The season is upon us. Once again we are debating ins and outs, rather than settling on our best XI to face Sunderland at the Emirates this Saturday. It’s frustrating but it’s the way of modern football. The timing of the transfer window is such that the start of the season practically takes a back seat to player movement until Jim White screeches out his last updates on Sky Sports at the end of August. But in spite of the rumors and the speculation, there is a game to play on Saturday and those three points count just as much as the ones in May. So the most important question now is whether we are ready for the real games to begin.
It’s impossible to examine the state of the squad without first addressing the ghastly transfer of our captain and talisman to our hated rival. Robin van Persie has carried on the rather upsetting new tradition of Arsenal captains departing the club under a cloud. We’ve seen our fair share of ugly transfers over the past few summers but I’d suggest this one has the foulest stench of them all.
I think it’s important to be honest when analyzing the ramifications of van Persie’s move to Old Trafford. There’s so much hypocrisy surrounding fan reaction to his sale and that has invariably obscured the important issues. So let’s make this simple. If you were calling Robin van Persie one of the best strikers in the world in April, you cannot take the position that losing him to Manchester United is trivial. I’ve read so many articles, blogs and tweets praising van Persie’s sale as “good business,” but I’m not sure I have a clue what that means.
Looking at our “good business” in the cold light of day, we have sold our best player to a club that we desperately want to overhaul in the table this season. How does that help us? I’ll acknowledge that 24 million pounds is a good fee. There’s no argument there. But as Arsene himself points out, we have strengthened our rival. What he did not address is what this means for our squad. While there’s reason for great hope, the loss of van Persie is a blow. The way you make up a 19 point gap is by adding excellent players to your squad, not by signing excellent players to replace even better players.
It’s easy to say that we are stronger because the additions of Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla offset the loss of van Persie. That’s true. I believe that we are, at this moment, stronger than we were at the end of last season. But that’s not really the point. We were not a whisker away from being champions last season. We were cut adrift from the title chase nearly from the start. More than modest improvement was required if we hoped to change that. Sending 30 league goals and 8 league assists to a club that finished 19 points ahead of us is not the blueprint for leapfrogging them.
Now I don’t want people to think I’ve lost the plot. Van Persie was always leaving this summer. That much was clear when he made his ill-advised statement. But we have to be honest in appraising the impact of this move. Suggestions that he will never have a season like last season are irrelevant. He may not score 30 and assist 8 for United, but he is one of the finest strikers in the world. Last season was an anomaly for him statistically, but not in terms of his quality.
Injuries have blighted Robin’s career, but when he’s on the pitch he plays phenomenal football. He only started 19 Premier League games in 2010/11 but he managed 18 goals and 7 assists. The season before he started 14 times in the league and notched 9 goals and 7 assists. And those are just the statistics. His movement, first touch and distribution are a perfect fit for our style of play. We will miss all of that. Not because our new signings aren’t any good, but because you will always miss a world class player when they leave your squad. And as far as United are concerned, van Persie may well break down for them the way he has so many times for Arsenal. But when he is on the pitch for them, he’s going to make them a much more potent side. That’s reality.
So van Persie is gone and we will miss his quality. But I think we can be significantly better without him if other factors work in our favor. Naturally, our three new marquee signings all have to integrate effectively and relatively quickly. Last season our attack was remarkably dependent on van Persie’s contributions. At times it looked like the team was standing around waiting for him to do something special. That won’t be the case this season. When Henry left, other players stepped up to fill the void. Hopefully we will see something similar with van Persie’s departure.
We particularly struggled to create anything from midfield last season. Santi Cazorla should change that. While I will readily admit I’m no expert on the spaniard, I’ve read enough about him to know that he brings qualities to our midfield that were in short supply after Cesc left for Barcelona. If he starts picking passes the way our previous spanish playmaker did, then there will be more chances created for our attacking trident. Rather than relying on individual brilliance to get us goals, Podolski, Gervinho, Giroud and Theo should all be the beneficiaries of more clear-cut scoring chances. With better chances being created, it may be easier to replace the Rotten Dutchman’s goals than critics would suggest.
But Cazorla isn’t the only important addition to our midfield this summer. There are a host of Arsenal players that can be given the ever-popular designation of “like a new signing.”
