A warning: an absolute epic follows. If you’re one of those TLDR types, enjoy the pretty pictures and move on. This is some deep shit, so be prepared.
We may have lost Robin van Persie. We may be about to lose Alex Song. And even Theo Walcott’s future isn’t assured. Yet somehow or other, I’m going into this season with blindly optimistic expectations.
There are a number of problems Arsenal will have to work through this season. Figuring out who’s top dog in attack, shoring up a leaky defence and plugging the hole in defensive midfield. Yet our problems seem to be well known to the manager, who appears less blinded by his faith in players and seems a touch more pragmatic this year. There’s no papering over the cracks here: this team has its flaws.
But with a little belief, a little luck (long overdue!) and a truckload of hard work, this season might just provide something to smile about for Arsenal fans.
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With the money-grabbing Dutchman gone from sight, the first big questions are reserved for Arsenal’s forward line. After his preseason goal-scoring exploits against his former club, expect Lukas Podolski to lead the front line in the season’s early stages while Olivier Giroud gets acclimatised. Arsenal will be playing off of Podolski’s natural poaching instincts where he will be expected to put the slightest chance away while the team works out its rhythm around the new recruits.
But once Giroud gets established, expect him to lead the front-line as a designated targetman, playing team-mates in and making himself a physical nuisance against opposition defences. While Podolski will challenge Gervinho and Walcott for a spot on the wings, expect Marouane Chamakh to remain at the club as competition for Giroud’s place. If you’re going to write the Moroccan off, do so on a basis of confidence, not ability. Chamakh has both technique and physique to retake his place in the squad, but has a lot of work to do to get himself in the right head space. If he does, he could just rediscover the spark he had in his early Arsenal days.
Verdict: I’m backing Giroud and Podolski’s combined total of league goals to match Robin van Persie’s. It’s a do-or-die season for Chamakh who no longer has the Dutchman’s shadow looming over him and must make a fist of competing with the new recruits.
Shorn of both seniority and creativity, the Arsenal midfield struggled in the early parts of last season after Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri’s departures. The arrival of Santi Cazorla has changed almost everyone’s outlook and breathed new positivity into the fan base. A genuinely two-footed midfielder, Cazorla will be a nightmare for defenders to track as he looks to control various pockets of midfield throughout a single match. His passing is exemplary and his long-balls telling, plus he adds something in the direct free kick stakes. He is the perfect addition to the side to counteract the loss of van Persie. Where the Dutchman could use good service to make goals out of difficult situations, Cazorla’s eye for a pass will provide easier chances for a brand new forward line still learning the ropes.
I am salivating over the prospect of his partnership with Mikel Arteta, who was undoubtedly our signing of last summer. The Spaniard, who remarkably cannot get a cap for his national side, will be crucial in playing both a pivot and creative role for Arsenal. When Cazorla and co venture forward, Arteta will be the one pulling the strings from behind and plugging gaps in defence. Arsenal’s transfer activity in replacing Alex Song will determine how defensively minded Arteta is this season, but when Jack Wilshere makes his long-awaited return to the fold, Arteta’s know-how in spotting danger will be crucial.
Wilshere’s return will be eagerly anticipated, but don’t expect to see him until around December. Arsenal are taking their time with his ankle and knee complaints. But once he slots in, Arsenal will have a complement of players who can switch defence to attack in a second. Arsene Wenger’s new plan seems to centre around a crux of defensive playmakers coupled with more adventurous players just in front of them. It is for this reason that players like Andrey Arshavin could still have a role to play in the squad.
The inevitable loss of Song means we are desperately short of a senior figure who can play the screening role in front of the defence. If we had an out-and-out creative player in front of Song last season, it’s more likely he’d have stuck to his defensive tasks rather than roaming forward so often. If for some reason Song does stay, I’d expect him to play a more defined role with Cazorla’s arrival. That’s a fool’s hope with Barcelona prowling about. It leaves just Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong as the only real anchormen in the side. I think there’s a huge future awaiting Coquelin and this could very well be his breakout year. But the young Frenchman desperately needs someone more experienced above him, to mentor him in a tricky position and to provide competition. Frimpong’s future, however, is less glamourous and I don’t foresee a huge role for him to play at the club. Expect him to move on within two seasons.
Aaron Ramsey will have a bit of work to do to win over his doubters, but statistically speaking, he’s a consistent provider of chances for the side. I’m hoping Rosicky is back a little sooner than expected with his injury troubles. There will also be eager anticipation to see if Abou Diaby can finally shake off his injury demons and show everyone what he’s capable of.
All eyes will be on Ivorian winger Gervinho this year to see if he can pick up the encouraging pieces of preseason. He’s scored a few goals from tight angles in the warm-ups, but he’s also rediscovered his love for running at defenders and dribbling towards the byline in that goofy style of his. He’ll be competing with Podolski and Arshavin on the left, and assuming Arshavin stays, all three will offer something different on Arsenal’s left flank.
