For the first time in more than two decades, the Gunners are under new management this season, after Arsène Wenger’s 22-year spell at the helm came to an end in May.
Unai Emery, a three-time Europa League winner with Sevilla and Ligue 1 champion at Paris Saint-Germain, was named as his replacement later that month. After a relatively low-key summer transfer window, Emery’s side sit seventh in the Premier League, with nine points from five games.
Arsenal twice embarrassed Everton in 2017/18, easing to a 5-2 victory at Goodison Park last October and hammering the Blues 5-1 on home soil in February.
Ahead of Sunday’s clash, RBM spoke to Paul DeBruler (@misterpdb), editor for SB Nation’s Arsenal blog, The Short Fuse, about his thoughts on the Gunners’ season so far, and what he expects from this weekend’s game:
*This Q & A took place before Arsenal’s Europa League fixture against Vorskla Poltava on 20 September.
RBM: First and foremost, how has life after Arsène Wenger began for Arsenal?
Paul: I feel, before I answer this, that I have to reveal my biases. My Arsenal fandom coincides almost exactly with Arsène Wenger’s tenure (I became a fan during the season before he was hired), and up until three or four seasons ago, I was one of the biggest Wenger defenders you’d find anywhere.
But, in that time period, I watched Arsenal stagnate, and worse, watched every season play out exactly the same way; struggle against the big teams, start the league slow and charge into a Champions League place late, lose to Bayern [Munich] in the Champions League, etc.
It got to the point where I couldn’t defend Wenger anymore, because he got to the point where he was no longer evolving. He stubbornly held on to the “my way is the right way to play” ethos, and other teams smiled and waved as they blew past Arsenal, leaving the Gunners staring at taillights.
So, to your question: If all you look at is results, so far, life after Wenger is very similar to life before. But that doesn’t really get to the truth of it, which is that literally everything has changed at Arsenal; not just Wenger’s job. Almost everyone in the front office is new this season, there’s a new fitness/medical staff, and with Ivan Gazidis gone, the club is being run in an entirely different way now.
Overall, the changes are good, but it’ll take a while for the club to... stabilize is probably the wrong word, but it’s clear there’s been a ton of change, and there’s bound to be an adjustment period while everyone finds their feet.
What early differences, if any, has he made to Arsenal?
Paul: One of the biggest differences with Unai Emery is that everyone on the team has a specific role in a defined system, and is coached to play that role. Wenger was famous for his philosophy of finding smart players and letting them play, and not doing a lot of rigorous coaching, preferring his players to mesh organically and play from the heart, as it were.
And when that worked, it was spectacular (see: the Invincibles). When it didn’t work, though, it was very pedestrian and easy to break down, and that was what Arsenal were in the last few seasons. Emery has a lot of work to do to build his team his way, but so far the signs are mostly encouraging.
RBM: What would constitute a successful first season for Emery?
Paul: For me, honestly, treading water would be a victory. As mentioned, Arsenal are a whole new club this season, top to bottom, and that cake will take time to bake; if Emery can keep Arsenal in the Europa League places this season while maybe even winning the Europa League, or at least matching last year’s semi-final appearance, that’s got to be considered a success.
RBM: Despite Arsenal spending nearly £20 million on Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Bernd Leno in the summer, Petr Cech has played every minute for the Gunners this season.
Having come in for a fair amount of criticism lately, should Cech, now 36, be dropped this weekend?
Paul: Petr Cech should have been dropped after game one this season. Emery’s style relies on playing quickly out from the back, and it’s clear that Cech, as much as he’s worked on getting better at it, is terrible with the ball at his feet.
He also isn’t good at making the lightning-quick distribution decisions that the out-from-the-back style sometimes dictates - when one of his defenders pings the ball back to him, you can almost see the panic on his face as he tries to process what to do next. I like Cech, but Leno’s just a better option.
RBM: Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis had been particularly vocal since Wenger’s departure and seemed instrumental in appointing Emery, but on Tuesday announced he is leaving for AC Milan. What are your feelings about his exit?
Paul: I am not a person who really invests in the business side of any sports team I like. It’s just not all that interesting to me - I like to eat the sports sausage, but I don’t really care how it’s made. That said, I did take a look at what Gazidis meant to Arsenal, and I think after that the conclusion I came to is that it’s fine he’s gone, and it’s not a devastating setback for the club.
It was Gazidis who executed the complete restructure of Arsenal, decentralizing it away from Arsene Wenger’s complete control, and Gazidis’ departure could be seen as the ultimate test of that rebuild.
The fact that Arsenal didn’t appoint a new CEO, but instead “promoted” (really, just re-job-titled) the people overseeing the football and business sides of Arsenal, and are now having those two report directly to the CEO, speaks to the fact that a CEO in general, and Gazidis in particular, is not essential to the running of a club that is properly set up, and Gazidis did all he could to properly set up Arsenal before he left.
RBM: The ‘Thursday-Sunday’ issue of being in the Europa League is well-documented; when Arsenal had a continental fixture last season, they won six of the 12 games they played the following weekend.
With the Gunners starting this season’s Europa campaign at home to Vorskla Poltava on Thursday, are you concerned fatigue may creep in against Everton?
Paul: Sort of. Arsenal have a big squad, and up until now haven’t played a few of their new acquisitions or have only used them as subs, so at this point in the season, legs should be fresh. After a couple months, when Arsenal have to travel to Ukraine, it might be a different story, but in these early Europa rounds I think Arsenal’s squad is big enough to cope pretty easily.
RBM: Theo Walcott has impressed most Evertonians since leaving Arsenal for the Blues in January.
How do you look back on Walcott’s 11-and-a-half years in North London, and was it the right time for him to leave?
Paul: I liked Theo, but a combination of his inability to stay healthy, and his unfortunate inconsistency when he was healthy, meant that it was probably time for him to get a fresh start somewhere else. I’m glad he’s doing well, and I hope that he sustains that good form and good health.
RBM: How do you expect Arsenal to set up on Sunday?
Paul: Emery so far has been pretty attached to a 4-2-3-1, and I’m pretty sure he’ll stick with that on Sunday. That said, formations are basically meaningless once the ball is kicked, and that can morph into a 4-1-4-1 or something similar depending on how well the press Emery wants to play is working.
As of this writing, I’m not sure who we will see in that formation, because of the Thursday Europa League [game against Vorskla Poltava], but that’s what they’ll look like when they line up.
RBM: Which of Arsenal’s players do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Paul: If he plays, Lucas Torreira. He might get his first start of the season on Thursday, though, so you may only see him as a late sub if at all. He’s the defensive midfield disruptor Arsenal have been pining for for years. The Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette combination is starting to become something special, as well.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Sunday’s game?
Paul: With my standard caveat that I am really, really bad at predictions: this game has 2-2 written all over it. Arsenal aren’t that great at defending, and will probably let in at least one forehead-slap of a goal.
Our thanks to Paul for his time. You can read RBM’s interview with The Short Fuse here.