For the third summer in succession, Arsenal have had substantial funds available to add quality to the squad and have not had to sell a player against their will. These two factors combined together have been the key behind Arsenal’s slow but steady improvement over the last three years. A core of players ‘developed’ at the club have been retained; namely Laurent Koscielny, Olivier Giroud, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain. High class and ‘ready-made’ purchases have been completed in the shape of Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez and most recently Petr Cech. The acquisitions of Callum Chambers, Gabriel and Danny Welbeck have added much needed depth to the squad. The list of honours collected by this group of players stands at back to back FA Cups. The question on every Gooner’s mind is whether they can take to next step and become Premier League champions.
Story of Last Season:
The first half of the 2014/15 season was both a frustrating and perplexing one for Arsenal supporters. Deep down, many felt that the North London outfit’s squad was as strong as it had been in a decade, with a vast array of talent in midfield. This was combined with the signings of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck who added pace and mobility to an attack that had relied too heavily on Theo Walcott to provide those attributes. However, it became difficult to keep up pretensions about the strength of the squad when it amassed a substandard 33 points over the first 19 games of the season.
Arsenal were punching well below their weight and the reasons for this were plentiful. Firstly, they could not find the right balance within the first eleven. Arsene Wenger began the season with a new 4-1-4-1 formation in an effort to squeeze Ramsey, Wilshere and Özil into the same side. Arsenal did not see the best of their German playmaker from the left side of midfield and Mikel Arteta was left exposed as the lone deep-lying midfielder, unable to fulfil the role by himself. Arteta’s best displays in a Gunners shirt have come when he has been part of a double pivot.
The World Cup seemed to sap Mesut Özil and Per Mertersacker of both physical and mental energy. The situation with the towering centre half was exacerbated by the fact his preferred defensive partner; Laurent Koscielny, was in and out of the team with a problematic achilles. Mertesacker relies a great deal on Koscielny’s pace and ability to confront situations directly while Mertesacker holds his position and defends with a more zonal approach. Without him, Mertesacker was tasked with trying to mentor Callum Chambers or even Nacho Monreal operating in an alien role. Both Chambers and Monreal performed admirably, but it clearly affected Mertesacker and as a defensive unit Arsenal suffered.
In the second half of the season however, solutions were found to these crucial imbalances within the team. Laurent Koscielny became a consistent presence in the heart of the defence again. Francis Coquelin was recalled from his loan spell at Charlton due to an injury crisis and soon became the first choice holding midfielder player, bringing bite in the challenge and mobility to the role. His duties were alleviated somewhat by the fact that Arsenal reverted to a 4-2-3-1 system, with Santi Cazorla his unlikely partner at the base of midfield. They combined superbly, to the extent that when Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere returned they had to be content with playing on the right of the attacking three.
Mesut Özil was allowed to play in his preferred number 10 position in this system, and looked like he had felt the benefit of his enforced lay off in the autumn due to a knee injury. He exerted a huge influence on Arsenal’s football in the second half of the season. Olivier Giroud returned to lead the line. Whatever you think of Giroud, and I have never been convinced that Wenger sees him as his ‘ideal’ centre forward, Arsenal have grown very used to having that type of forward to the team to play off and around. Results were far better, with 42 points from the final 19 league games including an away win at Man City and a 4-1 home win over Liverpool. In addition of course, there was a second successive FA Cup triumph, which included a quarter final win at Old Trafford and a comprehensive 4-0 win over Aston Villa in the final.
Petr Cech – £11M from Chelsea
Contrary to popular opinion, I tend to think that Arsene Wenger would have happily started the season with the same three goalkeepers he used last season. However, circumstances threw up an opportunity that was too good to turn down. At 33 years of age, Petr Cech decided he was not content to be back up for Thibaut Courtois at Chelsea. Moreover, he wanted to stay in London where he and his family are settled. Wenger recognised that Cech was an improvement on what Arsenal already had and that his experience and medal collection could add something to the collective mentality of the group. At a club the size of Arsenal, it is extremely difficult to find players who are both available and a definite improvement on what’s already there, especially for a reasonable price. Cech ticked both boxes and therefore a deal had to be pursued.