While Theo Walcott sits in his last year of contract, this is one player I would be surprised to see let go by Wenger. The manager made up his mind about van Persie and seems quite happy to let Song go for the right price, but losing a third first-teamer would be very damaging. Should we fend off the interest from Inter Milan, Liverpool and Chelsea, Walcott will have a job cut out for him in holding onto a place with Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Cazorla both vying for a right wing position. The systemic need for a targetman up front means Walcott’s hopes for a striker position may continue to be ignored, unless he can learn a thing or two from Podolski in an effort to offer something different, but effective, as a poacher.
While questions over RVP and Song will grab headlines, everything Arsenal will achieve this season comes down to the defence. 49 goals conceded in the league last year was a terrible statistic to cop, and already Steve Bould is working hard at correcting those mistakes. While Vermaelen will rightfully get the captaincy, Arsenal’s star defender is Laurent Koscielny, whose improvement last season was as understated as it was brilliant. His concentration is exactly what all our defenders need, and he has this great ability to stay calm under pressure.
Bacary Sagna’s injury is a real worry for us and it will mean Carl Jenkinson and Coquelin battling it out for the right-back spot in the first month or two. Teams will be attacking this flank more than most as it’s the most obvious weakness on paper, but already Jenkinson has shown reasonable improvement as a player over a season. His crossing and attacking play is encouraging, but there’s still a lot of work to be done on his defensive game. He looks constantly like he’s one moment away from tugging his man down to the ground, often inside the box. The left flank sees Kieran Gibbs and Andre Santos renew their battle for a place, which is healthy-enough competition for my liking.
The one hope for this season is that Arsenal can enjoy a good run without losing all its full-backs at once. The constant rotation and different defensive combinations killed our season last year and I’m begging the footballing gods that this doesn’t crop up again. A Vermaelen-K0scielny-Sagna parternship is a decent, solid outfit, coupled with one of the left backs, while Per Mertesacker offers an excellent option as back-up.
Johan Djourou’s poor time of it at right back has made everyone forget he’s a very decent centre-back, and if given a run is a cool, calm customer. But at fourth choice, one hopes we can have an injury-free run of things for most of the season in this department.
In goal, Wojcech Szczesny will be the custodian between the sticks with Lukasz Fabianski breathing down his neck. The competition perhaps could be a little better here, but this was never a priority position for the summer.
The verdict: Third place
Realistically, Arsenal should finish this season third. I think the first objective of the season is to close the gap between second and third place, and move away from fourth place. Some fans will no doubt obsess over the ‘x years without a trophy’, but I still see the priority as progress in the league. The squad will get rotated for the first League Cup match, but that still leaves solid line-ups for the first trophy of the season. The FA Cup remains at the mercy of late-season injuries. As for the Champions League, our progress so often seems to rely on the luck of the draw. Avoid Barcelona, and we could have a chance at progress in the knockout rounds.
Still, there’s no reason why Arsenal cannot actually challenge for the league title. An early-season run like 2007/08, or 2009/10 could be just the ticket. While it would be advisable to then expect us to fade off before hunting for third place, this team could prove to hold on for a proper scrap at top place. It’s a totally reinvented outfit and already has more fight in it than previous vintages.
Like with all days before the season kicks off, I’m positive. I cannot help but be positive. Everyone is on a level footing, and my rose-tinted specs can only ever see us doing well, until the bitch of reality comes screaming home. If you want a more negative guessing game, check out the Hype Meter predictions.
The press always backs teams that spend big money on players, regardless of those players’ abilities, so naturally Chelsea are tipped to finish above us. This ignores the fact that they basically fluked their Champions League win with teams constantly dominating them as their defence held on for dear life. Eden Hazard will be interesting to watch and with Drogba gone, you can expect Fernando Torres to finally escape his goal-scoring funk this year. But I think their manager’s lack of pedigree will hurt them this year, and defensively they still look suspect to me.
Liverpool always get some preseason love because of their big pay pockets, but again the money’s been spent on mediocre talent. Similarly I expect Newcastle to be a bit more inconsistent this year as they struggle at times to live up to last season’s heroics. I expect it to be a close-run fight with Spurs for fifth place, with Newcastle dropping off later in the season.
Above Arsenal, the two Manchester clubs will no doubt battle it out for honours. But I really wish the rest of the league would wake up to the fact both their central midfields can be out-passed and outpaced, with the game won in the middle of the park. Failing that, just getting stuck into these teams would make a refreshing change, with so many rival managers fawning over them before trying to break legs in London.
Of course, their players on the wings and further forward are the real deal, with United’s excellent wingers no doubt hoping to service one or both of Rooney and van Persie, while the mostly unchanged Man City line-up is still one that packs a punch.
Just one day to go before all hell breaks loose, I’m up all night doing damage to myself while huddled up on the couch, cheering on the boys. Preseason, for once, has flown by thanks to the Euros and Olympics. But those were just petty distractions compared to the real thing.
The Premier League is back, and I’m all in.