A brand new season, same old worries: Arsenal season preview

Posted: August 10, 2011 by Balaji Ramamurthy in Barclays Premier League, Football
Tags: , , , , , ,

           Balaji Ramamurthy

          Editor – Football, The CouchExpert

          August 10, 2011

And here we go. Having weathered one of the most football starved summers in recent memory, we are just a few days away from witnessing the start of the new season in England. The English Premier League, now more popularly known as the Barclays Premier League  kicks off this Saturday. And having been a lifelong Gooner, it is only apt that I start off my role at “The CouchExpert” with a write up on Arsenal FC.

Sure it is a brand new season. Every single team on that points table starts from zero, zilch, nada. But somehow that is the only optimism I feel at the start of the season and this has been the case for the past few seasons with Arsenal. Too much promise, same old problems and a sum total result of disappointment at the end of the season. Well there is the usual criticism in the media about Arsenal stemming from the media considering them a team “not-so-English” and the reluctance of the club to spend on experienced and proven talent. The predictions always point to Arsenal crashing out of the top four and thus losing their right to play Champions League football. And for all their miseries, reluctance to splash cash and inexperience Arsenal always end up proving the doomsday predictions wrong, staying consistently within the Champions League spots. And to be honest I have never ever been bothered by such predictions, well, till the end of last season.

The most logical way to start analyzing Arsenal’s chances this season is to see what the others have been up to. Here is a team by team summary of Arsenal’s major competitors:

  1. Manchester United – Well, they are the champions. The joy of title number 19 has not yet withered and they are well and truly up for number 20 judging by their Community Shield performance against bitter foes Manchester City. Coming back from 0-2 to win 3-2 with a very young team just shows how much any title means to them and really puts on display the hunger for success in their players, be it the young and raw Tom Cleverley or the seasoned Wayne Rooney. It is as simple as that. They way every player in the team approaches any game of the season with a passion to win and hunger to succeed is the key to their swelling trophy cabinet. Of course they no longer have the swagger of Cristiano Ronaldo but have sure made up for that loss with their collective passion to win. As far as the the transfer market goes, they have made sure that they stay at the very least on par with the previous season. The loss of Ronaldo is an exception though. They still have the task of getting a good midfield up with Paul Scholes having retired and Ryan Giggs taking more of a backseat. But their biggest strength is, and mind you no other team in the league comes even close – the will to win.
  2. Chelsea – They started last season with a bang and looked like winning the league early. But a horrid mid season both derailed their season and Carlo Ancelotti’s tenure as their manager. And again the thing with Chelsea is the same as United. No matter what, they refuse to give up till the very end. This was clearly evident last season as well. After running away with the league at the early stages, then crashing down in the middle jumping around Europa League spots, they came back and voila, ended runners up. Chelsea have a new manager full of youth, ideas and exuberance in André Villas-Boas. But the core of their squad is  aging and though that is a long term worry, they should do okay this time as well. But the biggest thing going against them in recent times is the emergence of Manchester City as the new transfer market powerhouse. Chelsea have not been able to get the big money signings and have not added much to their squad. And their squad lacked depth midway last season which was why they tumbled. They might not be so lucky this time around, but let us wait and see.
  3. Manchester City – To be honest, I was tempted to put City above Chelsea at #2. They have certainly become a force to be reckoned with both on and off the pitch. Their pockets are so deep that they have managed to pack off clubs like Real, Chelsea, United and Barcelona when it comes to competition in the transfer market. The recent signing of Sergio Agüero is an exclamation point to their rising ambitions. They have a great strike force in Dzeko, Tevez and Agüero. Their defense is pretty solid too compared to the other big guys. They have two combative midfielders in Yaya Touré and Nigel de Jong adding to the solidity at the back. And Yaya Touré has recently been an emphatic source of attacking football as well. A solid goalkeeper in Joe Hart also helps their case. David Silva is their creative spark. They have depth like none other in the league and if their superstars settle into a groove early, we have a real contender on our hands.
  4. Liverpool – Agreed they had a very bad start to the season last time but their revitalization centered around Kenny Dalglish and Luis Suarez was remarkable and I expect them to stay among the top this season. They might not be title contenders but definitely with a rejuvenated squad and a mercurial manager, they are not Europa League material either.
  5. Tottenham Hotspur – The Spurs have a problem. And that is too similar to the one I am going to address in detail up next – Arsenal’s.  An unsettled playmaker, lack of squad depth, early starts and the admitted tiredness towards the end of the season – everything that resonates with a Gooner. And I am considering them a competitor for one reason and one reason only, they are too similar to Arsenal and that is competition any day!