Abou Diaby has made it through an entire pre-season without losing any limbs. He’s far from the legend that his absence has made him in some circles, but he can dribble past a defender and score goals when the chances fall to him.
Jack Wilshere is the most talented player at the club and his eventual return this fall will improve our midfield in almost every category.
Finally, I think you can consider Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain almost like a new signing this summer because it looks as though the manager will now utilize him in central midfield. His pace, dribbling skills, vision and finishing will terrorize defenders and while his age suggests that he will be inconsistent, he definitely adds another goal-creating and goal-scoring threat to our previously threadbare midfield corps.
All things considered, the midfield looks far better now than it did at the end of last season and there’s still the suggestion that another player or two could be brought in. But that brings us to the next seemingly inevitable departure.
What to say about Alex Song? He’s a polarizing figure to say the least. I think he’s become a scapegoat for what was wrong with the team last season and much of the criticism levied at him strikes me as unfair. In a season where our midfield play almost always failed to inspire, Alex Song lead the team with 11 assists. Not only did he provide assists, but he often provided key assists when it looked as though we wouldn’t find a way through the opposition defense. He showed flashes of brilliance in big games like our all-important away leg at Udinese. And who can forget his magnificent assist for van Persie against Dortmund at the Emirates.
Once again, the moment a player seems eager to leave the club, fans begin to rally against him. It’s admirable but perhaps a bit naive in modern football. Tweeting that Song can “f*ck off to Barcelona” or “if he doesn’t want to be at the club then we don’t need him” sounds great. It’s a proper supporter’s attitude. But it doesn’t come close to acknowledging the fact that Alex Song, for all his character flaws, started 64 Premier League games at the heart of Arsenal’s midfield the last two seasons. You don’t just casually throw that away. Especially when you’re not entirely sure how to replace it.
Song gets criticized for failing to sit in front of the back four like a true holding midfielder. But I’m not convinced that’s even his true role. Certainly some degree of discipline is required from the Cameroonian, but he’s definitely not expected to stand in his own half waiting to destroy attacks. He’s part of our “double pivot” in midfield. He’s meant to press the ball in the opposition half, taking turns pushing forward with his midfield counterparts. Even when we had the likes of Gilberto Silva and Vieira at the club, nether was expected to merely protect the back four and I don’t believe Alex Song is expected to do that either.
Having defended Song, I will readily admit that there are flaws in his game. He gives away idiotic fouls and turns the ball over at inopportune times. Sometimes he seems to switch off and he tries too many Hollywood passes when the simple pass is the better option. I think some of that tendency is down to the lack of creativity in our midfield last season, but it still wasn’t helpful. However, that doesn’t mean that we can afford to just discard Alex Song. All you have to do is look at our record when Song didn’t play the last two seasons and you’ll see that we aren’t a very good team without him.
As fans, sometimes I think we forget the importance of continuity within a squad. A new signing is an unknown quantity. Sometimes they work out. Sometimes they don’t. In almost every case, they require some amount of time to integrate into the squad. Especially when they are new to the Premier League. New signings can significantly improve your side when they are brought in as an addition. But when they are brought in as a replacement, there can be a drop in performance, even if it’s only temporary, while they adapt to their new teammates and new style of play.
Alex Song is certainly a replaceable player. We may even have players within the squad that can eventually be an improvement over Alex Song. But if we have ambitions of winning a trophy this season, I’d suggest that Song would have to be replaced with a new signing immediately. And even if he is replaced immediately with a quality signing, we will have to hope that our new midfielder is able to come into the side and perform immediately. Either way, it represents even more turnover within a squad that’s almost unrecognizable from the one we supported just two seasons ago.
Consider that Cesc, Nasri, van Persie, Clichy, Bendtner, Denilson, Benayoun, possibly Song and Arshavin, and several others have left in just the last two seasons. That’s an enormous amount of change to a side over a relatively short period of time. And every one of the players I named was either a crucial member of the team or a relatively regular starter. It’s hard to maintain consistency with that degree of turnover. Especially when you consider that Arsenal’s style is supposed to feature an up-tempo, possession passing game that requires some degree of familiarity between the players.
