Unai Emery can look back on the first half of his inaugural season as Arsenal manager with some degree of contentment.
It was always going to be a challenge succeeding long-standing Gunners boss Arsene Wenger, who became part of the furniture in north London, but the Spanish coach has made a smooth transition to life in the Premier League.
A championship tilt was never expected, as much as supporters would have liked one, instead Emery was tasked with returning Champions League football to the Emirates Stadium and he’s on course to achieve that.
After their opening 24 league matches Arsenal find themselves in fourth; level on points with fifth-placed Chelsea and two ahead of a resurgent Manchester United.
If they somehow cannot secure European football via the Premier League there’s always the fallback option of winning the Europa League – something Emery was good at during his spell managing Sevilla.
In order for Emery to achieve his goals he needs a robust and deep squad. The midway point of any season is not only a time for reflection but also strengthening, if possible.
Ahead of their recent emphatic win over Chelsea the powers that be informed Emery there were no funds available for signings; if Arsenal were to bring players in then it would have to be a loan with a possible option to buy.
This revelation, however, didn’t silence the rumour mill. Arsenal, expected to be very busy on deadline day, could look different from Friday onwards. So, how could they line up?
Across his 35 matches in charge, Emery has proven to be flexible and not dogmatic. He’s, so far, utilised no fewer than six different formations. His most favoured system has been 4-2-3-1, which has been deployed on 21 occasions. This has often meant top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang either playing from the flanks or leading the line.
His use of two holding midfielders, though, has been a step away from his usual preference of having just one with two attacking midfielders behind a central striker.
If the Gunners are to bag at least two of their major targets – Denis Suárez (whose arrival has been all but confirmed) and Ivan Perisic from Barcelona and Inter Milan respectively – we could see Emery going back to 4-3-3.
A shape we’ve only seen Arsenal line up once this season: away to Sporting CP in the Europa League. Perisic being so effective from the left wing means if Emery wants Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette starting alongside eachother then both will have to forge a forward line with the Croat.
Suárez, who can also be deployed out wide, in this instance partners outgoing Aaron Ramsey with Lucas Torreira anchoring the midfield.
The loss of Héctor Bellerín, who is out for this season with a ruptured cruciate ligament, could see Arsenal dip into the market.
Kévin Malcuit of Napoli has been linked with a move to the Gunners. If nothing comes of that then Emery is left with Stephan Lichtsteiner and Carl Jenkinson, both of whom do not exude confidence from supporters.
It’s best to always temper expectations. It’s clear and obvious why for so many Deadline Day is a big deal.
For all the chatter, there’s always the possibility of disappointment. However, with that said, Arsenal will be trying everything in their power to bring in new faces and subsequently give Emery every chance of succeeding this season.
It’s very likely Suarez, the former Manchester City youth player, could be the only arrival. His future at Barcelona is seemingly bleak given Ernesto Valverde’s midfield options and a change of scenery is expected to do him good.
Arsenal is a perfect opportunity; there’s space for a player of his ilk, and he’s previously been managed by Emery (during their period together at Sevilla).
Understandably, given the supporters’ hunger for signings (as this is the only solution), folks will be disappointed to see just one addition.
But that is not factoring in the job Emery is doing. Yes, he’s not firing on all cylinders, but did anyone expect that in his first couple of months in charge? He’s slowly forging a team in his image. Arsenal in recent weeks have opted for a 4-3-1-2 system with Aubameyang and Lacazette up top with a crafty midfielder behind them.
Suarez can play this role, which has been previously gone to Mesut Ozil and Ramsey. Having the insurance policy of Torreira, Granit Xhaka and Mattéo Guendouzi behind him will relieve Suarez of any defensive duties with his focus solely on playmaking.
Bringing in several new players might gee up the fanbase but it could also be counterproductive, especially midway through a campaign. They will need time to settle and in the process disturb what has taken time to build.
#SquawkaScout: Denis Suárez 🕵️♂️
He played 47 games and won the Europa League for Sevilla under Unai Emery in 2014/15.
Another trophy would go down well. 👀 pic.twitter.com/8JyaXN7jlh
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 30, 2019
Following the arrival of Emery last summer were five players. All of them have been greatly used this season with Sokratis, Torreira and Guendouzi each receiving praise at different intervals across the first half of the campaign.
Of the quintet – which also included goalkeeper Bernd Leno and the aforementioned Lichtsteiner – it’s fair to say Guendouzi was relatively unknown.
Highly-rated among those who closely followed him until joining Arsenal, he had played just 421 minutes of top division football with boyhood club FC Lorient before being plucked from obscurity.
Bringing in players from France is nothing new for the Gunners, who retain a huge following in the birthplace of their most illustrious manager. Emery, who arrived after guiding Paris Saint-Germain to Ligue 1 glory, could look to his former club for reinforcements.
One name that pops out is 21-year-old midfielder Christopher Nkunku, who has featured sporadically under Emery’s successor Thomas Tuchel.
Although Nkunku did not make his debut under Emery the Arsenal boss gave him the most minutes, which has established a bond. Emery often used him as one of his midfielders between the holding midfielder and centre-forward, which is a position Ramsey – who is set to join Italian giants Juventus this summer – has recently played.
Nkunku and Suarez both joining would mean the pair could operate in a possible 4-3-3 behind a forward line featuring the club’s leading scorers.