A gentleman’s agreement between Cech and Abramovich allowed the ‘keeper to move across London against the wishes of Jose Mourinho. That alone will warm the hearts of Arsenal fans. Wojech Szczesny seems to be the victim of this upgrade; like Lukas Podolski, the Pole was a popular character but has fallen by the wayside as the calibre of player within the squad has increased.
As things stand, it seems likely that the Cech signing will be the extent of Arsenal’s summer spending. This does not mean that Arsene Wenger believes the squad to be perfect, but he is committed to only spending money on players who are from the very top tier. There are not too many of those who have moved in this window so far. He would surely be interested in a top class number nine, who combines Olivier Giroud’s hold up play but who has a bit extra pace and is a touch more clinical. This narrows the field down to players of the ilk of Karim Benzema or Robert Lewandowski. Any potential deal for such a player depends entirely on Real Madrid or Bayern Munich looking to sell. Alternatively, he may look to enhance Arsenal’s attack by signing a forward operating wider such as Marco Reus or even Isco, whose guile would complement Arsenal’s more bombastic and direct wide men.
Laurent Koscielny: A £9.5 million signing from Lorient in the summer of 2010, there is a strong case to be made that Koscielny is the finest defensive purchase of Arsene Wenger’s reign, perhaps alongside the signing of Sol Campbell on a free transfer. His debut against Liverpool at Anfield gave Arsenal fans a glimpse of what was to come. He was clearly an exceedingly aggressive and mobile defender keen to get tight to opposition forwards and nick possession in front of them whenever possible. This front foot style of defending could however appear rash at times ;he was in fact sent off at Anfield that day. Like many defenders who arrive from abroad, there was a blanket of scepticism about his ability to adapt to English game, especially given the fact Koscielny is just a fraction over six foot tall. Koscienly however has developed into one of the league’s finest centre backs.
Since August 2013, Arsenal have won 73% of the matches Koscielny has played in and just 39% of those he has not. His habit of conceding penalties and picking up cards has receded significantly, and aided by his physical development and increased upper body strength he has become a far more rounded defender, capable of reading the game as well as confronting his opposite number on a one on one basis. If Arsenal are to continue their improved levels of defensive stability, he has to stay fit.
Mesut Özil: Since his arrival from Real Madrid in September 2013, no player has provoked genuinely visceral responses from Arsenal fans in the way that Mesut Özil has. His supporters accuse his detractors of not being able to ‘see’ or ‘understand’ the good work he does in games, in the same way that a James Joyce reader might accuse a Geoffrey Archer fan of being unable to identify literary merit. This infuriates his detractors who accuse his defenders of being football ‘hipsters’, trying to elevate football to something altogether more cerebral than it really is. For a long time there was very little middle ground, though more and more a crossing over to the pro-Özil camp.
Let’s attempt to find some middle ground. Özil will never be the talismanic figure that Thierry Henry was for Arsenal, or Cristiano Ronaldo was for Manchester United, capable of 30 goals and 20 assists per season. Some think that for £42.5m, that is exactly what he should provide. That is one point of view, but that is not Özil’s role. He is an enabler, a facilitator who allows other players to take the leading roles while he keeps the team ticking. He is the oil in the Arsenal machine. For a while it was difficult to find the exact reason why The Gunners looked so much more fluent when he was in the side. It is a mixture of his choice, weight, and timing of passes and his elusive movements across the pitch that create space for himself and others. He has a deceptively long stride meaning his movement across the pitch is exceptionally graceful and economical, allowing the German to frequently top the charts for distance covered in a game. His presence and form will be absolutely crucial to Arsenal’s title bid this season. Given his technique and levels of composure though, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a few more goals from him.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: Alexis Sanchez or Aaron Ramsey would have been worthy choices, but in Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal have a player with massive scope for improvement. In an era when everyone is obsessed by transfers, we tend to forget the effect that a rapidly improving young player can have on a team. Cesc Fabregas in 2007/8 or Ramsey in 2013/14 are good examples which also occurred at The Emirates. Neither were new signings, but their development allowed the team to improve on the previous season’s performance. Chamberlain could well be on the cusp of exploding in the way in which those two players did.
