BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
We are down to last season’s top four in the Premier League previews on Fan Fuel, as Arsenal look to maintain their position in the top four with no player of significance added to the squad so far.
At Arsenal’s AGM last season, Arsene Wenger claimed that outside of the four main prizes, the club also competes for the fourth place trophy that brings with it a place in the Champions League. Wenger rightly copped a lot of flak for his statement with many Gunners fans eager to end their trophy draught. It seemed for a fleeting moment things would be different this summer as Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis promised that Arsenal would spend big money on players to strengthen the squad and challenge for honours. Unfortunately, words have not been backed by actions as not a single player who can upgrade the quality of the team has been signed. To make matters worse, Wenger seems to have put all his transfer eggs in one basket, as the tedious chase of Luis Suarez increasingly looks like a futile endeavour.
A victory over Manchester City in their final pre-season game added some gloss to the summer, although they were enough worrying signs to suggest that the weaknesses that have dogged Arsenal in recent seasons are bound to be repeated in the regular season. Gunners fans head into the new season with a mixture of trepidation and anger at a manager who continues to believe that the squad at his disposal is good enough to challenge regardless of any additions in the summer.
On defence: Wojciech Szczesny is a goalkeeper who has immense belief in his abilities. Szczesny’s winning mentality and confidence is refreshing in an Arsenal squad that contains a fair amount of players who don’t have the self-belief that is required of winners. Szczesny is a tremendous goalkeeper, and it’s often forgotten that the Polish international is only 23 years old, and is bound to improve even further. However, Wenger did replace him for a part of last season, reminding the young goalkeeper that one can’t believe in their own hype too much, otherwise the Premier League will find a way to knock you down. The reality is that Lukasz Fabiañski is not nearly in the same league as his younger compatriot, but if Szczesny suffers a dip in form again, there is back up waiting to seize his chance.
The partnership of Luarent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker in the centre of the defence was seen as a crucial reason for Arsenal’s improved form in the back end of the season that saw them pip Tottenham to fourth place in the league. It certainly wasn’t the first choice partnership at the beginning of the season, but the Franco-German pair complemented each other’s strengths really well. Mertesacker can at times appear too slow and vulnerable against strong forwards, but his calmness on the ball and sensible decision making contribute to Arsenal’s solidity when they are in possession. He is also Arsenal’s best defender in the air. Koscielny also has decent ball playing attributes and his superb positional skills are extremely effective especially when defending against teams who like to keep the ball on the ground. However, Koscielny is guilty of the odd lapse in concentration, and his rash tackling can be extremely detrimental to the team at times.
Captain Thomas Vermaelen is still some ways away from returning to the squad as he recovers from injury. Many Gunners pundits believe Vermaelen is consigned to being a backup, however I wouldn’t right off the Belgian vice-captain just yet. Any player can have an average season once in a while, and Wenger must surely realize that for large parts of his Arsenal career, Vermaelen has stood tall as the best defender in the squad. Vermaelen’s presence is crucial as they are no other reliable centre-backs in the squad, and the thought of playing Bacary Sagna as centre-back will send shivers down Arsenal fans backs. If Wenger does play Vermaelen in the team on his return from injury, it is vital that he be paired alongside Mertesacker, as a partnership with Koscielny is simply too risky as both centre-backs do like to venture forward and could easily be caught out on the counter-attack.
When fit, Kieran Gibbs looks like he was born into the left-back position. Gibbs is that rare English fullback who actually thinks with the ball at his feet. If Gibbs were playing on the continent, there would surely have been more appreciation of his talents. Extremely sound technically, Gibbs covers space really well, and rarely loses one-on-ones even against the fastest and trickiest wingers in the league. Excellent in possession with a quick burst of space, Gibbs’ ability in supporting the attack is underrated. Unfortunately for Arsene Wenger, Gibbs is extremely injury-prone. Nacho Monreal is really unlucky that he is playing in the same era as Jordi Alba, otherwise he would surely be the starting left-back for the Spanish national team. Monreal offers almost everything that Gibbs does and performs to the same standard, with pace and Premier League experience the only differentiator that sees Gibbs currently as first choice. Monreal is however sidelined for the early part of the season.
Bacary Sagna still remains at the club despite making plenty of noises about leaving throughout last season. Reliable for the Gunners through most of his Arsenal career, Sagna has lost a lot of his physical potency, and plenty of opponents targeted Arsenal’s right flank to take advantage of the Frenchman’s weaknesses. Ideally Wenger should start the vastly improved Carl Jenkinson as right-back, but the manager can be blind to the faults of his favourites. Jenkinson has come a long way from his error-prone days in his first season, working hard to enhance his technical skills and increasing his physicality. This could be the season where the young Englishman establishes his place in the first team ahead of Sagna.
The midfield: Mikel Arteta is fundamentally important to Arsenal’s midfield. Arsenal’s percentage of wins dramatically reduces when the Spaniard isn’t playing, which doesn’t bode well for the beginning of the season as Arteta is out for at least the first month of the new campaign. When he was signed in the aftermath of the 8-2 loss to Manchester United, many believed Wenger would deploy him in a creative attacking role. Instead, the midfielder has shown his footballing intelligence by thriving in a deeper defensive role. For a team that emphasizes possession like Arsenal do, the most crucial aspect for any defensive player is comfort in possession, and also the ability to release the more attacking players with creative passes from difficult positions, a quality that comes naturally to Arteta.
