So here we are. We stand at the precipice of a new Arsenal campaign with high expectations and more than a few latent doubts. I could wax poetic about new beginnings and hope springing eternal but I expect that would induce vomiting and I don’t want to be responsible for damage to your computer or mobile device. Instead, let’s skip the pleasantries and dive right in to the analysis.
Arsenal can win the league this season. It’s true. It can happen. Really. I’m not just saying this to convince myself. But then again, maybe I am. I’ve been reading a lot of fan and journalist opinions that Arsenal are ready to challenge for the title this season. You have to laugh a little because the press were happy to write us out of the top four before the start of last campaign. Now, despite more uncertainty in defense and in goal, with one addition to the attack and a net loss at center-back, apparently we’re title contenders. It’s always interesting trying to anticipate which way the wind will blow.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that Arsenal can’t win the league. I’m not even suggesting that we won’t win the league. I find myself believing that we can win trophies this season, and I even have some arguments to support that theory. But we must also accept the horrifying reality that this season can be a massive step backwards. While the title seems within reach, it is undeniably true that 6th place is a viable alternative.
Before even looking at the squad, let’s take a moment to contemplate the league around us. United and Chelsea were better than us last season. They are getting older, but barring early-onset arthritis they stand to be tough competition again this season.
Manchester City can’t buy the title, but they can buy everything else. With the players at their disposal it would be ignorant to simply write them off. I’m not sure that they are ready to challenge for a title, but they will be in the conversation. And if they’re in hailing distance of the top, they’ll simply spend more money in January to fill any obvious need. Adding City to the mix at the top means that there will be less room for error.
Then there’s Liverpool. They were a bit of a joke last season, and I enjoyed having a good laugh at them. But the Spanish waiter is gone, and more players stayed at the club than many expected. Gerrard and Torres are still there. Mascherano is there at the moment, although Christian Paulson was presumably brought in as his replacement. Joe Cole has arrived in exchange for Benayoun, and the rest of the team looks relatively similar to last season. It’s clear to me that Liverpool had stopped playing for Benitez. Now that he’s gone, we may see a more motivated, spirited Liverpool team. Let’s remember that they finished just barely off the top spot two seasons ago. If Torres can play more than a handful of games this season they will be tough to beat. Liverpool’s resurgence adds another bonafide title contender to an already crowded ballot.
Spuds, Villa and Everton will probably be one notch below the best in the league. But they will have their moments when they can beat anyone. Spuds in particular will be favored to retain a top four position, but I think their exertions in europe (if they make the group stage), combined with their lack of depth and mediocre defense (yes I live in a glass house and I’m throwing stones) means that they will struggle to repeat last season’s “success.” But no one will gain an easy three points off these sides. And if any of the other top four candidates hits a patch of poor form, these will be the teams waiting to capitalize.
Looking at those seven clubs, it becomes evident that no one is assured their place in the top four. It wouldn’t be surprising if the distance between first and eighth was closer than it has been in any other season. For that reason, three stupidly dropped points can be the difference between title contention and thursday night football. The Premier League has changed and replaced oligarchy with a semblance of parity. Arsenal are certainly one of the clubs to be seriously considered for the title, but there will be no room for complacency and no pity for a team suffering through an injury-plagued campaign. We may have been in the title conversation for a substantial part of last season, but two seasons ago we were clinging to fourth place by our finger-nails. Which one will it be this season?
Having taken a brief look at the competition, we can focus on the only club that really matters. But before looking ahead, lets remember what we’ve left behind. Last season we didn’t truly challenge for the title because of three clear problems: injuries, defense and goal-keeping.
When it comes to injuries, it’s hard to say what can be done to improve that situation. It’s entirely possible that we were just unlucky. After all, we lost Van Persie thanks to a bad tackle in an international friendly. Nothing could be done to prevent that. We’ll need better luck on the injury front this season, and unfortunately, we’re already off to a bad start. Hopefully, we’re just getting the injuries out of the way early. But my feeling is that there are four players who must play the majority of the season for us to have any chance. RVP, Cesc, Song and Vermaelen are indispensible. We don’t have any clear replacement for these players, and without any one of them we would be considerably weaker in key areas.
