Anything and Everything is possible
One the eve of a new English Premier League season, it seems that their are countless possibilities for Arsenal. In many ways, we head into this season with the same sense of hope and uncertainty with which we started the 2007-2008 season. That year we faced life without some familiar faces and the media in particular, questioned whether our young team could keep hold of a top four place having come so close to losing it the season before. But the team rallied to the cause and played sumptious football on the way to mounting a serious challenge for the league title. Ultimately, some key injuries and few unfortunate errors denied that Arsenal team a title that they probably deserved. But the Gunners had certainly answered their critics and showed that they had the talent to eventually win the big trophies.
Unfortunately, last season failed to live up to the promise from 2007-2008, and we enter the new year faced with growing doubt about our top four credentials. Can this season’s team answer the critics the way they did in 2007-2008, or will Arsenal fall from the ranks of Europe’s elite teams? Here’s a preview of what to expect this season.
Rather than breaking down the squad by position, I thought I’d do things a little differently. After all, if you’re looking for position-by-position analysis there are plenty of options out there. Here’s a look at the squad based on expectations and what will be required to reach our goals.
The Established Stars:
This is the group of players we can count on. These are the men that, if they stay healthy, we know will provide quality whever they’re on the pitch.
- Cesc Fabregas: He’s the captain and the midfield general. While Cesc’s role might change a little in the 4-3-3, he’ll still be the one looking to pick the killer pass that cuts opposing defenses to ribbons. Cesc is coming off a tough, injury shortened season and should be hungry to prove that he’s one of the best in the league, while also showing that he deserves to start for Spain in South Africa. With a trio of attackers in front of him, he should have plenty of chances to get the assists, the question is whether he can get back to scoring goals like he did two seasons ago.
- Robin Van Persie: He will be the first choice striker in the 4-3-3. Last season RVP showed just how dangerous he can be when he’s healthy. He might have faded down the stretch, but he carried us through a tough January and February. Van Persie isn’t the prototypical lone striker, so it’ll be interesting to see how he fares in that position. But as long as he’s in the game, he gives us the chance to score from nothing with his incomparable left foot. Robin isn’t the tallest or fastest striker, but his clinical finishing more than makes up for other shortcomings.
- Andrey Arshavin: If you said that Arshavin was our best player, I wouldn’t put up much of an argument. Cesc is certainly our talisman, but Arshavin can take over a match. While his finishing is brilliant, his awareness and movement are impeccable. In many ways, you can see the difference between a player with his seasoning and the younger players on the squad. We will need goals galore from him this season and good distribution to the lone striker. Most players need time to adjust to the English game and the fact that he was so influential so quickly last season gives us every reason to be excited for his contribution this season. He’s the player I’m most excited to watch.
- Samir Nasri: I’m going to put Nasri in this category despite an injury that will seemingly keep him out until October. Nasri was a massive contributor to the squad last season. Early in the season, his brace helped us defeat Manchester United at the Emirates when it looked as though the team was imploding. He has bite to his game and an eye for goal which is something we lack in midfield. He’s even more important this season because of the 4-3-3 formation that looks certain to take hold. When he’s healthy he will replace either Denilson, Diaby or Eboue in the center of the park, and is a massive upgrade over any of those three options.
- Barcary Sagna: Little needs to be said about Sagna. He’s as solid a right back as there is in the league. His crossing is poor when he gets forward, but it’s a small flaw in an otherwise brilliant game. It’s one area of defense where we need not worry.
- William Gallas: I’m going to put Gallas in this category because, when his mind is right, Gallas really is a solid defender. The partnership with Kolo Toure never came off, but when paired with the right center-back, Gallas is still top defender and starts for the French national team. He may not be your favorite Gunner, and he may not be the smartest Gunner, but he’s a solid central defender.
