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Arsenal 2015/16 Premier League Season Preview

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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.

Transfers In:

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.

Key Players

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.

Predicted Line-Up

Arsenal Predicted 15/16 - Football tactics and formations

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.

Manager

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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University of Nottingham History graduate. Freelance sportswriter specialising in Football, Cricket and Golf. Interested in the politics of sport.

Arsenal

Why Everton are the perfect club for Theo Walcott to rebuild his career

Rob Meech

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Theo Walcott

It is hard to believe Theo Walcott is only 28 years old. He burst on to the scene aged 16 for Southampton in League One and was snapped up by Arsenal shortly afterwards. His inexplicable selection for England’s 2006 World Cup squad, without playing in a single Premier League game, transformed him into an overnight star.

Big things have been expected of Walcott ever since. It’s fair to say that, despite winning 47 caps for England and making 397 appearances for Arsenal, he has failed to live up to the hype. Now, after 12 years, Walcott is bidding farewell to the Emirates and hoping to revive his flagging career under Sam Allardyce at Everton, whom he has joined for £20 million after agreeing terms on a three-and-a-half-year deal.

Speculation that Walcott’s days at Arsenal were numbered had persisted for several years, but his desire to prove himself at the club kept him in north London even when admirers came calling. His 21 goals in all competitions in the 2012/13 campaign suggested he had cracked it, but that proved to be a false dawn.

In truth, Walcott’s decision to sign for Everton was probably a no-brainer. Now in the prime of his career, he simply has to be playing regularly. The reality of how far down the pecking order he had fallen at Arsenal struck this season, when he often failed to make Arsene Wenger’s match-day squad. His last appearance for the Gunners came as a second-half substitute in the 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth.

Everton’s interest in Walcott emerged only recently, but he was clearly one of Allardyce’s top targets. One look at the Toffees’ recent form underlines why. After an immediate upturn in fortunes after the former England boss’s appointment, Everton have embarked on a winless streak that stretches back to December 18.

Lack of pace is a pressing concern and this is an attribute that Walcott possesses in abundance. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson are intelligent footballers, but not the type that will blitz opposition defenders. Instead, they have relied on chipping balls over the top for the striker to chase. As such, Everton are one-dimensional and easy to play against, with no player capable of launching a counter-attack.

Also highlighting their urgent need for more firepower is the grim statistic that only rock-bottom Swansea have had fewer shots than Everton this season. New big-money signing Cenk Tosun has increased competition in the striking department but may take time to settle, whereas Walcott’s Premier League pedigree means no transitional period will be needed.

The former Southampton man’s versatility makes him an attractive proposition. For Arsenal, he predominantly featured on the right wing – either in a four-man midfield or a three-man attack – but he is equally adept at playing up top on his own, a position where he tried but ultimately failed to establish himself at the Emirates.

Potential is a word that has long been associated with Walcott. It is no longer applicable. At 28, this is possibly his final chance to realise his ambitions, both domestically and internationally. Everton, a sleeping giant, are a perfect fit. Under the auspices of major shareholder Farhad Moshiri, plans are in the pipeline for a brand-spanking new stadium to enable them to compete alongside the Premier League’s elite.

After being a peripheral figure at Arsenal for so long, Walcott has become the forgotten man of English football. For the sake of his career, he simply had to leave north London. By joining Everton, Walcott, who will wear the number 11 shirt, has the security of working under a manager who rates him highly. Now, he has the opportunity to become the player he always promised to be.

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Bournemouth 2-1 Arsenal: Three talking points from the Vitality Stadium

Rob Meech

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Bournemouth
Photo: Reuters

Bournemouth came from behind to claim a much-needed victory over Arsenal, whose hopes of qualifying for the Champions League have suffered another blow.

After an insipid opening period at the Vitality Stadium, the action sparked into life when Hector Bellerin broke the deadlock on 52 minutes.

But Arsenal’s lead was short-lived, as goals from Callum Wilson and Jordon Ibe – his first for the club – secured the Cherries’ fourth home win of the season, which lifted them to 13th in the table.

Arsenal, meanwhile, slipped further adrift in the battle to finish in the top four after their third consecutive league game without a win. Here are three talking points…

Alexis Sanchez moves closer to the Emirates exit door

All the pre-match talk centred on a player who wasn’t involved in the contest. Not only was Alexis Sanchez not named in the starting XI, he wasn’t even on the bench having not travelled to the south coast.

Manager Arsene Wenger was ambiguous when pressed on this in the aftermath of the defeat, but the insinuation was clear; the want-away Chilean will not be an Arsenal player come the end of the transfer window.

Both Manchester City and Manchester United have been heavily linked with a move for Sanchez, whose contract at the Emirates expires in the summer. Despite his uncertain future, this match was crying out for his never-say-die attitude.

Arsenal controlled the first half and deserved to be in front when Bellerin fired home. However, the Gunners were unable to add a second and Bournemouth capitalised with two late efforts. Arsene Wenger’s side are now without a win in four games in 2018 as their troubles mount.

Bournemouth buck the trend against the ‘Big Six’

Before this fixture, Bournemouth had lost all of their matches against the ‘Big Six’ this season, scoring only one goal in seven outings.