And now, my beloved Arsenal. The reason I am so worried about Arsenal is the way they capitulated towards the final months of the 2010-11 season. It was remarkable, sad and never before seen. When the first team was fit and roaring in the beginning of the season, sure, Arsenal were emphatic. They looked confident and were sitting top midway. And then came the Carling Cup final against Birmingham. And this was seen as the best opportunity to exorcise the demons of many trophy-less seasons. To be precise, the last trophy to fill the cabinet at Arsenal was the 2005 F.A Cup. Arsenal have come close since then – the 2006 Champions League, the 2007-08 League title and the 2006-07 Carling Cup. But this was different. This was a team in dire need of a trophy success due to the sheer number of seasons since the last trophy.

And what happened? Arsenal ended up on the wrong end of the podium yet again and this time we witnessed something like never before. The season just collapsed. Chelsea moved up on Arsenal. And the nail in the coffin was Manchester City moving up above Arsenal to finish third. While Arsenal did drop many points before the Carling Cup final, their record after losing the final was appalling – 6 draws, 3 defeats and just 2 wins. As such, 12 out of 33 points towards a season’s culmination is a disaster of titanic proportions. But what makes it even worse is that the 6 draws and 3 defeats all came against non-top opposition, mid table teams. And Arsenal somehow managed to drop points in most of those games from winning score-lines. Arsenal dropped point after point at the Emirates. They gave us moments like Spurs coming back from 0-2 to win 3-2, Newcastle coming back from 0-4 down to draw 4-4 and West Brom running away to a 3-0 lead.  It was almost as if the team just wanted the next season to begin.

Either that or the team did not deem it worthy enough to show some seriousness towards the “ordinary” teams of the Premier League. In the early years of Wenger, you would rarely see Arsenal drop points against these “ordinary” teams, but all that has changed. Whenever Arsenal plays today, a possibility exists for any kind of result. For one, the passion to win isn’t there. Sure it exists in a few players but few players do not make the team. The spirit needs to run through the entire playing eleven and the bench. Some players just strut around, are too lazy to track back and defend, too lazy to go fight for the ball when the opposition has it and show utter lack of seriousness when playing the lower teams. It is as if they think the 3 points are in the bag even before kick-off. This was something that was never seen in Arsenal of early 2000’s. They were good, they were superstars unlike the current bunch and yet they would make it a point to pummel the opposition to submission every single game. They were that serious about winning. The current team barring the exception of a few players, simply does not possess such a quality.

Have Arsenal improved in that aspect during the summer break? Let us break that down into two sections. First being the mentality of the existing squad. That is a difficult question to answer from a couch thousands of miles away. The answers can be provided only by the first few games of the season. The first couple of games should indicate whether the players have made themselves cognizant of their past mistakes. Secondly, has the squad been augmented and dead wood thrown away? Let us have a look at that. Arsenal have signed three players thus far:

  1. Carl Jenkinson – 19 years of age and still raw. But lots of potential. It is evident Arsene Wenger sees enough in Jenkinson to place him as Bacary Sagna’s deputy at the right-back position. Emmanuel Eboue has become more and more of a hindsight in recent times and the way he conceded a 16778th minute injury time penalty to cost us points against Liverpool was atrocious. Eboue comes under dead wood. And the rumor that we rejected a £7m offer from Galatasaray better be a rumor. If it has any truth to it, then it would have to be the most foolish transfer market business ever by Arsene Wenger. So, Carl Jenkinson slots in at RB playing second fiddle to Sagna. It is good that Sagna is normally a season long fit player, else I would be worried about having to put in a League One teenager over there in a tougher environment.
  2. Gervinho – Thus far the one relatively established signing that we have made. A winger by position, he is a proven talent in the Ligue 1, though the rigors of which are relatively lighter than what he would find himself in at England. But still he has the pace, the skills on the ball, is direct and most importantly shoots accurately. Aerial prowess and a strong upper body also chip in and make this a quality bargain signing. And Gervinho has been sharp and good in almost all of Arsenal’s pre-season games.
  3. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – The so called sequel to Theo Walcott, signed at a price of around £12m which could rise further with add-ons and bonuses. And he just turns 18 in a couple of days after the league begins. Another winger by position, he is fast, physically very strong and has good shooting boots on. And by the looks of it all it seems he is being slotted into the first team right away at some point this season.

Gervinho - Lille to Arsenal

Arsenal still have work to do in the defensive area. The departure of Gael Clichy has left Kieran Gibbs as a starter and the lazy error prone Armand Traore as back up. I shudder to think what would happen if Gibbs gets injured. And that is not something unreasonable to envision, given Gibbs’ injury record. Arsenal need a left back. And the center half situation is only too well documented. Squillaci simply doesn’t make the cut and has almost lost the confidence and faith of the fans. Djourou has been an enigma thus far. One period he is a rock and in another he is downright unlucky or plagued with niggling injuries. I am of the opinion that we certainly need an established center-half in addition to Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny in order for us to go the entire season and emerge without a crisis. Looking at the last season only confirms the need to sign another center-half. Vermaelen went missing most of the season thanks to an Achilles’ injury and Arsenal were caught napping with Koscielny being the only consistent performer paired with the hapless Squillaci and the unlucky Djourou. But to be fair Squillaci and Koscielny are too similar. They clean up. And with Koscielny cleaning up expertly, it was up to Squillaci/Djourou to attack the ball and that is where we need a good attacking center-half.

Defensive midfield is another area to strengthen. Alex Song is good, but sometimes too lazy to work while playing the lesser teams. Emmanuel Frimpong is fast emerging as Song’s cover. He is well built and is exceptionally strong both on ground and in the air. But Arsenal would lose both in January during the African Nations Cup and maybe Wenger plans to use young Jack Wilshere as temporary cover during that phase.

Will they stay or will they leave?

Arsenal’s midfield right now is in a cauldron, so much so that it deserves an article of its own. Barcelona are as shameless as ever, courting Cesc Fabregas at every opportunity and yet unwilling to pay the necessary transfer fee. Cesc has not featured in most of the pre-season games and it does not look like he will feature in the weekend opener too. It looks increasingly like some movement is imminent and I will take this topic up in depth in another article before the season kicks off. Another player who has become a problem, though in a worser way is Samir Nasri. Nasri is apparently playing the dirty game of entering the final year of his contract, not signing a new one, courting other clubs and holding Arsenal to ransom in order to extract higher wages. With a reported £22m offer from City on the table, it would be crazy of Arsenal to hold on to Nasri and face the prospect of letting him leave for free on a Bosman next year. And all said and done Arsenal have enough cover for Nasri. Nasri is not the creative spark that Cesc is. Losing Cesc would be the body blow. Nasri, Arsenal can deal with and it is surprising why they already haven’t. When Fabregas does not play, Arsenal seldom create. Agreed Wilshere and Ramsey are both precocious talent. But the eye for that killer pass that Cesc Fabregas has, no one else in the current squad even comes close. Its like this. Nasri leaves, Arsenal have the task of replacing him with just one. And that one in all probability is already in our possession from the wide array of attackers we have. But Cesc leaves, Arsenal have a monumental task in their hands of replacing the team’s sole creative visionary. And without a replacement, the entire team would have to gel in and work their socks off to do what an in form Cesc does. My opinion? Sell Nasri, spend the money immediately on a quality replacement and convince Cesc to stay. More on that later. Tomas Rosicky has shown some promise in pre-season, but well he needs to stay fit to contribute anything meaningful from the midfield.

