Season Preview: Arsenal FC
With such little business being done, it is clear that cohesion is the buzzword amongst the Arsenal camp going into the new season and while all pre-season performances have to be taken with a grain of salt, it is clear that Wenger’s men look to be on the same wavelength from as early as July. Though no meaningful trophies are won at the beginning of August, the work put in over the summer is often what sets teams up for success in May. With that said, everyone associated with Arsenal will feel cautiously optimistic with what has been done in preparation for 2015-16.
In my season review for Arsenal for the recently concluded 2014-15 season, I wrote of the optimism that Arsène Wenger will feel when he takes stock of his team going into the summer. It seems that very same optimism has guided Arsenal’s transfer business thus far with the squad only undergoing minor changes. Their sole acquisition to the senior team so far is Petr Cech, a highly decorated keeper who has won all there is to win at the club level following a fantastic 10 years at Chelsea. Amongst the departures are Lukas Podolski, Abou Diaby to Galatasaray and Marseille respectively. Also, Wojciech Szczesny, Carl Jenkinson, and Yaya Sanogo have all secured season long loan deals to Roma, West Ham and Ajax respectively. Quite what how these changes will impact Arsenal’s bid for a sustained title challenge remains to be seen, and it is for that purpose I will look at the squad as it stands, broken down by each area on the pitch.
To many, Arsenal have finally solved their goalkeeping “issue” in signing a proven keeper in Petr Cech. While some may think he is past his best and can no longer be seen as world class, his record is certainly nothing to baulk at. He boasts the best clean sheet ratio of any keeper with more than 100 clean sheets since the Premier League’s inception in 1992 with 168 clean sheets in his 333 games for Chelsea, or 0.5 clean sheets per game. The more cynical among us will point out that Arsenal have merely signed a backup keeper who could not break into the team ahead of a fit Courtois and was forced to leave in order to play regular football. Whether Cech can adapt to the high line that Arsenal’s defence plays remains to be seen, but if he can you can be certain Wenger will be the first to thank Mourinho for the sale. Add a very able deputy in David Ospina, last season’s number 1 after usurping the disappointing Szczesny, and a talented youngster in Emi Martinez and Arsenal look well stacked between the posts going into the new season.
In defence, Wenger will be as happy as he’s been for a long time with the unit he’s assembled. With two quality players for each position, it is hard to argue that Arsenal boasts one of the strongest defences in the Premier league, form persisting. With the return of Mathieu Debuchy, and the emergence of Hector Bellerin in his place last season, Arsenal have no need for a right back for years to come. In the centre of defence, Mertesacker and Koscielny have proven over the past few seasons to be one of the best pairings Arsenal have fielded for some time. With young players like Gabriel Paulista and the exciting Calum Chambers, who appear to be in the mould of their senior counterparts, enough pressure will be applied to ensure performance levels remain high. For the left back position, this will be the season where the battle between Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs is finally decided. Gibbs had established himself as the starter in the 2013-14 season but injury and indifferent form led to Monreal overtaking him last season. This year, both players will have reason to believe the position is theirs for the taking which should serve as ample motivation to put in steady performances. Indeed, Arsenal can field two separate back fours which would be good enough for any top four team.
In the middle of the park is where things start to get truly interesting for Arsenal. Having both signed new deals this calendar year, Francis Coquelin and the captain Arteta will both make a case for being the shield in front of the defence. Coquelin should be first choice in my opinion given the meteoric growth he’s shown since December of last season, but that is not to understate Arteta’s importance to the team. He recycles possession as well as any player on the team, and has a keen eye for breaking up plays. However, Arteta’s biggest issue at this juncture is his age. At 33, every minor creak and twang hurts that much more and takes longer to recover from as showcased by his truncated season last year. Luckily, in Coquelin, Arsenal have someone who breaks up play just as well, if not better, albeit at the cost of a bit less quality in possession. Some may feel this is an area of the pitch Arsenal could do with an upgrade; a top class holding midfield with Coquelin as able back up. Wenger however feels differently, instead showing faith in Coquelin, expecting him to establish himself as a good enough holding mid to play for Arsenal week in, week out.
Beside the holding player, Wenger has an embarrassment of riches he can call upon. Santi Cazorla will be seen as first choice going into the season, having signed a new deal to top off a truly brilliant 2014-15 campaign. One would never think last season was his first season as a deep lying playmaker given the way he produced top drawer performances with regularity. Indeed, Santi was Arsenal’s heartbeat as he linked plays with his quick footwork and vast passing range, with both feet. Such was Santi’s form that Aaron Ramsey had to play much of the latter half of the season from the right hand side. The Welshman will feel however, that with Cazorla being the wrong side of 30, he may be able to force his way ahead of him as the starting central midfielder. He boasts an engine comparable to that of Jordan Henderson at Liverpool and marries that with an eye for goal and good off the ball movement. Both are very different types of players, of similar quality and as such, may see their game time based on the nature of the opposition. Those two players, along with the great English hope in Jack Wilshere, who has yet another big season to prove his fitness and it’s easy to see why Wenger has such a headache when it comes to selecting his team.
Further forward, the attacking quartet of Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud can trouble any defence in the league with a good balance of pace, power, strength, guile and creativity among them. Ozil seems to have finally settled and proven to Wenger that the number 10 role is his and he won’t let go for neither love nor money. Few can contain Ozil at his best, as he still remains one of the best final passers the game has ever seen. With the added responsibility he’s undertaken in ensuring Arsenal’s attack remains fluid, this may be the season where he proves all his critics wrong and re-establishes himself as the best number 10 in the league and possibly Europe. In Theo Walcott, Wenger has quite the conundrum on his hands however. Having finally signed a new contract, Walcott will have wanted assurances that he will get game time as a central striker. To his credit, he has been performing there when given the chance, but whether his selection ahead of Giroud, who also signed a new deal, is seen as a better fit for the team remains to be seen. I am of the opinion that Arsenal’s best possible line up has Giroud as the central striker, flanked by Walcott and the magnificent Alexis. Giroud’s link up and ability to hold up the ball and bring others into play seems like too good a tool to pass up just to sate Walcott’s desires. In short, more players benefit from having Giroud up front as opposed to Walcott. Even Walcott himself plays better having Giroud to play off of while he makes his darting runs from the wide positions. The squad could do with an upgrade on Giroud as the criticism that he’s not quite ruthless enough to lead Arsenal to a title, but it’s certainly not a necessity when he has quality all around him.
With proven Premier League quality in almost every position, Arsenal can go into the season thinking this might be their year. There’s enough quality in the starting 11 to match any team in the league on their day, and with players like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck and Tomas Rosicky, there are enough bodies in the team to ensure the core unit stays fit and is not overplayed. Despite the lack of transfer activity at the club, Wenger will feel his players have grown enough as a team to take that one step further and actually mount a sustained title challenge. Whether the work done is enough to usurp Chelsea, who really are the team to beat yet again, remains to be seen. With both Manchester clubs having strengthened, particularly United, the title race looks to be as good as it’s ever been for the past 5 years. Wenger can only hope his optimism pays off and produces something tangible as justification come May.