- Manuel Almunia: Quick, name the ‘keepers in the EPL that are better than Almunia. Cech has slipped. Van der Sar is old. Friedel is older. When you really think about it, there’s few ‘keepers currently plying their trade in England who can say they are distinctly more reliable than Almunia. He’s not the most commanding presence on set pieces and he’s not always quick off his line, but he’s proven he can keep us in games. He was the only reason we still had something to play for during the first 8 minutes of our Champions League Semi-final second leg. More importantly, he rarely makes the game losing mistake. That’s more than could be said of his predecessor Jens Lehmann. We shouldn’t worry about Almunia, especially when we can worry about who’s backing him up.
The Quality Players With Something To Prove:
These are the players that could be in the first group but are held back by some scintilla of doubt.
- Theo Walcott: Theo scares the living crap out of defenses. Watching him terrorize Fenerbache last season was something to behold. But Theo’s game is still raw. He has pace and he’s improved his strength, but his distribution and finishing have to improve this season. Sometimes it looks like he just can’t decide what to do with the ball. Arsene Wenger often talks about players who have quick minds. In his system, players must be able to think fast with the ball. If Theo can make decisions quicker and improve his final touch, he will be a regular starter and top performer this season. It’s worth noting that the 4-3-3 can really suit his game, but puts even more pressure on him to deliver that quality final ball.
- Eduardo: I was so tempted to put Eduardo in the first category. He’s the most clinical and creative finisher on the team. He can score from anywhere in the box and has great awareness. The only reason Eduardo is in this group is because of his horrific ankle injury. He had a stop-start return last season and must stay healthy this campaign. The really unforunately thing about the 4-3-3 is that it leaves no room for Eduardo to start. If RVP stays healthy and plays well, Eduardo will likely sit on the bench for most games. Wenger could move Van Persie out wide and make room for Eduardo, but barring that move, we won’t see nearly enough of the talented Crozillian.
- Nicklas Bendtner: What can you say about number 52? He’s been with us long enough that it’s time to deliver on all that potential. Last season he had a decent goal return, but really should have netted more often. Bendtner’s first touch has to improve, and he simply must eliminate the profligacy in front of goal if he wants to be a regular starter. With a little more confidence, Bendtner could be a prolific scorer. But another bizarre consequence of the 4-3-3 is that Nicklas Bendtner likely must adapt to a wide role if he wants a regular starting role. For me, the biggest question mark surround Bendtner is simply where he’s going to play. I’m astounded that Arsene Wenger has become so comfortable playing him in the wide positions when he’s clearly more suited to be a central striker. But we saw him play out wide on several occasions last season and in the pre-season, so it looks like that’s what we can expect.
- Tomas Rosicky: Rosicky is as talented as any player at Arsenal. He can shoot, he’s tenacious, he can pick a pass, and he understands Wenger’s philosophy. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen whether we will ever see those qualities on display again. We saw a glimmer of what he can do in the pre-season, but he’s a long way from being a regular contributor to the team. If Rosicky can get healthy and stay healthy for any extended period of time, then his participation can be invaluable. But that’s such an enourmous doubt at this point that it would be foolish to have any elevated expectations.
- Alex Song: Song has come a long way. Anyone that follows Arsenal would have to acknowledge his development. He now looks like he can capably fill the defensive midfield role. But we’ve only seen this “new” Alex Song recently. He must show that he can do it every week. You also have to wonder how good he can be. The English Premier League has some of the premier defensive midfielders in the world. Michael Carrick, Michael Essien and Javier Mascherano all ply their trade in the EPL. There are even a few more you could add to that list if you were so inclined. So the real question is whether Alex Song can ever play at that kind of level. If he can, then it’s a huge question answered for the Gunners.
