Nuno Espírito Santo has made a habit out of defying the odds.
During his first season with Wolverhampton Wanderers, talk was centred around whether he could keep talented players focused and competitive in England’s second tier. He did just that and Wolves secured the Championship title at a canter.
Many tipped Santo’s side to be the wildcard of the 2018/19 Premier League campaign. Some believed they’d struggle to adapt to the top-flight while bedding in new signings such as João Moutinho and Raúl Jiménez. On the way to their seventh-placed finish, Wolves took points off Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs. They also knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup.
With Europa League football secured, they were supposed to struggle this term. The increase in games coupled with second-season syndrome was meant to result in Wolves settling for a mid-table position at best. Yet as we head into December, Santo’s team sit fifth and have qualified for the Europa League knockout stages.
But success often comes at a price. While Wolves have managed to keep hold of their star players, they may well lose Santo before the year is out. According to reports, Arsenal have the Portuguese tactician at the top of their wishlist to replace Unai Emery, who could be sacked today.
Though the project at Molineux is an exciting one, getting the Gunners back on track may be too tempting to ignore. With the players at his disposal, Santo could get Arsenal firing again with a place in the top-four up for grabs.
However, for it to work at the Emirates, some sacrifices would have to be made. While the former Valencia boss is by no means a one-trick pony, his success in England has come playing a 3-5-2 shape. It’s unlikely he’d move away from that in the short-term.
So, the question is whether or not the Gunners have the personnel required to play such a system.
Arsenal have invested heavily over recent seasons but their recruitment plan hasn’t always made sense. They’ve doubled up in certain areas and signings don’t align with those already at the Emirates.
Still, squad depth has never hurt anybody. What Santo may be required to do is retrain players to fill different roles, just as he did at Wolves. Yet the success of these projects hinge on whether individuals are open to it.
With Wolves, Santo changed Connor Coady from an all-action midfielder into a centre-back. Adama Traoré was an attacker but now he’s a wing-back. Diogo Jota was a wide forward but he’s often paired with Jiménez in a two-man attack.
Looking at the current Arsenal squad, they do have players who could play as part of the 3-5-2. It’d be fairly balanced, too.
David Luiz, for example, thrived in the centre of a back three under Antonio Conte at Chelsea. With extra cover, he is a solid enough defender and he’s useful on the ball. Rob Holding could play to the right of the Brazilian and Sokratis could be used as the left-sided centre-back.
It’s functional and, perhaps more importantly, appears to be balanced.
In midfield, Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira could strike up quite the partnership. Both have the traits required to excel in a midfield two and the duo are dynamic enough to make this system work. Handy on the ball and diligent off it, they’re an inferior version to what Nuno has at Wolves but the best available at Arsenal right now. Kieran Tierney and Héctor Bellerin, meanwhile, are perfect wing-backs.
Mesut Özil may be a surprise name but he could play the Moutinho role. In Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, Nuno has two forwards who can operate in wide areas but who can do damage centrally. The system relies on pace in the final third and the strike partners have that in abundance.
The glaring omission from this team is Nicolas Pépé, who might have to settle for a super-sub role to begin with.
He’s destined to one day lead the line but that part of his game needs to be developed. He could play as an attacking wing-back but that wouldn’t go down well. As things stand, he isn’t better than Aubameyang or Lacazette in a front-two. However, under Santo he could develop into a player similar to that of Aubameyang. Pépé may then rival Lacazette.
Another project for Santo at the Emirates could be developing Tierney into a Premier League centre-back. He’s played there for Celtic and Scotland but playing there in the English top-flight is a little different. With Sead Kolašinac more wing-back than full-back, having Tierney at left centre-back in a three gives Arsenal options.
If Santo does jump ship it could be an exciting period for fans of Arsenal. But only if the players buy into what he’s selling.