As reports of Arsenal’s interest in bringing Antonio Conte back to the Premier League intensify, Oli Coates identifies the coach’s priorities if he takes over at the Gunners.
Arsenal have struggled in their opening two Premier League fixtures, losing 2-0 both to newly-promoted Brentford and London rivals Chelsea. The pressure is already firmly on Mikel Arteta’s shoulders, with the current Gunners manager having to come out and say his players are up for the fight ahead at such an early stage of the season.
That sort of talk rarely bodes well, especially with a coach of Conte’s calibre available after leaving Inter in the immediate aftermath of last season’s Serie A triumph and Conte has duly been touted as Arteta’s successor in the capital. So, what would be at the top of Conte’s to-do list should he take over at the Emirates Stadium?
Sort out the defence
It’s a brand new season but the same old problems for Arsenal. The Gunners have been accused of having a soft centre for many years now, with a succession of central defenders unable to add the necessary steel and composure needed to compete with the Premier League’s elite.
The second goal they conceded against Brentford in their season opener was symptomatic of their fundamental issues at the back. Arsenal failed to deal with a long throw-in, allowing the ball to bounce inside the six-yard box before being nodded in by Christian Norgaard at the back post. The days of supporters singing ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ with gusto are long gone, with the Gunners rarely putting in commanding defensive displays.
Change the formation
One way Conte could solve some of the issues he has in defence is by changing formation. Arsenal have started the new campaign with a back four, but reverting to Conte’s preferred 3-4-3 would likely yield strong results. It certainly paid dividends for the 52-year-old tactician at Chelsea and Inter in recent season, where he won the Premier League and Serie A in 2017 and 2021 respectively.
The Italian is a master at coaching wing-backs and protecting his goal, with a 3-5-2 also potentially helping the Gunners get the best out of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette up front, with Emile Smith-Rowe operating in behind the strike duo. The likes of Kieran Tierney, Hector Bellerin, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka would also make for strong wing-back options, while the Premier League’s newfound desire to let minor fouls go could give Granit Xhaka a new lease of life in central defence.
Add some steel
Arsenal captains of yesteryear have included the likes of Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira. Now it’s Aubameyang, a player who ought to lead by example but has struggled for form and fitness of late and continues to be linked with a move away from the club. The Gabon striker hardly leads the team in the mould of a man he’s often compared to, Thierry Henry.
Aubameyang doesn’t have the same fight in him as most of his predecessors wearing the armband, which is a problem across much of the pitch for the Gunners. The likes of Thomas Partey and Lucas Torreira looked capable of adding some steel to midfield but haven’t worked out as yet for various reasons, while Arsenal’s centre-backs have little bite between them.
Overhaul transfer policy
Which leads us on to the transfer policy at the Emirates. Ben White is a tidy player but doesn’t do much to address Arsenal’s soft centre in defence. He cost in excess of £50m from Brighton, while around £30m was spent on English goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, who’s been brought in as competition for Bernd Leno on the back of three relegations in four years.
It cost even more to turn Martin Odegaard’s loan move from last season into a permanent deal, while 21-year-olds Albert Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares complete Arsenal’s summer spending. There’s been a focus on recruiting young players, but there needs to be a balance between that and signing players who will go straight into the starting XI that target the team’s problem areas.
Get the players to listen
In the wake of their second defeat of the season at home to Chelsea last weekend, Gunners legend Ian Wright summed up his old club’s problems succinctly. He said that Arsenal were either unprepared, not listening to Arteta, or incapable of following their manager’s instructions.
There’s no doubt Arteta is a meticulous planner, so perhaps his players are simply unable to carry out his tactical plan as he wishes, either because they don’t fully understand what’s required of them or because they don’t have the intelligence and ability. Conte would back himself to get through to these players, who undoubtedly possess plenty of talent, so it’d be all about getting them to listen to his instructions and work hard both on the training pitches and during games.