1. Three at the back is here to stay
Arsene Wenger’s decision to switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation at the tail end of last season was as shrewd as it was unexpected. The Frenchman hadn’t wavered from his trusty
4-2-3-1 in years, but in the face of Arsenal’s worst spell since 1995 he was forced to roll the dice with a change of tactics.
Although it didn’t deliver a coveted top four finish, the 3-4-2-1 was key to the Gunners’ strong end to the season, culminating in an imperious FA Cup final win over Chelsea. Questions about whether Wenger would persist with his new formation or revert to his old ways were answered on Arsenal’s preseason tour:
‘We’ll test many systems. At the moment, in pre-season, we are in the continuity of the end of last season,’ said Wenger.
‘In some games, we will play with four at the back and some with three, but at the start of the season we will certainly play with three.’
Arsenal are looking more and more accustomed to the new system, starting every preseason match in the 3-4-2-1 formation. The use of three center backs gives the Gunners much-needed defensive stability, allowing attacking talent like Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey to roam and create more freely.
For the first time in several years Arsenal are starting the season with a new formation, and it’s something to be genuinely excited about.
2. Reiss Nelson is a name to remember
Every summer, an unknown Arsenal youngster seizes his chance during the club’s preseason fixtures. Alex Iwobi used preseason as a foothold into the first team a few summers ago, while Chuba Akpom and Jeff Reine-Adelaide have impressed in preseasons past despite not yet making the jump to first team football.
This time around, it was 17-year-old (!) Reiss Nelson who grabbed the spotlight. Mainly deployed as a right wingback, Nelson seems completely unfazed by playing with the first team. He constantly demands the ball and looks to beat his man, tearing Benfica’s experienced leftback Eliseu to shreds in the Emirates Cup.
It may be early days, but Reiss Nelson is as exciting as any Arsenal prospect in the last decade. The Europa League and Carabao Cup should provide him with a clear path to the first team this season.
3. Sead Kolasinac was built for the Premier League
Forget Alexandre Lacazette, Sead Kolasinac is looking like Arsenal’s best piece of business this summer.
The Bosnian defender arrived on a free transfer from Schalke at the beginning of the summer and has already shown why Arsene Wenger was keen to snap him up. Built like a tank, Kolasinac is the physical specimen that Arsenal have been crying out for in defense. His versatility—the 24-year-old can play left wingback, left back, and center back—means he’ll be getting plenty of minutes in his debut season for the Gunners.
4. Granit Xhaka is Arsenal’s most important midfielder…
Granit Xhaka was instrumental in Arsenal’s FA Community Shield victory over Chelsea, providing the assist for new signing Sead Kolasinac’s late equalizer and bossing the midfield with power and poise. The Swiss international deservedly picked up the Man of the Match award for his dominant display, boasting a 91.2% passing accuracy and playing four key passes. His stunning strike from 40 yards out in the second half would’ve capped off his performance with a goal if it weren’t for an equally stunning save from Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois.
The media and opposition fans alike may have labeled him a flop, but Xhaka had a good first season for Arsenal. While his discipline could use some fine-tuning, the 25-year-old is a born leader with a rare combination of technical ability and tenacity—something the Gunners have lacked in the middle of the park for a while.
Xhaka’s strong preseason only reaffirmed his importance to Arsenal’s midfield. With him in the side, the Gunners look fluent and comfortable in possession. Without him, they appear disjointed and lackluster.
If Arsenal are to mount a proper title challenge this season, Granit Xhaka will certainly be at the heart of it.
5. But he still needs a suitable partner
All the talk of Arsenal’s transfer business this summer has revolved around Monaco’s Thomas Lemar and the contract situation of Alexis Sanchez. What the club really needs to compete in the title race, though, is another central midfielder.
As promising as the Xhaka and Ramsey midfield partnership has looked, it’s just one hamstring strain or clumsy challenge away from falling apart. Further, Ramsey is at his best when he’s making dangerous runs into the box and getting on the end of chances. Dictating the tempo with precise passes, on the other hand, isn’t his forte.
Xhaka could use a mobile, box-to-box partner who can wriggle his way out of trouble with a dribble rather than a sweeping long ball. A 27-year-old Cazorla would be perfect, but alas the Spaniard is 32 and has spent more time in the physio room than on the pitch in the past two seasons. Francis Coquelin remains useful but unsuited to the type of football Arsenal strive to play. Mohamed Elneny, while consistently solid, shouldn’t start more than 15 league games this season. Jack Wilshere is more of a problem than an answer.
Point is, Arsenal need another body in midfield or they’ll likely run into the same obstacles as last season.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com.
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