When I last wrote a piece for this esteemed website, I was emotional, relieved and a little starry eyed as I reacted to the news that Arsène Wenger would be leaving Arsenal Football Club after 22 years in charge.
A lot has changed in the last 18 months – although, obviously, a lot of that change has happened in the last month.
No sooner had #WeCareDoYou come down the pipe, a few weeks back, than an incoming stream of new signings followed. At a stroke, or – for the pedantic amongst you – a few strokes, what felt like summer as usual became a proper refresh of the first team squad.
Consider: The last time Arsenal took to the field in the 2018-19 season… well, let’s not dwell on the result, that would be unnecessarily painful. However, if we consider the starting line-up from that game and then look at the line-up which took the field at Newcastle on Sunday, there are only five players who started both games; Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Nacho Monreal, Sokratis, Granit Xhaka and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang.
Obviously, had players like Alex Lacazette and Lucas Torreira been fully fit, they would have been sure to feature at some stage. I’d like to think that, after an apparently impressive preseason, Mesut Özil may also have seen action, if he wasn’t – extremely regrettably – dealing with personal security concerns. Although, with his attendance record away from home, who knows?
It’s possible that Unai Emery simply had no choice but to field the likes of Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson and Calum Chambers. Nevertheless, that he did so ensured some continuity from pre-season, it also gave these players the chance to flex their muscles on the opening day and, by and large, I think all three would consider their jobs well done.
Perhaps they may not have submitted compelling cases to be kept in once Ceballos, Pepe and David Luiz are fully integrated, but they certainly showed that they could be relied on.
Let’s be clear here; no, Newcastle are not very good, but Willock and Nelson, in particular, are at the beginning of their careers. Anyone expecting Arsenal to go and smash four past Newcastle on their own patch, having deployed a front four which could be best termed as experimental… well, I’d like some of whatever it is you are smoking!
Interestingly, it was another of Arsenal’s academy graduates who caught the eye on Sunday, one of the survivors from that last game of the season (last time I mention it, I promise), Maitland-Niles.
I think a lot of the woes Arsenal suffered last season were due to Unai Emery trying to make us more secure at the back, adding that third central defender because; a) Mustafi and; b) he didn’t trust his full backs. I’m a huge fan of Maitland- Niles, but even I would admit to counting the days until Hector Bellerin gets back to full training, because I just didn’t see Ainsley as a genuine option at right back.
However, his performance on Sunday was, aside from that one scooped back pass which nearly got us into trouble, one of determination, no little skill and pace. And it was his intervention which, ultimately, won us the game, as he intercepted the ball, driving forward at pace, before firing in the cross from which Auba did, well, what Auba does.
Auba goal, clean sheet; job very much done.
I’m still excited to welcome Hector Bellerin back, but his return doesn’t feel quite as pressing as it did in the dog days of April 2018. Particularly with Kieran Tierney now successfully liberated from Celtic and on the comeback trail after his hernia operation. And did I mention the fact that, despite a raft of absentees on Sunday afternoon, the much maligned and surely not long for this Arsenal world, Shkodran Mustafi was nowhere to be found in the matchday 18?
I get why there are still some Arsenal fans out there doubting Unai Emery.
You have the guys who didn’t want Wenger to leave – unless it was in a box.
You have the people wanted Wenger gone, but not this weird mash up of the Fonz and Count Dracula with his weird, mashed up English in his stead.
You have the people who were open to giving Unai a chance, but watched in horror as we absolutely screwed not one, but two chances to get back into Europe’s premier competition.
If last season had finished a month before it did, I think we’d all have been quite happy. But it didn’t and, ultimately Aaron Ramsey’s injury and a combination of Mustafi and Xhaka brain farts doomed us to another season of Sunday/Thursday purgatory.
On that painful day, 1st June, I listened as my mate Harry railed about the introduction of Everton’s new signing, Alex Iwobi, into the Europa League final from a very lightweight looking bench (compare and contrast that bench with the strength of Sunday’s),
“We’re saved! Here comes Iwanki!”.
He wasn’t saying it for too long once Alex ripped one into the back of the net from outside the area. I gently pointed out to him that this team, which we were watching dissolve in front of our eyes, despite the identity of the man in the dugout, was still very much Arsène Wenger’s.
That is not something we can say now.
Whatever you may think of the man from the Basque Country, it is very much his team and his responsibility to get us back into the top four, no excuses.
Now, this season.
If he doesn’t, I think it’s safe to assume that option of a third year will not be taken up.
Whatever lies ahead, buckle up.
It’s going to be quite a ride.