By Neil Robinson
LONDON (Reuters) – With one player on strike and two more forced to fight off knife-wielding attackers on a London street, nothing that unfolds this season can top Arsenal’s close season for drama.
Try as manager Unai Emery might to present a boring narrative of steady progress, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that almost anything might happen next and probably will.
Take for instance the signing of forward Nicolas Pepe for a club record 72 million pounds from Lille.
At a stroke the Ivorian’s arrival has done much to lift the mood after Arsenal’s abortive attempt to sign Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace amid supporter predictions that this was going to be a window of scrimping in the transfer market.
Pepe should provide more edge for Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, one of the Premier League’s deadliest combinations with 50 goals between them last season.
Celtic fullback Kieran Tierney is another possible arrival at The Emirates over the coming days.
With such reinforcements pressure will ramp up on Emery to at least return Arsenal to the top four and a Champions League spot. But, with the likes of Wolverhampton Wanderers snapping at their heels, his first task will be to stay in the top six.
Nothing summed up Arsenal’s problems last season more than the four goals they conceded in 22 shattering minutes during a 4-1 defeat by London rivals Chelsea in the Europa League final.
Emery has often spoken of the need for a new more resilient mentality at the club but before his eyes was the evidence of failure. This was the old, fragile Arsenal collapsing in a way their ex-manager Arsene Wenger would remember.
Arsenal conceded 50 Premier League goals for the second straight season for the first time in 35 years.
Emery tried to counter such leakiness by outscoring the opposition, but the strategy did not always work and some believe more pep at the back rather than Pepe at the front should have been the priority in the transfer window.
With long-standing defender Laurent Koscielny seeking to engineer a move by refusing to go on pre-season tour, questions remain about personnel and formation ahead of Arsenal’s opening league trip to Newcastle United. At least influential full-back Hector Bellerin is close to returning after knee surgery.
If Arsenal play to their strengths, midfielder Mesut Ozil tends to be pushed to the margins and one of Emery’s challenges will be to finally see if there is a blend of pace and possession that can link the German with his front two.
The fact that teenager Joe Willock replaced Ozil in the final minutes of the Europa League final says much about how the manager views the mercurial midfielder, whose pre-season was marred by a frightening incident when he and Sead Kolasinac were the victims of a London carjacking.
Other changes have seen one of Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’, Edu, brought in as technical director and another club great, Freddie Ljungberg, promoted to assistant first-team coach, appointments that hark back to their golden era under Frenchman Wenger.
With no Champions League football for a third straight season, the financial realities are starting to bite and Arsenal will be desperate for some of their talented youngsters to come through.
Willock, Eddie Nketiah, Robbie Burton and Gabriel Martinelli all caught the eye on Arsenal’s pre-season tour and the fans would love to get behind a new crop of local heroes.
The danger is that if early results go badly, the club’s already restless followers may express their frustration in the way that marred Wenger’s final days at The Emirates.
Last month a group of 14 leading supporters’ groups and outlets issued a combined statement bemoaning the way Arsenal are being run by American owner Stan Kroenke, complaining that the club feels like an “investment vehicle”.
All that suggests Emery will not be cut much slack after his initial season of transition. More mediocrity and the club may exercise his contract break clause at the end of the season.
(Reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by Ken Ferris)