While those are not necessarily the games that will define their campaign, it was a worrying statistic that Eddie Howe needed to address. Facing an Arsenal team without Sanchez or Mesut Ozil looked like being the Cherries’ best opportunity to buck that trend, and so it proved.

With only nine points separating all the teams in the bottom half, an unexpected win can do so much to alter the picture. The Cherries didn’t fold after going a goal behind and they merited the three points for an enterprising second-half display.

Having beaten Arsenal for the first time in their history, Bournemouth are now four points clear of the drop-zone. They are by no means safe because of this result, but the psychological impact could be immense.

Jack Wilshere getting back to his best

Returning to the club at which he spent last season on loan, this was not the afternoon Jack Wilshere would have hoped for. Though it didn’t go well from a team perspective, the 26-year-old was close to his best at the Vitality Stadium.

He touched the ball more than any other player on the pitch and also completed more passes. After a frustrating start to the campaign where he struggled for minutes in the Premier League, Wilshere is now establishing himself in the starting XI.

He was Arsenal’s best player against Bournemouth and in a team that lacks leaders, he was one of the few who looked like he wanted the ball. Wilshere ran the show in midfield and was always keen to move forward with purpose.

England manager Gareth Southgate surely can’t ignore Wilshere’s form and, fitness permitting, he must be a shoo-in for the next squad. In a World Cup year, Wilshere is peaking at just the right time.

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An absence of progress at Arsenal leaves Arsene Wenger in danger of becoming the villain

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Reuters

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.

So says Harvey Dent, a character in the 2008 DC Comics action movie The Dark Night Rises, which portrays the story of the fictional superhero Batman as he fights against organised crime in Gotham City.

There may be no men dressed as bats around the Emirates Stadium but it is a quote that might resonate with the thoughts and feelings of a growing number of Arsenal supporters regarding the position of Arsene Wenger in recent seasons.

The Frenchman is one of the most influential and successful managers in the club’s history, having secured ten major trophies since his appointment in 1996 and overseen the transition from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium, but has come under increasing pressure over the last three seasons as The Gunners struggle to maintain the pace set by their title rivals.

The previous campaign was tainted by calls from from a portion of the Arsenal fan base for the 68-year-old to resign, although the club eventually opted to hand him a new two-year deal.

However, eight months on  and Wenger’s position has never been more fragile and the number of dissenting voices in the stands is beginning to increase.

The frustration around the Emirates Stadium is completely understandable. The Gunners are 23 points behind league leaders Manchester City, face an uphill task to qualify for the Champions League next season and suffered an early exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Nottingham Forrest.

Furthermore, Arsenal are in danger of losing two of their prize assets in the summer for nothing after allowing the contracts of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to run down into their final year. The unwillingness of the duo to remain in North London is a definitive sign that the club are no longer considered to be a significant threat in the domestic game.

With the club slipping behind their title rivals and struggling to retain key players, Wenger is in danger of turning from a hero into a villain.

A lack of forward momentum

The one thing that Arsenal have lacked this season, and arguably for a number of years, is a sense that the club is making progress or moving in the right direction.

The Gunners have been on a gradual decline that is only now beginning to come to the fore and there has been nothing to suggest that Arsene Wenger has the vision or prowess to reinvigorate a club that is anchored in stagnation. Even success in the FA Cup has felt like a brief moment of respite rather than a signal that a corner had been turned.

The Frenchman has failed to correct the issues that have undermined the team on the pitch, exemplified by his inability to purchase a top-quality central defender or defensive midfielder, and it has now been nearly thirteen years since the club last won the Premier League title.

A sense of progress is why Jurgen Klopp and Mauriccio Pochettino have sustained their positions at Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively, despite failing to secure any silverware between them and have retained the favour of their club’s supporters.

Both have implemented a clear philosophy and playing style whilst creating the feeling around Anfield and Wembley that the team is moving forward in the right direction.

Wenger has secured more silverware than both Klopp and Pochettino combined since 2014 yet he finds himself under increasing pressure due to a lack of any forward momentum at the Emirates Stadium.

Whilst there is a general feeling that Liverpool and Tottenham are improving, the perception of many Arsenal supporters is that the club is standing still at best and certainly slipping behind their counterparts.

There have been question marks around Wenger’s future for some time and yet this feels like the 68-year-old is on the edge of cliff.

Success in the FA Cup has provided him with a degree of respite in recent years which made his team selection for the defeat to Nottingham Forrest appear especially bizarre.

With Arsenal already out of the title race you would have thought that Wenger would have put extra emphasis on winning the competition which, arguably, allowed him to negotiate a new contract in the summer.

However, such is the obvious disparity in quality between the Gunners and Manchester City that Wenger can no longer hide behind domestic cup success.

Failure to qualify for the Champions League for a second consecutive year would signify how far the club has fallen and the pressure on the Frenchman has been further exacerbated by the seemingly imminent departures of Sanchez and Ozil.

Whilst Liverpool and Tottenham are moving forward, Arsenal seem to be moving backwards. With Wenger’s position appearing increasingly fragile and the club in decline you have to wonder whether the Frenchman has now become the villain of the piece.

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