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What are reasonable expectations in Arsenal’s first post-Wenger season?

The 2018-19 Premier League season is upon us. Kickoff, believe it or not, is just days away. To get you set for the planet’s most enthralling 38-game soccer circuit, Yahoo Sports’ Premier League XI will delve into the 11 most compelling questions ahead of the coming campaign. Next up is Arsenal, which bid farewell to Arsene Wenger and is in its maiden voyage under new manager Unai Emery.

With the new Premier League season rapidly approaching, there’s a nervous sort of excitement building around Arsenal, as the North London outfit prepares to embark on its first season since 1996 without Arsene Wenger in charge. Although the cautionary tale that was David Moyes’ appointment at Manchester United following Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26-year reign may give some Arsenal fans cause for concern.

So what should fans realistically expect in the Gunners’ first post-Wenger season?

The manager

Having won seven trophies in two seasons at Paris Saint-Germain, new manager Unai Emery has already enjoyed a measure of success at a top club. Critics may point to his failure to make headway in the Champions League with PSG, or to the fact that he conceded the Ligue 1 title to Monaco in his first season at the club.

But looking beyond his tenure at PSG, it’s the 46-year-old’s time in Spanish soccer that should give Arsenal fans something to be hopeful about. Between 2013 and 2016, Emery won three consecutive Europa League titles with Sevilla. Prior to that, he achieved three consecutive third-place La Liga finishes with Valencia.

With Arsenal, fresh off an ownership shakeup, unwilling or incapable of splashing the kind of cash on players that the likes of Manchester City, Man United, and Chelsea regularly do, there was always a need for a post-Wenger appointment who would be capable of molding a less-talented group of players into a side that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Emery seems to fit that bill.

But does he have the right pieces at his disposal to return Arsenal to title contention?

The team

Unlike Chelsea, which for some unknown reason dragged the saga of replacing Antonio Conte with Maurizio Sarri on practically all summer, Arsenal moved swiftly to install Emery within weeks of the season ending. That means he’s had time to embed his methodology onto the team and reports indicate his training has focused on areas Wenger often neglected, like how to play without the ball.

He also wasted little time in reinforcing the areas of the squad that Wenger seemed reluctant to. He brought in experienced Greek center back Sokratis Papastathopoulos from Borussia Dortmund to add some steel to Arsenal’s at-times soft center. Right back Stephan Lichtsteiner has also joined on a free from Juventus.

At 34, the veteran Swiss defender is a little longer in the tooth than the players Wenger would’ve been inclined to sign. But the seven-time Serie A winner arrives on the back of an impressive World Cup campaign in which he captained all three of Switzerland’s Group Stage matches before yellow card accumulation ruled him out of the Round of 16 loss to Sweden.

Arsenal manager Unai Emery during the International Champions Cup match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Getty Images)

The most exciting new addition to the squad is Uruguayan World Cup standout Lucas Torreira. The 22-year-old former Sampdoria man is unlikely to end Arsenal’s seemingly decades-long quest for another Patrick Vieira, but his ability to function as a combination defensive midfielder and deep-lying playmaker could restore stability to a midfield that had become wildly unpredictable in the late-Wenger era.

The other notable addition to the squad is goalkeeper Bernd Leno, who was signed from Bayer Leverkusen in June and could potentially usurp Petr Cech for the No. 1 spot.

Up at the other end of the park, Emery has no shortage of firepower to call upon in the likes of Alexander Lacazette, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Last season we saw glimpses of what could be if Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan are able to revive the successful partnership they enjoyed at Dortmund a couple seasons back.

It’s a little less clear just how Lacazette fits in. He’s been effective in preseason when brought off the bench, as he often was in the latter half of last season. Emery has also experimented with pushing Aubameyang out wide to accommodate the French striker at center forward.

Of course, an overabundance of offensive talent is never a bad problem to have and Emery’s experience at PSG will hopefully serve him well in managing the egos of his marquee attacking players.

And then there’s Mesut Ozil.

After being made a scapegoat for all that went wrong with Die Mannschaft’s limp World Cup title defense, the mercurial midfield maestro kicked his post-Wenger Arsenal career off looking like a man with something to prove; netting the opening goal just 13 minutes into the Gunners’ 5-1 dismantling of PSG in the International Champions Cup.

The prospect of a motivated Ozil providing service for Aubameyang and Lacazette should rightfully quicken the pulse of any Arsenal fan. The question of whether Emery can get a tune out of the German playmaker could prove key to just how far Arsenal can go this season.

Ozil aside, a number of other question marks remain with the team: Laurent Koscielny and Sead Kolasinac’s injuries, Aaron Ramsey’s unresolved contract, whether a bit more structure can reconcile the Granit Xhaka we see in an Arsenal jersey with the one we see playing for Switzerland, and even the rumored possibility of a surprise late move for Ousmane Dembele.

What should success look like?

When you start to add it all up, there’s definitely potential there for Emery’s team.

Potential for what is the question. The title? Probably not.

That’s likely to remain in the hands of Pep Guardiola’s Man City unless Liverpool or Man United manage to wrest it away. But with Chelsea currently in the process of rediscovering its identity under Sarri and Tottenham risking stagnation by not making any new signings, the door is open for Emery’s Arsenal to bring Wenger’s coveted “fourth-place trophy”, and Champions League soccer, back to the Emirates

The good news for Emery is that unlike Moyes, he’s not taking over a title-winning side. No one is really expecting Arsenal to challenge for the Premier League in its first post-Wenger season. That relieves the Spaniard of the kind of pressure Moyes was faced with. But by the same token, few would expect Arsenal to finish lower than fifth or sixth either, which makes fourth place a reasonable target for the Gunners to shoot for.

The rest of the 2018-19 Premier League XI

Monday: What could derail Man City’s title defense?
Monday: Can Sarri revolutionize or stabilize Chelsea?
Monday: Who’s getting relegated?
Tuesday: Who, if anybody, can break up the top six?
Tuesday:
Is Liverpool closing on City?
Tuesday:
What to expect at Arsenal post-Wenger?
Wednesday: Is a Mourinho flameout already underway?
Wednesday: Is Spurs’ trophy deadline approaching?
Wednesday: Wolves: Shady, brilliant, or both?
Thursday a.m.: Predictions
Thursday p.m.: Transfer window winners/losers

(Image via Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

 

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