Arsene Wenger made no excuses for our defending after last term. He was clear in his appraisal that we conceded too many goals to challenge for the title. His response? We signed Laurent Koscielny, a bright talent one season removed from the second tier of French football. We also watched William Gallas, Sol Campbell, Phillipe Senderos, and Mikael Silvestre leave the club. While you can probably make an argument that losing the latter three is relatively meaningless, there’s no denying Gallas’ quality. He was a pariah in the dressing room but a top player on the pitch. I’m not suggesting that we should have kept him in the team, but there is simply no possibility that either Djourou or Koscielny are ready to match Gallas’ contribution.
Adding to our defensive woes, is the uncertain play of the goal-keepers. Last season was a major step back for Manuel Almunia. After looking like he might develop into a decent #1 at Arsenal, he showed why he has never been picked for his country at any level. Almunia cost us points that we couldn’t afford to drop. But he looked positively world-class when compared with the hideous practical joke of a goal-keeper that is Lukas Fabianski.
It is not an overstatement to say that I have never seen a worse goal-keeper in my entire life than Fabianski. Never. Not anywhere. He is undeniably the worst. He doesn’t even look decent in preseason. He doesn’t look decent during practice at member’s day. He’s just plain terrible. But that’s not the funny part. The funny part is that he believes he’s done enough to be Arsenal’s #1. Sorry, I know I promised not to make you vomit on your computer but that one’s not my fault. And I haven’t even told you the worst part yet. Arsene Wenger might actually start him at Anfield. Will that happen? I doubt it. I don’t think Wenger can be that myopic. But the fact that it’s a consideration is disgraceful. I am one of Arsene Wenger’s biggest supporters but in my opinion, his failure to sign a proper goal-keeper, combined with his persistent belief in Fabianski’s abilities, ranks as his most negligent act as manager during his entire term. We might be able to win the league with Almunia in goal. And I stress, “might.” But we will not finish in the top four with Fabianski anywhere near the pitch.
On paper, we are weaker defensively than last season, and facing more uncertainty at goal-keeper. So you really have to wonder, where does the optimism come from? Some of it comes from the genuine belief that Arsene will sign someone. I still can’t fathom the possibility that he’ll let the transfer window close without signing a CB and hopefully a GK. I think most supporters would agree that if the window slams shut without defensive reinforcements arriving, most optimism would fade rapidly. We can only hope that our belief in the manager’s appraisal of the team is not misplaced.
As of today, with Djourou apparently injured, we essentially have two CBs in the first team squad. We will go to Anfield with Vermaelen and Koscielny starting at the center of our defense. Should one of them go down with an injury during the game, Arsenal will be accepting applications from the traveling supporters for a place in the team. That’s the state of Arsenal’s defense. And when you put that kind of uncertainty in front of an uncertain keeper, the result is often panic and disorganization. Defenders need to trust their keeper and vice versa. Currently, it’s hard to see that happening.
I realize that this is starting to sound too doomy and too gloomy. But that’s not my intention. I still have high hopes for this season. But it’s patently obvious where our deficiencies lie and it’s absurd to trumpet our title aspirations while ignoring the weaknesses that may ultimately prove our undoing.
However, there are a few ways that we can overcome our defensive weakness. Most notably, we must pressure the ball in midfield. We all hate Barcelona, but watching them play last season, it’s easy to see what they do to their opponents. They pin them in their own half. They relentlessly pressure the ball in the opposition half, forcing giveaways and keeping the play far from their mediocre back four. That’s right, Barcelona don’t have a great back four. But they are protected by the hard work done in the opposition half.
Arsenal did very much the same thing at the start of last season. We pressured the ball, retained possession and kept the opposition trapped in their half. Unfortunately, as the season progressed, some of the diligence faded. Players like Denilson and Diaby didn’t work hard enough and that allowed teams to get behind our midfield too easily and outnumber our defense. This season the entire team must show better focus and commitment. With good pressure on the ball, we can take some of the emphasis off our defense and keep the opposition from creating easy chances.
Once you look beyond the defense, we are probably the best team in England. In fact, I don’t have a problem suggesting that we are as good as any team in the world. Our first choice starting eleven is good enough to beat anyone. Let’s look at the first choice squad:
Arshavin, Chamakh, RVP
Cesc, Song, Nasri
Clichy, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Sagna
Ignoring the obvious concerns at the back, that’s a very strong lineup. But it’s even more impressive when you consider some of the names fighting for a place on the pitch:
Walcott, Vela, Bendtner, Rosicky, Diaby, Denilson, Ramsey, Wilshere, Eboue, Gibbs, among others. You can make a very good team with the players that won’t be regular starters. Unfortunately for Arsenal, that’s often exactly how we are forced to make our team. If we can get through this season without being completely decimated by injuries, there’s a frightening amount of attacking talent Arsenal can deploy in any given match.
