This story first appeared in the August edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
Summer is always an exciting time. Even after the embers of a major tournament have started to fade, and before pre-season starts in earnest, there is a buzz about the campaign ahead that will only get louder between now and the first game of the season.
Arsène Wenger has seen and heard it all before, of course, but when it comes to what’s new for 2016/17 there’s a lot to discuss: pre-season, new signings, big-name arrivals – both players and managers – rule changes, new faces at the training ground, a replacement pitch at Emirates Stadium and even, post-Brexit, a new football landscape in England. The manager took time out of preparing for pre-season to sit down with the Official Arsenal magazine and work through them all.
Arsene, let’s start off by talking about two of our new signings. What will Granit Xhaka bring to the team?
His passing ability to play through the lines from deep positions, his work rate and his quality in the air. He’s a young boy as well, 23 years old. There’s a lot to come from him. We lost three midfielders – Flamini, Rosicky and Arteta – and numbers-wise we are quite solid in midfield now. Elneny had a big impact when he came here, Coquelin was injured for a long time and is back.
Where will you play all these midfielders?
That’s a good question. That’s always a question you have to answer at the beginning of the season. First of all you can rotate, some players can play a bit wider, some players get injured and in midfield especially you need a big engine. Sometimes you need a rest because the games are very demanding now in midfield.
And what about our other signing, Japanese striker Takuma Asano?
What I see in him is the quality of his runs, his pace, his body strength. He is quite aggressive and you do not find many players today who go behind defenders at every opportunity, and that is one of his strengths. Overall, I must say that I personally am a strong believer in him and if we can get him now, straight away, it would be fantastic for us because also, by coincidence, I met the national coach of Japan and he was absolutely convinced about him.
Moving onto other “new” things, what do you make of the change to the kick-off rule that means you don’t have to play the ball forwards from the kick-off? Is this a good thing?
Yes, because most of the time you need this little pass played forward that allowed sometimes the opponent to gamble and get on the ball. I feel there’s more freedom, as you can still play the old way but you can as well play a backpass straight away. I always found it a strange rule, so I think it’s a good innovation. You need only one guy in the middle to play the first ball, whereas before you needed two.
There is also now a rule that a player won’t be sent off for conceding a penalty...
I think that’s good – that’s a good innovation as well. There are two or three new things that football has innovated and I think they are all positive. It is a good example we had in the Champions League final in 2006 – we had Jens Lehmann sent off and we played with 10 men in a Champions League final where of course you would expect at least to play with 11 against 11.
Another change is that there won’t be anymore FA Cup quarter-final replays, to avoid fixture congestion. Is this a good thing?
I’m a bit… not convinced by that. Because I like quarter-finals – once in the quarter-final you can go to the semi-finals and I believe in the modern era that the big clubs and even the Championship clubs have big squads and they can play replays. I am not convinced by that because I found the former FA Cup very good and I don’t think that will change a lot.
Finally on the rules, players will no longer have to come off the pitch for treatment...
We have to wait for that, because the physios have to be honest and not gain too much time on the pitch. They can become quickly a tactical weapon and I’m not completely convinced by that.
Looking at the Premier League season, there are a lot of new managers settling into new jobs, aren’t there?
You know, we have Mourinho at Manchester United, Conte at Chelsea, Guardiola at Man City, Klopp at Liverpool, so it’s a little bit a world championship of managers as well. Everybody will of course be highly focused to do well and it will be interesting. One thing you know from the start: not everybody can win the championship and next year more than ever it will be tougher for everybody.
How do you feel about being a manager in an increasingly competitive environment?
Well, that’s what you want. You want the Premier League to be the most competitive championship in the world and to be confronted with all of that. But sometimes the media give too much importance to the managers and I believe that at the end of the day what is important is the quality of the players on the pitch. All the English teams compete highly to be competitive and have a top squad.
What do you make of Ronald Koeman going to Everton?
Yes, Everton is another team who had a very strong team last year. They look like they’ve gone a step up in ambition to buy in the market – I smell them everywhere I go. They are there as well and they make offers.
And what about your friend Claude Puel being the new Southampton manager?
He is a very strong manager and he tries to play good football, so I am sure he will be good for Southampton and will bring them continuity. He is a fighter as well. I had him as a player – he was a ball-winner, so he is a tenacious guy and he has now got strong experience. He has managed for a long time so I think Southampton as well will be a tough, tough team to beat.