Which brings us to the strike force. Robin Van Persie has shown in the pre-season that he hasn’t forgotten what he did last season after returning from injury. 22 goals last season considering how long he was out injured is tremendous and he was probably the reason Arsenal even managed to stay in the top four. However lethal Van Persie maybe, we must note that he is yet to play a full season free of injuries. As long as he is there and firing Arsenal will do good, but what about that time when he isn’t? Marouane Chamakh started his Arsenal career well but then suddenly stalled. And seeing him in the pre-season games does not give me enough confidence. I  have not seen anyone so short of confidence on the ball and goodness its only pre-season. Carlos Vela better start scoring in games other outside of the Carling Cup. Nicklas Bendtner for all his faults has a better goal to game ratio than everyone except Robin Van Persie. Ideally I would like to see Bendtner retained rather than sold given Chamakh is woefully out of touch and Vela is well, Vela. Maybe Gervinho can slot in or maybe his signing means Theo Walcott gets his preferred striking role. All said and done I would say that a decent striker is also required to play back up to RVP. Unless that happens, retaining Bendtner and hoping Chamakh regains his early 2010 form and hoping for things from Gervinho/Walcott is the best bet. Add Andrei Arshavin to the equation and we have a situation where we have so many quality wide players and just one world class striker. Arshavin must be given the license to roam and yes he better improve his work rate. This is where I see Gervinho playing a more attacking role darting constantly into the box and Arshavin roaming around the wings. Conclusion? Keep Bendtner if we are unable to sign a decent striker. Joel Campbell is another teen prodigy tipped to join Arsenal. With work permit issues though, he will be loaned out even if he signs.

The goalkeeping situation is interesting. It seems that Wojciech Szczęsny is the new number 1 (#13 literally but #1 choice). He is a solid keeper who barks orders at his defense and is quite a good shot stopper. I do not have any worries with him. But it is his back up that I am worried about. Łukasz Fabiański is a decent enough cover, provided he does not repeat that nightmarish period he had last season when anything would go past him into the net. He did improve after that and it seems Arsenal are good to go provided Szczęsny lasts the entire season and Fabiański covers up ably. Arsenal should be okay here.

I would keep this part very short and succinct. Manuel Almunia, Emmanuel Eboue, Denilson need to be sold.

So there you go. A good center-half – yet to be signed. A left-back – yet to be signed. A striker – yet to be signed. The transfer window is nearing its close as the season begins. Any first team signing should have ideally been made before start of season so that they get the time to settle into the squad. But who knows. Maybe there still is time. Maybe Arsenal are looking to make those center-half and left-back signings, their top priorities, from within the English league so as to negate the gelling in period. And with Cesc and Nasri’s future still question marks, we might need replacements there as well. And time is running out. Never has a season started with so much pessimism, fear, frustration and a sense of being totally unsettled. Add that to the usual complacency of the majority of the squad while playing the lesser teams, the free fall last season from top of the league to almost falling out of Europe and the emergence of Manchester City as a genuine footballing powerhouse, it looks like Arsenal will have to be at their very very best to avoid any kind of calamity this time around.

As hard as my heart beats for Arsenal to lift the title, my mind has its best possible verdict for Arsenal this season – 4th (a position they will have to earn hard battling against the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham).

  1. thecognitivenomad says:

    I thought when they signed that youngster Chamberlain, there was a section of Arsenal fans who groaned over the signing of another youngster.

    I have always found it hard to understand Wenger’s methods. Arsenal seem more like a footballing school than a club these days. There are no doubts over their style and quality of football, but you’ve got to win games in the end.

    As you mentioned, they need to offload a few guys and get their squad back in shape. Their biggest concerns were the defense and the Goalkeeping areas. I’m sure, with a better GK, they would have had 10 points more than what they ended up with.

  2. Arsenal who? Man U’s 20th title is a formality this year!

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