospina, Torreira, Xhaka, Lichtsteiner, and Monreal missed out on the summer tour in Singapore. The Gunners drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid on Thursday before routing Paris Saint-Germain 5-1 on Saturday.
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The first game showed Simeone’s organizational skills. Despite missing Griezmann, Lemar, Hernandez, Vrsaljko, Godin, Gimenez, Felipe Luis, Costa, Koke, Saul Niguez, and Savic, the Colchoneros managed to prevent Arsenal from creating clear-cut chances. The second game exposed PSG’s lack of a deep bench. The absences of Mbappe, Kimpembe, Meunier, Cavani, Neymar, Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Dani Alves, and Di Maria meant that unknown youngsters got the nod from Tuchel.
- Rethinking the partnership between Aubameyang and Lacazette
When Aubameyang and Lacazette played together against Atletico and PSG, Emery used the same configuration devised by Wenger last season with Lacazette through the middle and Aubameyang on the left wing. I don’t think it’s the most efficient configuration. A 4-4-2 system with Lacazette playing behind Aubameyang or a 4-3-3 system with Aubameyang up front and Lacazette on the right wing would optimize their impact in the final third.
Aubameyang should lead the line because he has more pace and is more clinical than Lacazette, while Lacazette has better passing and dribbling skills than Aubameyang. Playing as a second striker or as a false winger shouldn’t prevent Lacazette from finding the net often: Mbappe and Salah are examples of prolific forwards playing in a wide position.
Emery started Aubameyang as a lone striker on Saturday. The Gabon striker often cracked the PSG defense with his penetrative runs. He set up the opening goal with a sprint down the right flank in the 13th minute before collecting long balls in the 29th and 44th only to be denied by Buffon. Former Arsenal midfielder Diarra struggled so badly to cope with Aubameyang’s electric pace that he made cynical fouls in the 16th and 51st.
Lacazette has a lot to prove this season after failing to make the France squad for the World Cup. He was sharp and motivated in both friendlies, notching 2 goals against PSG and testing Atletico goalkeeper Oblak a couple of times.
- Can Emery improve the Arsenal defense?
The Gunners conceded 51 goals in the Premier League last season. That’s too much to have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish. Emery can definitely improve the team’s defensive organization. However, preventing goals also depends on the players’ decision-making and individual skills. The 2 games in Singapore raised again question marks about the defenders’ quality. Mustafi gave away a cheap free kick against PSG in the 19th and caught Weah with a high arm in the 28th after diving in. And Kolasinac was the main culprit for PSG’s equalizer as he missed his tackle and brought down Weah in the 59th. Holding and Chambers didn’t cover themselves in glory either against Atletico. Correa turned Holding to set up the opener in the 41st while Chambers received a yellow card in the 80th for a cynical foul.
- Academy players are knocking on the door
Nelson and Nketiah shone last season in the League Cup and the Europa League. The summer friendlies confirmed their strong potential. Nelson made 2 assists against PSG, taking the corner for Holding’s looping header in the 87th and slipping a through ball to Nketiah for the last goal. Named Premier League 2 Player of the Season, Nelson could have also scored in the 87th but Cibois saved his low strike.
There’s a bit of Ian Wright in Nketiah. The 19-year-old striker came off the bench in the second half and cut inside 2 defenders to test Cibois with a curling shot in the 81st. In stoppage time, Nketiah perfectly timed his run to beat the offside trap and score with a diagonal strike. Nketiah and Nelson should definitely play in the League Cup and the Europa League this year. Emery has shown his willingness to trust youngsters at PSG, so he should be able to develop Nketiah and Nelson this season.
While most Arsenal fans already know Nelson and Nketiah, the emergence of Smith-Rowe has been the biggest surprise of the summer tour. Smith-Rowe, who just turned 18 on Saturday, had never played with the first team before this season. The teenager was not really impressed by the crowd: Smith-Rowe notched a goal against Atletico and an assist against PSG. He ran past Partey in the 47th to beat Oblak with a curling shot from the edge of the box. Two days later, he picked out Lacazette, who made it 2-1 in the 67th. If Smith-Rowe can maintain that level of performance, you can bet that Emery will give him some playing time in the League Cup and the Europa League.
- A make-or-break season for Iwobi
Iwobi already has 3 Premier League seasons under his belt. Yet, his decision-making and end product are still poor. Nelson and Nketiah could leapfrog him in the pecking order if he keeps stagnating. Starting on the left wing against PSG, Iwobi was denied by Buffon in the 23rd and was replaced by Lacazette at halftime.
- Can Emery improve Ozil’s work-rate?
You often hear pundits say that his teammates should do the dirty work for Ozil. But if you look at the big clubs, playmakers like Eriksen and De Bruyne have better stats than Ozil and also work harder. Ozil’s poor work-rate could become a problem if Emery implements a pressing game. When PSG faced Arsenal in the 2016-17 Champions League, Emery took advantage of Ozil’s laziness to have Verratti and Di Maria drop back and send balls over the top. On Saturday, Ozil opened the scoring by converting Aubameyang’s cross in the 13th. Then the Germany playmaker made no effort to win the ball back after losing possession in the 34th, forcing Leno to palm away a powerful drive from Weah.
- Investing in youth
The Gunners haven’t enjoyed much luck in the past few years when they signed foreign youngsters. Sanogo, Reine-Adelaide, Bielik, Miyaichi, Eisfeld and Zelalem are examples of gambles in the transfer market that proved unsuccessful. Arsenal might have experienced a change of fortune by signing Guendouzi from French club Lorient for about £7 million. Fans can only hope that the scouting department did a thorough job to pay such a fee.
At 19, Guendouzi looked comfortable on the ball against Atletico. Despite his youth, Emery played him as a holding midfielder sitting behind Ramsey and Smith-Rowe. A couple of times, an overconfident Guendouzi tried to dribble on the edge of the Arsenal area. One of his turnovers led to a scoring chance for the Colchoneros in the 58th. Emery was more cautious for the PSG game as he played Guendouzi alongside the more defensive Elneny. Guendouzi displayed his ball-playing abilities with a pinpoint ball over the top for Aubameyang, whose low strike was palmed away by Buffon in the 29th.
Guendouzi definitely has the profile of a deep-lying playmaker. He’s more mobile than Xhaka and his passing range looks similar to the Switzerland international’s. However, Guendouzi’s inexperience means that Emery will probably use him as a utility midfielder this season. To survive in the Premier League, Guendouzi will need to toughen up. He was brushed off the ball a couple of times against Atletico.
- The contracts of Ramsey and Nelson should be the club’s top priority
Ramsey and Nelson only have a year left on their contracts. Voted Arsenal’s Player of the Season, Ramsey is the present of this club. He’s the only Arsenal midfielder who’s on the shopping list of several big clubs. If the board doesn’t want to give Ramsey a salary close to £200,000 a week, then the fans could see the team bleed like when Fabregas, Nasri, Song and Van Persie left in 2011-12. Last season, the Gunners already lost Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanchez to Liverpool and Manchester United, respectively. They are now just one transfer away from becoming a feeder club again and they won’t be able to blame Wenger for that mess.
Those who have watched Nelson in the Premier League 2 last season know that the teenager is the future of the club. Nelson can carve open a defense with his dribbling skills. Big clubs are willing to pay a fortune for that kind of skill set because smart dribblers can make a difference against teams parking the bus. That’s why Manchester City signed Sane and Sterling while Liverpool recruited Mane and Salah.