An early look at the squad, the fixtures, and the possibilities
Arsenal’s pre-season began in traditional fashion on Saturday, with a visit to Underhill and a comfortable win over Barnet. The match itself was unremarkable, but after two months of decidedly tedious international football, Arsenal have returned to us and another season approaches. As such, there’s the opportunity for endless speculation, hand-wringing, optimism, pessimism, and more arsenal-related goodness. So without further ado, let’s take a peek at where we stand.
As of this post, it appears that Cesc Fabregas is certain to stay at Arsenal for at least another season. It’s great news and very important for the future of this great club that we stuck to our guns. Selling Cesc would’ve had obvious footballing implications, but even farther reaching effects on the status of the team going forward. If we are seen as a team that cannot keep it’s most talented players from moving to bigger clubs, then there will always be a limit to what we can achieve. Our ability to keep Cesc at the Emirates, and give the impression that money was not the issue, sends the message that we are not a selling club. It tells our current crop of players that they need not look to another club in order to achieve their career goals. There’s a lot of young talent at Arsenal, and it does us no good to develop that talent only to watch them leave as they approach their prime. Hopefully our success in keeping Cesc will further benefit the club over the long-term.
While it might be difficult to convince some publications, Arsenal did conduct other business during the summer. Marouane Chamakh has arrived along with Laurent Koscielny. The former looks likely to be a starter in attack, while the latter (all 78 pounds of him) might be a looking at a substitute’s role in central defense. Additionally, Eduardo, Gallas and Silvestre are all departing. Eduardo’s departure is particularly sad because he had his arsenal career stolen from him at St. Andrews. But Gallas’ departure might be the most significant. He’s never been a fan favorite, but Willie G is an experienced center-back who forged a solid partnership with Vermaelen last season. Djourou and Koscielny will be his replacements, and they have about 7 minutes of Premier League experience between them. With regard to Silvester, it’s a case of addition by subtraction.
So that’s what’s happened. It begs the question; is more business required? Arsene Wenger conceded that our defending wasn’t good enough to win a title last season, yet we currently have one fewer central defender than we had two months ago. Most people seem to think that we need another CB and Wenger himself has acknowledged that he is on the case. Whether he will find what he’s looking for (an unproven youngster no one has ever heard of) remains to be seen.
While the defense is somewhat concerning, the goal-keeping situation is downright terrifying. Arsenal won’t win anything with Almunia or Fabianski in goal. Some might say that’s too harsh on Almunia in particular, but his shortcomings only serve to exacerbate our weakness in central-defense. When defenders don’t have confidence in their keeper, it effects their play. Considering the dearth of experienced central-defenders at Arsenal, they need all the confidence they can muster. Interestingly, an article appeared on the official website yesterday declaring that Szczesny wants to fight for the number one this season. Almost everyone seems to think he has the talent for the role, but few believe he’s ready at 20. If he’s the next Iker Casillas, then maybe it’s time to give him his chance. But the smarter move would be to sign an experienced keeper and let Szczesny watch from the bench as the number two. Given the club’s injury record, I’m sure he’d get plenty of chances anyway. Is Schwarzer the solution? Some say yes, some say no, but he’s probably an upgrade from the current selection.
Arsenal won’t outscore every opponent, especially during a particularly rough stretch of fixtures in early winter. If the season started today it would be hard to argue that our defense is likely to be any better than it was last season. And according to Wenger’s logic, that means another season without a title. The addition of a keeper and one more CB might be enough to fix the problem sufficiently.
There’s also some questions about defensive midfield. Some supporters feel strongly that we don’t have enough cover for Alex Song. It’s always nice to go out and buy an extra player at every position but it’s not always realistic. Finding an affordable but quality DM willing to be mostly a back-up option certainly wouldn’t be easy and I have no expectation that anyone fitting that description will arrive. So the question remains: are we strong enough at DM?
First, if our defending and goal-keeping improves, then we don’t have to have the world’s best DM. Alex Song was tremendous last season and fairly resilient (by Arsenal standards). If he stays healthy, I don’t think we have any problem at the position. But what about the options behind Song? Right now, you’d have to say that those options include Denilson, Diaby, Eastmond and maybe Frimpong.
If you’ve ever read this blog or follow me on twitter, then you know I’m not the head of the Denilson fan club. But most of his problems seem to be on the mental side of the ledger. His lack of application was appalling at times last season and a fight for playing time might be just what he needs. However, I have doubts about him as a DM that extend beyond attitude. I don’t see him as a naturally gifted tackler and his penchant for the sideways pass isn’t helpful. He’s dispossessed too often in dangerous areas and gives away far to many free-kicks.
Diaby is obviously gifted with enormous talent and exceptional physical attributes, but he’s not Viera. Tackling isn’t his strong suit and his love for the dribble can be very dangerous when he’s protecting the back four. Frankly, I just don’t think he’s a DM at all.