West Ham, meanwhile, are going through a process that you experienced 1o years ago by moving stadium...
It is difficult because for a while you don’t feel at home and it’s an excitement for everyone who comes there to play well. To create the history takes some time and to feel completely comfortable takes time as well. They’ve got a good squad – they showed that last season. The teams who for me were on the fringe of going into the top four last season were West Ham and Southampton, and they’re two teams who will certainly have a word to say again.
Looking at players, what’s your take on this summer’s big-name signings?
You have to say Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic going to Manchester United are the biggest names, and apart from that you don’t have too many – yet. A few more will certainly come in and that’s why we find the transfer market from the beginning of August until August 31 is important.
What do you think of Mkhitaryan?
He has always been a very good midfielder but last year was the first year where he scored goals. I think he scored 10 goals in the Bundesliga so that of course makes him more dangerous. He will bring something to Man United.
Back to Arsenal, and there's a new (old) face at the training ground as well, with Freddie Ljungberg joining the Academy staff...
Well, when you have an opportunity to give our former players a role at the club, they know Arsenal is about identity. Identity is about values and the players who have played at the club for a long time know the values are important, not only on the playing side but on the moral side, so they can carry through the generations. It is important for this club and the history of this club.
There was a lot of debate about Thierry Henry not staying here. I think Thierry Henry has done an exceptional job here but it is an uncomfortable position for him. He agreed that it was not easy for him to deal with talking about Arsenal during the weekend and then coming in. You want him to be free from his statements and it’s always difficult for him to be really objective sometimes, and even a bit harsh, and then come in and face the players. It will be easier for him and I’m sure that he will come back into coaching later.
One other thing that’s new for 2016/17 is the pitch at Emirates Stadium. Talk us through that...
I believe that the pitch is, in the stadium, the most important part. When we decided to build the new stadium I said to the architect, “Forget the building, get the pitch right!”
If the pitch is right, all the rest will be alright for us. We studied really deeply how to get the pitch right and I must say people who watch the games might not really understand why we needed a new pitch because it was so perfect. Even I had some problems to accept that we needed completely new foundations, but they convinced me that after 10 years you have to do it or it will slowly deteriorate. We decided to do it this season and unfortunately we lost the Emirates Cup, which is something I love. We couldn’t organise what is for me a fantastic tournament so I was quite sad about it.
How involved have you been in the new pitch?
I am highly involved in every decision on the pitch, of course. But I leave it most of the time, as we have very competent people working on all our pitches at Emirates Stadium, Training Ground and Youth Academy. I always leave it to people who really know their job and are capable to make the right decisions. And of course our Groundstaff working on our pitches are absolutely fantastic. It was our groundsman who made the decision to do the works on the Emirates Stadium pitch this summer.
The board then makes the budget decision and once we all feel okay, we commit to the work this year. Arsenal is known all over the world for the quality of our pitches and because we have quality groundsman. People in football always remark to me around the quality of our pitches. We have certainly the best. We’re proud of our pitches and are all looking forward to playing again at the stadium and have huge confidence that the Groundstaff will have once again prepared a fantastic playing surface.
The UK voted to leave the European Union not long ago. What does this mean for the Premier League, in your view?
The sharp fall in the value of the pound means that wages will be lower and the competition with Germany, for example, will be stronger. But that was one of the risks of the job and that worries me less. England still has a good amount of financial resources. There is a margin in terms of the money that will come in again this year. But in my opinion it is overwhelming in the long term that there are questions to be answered. The way in which England will leave the European Union will dictate the future of the Premier League. If the league becomes less attractive, the broadcasters will offer less money for the rights, club revenues will decrease and the Premier League will suffer the consequences. There lies the problem.
For the next transfer window, could we imagine that Spanish, German or French clubs will do their dealings in England to take advantage of the strong Euro?
The big English clubs have the means to keep hold of their biggest assets. The most important thing lies elsewhere. Currently, the league is seen as the most attractive one and that image could disappear. In the short term, clubs that are quite strong will be able to resist the competition but England is in the process of building a dominant Premier League.
We thought that one day the best players from Real and Barca would say, “I also want to go to England because everyone is over there.” All of that is now uncertain and Brexit is a spanner in the works. It will have consequences, not in the very short term, but in the long term, yes.
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