- Gael Clichy: Some will say that Clichy belongs in the first group. Those people are wrong. (Was that presumptious enough.) Gael Clichy is one of the fastest players in the Premier League and his potential is frightening. But Clichy seems to be lacking in confidence, or concentration, or both. If you remove Clichy’s errors from the 2007-2008 season, Arsenal would have won the title. If you remove Clichy’s errors from the 2008-2009 season, at the very least we would have beated Sp*rs at the Emirates. He has made some of the costliest mistakes over the last few years and he seems to have lost the desire/confidence to close down opposing players. He has great recovery pace, but doesn’t mark close enough. Opposing attackers are easily able to deliver crosses into the box or shoot from distance with Clichy standing off them. Even his attacking contributions have dwindled. I really like Gael Clichy, but I’m not sure he’s given the team 100%. Clearly Raymond Domenech has noticed his deterioration. Clichy was battling Patrice Evra for France’s starting left back spot. Now he’s not even a consideration. Hopefully the improvement of Kieran Gibbs and Armande Traore will push him to get back to his previous level. But as I’ve said earlier, I would not be surprised if Gibbs was the starting left back at some point this season.
- Thomas Vermaelen: Not much to say. He could be a great center-back…or not. Wenger’s track record with defensive signings isn’t great, but we’ll have to trust him here. If he turns out to be solid and can stay healthy then he’s a big signing. Hopefully he’ll adapt well to the English game, because it looks as though he’s going to be starting from day one.
- Johan Djourou: With Djourou now injured, we’ll have to wait at least a month to judge his development. There’s a lot of optimism surrounding the young Swiss and he does give us some height and power. But we must remember that Djourou has started few games, and his lack of experience is worrying. I think he can be a solid center-back, but it’s a position where ability is only half the equation. Knowledge and guile play a big part.
- Emmanuel Eboue: Eboue is staying. I’m one of the few Arsenal supporters happy to see him stay. We need cover for Sagna and he’s arguably the best substitute right-back in the league. Remember, he was the starting right-back for our promising 07-08 campaign. Eboue has pace, he’s elusive and he can be very dangerous in attack. his finishing and crosses do leave something to be desired, but that’s not much different that what we get with Sagna. His defensive experience also makes him a candidate for a few starts at defensive midfield. The only thing that really seems to hold Eboue back is the 6 inches between his ears. He dives, he complains, he never stays on his feet and he gets rattled under pressure. It’s a shame because there’s a talented player under that fragile shell. If he can somehow find the right medication, Eboue can be an important bench player this season.
The Players That Cause Concern:
This is the group that worries every supporter. These are the players that will definitely garner significant playing time but don’t seem to add to the team.
- Denilson: Enough with the statistics already. I get it, Denilson statistically is the best midfielder in the EPL. His passing is great, his tackling is great and he can even score a goal. That’s what the statistics say. Now open your eyes and watch a game instead of burying your head in statistics. Denilson gives the ball away cheaply in situations that put the defense under pressure. He gives away free kicks in dangerous areas. Worse, he gives away free kicks when there is little danger to our goal. Denilson does work hard. I have to admit that I admire his work ethic. But a good work-rate isn’t enough. I know the statisticians will disagree, but he makes too many lateral passes and rarely gets the ball up the field to start a counter attack. I like Denilson, but I don’t think he’s good enough. You’re free to disagree, but if he’s an every game starter at Arsenal, especially in a three-man midfield, then we’re going to struggle.
- Abou Diaby: Diaby has so much talent that it’s hard to believe that he’s in this group, but here he sits. My problem with Diaby is that he has two fatal flaws. First, he’s never healthy. Second, he lacks proper application. If Denilson had Diaby’s talent, or Diaby had Denilson’s work rate, then you’d have something special. We all want to believe Diaby is something special because he kind of reminds us of Patrick Viera. But in truth, it’s disrespectful to Viera to compare the two. Viera was all effort and heart and power. Diaby is more about finesse than power, but also a lot less about effort and heart. Maybe I’m being unfair to Abou. Maybe the horror injury he suffered changed him psychologically. No one could blame him for that. But until he shows that he can stay healthy and apply himself, he’s a liability. It’s a shame to say that because he had one or two games last season where he really dazzled. (The first leg against Roma comes to mind.) But with his talent, he should be dazzling more often and I just don’t see any reason to believe he will make the leap this year.