As for Eastmond and Frimpong, I don’t feel like I know enough about either player to have an educated opinion (assuming my other opinions are somewhat educated). Eastmond made the occasional appearance last season and while he wasn’t awful, he looked very raw. I don’t think either player is a satisfactory backup for Song. However, since I don’t think another midfielder is coming this summer, one of these four players will have to do the job in Alex’s absence. It’s that simple. Whether they are up to the challenge will be an important factor in Arsenal’s success this season.
From an attacking standpoint, there’s little reason for analysis. Arsenal are probably blessed with the best attacking talent in England. You could argue that point, but there’s no arguing that we should be scoring goals at an alarming rate this season. Injuries would seem to be the only thing that can stop the Gunners from delivering another season of entertaining attacking football.
It will be interesting to see who the manager chooses for that opening match at Anfield. It will be equally interesting to see who is on the bench. Some of the players that have recently been first team regulars, will struggle to even make the squad this season. Players like Theo, Rosicky, Bendtner, Vela, Denilson, Diaby, Eboue, and eventually even Ramsey, will probably have days when they don’t make the squad at all. If you think that’s crazy, consider this possible first choice XI and substitute’s bench:
Arshavin, Chamakh, RVP
Cesc, Nasri, Song
Clichy, Djourou, Vermaelen, Sagna,
Someone not named Almunia or Fabianski.
Subs: Szczesny, Koscielny, Gibbs, Diaby, Bendtner, Eboue, Rosicky
In the above example, Theo, Vela, Denilson, Ramsey and players like Wilshere and Eastmond would be left out of the squad entirely. I’m not saying that’s the squad that we’ll see on opening day. But it’s certainly a viable example and it leaves some very talented players fighting to simply make the bench. It also makes an interesting argument for loaning Wilshere out again.
The schedule always plays a role in any team’s success, but as we proved last season, you shouldn’t read too much into it. We had an easy run-in. That was the idea anyway. If we had won all our matches from Birmingham away until the end of the season, we would have been champions. Instead, we gave away 2 points at Brum, and had one of the most disappointing finishes to a season imaginable. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to scrutinize the schedule too closely. But if we simply look at our first six fixtures, there’s a distinct opportunity. If we can win at Anfield, there’s no reason we can’t win the next five matches. And then we’d be heading to Stamford Bridge at 6-0-0 and top of the table. For a young team, that kind of start is just what is required to gain confidence.
So that leads to the most important question of them all: can we win trophies this season? I think we can. I think we have a strong first choice eleven and a strong bench full of attacking options. Our goal-keeping situation must be resolved, and we probably need another CB in the mix. But I believe that both of those things will happen. Obviously injuries were a major disruption last season, but it’s pointless worrying about injuries at this moment. You must evaluate the squad based on the players you have and that’s what we should be doing now.
Almost as important as the strength of our squad, is how it compares to the rest of the league. That’s an intriguing debate. Chelsea clearly have a powerful starting eleven, but they’re aging. And they’re not particularly deep. Regardless, they are the clear favorites again this season. Everyone else has serious questions surrounding them. United can’t continue to count on Giggs and Scholes and it’s unclear whether they’ve adequately replaced them or provided help for Rooney up front.
Manchester City could be a tremendous team, but they could also just be an interesting and expensive collection of big name players that don’t fit together. Spuds are Spuds and I expect them to have a disappointing season. Liverpool have problems everywhere and there’s no guarantee that Hodgson is going to be better for them than that fat spanish waiter. And that’s without discussing the possibility that some of their best players might be leaving. Aston Villa will continue to be a good team that’s limited by their lack of depth. And beyond those teams, there’s some strength in the middle of the table that will surely cost some of the title pretenders a few points here and there.
Overall, the league is approaching something like parity, at least among the top 7 or 8 teams. It’s more than likely that the title will be won with fewer points this season than in any previous campaign. And I think that helps us. As a young team with defensive frailties, it’s unreasonable to expect us to be perfect. We’ll drop some points that we shouldn’t, but we should also do better against our direct rivals that we did last season (it would be hard not to do better). And since it’s likely that the top teams will be dropping more points than usual this season, we’ll have plenty of chances to stay in the title race. Hopefully by the time the business end of the season arrives, we’ll have the maturity to get the results that are required.
In the coming weeks we’ll have a better idea of what to expect from this side and we’ll certainly know whether any additional players are joining the cause. But at the moment I’m optimistic. I don’t think the questions surrounding the side are any more troubling that those facing the league’s other top teams. Additionally, while teams like Chelsea suffer the effects of aging, another year of development will only improve our squad. Look at Alex Song last season and think of where he was the season before. If players like Diaby, Denilson, Theo, etc can make that kind of improvement, we’ll be in fantastic shape. That’s a lot to ask, but it’s also what’s expected from this would-be golden generation. It’s also frightening to think of how good Cesc could be this season when considering the improvement in his game from year to year. We’ll need more from Arshavin and a strong contribution from Chamakh, but I don’t think that’s too much to ask. There’s enough competition for attacking positions that no player can afford to be complacent. And that’s a good thing.
Here’s hoping for a fun, successful and injury-free pre-season … and the arrival of several world-class GKs, DMs, and CBs on free transfers.
The season’s approaching. I can’t wait.