The whole country believes that Jack Wilshere can solve all of the national team’s problems, and perhaps at his best he can. More pertinently for Arsenal, Wilshere has gone through pre-season without any injury worries, and if he stays fit for the majority of the season, then he will lead Arsenal’s charge on both fronts. Possessing qualities that are so rare in English midfielders, Wilshere is comfortable in possession, can beat players with a smart turn or glide past them with some trickery, can pass extremely well, create chances and score goals. Oh, did I forget to mention, he can even dictate the tempo of the game by playing from a deeper position? Without Wilshere, Arsenal are certainly a poorer team.
In addition to Arteta’s absence, the unfulfilled talent of Abou Diaby once again misses the start of a season due to injury, pretty much confirming Aaron Ramsey’s presence alongside Wilshere. Arsenal fans stand divided on the Welshman’s place in the starting eleven. Ramsey hasn’t been the same player physically since a horrendous tackle impacted his development just as he was settling into becoming a first team regular. However, there were signs toward the end of last season that Ramsey had picked up his speed while running, and there was a greater mobility to his overall game. At the age of 22, it is still possible for the midfielder to improve and reach a higher level of consistency, as he certainly has the technical attributes to be a success at Arsenal. A lot will depend on how Wenger manages to motivate him.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is also an option in the centre of the park. Wenger can at times be infuriating with his rigidity in defining a player’s role, and at the present moment the manager is firm in his belief that Oxlade-Chamberlain’s best position is on the wing. Roy Hodgson however has clearly demonstrated at international level, that with his range of passing and smart link-up play, the young Englishman can be a successful central midfielder. Finally, the man the Czechs call Mozart. In an ideal world Tomáš Rosicky would already have been established as a Premier League star. With all the perfect attributes to be a game-changing midfielder, Rosicky’s injury problems have curtailed his influence, and over the years he has unfortunately become one of the players who seem to epitomize Arsenal’s penchant for sticking to the status quo. That being said, when on song Rosicky can be extremely effective for the Gunners, exchanging quick passes with other midfielders to keep forward momentum, while also creating chances with his subtle ability to beat defenders. Emmanuel Frimpong’s career has stalled after showing potential a few seasons ago, the Ghanian being another option if physicality is required.
On the attack: The fact that Arsenal have been so desperate in their attempts to sign Luis Suarez suggests that despite his claims, Wenger believes he needs better striking options. Olivier Giroud can at times appear to be a very intelligent forward, and his goal return last season can’t be written off as a failure. He is still good in the box, though at times can lack efficiency in his finishing, and when involved in the play he is good at linking up with the creative midfielders. Once again, a lot depends on whether Wenger can guide him to becoming a more complete player. While Giroud can go missing sometimes, Lukas Podolski is barely noticed except when scoring with his lethal left foot. Initially the German international did have an impact on the wing, but as the season went on, defences found it easy to deal with Podolski’s limited threat as an all-round attacker. It was no surprise that Podolski hardly finished a full game, for when he doesn’t score goals, there isn’t much that he adds to the team. Yaya Sanogo arrives with bags of potential, but is largely unproven with serious doubts about his temperament and work ethic in his native France.
The scoring onus then falls on Theo Walcott. Many experts believe that Walcott proved he was good enough to Arsenal’s leading forward with 14 goals in the Premier League. I am still not convinced that he is, although there is no denying that his pace and directness are now crucial against the lesser teams in the league. Walcott’s finishing also improved last season, adding finesse and placement rather than just hammering shots with power. Ryo Miyaichi has bags of pace and can excite if he gets going but at the moment lacks the confidence of his manager, especially in light of an injury-curtailed year on loan to Wigan last season. Nicklas Bendtner and Park Chu-Young remain in the squad as proof that Wenger’s famed success in transferring players has also started to stagnate.
The man in charge of supplying the aforementioned forwards is Santi Cazorla. The Spanish midfielder was one of Wenger’s best buys in recent times, and his standard should be the benchmark for future Arsenal purchases. Equally comfortable with the ball on either foot, Cazorla can create chances with precise through balls from the centre, while his ability to play across the attacking third means he can dribble past players on the wing to create chances and score goals himself. Wenger will hope after a full season in the top flight, Cazorla will be even better this season.
Conclusion: After a brief flicker of hope that things would change this summer, Arsene Wenger’s standard mantra has been repeated often during the pre-season. In addition to the challenges in signing Suarez, Arsenal have also lost out to other teams in their attempts to sign Gonzalo Higuain and Luiz Gustavo. The need for reinforcements is evident across the squad, and with money available it perplexes many as to why players of significant quality are not purchased.
Wenger is right about the current players having good technical standards, and against most opponents Arsenal’s ability to play better football should be enough to deliver wins. However, as usual, Arsenal are only ever an injury or two away from going on a bad run, and performances against the top teams in particular have started to become unconvincing in recent years. I am afraid it’s going to be more of the same for the Gunners this year, where even the ‘fourth place’ trophy to decide the top club in North London isn’t guaranteed against a rejuvenated Spurs squad.