That’s the squad. Disagree if you like, but that’s my take on it. I could have included players like Ramsey, Wilshere, Gibbs, Traore, Fabianski and even Merida, but the players I’ve featured are the most likely to appear in the starting lineup regularly. Other might make cameo appearances, but probably won’t play often enough to make a major impact. All of them come under the category of “young, unproven players with huge potential.” That should suffice.
That about sums up our team, but it doesn’t adress what to expect from the team. So allow me to briefly summarize the League season in three parts. (I’ll really try to be brief.)
PART I: Mid-August – Mid-November
If we can escape from August with our pride in tact, we actually have a very easy start to the season. Unfortunately, we must start the season already struggling with injuries. Nasri, Rosicky, Djourou, Fabianski, Diaby and Walcott all start the season carrying some injury that will see them miss games. Nasri looks set to be missing until October which is a huge loss. So the players who are fit must ensure that we’re near the top by mid-november. August sees us play at Everton and at Manchester United, but after those fixtures, there shouldn’t be much trouble on the horizon. Fixture congestion could be an issue but that’s true for every top team in England. Qualification for the Champions League is obviously crucial but it will also give the team a good emotional lift right before the trip to Old Trafford. With that game behind us, only Citeh and Sp*rs should really cause any concern before late November.
PART II: Mid-November – Mid February
I hope we enjoy the start of the season, because we have the most difficult middle of the season possible. To get things off to the proper start, Chelsea visit the Emirates for our first match against the “big four” since late August. December and January see us play Liverpool, Everton and Aston Villa twice. But the real fun comes at the end of January and beginning of February when we play Chelsea, United and Liverpool in a span of ten days. Seems like a perfectly reasonable schedule to me. It’s a daunting period that will have a massive impact on our title challenge. And as if the schedule wasn’t tough enough, the African Cup of Nations will be taking place during this period. Fortunately, for the first time in a long time, we have only one key player, Alex Song, that will be participating. If we’re really lucky, we’ll go into this part of the schdule healthy and face Chelsea without Drogba, Essien or Obi Mikel. But when was the last time we were really lucky? If we come through this three month period within sight of first place, then the title is really within reach.
PART III: Mid-February – Mid-May
You can’t ask for an easier run-in. This was the period that killed our title challenge two season ago. I can assure you that won’t be the case this season. For the last three months of the season, we don’t face another member of the “big four.” Instead, we have matches against the likes of Sunderland, Stoke, Birmigham, Wolves, Burnley, Hull, Wigan and Blackburn. Only Sp*rs and Citeh look like potential banana skins and we play Citeh at the Emirates. So it’s pretty easy to see that our season depends on a fast start in the fall, a resilient winter, and a strong gallop to the finish line in the spring. If we don’t lose the title early, we can certainly win it late.
So that’s the season as it looks today. Once it gets underway, things will undoubtedly look a little different. I have to say that I like the look of the team and the schedule but I would like our chances a lot better if one or two more players came in before the transfer window shuts. It’s amazing to think that we’re only two days from the start of the season and five days from a crucial Champions League fixture. But that’s the reality and the players must be ready. For the first time in a long time, I think the key to winning the league title has nothing to do with beating our direct rivals, but beating everyone else. I say that because momentum is so important and we have long stretches during the season where we don’t face any of our direct rivals for the title. If we can avoid the draws that sank us last season, and pick up three points against the weaker teams, I believe the title will be there for us to win.
But more important than any of this analysis is the fact that another Arsenal season is about to kickoff. It’s time for us to take a break from criticism and analysis, take a deep breath, and really get behind our club. As of Saturday we are all supporters of Arsenal Football Club.
COME ON YOU GUNNERS!