By Ollie Blackwell
Last Updated: 3rd August 2019
After 2 years and 3 Europa League place finishes since former chief-executive Ivan Gazidis’ now infamous ‘catalyst for change’ statement preceding Arsene Wenger’s departure, Arsenal fans may be forgiven for thinking the winds of change have not blown through the corridors of the Emirates with enough gust. The act of transforming soundbite into reality is something that also clearly preoccupies the mind-set of the newly established hierarchy; from the decentralisation of power away from Unai Emery, to the recent appointment of technical director Edu that culminated in Arsenal’s record breaking signing this week of winger Nicolas Pepe from Lille.
‘Announce Tierney’ trending
It was telling though that no sooner had the club officially unveiled Pepe, the Arsenal fan Twitterati had, in their uniquely pervasive way, launched their own counter attacking hashtag, ‘Announce Tierney’ – a pointed reference to Arsenal’s summer-long pursuit of Celtic defender Kieran Tierney, who is 1/8 to join the Gunners before the end of the window. Plus ca change, the more Arsenal fan twitter stays the same etc etc.
It is indeed a reaction that has been played out before. On the three previous occasions Arsenal have broken their transfer record it has been for similarly perceived attacking indulgences, Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (coincidentally the players Pepe has singled out as his reason for joining the Gunners). Such incomings have not been welcomed without a feeling of guilt, the nervousness that so accompanies excess; and above all a lingering worry that what is really needed to banish the spectres of the past is to be found less in the search for the glamorous new, but more in the escape from the old.
And maybe for good reason. The current defence still bears all the hallmarks of a late Wenger era soufflé; something more to be served up to rival attacks than merely selected. Doubts remain at the club over Calum Chambers’ ability to make the top grade. Shkodran Mustafi beats on, despite remarkable reputed attempts to offload him in every transfer window since he joined in 2016.
With Hector Bellerin still out with injury and Ainsley Maitland Niles struggles in a back four well documented, the very tangible prospect of Pepe linking up on the right flank for the first game of the season against Newcastle alongside one of the great survivors of the Wenger reign, Carl Jenkinson, somehow looms large; a compositional disjunct more likely to be found on the Soccer Aid pitch than in the most financially powerful league in world football.
So to what extent is Pepe’s £72 million transfer a case of money well spent? And how can this be seen as a step change from the perceived top heavy decadence that marked the late-Wenger dynasty?
Perhaps it is best to look as much outwards at the game’s shifting landscapes as within. For one, Pepe’s arrival happens to come on the eve of VAR’s long awaited introduction to the Premier League this season.
VAR’s timely introduction
The impact of VAR is by no means a fully known entity but from early indicators at the recent men’s and women’s World Cups, as well as its implementation in Serie A last season, the new system does suggest a re-rendering of the scales in favour of attack over defence. Every point of contact in the box will be slowed down, amplified, with each viewing further implicating the defender for the slightest of touches. For a winger with directness and skill who earned 5 penalties in Ligue 1 last season, including in a match winning display against PSG where he scored, provided two assists and was hauled down by a red-carded Bernat in a 5-1 victory, this is surely a welcome introduction. To this end, Arsenal’s regular penalty taker and joint top scorer last season Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a decent 7/1 to take the golden boot this season.
Internal solutions fail to impress
In terms of the club’s failings to find a source from within, it is notable Arsenal were a lowly 10th in the league for dribbles attempted in dangerous areas last season.
In spite of this shortfall Alex Iwobi, a much maligned figure at the Emirates over the years, was able to exert a game changing influence from the wing last season; most notably in home substitute appearances against Liverpool and Cardiff City, where Emery threw off his notoriously conservative shackles at half time to introduce width into his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation.
But even the moderate success of Iwobi’s cameos felt like a cause for concern for the club’s top brass. Since the departure of Alexis Sanchez, whilst acknowledging the minimal and limited contributions of Mkhitaryan and Iwobi in that time, Arsenal have arguably been the only team in the league’s top 6 without a high performing specialist winger, at a time where the position is only gathering significance. Each of Mkhitaryan and Iwobi’s infrequent contributions have held a similar air to the instalment of Francis Coquelin as an emergency holding midfielder in 2015. That simply by occupying previously empty spaces, in running different angles, some kind of workable solution to a crucial problem can be found. Lucas Torreira has since arrived to fill the holding role, but an upgrade on the flanks has remained an itch left unattended, a void unknown. With the arrival of a 22 goal forward last season in Ligue 1, this might not be left an unknown for much longer.
It is perhaps unusual for a club with such a clear eye on escaping the recent past and with such obvious defensive shortcomings (laid so brutally bear in damaging defeats to Wolves and Leicester at the back end of last season) to reach a self-diagnosis of further attacking outlay to remedy the team’s continued absence from the top 4. But as a wise man once put it, ‘if you can find someone who can help you win and make a difference, no matter how expensive they are, you should do it’. And Pepe’s arrival is as clear signal as any that the club are ready to step out of Arsene Wenger’s long shadow over the club, embrace the emerging patterns of the modern game, and finally step back into the light of Champions League football.
Oh and that wise man? Monsieur Arsene Wenger himself of course. With a typical final word of caution to those placing loftier expectations on the shoulders of their 24 year old new signing: ‘however, there are not many players in the world who can make a real difference’.