For players near the beginning or end of their careers, pre-season glamour friendlies are more than just a chance to regain fitness, or an opportunity to pick up a few thousand more Instagram followers. Youngsters relish their chance of proving they have developed sufficiently to mix it with the first-team, while for players entering their twilight years, it is an important period to show that they are still up to scratch.
And so it was not overly surprising that Arsenal’s best two players in their pre-season victory over Chelsea were two men at very different stages in their life. One was French teenager Mattéo Guendouzi, who played with a bravery and intelligence beyond his years. The other was elder statesman Petr Cech, who saved two penalties and made a string of impressive stops worthy of any first-choice Premier League goalkeeper.
Evenings at the office generally don’t get much better than that. But after the game, Cech readily admitted that he has received no cast-iron assurances from new manager Unai Emery about his status in the Arsenal team. “I haven’t,” he said, as his team-mates filed onto the team bus ahead of an early flight back to London. “We still have games to play. Obviously for every player you do your best, then the manager has his choice to make.”
Cech played the full ninety minutes in Dublin, but his place in Arsenal’s starting XI has been thrown into doubt by the arrival of Bernd Leno, signed for £22.5m from Bayer Leverkusen earlier this summer. Cech’s long-term future is also uncertain: now 36, he has entered the final year of his current contract with an extension so far unforthcoming.
Such fierce competition for places — where even the players themselves are uncertain over their manager’s plans, so close to the start of the season — marks a significant departure from the Arsene Wenger era. The Frenchman was instead fiercely loyal to his first-team, hesitant to move players on and repeatedly reticent to drop the club’s big names in the games that mattered.
Unlike Wenger, however, Emery has zero loyalty to the players he has inherited, hence the unceremonious exits of fan favourites Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla. To paraphrase an old favourite from around these parts, history is a nightmare from which Arsenal are trying to awake, and a hard refresh is exactly what this squad requires. Everything is up for grabs.
It is not only in goal that Emery is keeping his options open. There is also a significant battle for places in midfield: Guendouzi could feasibly keep late arrival Lucas Torreira out of the starting XI in the first few weeks, while Granit Xhaka and Alex Iwobi’s places suddenly look uncertain. Meanwhile Hector Bellerin — perhaps guilty of coasting along under Wenger more than any other player — is under serious threat from summer signing Stephan Lichtsteiner.
True to form, after watching his side beat Chelsea, Emery neatly sidestepped a question on whether he was any closer to settling on his strongest line-up for the Premier League’s impending return. “This performance was good to find out best preparation for the start of the competition,” he began, only to immediately change tack. “All of the performances are getting better. I think it’s good. At this moment, we all need to stay together.”
Emery is not yet being cornered into making any decisions — and why would he? At both Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain he repeatedly switched between formations, never shirking a big decision, such as dropping Neymar last season. He is pragmatic not dogmatic, with Arsenal already having experimented with three different formations this summer. “We are set up a different way, playing a different way from the back,” Cech added. Every manager is different. We work on that during the pre-season and we are improving with every game.”
In fact, Emery makes for a neat counterpoint with Maurizio Sarri, who has been employed by Chelsea specifically to bring with him his distinctive, aggressive style of football. Sarri’s summer has therefore been all about acclimatising his players to his demanding 4-3-3, which goes some way to explaining why Chelsea were ultimately the better side in Dublin. His squad are focused on one system and one system only.
But the more comprehensive transformation would appear to be taking place down the road, at The Emirates. Arsenal are a club in flux in just about every capacity — the perfect antidote to years of stagnancy under Wenger. The formation hasn’t yet been decided upon. Everybody’s place in the team is at risk. Even the captain's armband is going begging. And, finally, there is a buzz about the club again.
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