The addition of Chamakh to the squad not only bolsters the attack but adds a new dimension. During one of our particularly bad injury spells last season, we were forced to play Arshavin at CF. We frequently had a frontline devoid of height and power. But when you add Marouane to the squad, we have a real aerial presence. Chamakh and Bendtner give us more height and power in attack than we’ve had in a long time. If we need to be more direct, we have that option. Teams won’t be able to bully us like that did at times last season. On the contrary, a front line of Chamakh, Van Persie and Bendtner would prove an intimidating proposition for any defense. When things aren’t going your way during a match, you have to be able to change tactics. We will have the ability to do that this season.
Another factor in examining this season, is simply the development of the younger players. No title contending team can boast the amount of young talent found at Arsenal. And while these young players are no longer “kids,” they are still in periods of their respective careers where considerable development is expected. While teams like Chelsea will see key players start to decline, many of Arsenal’s players should improve dramatically.
Look at Alex Song last season. After his struggles the previous season lead some to question his future at the club, he became our first choice DM and one of the best in England. There’s no reason to believe that players like Denilson, Diaby, Vela, Walcott, Bendtner etc. can’t make similar improvements. If even a few of our players make Song-like strides, then we will be an even stronger side than anyone anticipates.
Samir Nasri deserves special attention. He has been a beast in preseason. He looks driven, fit and full of potential. I expect that we’ll see a fantastic season from Samir and that will only help Cesc play even better. He’s a perfect example of the kind of improvement we can expect from our squad without signing a single player.
That’s what’s so frustrating about this team. The more you look at the players, the more impressed you are by the wealth of talent. There are two title contending teams worth of creative players in the squad. And that’s what makes it even more inexcusable that we’ve failed to properly strengthen the defense. This is a team that is ready to win now, and for years to come. If only we could stop opponents from scoring. Unless we’re able to do that, it’ll be another season of style without substance.
The season begins on Sunday at Anfield and already the injuries are a concern. It’s entirely possible that our starting lineup will be missing RVP, Cesc and Song at a minimum. Denilson, Diaby, and Djourou are also injured. Not ideal, but not an excuse for failure. We simply have to make due with what’s available. Ironically, despite all our absences, we’ll be able to feature our first choice defense. And that’s still the area that concerns me the most.
So where will we end up this season? What can this Arsenal team achieve? For me, it’s very simple. If Arsene adds a CB and GK then we can win the league. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I think we should win the league. As of this very moment, rumors are flying around the web, from some very reliable sources, that Schwarzer and a defender will be arriving imminently. Some suggest that Schwarzer is hardly better than what we have but I disagree. I think he’s stronger on set pieces than Almunia and a better communicator which are two of the most important areas where we need improvement. With the new signings on board, I believe the sky is the limit for this team.
But on the outside chance that Arsene fails to strengthen at the back, I think it’s a very different story. Conceding late goals and stupid goals and funny goals and heartbreaking goals and every other kind of goal you can imagine is bad for team morale. It makes the entire team nervous. Suddenly, a 2-0 lead at Wigan isn’t cause for chants of “Ole,” it’s cause for panic. Winning teams play with confidence and swagger. They turn 2-0 leads into 7-0 victories. They feel safe with a one goal lead in the last five minutes. We must become that team. And with our current selection of central defenders and goal-keepers, it’s hard to see that happening. Drop a goal here, drop a goal there, suddenly you’re looking up at fourth place. Without improvement at the back, this could be our top 4 swan song.
So now it’s time for Predictions:
The more things change, the more they stay the same. I genuinely believe that Arsenal are the most talented team in England. Frankly, I don’t even think it’s close. When you look at our biggest games last season, we played most of them without RVP or Cesc or Song or Nasri or Gallas or Vermaelen or all of them. We simply can’t be as unlucky with injuries as we have been the last few seasons. When we put our strongest team on the pitch, I think we should be favored to beat anyone. With even the slightest improvement defensively, this can be a very exciting and memorable season. Call it optimism, or stupidity, or prescience, but I believe this is the year that Arsenal rise to the top of the footballing world. And no matter what happens this season, no matter who is on the pitch, I can’t wait for another chance to cheer on the Arsenal.
COME ON YOU GUNNERS!