Many assume that ‘The Ox’ is yet to establish himself as a first team regular, but he actually started every one of Arsenal’s first 17 league games last season. Unfortunately, injury hampered his development in the second half of the campaign. Though that string of 17 starts contained many an impressive performance, they yielded only one goal and one assist. If he can push both of those statistics up towards double figures, then it would become similar to Arsenal possessing a new player in terms of output. He has the ability to do it; in many he ways he is the most complete footballer at Arsenal, able to combine a range of attributes. He has the pace and strength, can beat players which is vital in breaking down deep lying defences, possesses the vision to play centrally, is almost two footed and strikes a ball cleanly from distance. The latent potential is there, it just needs to be realised.
The back five seem plus Francis Coquelin seem quite settled. It is unlikely that the club will find the ‘dream’ centre forward to displace Olivier Giroud, while Alexis and Özil are shoe-ins. This leaves the second central position and the right sided position up for grabs. Santi Cazorla was fantastic in that deeper role last season and I think he might start there this season to aid continuity. However I fully expect either Ramsey or Wilshere, two more natural central midfield players to take up that position by the end of the season. Ramsey’s engine is perhaps what gives him the edge. I also think Oxlade Chamberlain gives Arsenal more balance that Theo Walcott on the right hand side given the fact he is more involved in the game and more diligent defensively. In the absence of Alexis and Welbeck early in the season, Chamberlain could shift to the left leaving a space for either Walcott, Wilshere, or even Ramsey should he stick with the Coquelin-Cazorla axis in the middle. All good dilemmas to have if you are in Arsene Wenger’s shoes.
In one sense, the FA Cup triumphs eased the pressure on Wenger after 9 barren years without silverware. In another sense, it has only increased the pressure on him to deliver one or both of the two big prizes; the Premier League and the Champions League, in the two years that remain on his contract. From 2006 to 2013, it was often speculated that Wenger had one hand tied behind his back in the transfer market as the years of post-Highbury austerity took hold. This is no longer the case. There has been sufficient time and funds to build a squad that is at least competitive at the very top of the division. Arsene Wenger knows that cries of ‘jam tomorrow’ will fall upon deaf ears. Having spent so long planning for the future, he will be impatient to deliver in the present. Many label him stubborn and though I would not contest this, the appointments of Shad Forsythe in the fitness department, Andries Yonker at the head of the Academy and a purported increase in the study of opposition teams before matches are signs that he may have conceded that subtle alterations were needed.
First Six Fixtures
– West Ham United (Home)
– Crystal Palace (Away)
– Liverpool (Home)
– Newcastle (Away)
– Stoke City (Home)
– Chelsea (Away)
Though it is difficult to know for sure how sharp any given team will be in the opening weeks of the season, Arsenal are within their rights to target a maximum 15 points from those first five games. Home matches against Stoke and West Ham are the type of fixtures Arsenal have negotiated quite easily in recent years. Crystal Palace away is always a potential slip up due to the Eagles’ talented and unpredictable forwards, but Arsenal have two wins from two at Selhurst Park since Palace were last promoted. They are in fact the only team of the ‘Big 5’ to have done this. Newcastle away is another fixture to be wary of, but another team and ground which Arsenal have good memories of, with seven wins from seven against Newcastle dating back to August 2011. Liverpool at home is a marquee fixture, but one that a team with pretensions of winning the title would expect to claim all three points.
Which leaves Chelsea away. If Arsenal can pick up maximum points from the first five, and hope that Everton and Man City can take something from Chelsea when they travel to both of those clubs early on, then this Chelsea game could become a bit of a free swing. If Arsenal were to take a three point lead to the Bridge, then the worst case scenario is that they are level after six games, something which every Arsenal fan would surely accept. Accounting for a defeat at Chelsea, I’d still expect Arsenal to take 15 points; or at worst 13, from their opening half a dozen matches.
Final Standing Prediction – 3rd
I expect Arsenal to make a genuine assault on the Premier League title, and it should make for an engrossing watch. However, I do think the 12 point deficit that existed last season between Arsenal and Chelsea might be a bit too much to make up. There is no good reason to expect Chelsea to be any weaker than they were last season. They did however rely heavily on a small core of players who were able to stay fit for almost the whole season. Injuries at any time to any of John Terry, Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic or Diego Costa might leave the door open for Arsenal. However, if Chelsea keep this core fit, I don’t see them falling far short of their tally of 87 points last season. Arsenal could well halve the deficit, but pulling off a 13 point swing seems too stiff a task.
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