Let’s assume for a moment that Alex Song does leave and he’s replaced by someone who becomes a regular starter for us. If that were the case, then our front six could regularly feature Podolski, Giroud, Cazorla and our new signing. That’s four new players in our front six. If you add Wilshere or Diaby into that mix then you have five out of the six players in front of the defense that essentially didn’t play for Arsenal last season. It could be incredibly exciting when you look at the talent. But it could also mean we suffer some real growing pains as the team learns to play together.
Ultimately, if the summer ends with van Persie and Song out the door, I can live with it. I won’t like the fact that our captain left for United, and I won’t appreciate the timing of Song’s move. It’s never helpful to have a key player leave on the eve of a new season, let alone two. But with the business we’ve already done and the business we may still do, I think the team will be stronger this season than last. Whether it’s enough to see us make more than a small move forward may depend on how quickly our new signings adapt and what happens with our injury situation.
Getting Wilshere back soon, and at anything resembling his best level, makes us a significantly better side. Keeping Abou Diaby fit for a season gives us crucial depth in midfield that we lacked last season. If Rosicky can come back playing like he did at the end of last season, then our embarrassingly poor midfield of a season ago may actually become the strength of the side. Especially when you consider that Ox should make a huge leap forward in his development and Coquelin looks to be a truly classy and exciting talent waiting to take center stage.
Defensively we look mostly fit and full of talent, but unless Wenger is planning to buy a full-back in the next few weeks, we’ll need Sagna back soon and for most of the season. Our fortunes this season may be closely linked to his recovery. Considering what his presence means to a player like Theo Walcott, and what happens to us defensively when we try to use our center-backs as full-backs, Sagna’s injury situation might be the most important at the club.
I have no doubt that we’ll score goals this season. Even with van Persie’s departure there’s reason to believe we can be more potent this season, and we’ve really never struggled to score since Wenger arrived at the club.
I also have no doubt that we’ll concede goals. We have some good defensive players individually, but our tactics mean that they are too often outnumbered defending counter-attacks. Whether you love or hate Alex Song, his departure isn’t going to improve our defensive record, even if he’s properly replaced. We weren’t particularly deep at his position and losing him doesn’t improve us. Perhaps we’ll add a player who focuses more on his defensive duties, but no player can play every game at this level.
But I don’t think we’re hopeless defensively. My belief is that our improved midfield will take better care of the ball this season. If we have fewer turnovers and don’t get dispossessed so often, then we’ll face fewer counter-attacks. That’s what lead to so many of the goals we conceded last term. We were actually much improved in our set-piece defending and I don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t continue. Cut down on the counter-attacks and we may significantly cut down on our goals against.
So now it’s time to guess what will happen this season. It’s hard to ignore the loss of van Persie and probable loss of Alex Song when considering what to expect from Arsenal in 2012/13. But I think there’s a huge element of a team’s success that comes from intangibles. What will Steve Bould bring to the side? What will it mean that we’ve moved out so many of the players that contributed to season after season of disappointing finishes? What will it mean to have a squad with an average age closer to the prime of their careers than the start of their careers? Overall, I think those intangibles can add up to something special. I think there’s just enough new blood, new ideas, and quality to make this the most exciting Arsenal side in years. In my opinion, it’s easily as good as the one that challenged for the title in 2007/08.
Manchester City are a fantastic side but they have a lot of egos and proved last season that they are capable of a meltdown at any time. United are stronger thanks to us, but they have weaknesses defensively and have lost two players that carried them for an entire generation. Chelsea will be improved but there are question marks surrounding their manager (as always) and the balance in their squad. Those three teams are the only other sides that should have any chance to challenge for the title and I think we can be as good as any of them on our day. We will need depth to face the inevitable fixture congestion but I think we have just about enough quality now to handle it. The real question is whether this Arsenal side can show the necessary focus and consistency in every match they play. That, more than anything, is what has alluded Wenger’s teams during this difficult trophy-less period. I suspect that we do.
We’ll soon see what this team has to offer, but it just feels like a different Arsenal side right now. An Arsenal side that I’m very much looking forward to supporting this season. And one that I believe can, if it all falls into place, can do more than just challenge for the title. I think this team may have a chance to win it.
Football is back. Life is good.
Come on you Gunners!