Premier League Premier League 2017-18 previews Premier League 2017-18 preview No1: Arsenal Will Arsène Wenger give new first-team coach Jens Lehmann direct influence for a season with a Thursday-Sunday rhythm and potential ins and outs unresolved?
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 6th (NB: this is not necessarily Amy Lawrence’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 5th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 11-1
When Jens Lehmann initially joined Arsenal as a player in 2003, pre-season involved a trip from his homeland in Germany across the border to join his new team in Bad Waltersdorf, a mountain retreat in Austria known for its tranquillity. After his first training session the squad headed to a spa and Lehmann was surprised to note his team-mates went into the sauna in their underwear or swimming gear. He explained that in Austria and Germany that counts as overdressed. “They told me: ‘Are you mad, going naked into the sauna? Someone takes your picture and you’re in the Sun the next day.’” Cultural nuances aside, the players all got on with gearing up for the season in a positive atmosphere of solid work in an environment chosen for its calmness.
Lehmann rejoined Arsenal this summer as a member of the first-team coaching staff and immediately got stuck into a pre-season with a very different feel. The summer tour packed in almost 30,000 miles of a round trip to Australia and China, several heavyweight time zone adjustments, double sessions in 40-degree heat and a bout of food poisoning, multiple public appearances and a series of marketing pushes for the players, and a few games on top. Nothing is done quietly away from mass scrutiny any more.
Even if there was fun to be had with their international audience, the flipside is that Arsenal must make sure they do not go into the new season a bit jaded, knocked out by the schedule before they even kick a competitive ball. This time last year Arsenal were far from ready for the big kick-off. An inexperienced defence and a few absentees up front meant they were exposed and beaten at home by Liverpool. Of course it’s facile to pinpoint one result over a season as being the spanner in the works but when it turns out that Liverpool beat Arsenal to a Champions League spot by one point it lays bare how the consequences of an ill-prepared start can be costly in the end.
For the sixth consecutive season the fixture computer has served up a home game for starters – but Arsenal have won only one of those. It it would do them the power of good to start with a bang. Picking up three points against Leicester City on the season’s Friday night opener would prevent the slightly bonkers scenario of Arsène Wenger fending off serious questions after one match, as he has had to do in recent years.
Finishing 2016-17 awash with FA Cup happiness was a boon but the mission to climb back into the top four and push up as far as they can is back into sharp focus. The question of whether Arsenal have strengthened enough, improved enough, is a difficult one to answer right now, with a fair amount of potential transfer activity still unresolved.
Arsenal continue to make defiant noises but some uncertainty is inevitable surrounding all those important players going into the final year of their deal. Alexis Sánchez is the most critical situation because of his status as goal-getter-in-chief and shiniest star, with Mesut Özil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain just behind. The purchase of Alexandre Lacazette is a promising one. The shape and potential of Arsenal going forward does feel strongly linked to whether the new man from Lyon will be used in tandem with Sánchez or as a replacement should the worst happen, with interested parties not necessarily about to go away until the window shuts.
There is a common theme to many of Arsenal’s silly season stories this summer. The majority of players linked with a move in, out or a contractual shake-about are attack-minded. Lacazette was obviously announced with happy fanfare. The brave attempt to get in the conversation about Kylian Mbappé always looked on the hopeful side. The ongoing hokey-cokey involving Sánchez, Olivier Giroud and Lucas Pérez may well bubble along beyond the start of the season. Add Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott, Alex Iwobi and Özil, and Arsenal are currently overstaffed in forward positions.
What all this masks is the area of the team that is arguably most in need of boosting. There were issues in central midfield last season, which settled only when Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey got a sustained run together in the last few weeks. But with the much-missed sophistication of Santi Cazorla, ongoing doubts about Jack Wilshere, and Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny providing useful backup without ever looking like world beaters, it does feel that a powerful signing in the midfield heartland should be a matter of priority. Either Monaco’s Thomas Lemar, who can play in midfield as well as the left side, or Jean Seri who excelled last season for Nice, would be a very welcome addition. In any case, the closest thing on the planet they can find that best resembles Patrick Vieira would do.
Tactically, Arsenal look set to continue with the back three who Wenger introduced last spring, a formation that made the whole team look more balanced and resilient. Another newcomer, Sead Kolasinac, offers a blend of physical presence and a keen eye for carving the game open high up the pitch. He looks a steal on a free transfer and promises to add qualities to match Héctor Bellerín or Oxlade-Chamberlain on the opposite flank.
Returning to Lehmann, he is the most interesting of the staffing changes that have taken place this summer to try to inject some fresh impetus in various departments across the club (fitness and contracts also welcomed a new face). Known for carrying a fiercely competitive streak into every training session, it will be fascinating to see if he is allowed more direct influence than Wenger normally affords any of his coaching team. Will he be given enough rope, enough of a voice, to try to shake up a dressing room that tends to have moments where the pressure gets on top of them? Lehmann did get the chance to be a dominant figure on tour, especially when fellow coach Steve Bould was unwell, but whether that continues in the season proper remains to be seen.
In pure football terms, the season ahead is bound to have an adjusted tone to what they have been used to for most of Wenger’s tenure as they shift to the Thursday-Sunday rhythm, and the lower-key, and sometimes longer-distance outposts, that characterise the Europa League. In psychological terms, it would be interesting to see if a new influence such as Lehmann’s can make a difference – with the caveat that Wenger has to give him the nod to speak his mind.
After the final league game of last season the manager admitted his players had been subjected to what he described as a “horrendous” psychological environment linked with the fractious Wenger in/Wenger out debate that raged for so much of the year.
The “catalyst for change” that Ivan Gazidis spoke of during the tensest moments of that struggle has been more subtle than radical. But now that Wenger has signed up to stay for another two years at least, Arsenal can try to put emotional distractions to one side.
The mood in the camp in pre-season has been harmonious and positive. Sánchez, after his extended holiday and photo reportage of his flu, will return to stamp his own strong personality on the place as the days count down to another season in the life of Wenger’s Arsenal.
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