READY—STEADY— IT’S ALL ABOUT THE TOP-4 DASH AND THE FRONT-4 CONUNDRUM.
Arsenal are looking up to Klopp’s Liverpool as a model to follow. It took Klopp three years to get Liverpool challenging (or so many think) for the league title. However the Arsenal world seem not fully cognizant of the fact that qualifying for the Champions League this season is a crucial step towards that objective. Arsenal have been out of the competition for two seasons running. Another season out would put them in a difficult place.
Last season Liverpool reached the Champions league final and netted about £72m. It is nearly equivalent to UEFA handing Virgil Van Dijk (who cost £75m) to Liverpool for free. For each year Arsenal find themselves out of the Champions league, the top-4 rivals are each getting a world class player “free of charge”. That’s a seasonal start on Arsenal which if allowed to build up any further would push them too far down the ladder to compete favourably. By the way, the true story of Liverpool in the championship is that they’ve been in the wilderness for 28 years under countless coaches.
Many see the Europa league as the best route to the Champions league but the hard facts are that cup games are always dicey and should be recognized as such. By the start of this winter transfer window, Emery would have been with the team for six months. He would have known the team well enough to know exactly what is needed to take the team one notch up. That could be crucial for Arsenal’s top-4 aspirations if the club is able, for example, to sign one or two quality players that would help fit the team better to the Emery ideas.
Meanwhile, before the January window arrives there must be things to do to get more from the talented squad they have. With nearly one third of the season gone there is this feeling that the team is yet to find its range. The results of matches so far have largely flattered their performances. Lady Luck has played a huge part in offsetting the teething problems of a team under a new coach. This international break possibly defines the end of this period of the gods smiling on them. Hope it also defines the beginning of the team snarling and baring its teeth.
With nearly five months of work, Emery’s ideas must be taking roots in the players’ muscle reflexes, the same way fingers with time begin to go smartly over the key board without the hindering conscious thought. I sense such a breakthrough for the team must be pretty close. It was seen against Liverpool and in some of their 2nd half performances. But theirs is just one half of the story. On Emery’s side, after these months of working with the team, his knowledge of the players would have moved away from the theoretical. It is reasonable to believe that by now he has a good knowledge of the players and their best positions and best combinations. He would also have learnt a lot about the premiership. On all sides therefore the soil has been ploughed, the seeds planted and germinating. Better first half performances would be good signals that the new growth is taking roots.
The club cannot afford to miss out on the Champions league for the third year running. Emery’s 1st phase of learning by trial and error must be nearly over. The next phase should be about getting the best out of what he has. The top-4 race holds little or no space for a late charge.
Close to five active months into his tenure, Emery surely must have decided on his 1st choice keeper. He knows his full backs. Decision on his central defenders isn’t much of a headache to him. At the moment it’s simply any two of a three. He knows his central midfield pairing, definitely.
The front four is the problem area because it has an unbalanced personnel. It is full of talents who unfortunately are jostling for essentially two positions only. Aubameyang, Lacazette, Welbeck (injured) as strikers, Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Ramsey as #10s. Only Iwobi stands apart, his best position being the attacking wide left. Even at that, in order to accommodate Aubameyang, he is often displaced to the bench or played on the right where he is like a shadow of what he is on the left.
This international break is a good pause for Emery to re-strategize and that’s hardly anything beyond seeing to it that the players are used in there best positions.
If Lacazette plays, he plays as a striker with Aubameyang on the bench and vice versa. If they are played together then a 2-striker formation of sorts should be employed. If Iwobi plays it should be in the wide left position and Ozil or Mkhitaryan at #10. Ramsey’s case is slightly different. He is less of a creator and more of a deeper lying finisher. A role as the most attacking member of a 3-man midfield, in a formation with one striker, is tailor made for him: a deep lying 2nd striker kind of.
There is a vacancy in the wide right forward position. That place cries out for reinforcement. Are we going to see one in the winter transfer window? Meanwhile Emery seems to be working on Maitland-Niles for that role. I believe he’d prove a big success there with his pace and ball playing ability but if the need persists, Mkhitaryan becomes the only one playing not in his best position. That alone wont be much of an issue.
As the season enters its 2nd trimester, Emery’s game plan should be to maximize the yield from the platform he has created by getting the best from the players available. It should be all about the top-4 dash. Any 3-year plan belongs to the cabinet, at the moment. OGAAT in its numerous forms rules the waves.