Season Preview: Arsenal

by Chris Glover

In stark contrast to the way Arsene Wenger deploys his team during the season, he seems to have spent the majority of the off-season on the defensive, desperately trying to hold his team together and ward off the attentions of (careful here) ‘bigger teams’. Samir Nasri has joined Cesc Fabregas on the list of perennial transfer targets, while the last remaining ‘Invincible’ Gael Clichy has moved on in search of trophies (in no way influenced by money, of course).

Last season was all too familiar for Arsenal fans, as their promising start on several fronts collapsed after injuries to Fabregas and Walcott were quickly followed by the disastrous Carling Cup final and an awful stretch to end the season which saw them win just twice in 11 Premier League games. This has inevitably led to the annual demands to revamp the squad and abandon many of the policies that have seen Arsenal compete with higher spending teams for the past decade. Ian Wright has weighed in with typical thoughtfulness by digging deep into his scouting notebook to suggest Arsenal go after Michael Essien or Vincent Kompany rather than “plump for someone in France or Spain hardly any of us have ever heard of”.

Manager: Arsene Wenger
Last season: 4th
Odds: 15/2
In: Gervinho (Lille, £11m)
Out: Gael Clichy (Man City, £7m), Mark Randall (free)

Keys to the season

The quality of players at Wenger’s disposal has rarely been the issue over the years though a few areas of the squad could probably do with a couple of fresh faces. Gervinho has already been brought in to help up front, and one would imagine he should be at least a small improvement from the likes of Bendtner and Eduardo who have previously served as key squad members. Goalkeeper and left back remain a priority for Arsenal fans though early indications seem to be that Wenger is happy to stick with Szczesny between the posts while the search for a left back has included names like Jose Enrique (possible) and Leighton Baines (highly unlikely) with no significant progress so far. In truth, Clichy hasn’t played all that well for two seasons now and, at least defensively, should not be particularly hard to replace.

Aside from holding onto his best players, Wenger’s biggest challenge seems to be the mental fragility of his team, with too many goals conceded from set pieces and too many losses against the other title challengers. Eight points from a possible 30 against the other top six clubs is not championship form while 13 points dropped from winning positions is again a worrying trend. The team remains one of the youngest in the league but there is plenty of experience throughout the side and such excuses will gain more criticism as the season goes on. The team have improved against the ‘rougher’ teams in recent years but the suggestion that the team is soft lingers on.

Despite the concerns though, we would do well to remember that heading into March, Arsenal were very much in the title race and held a first leg lead over eventual champions Barcelona in the Champions League. Van Persie had the best goals per game record in the league scoring 18 goals in his final 17 appearances while Nasri, Walcott and Wilshere all enjoyed their finest seasons to date in their young careers. Vermaelen is essentially a new signing at the back giving the team their best centre back depth for several years while the ever reliable Sagna is back again for another campaign on the right. The finances also seem to be available to strengthen the side if Wenger finds the right player to fit the team. It’s been a while since they tasted success at the Emirates but writing this team off seems premature at best.

The Team

It’s a fairly typical 4-2-3-1 / 4-5-1 deployed by Wenger with many interchangeable parts allowing him the flexibility to create favourable matchups depending on the given situation. Gervinho, Arshavin, Rosicky and Chamakh give probably the best depth Arsenal have enjoyed along the front three since Henry, Pires et al thrilled the Highbury crowd. The team can sometimes become a tad narrow –particularly down the left – and it will be important for whoever (if anyone) comes in at left back to fill the void left by the loss of Clichy’s forward runs. The development of Jack Wilshere as a force in the middle should give Fabregas the confidence he needs in those behind to push further upfield and dictate the play. Fabregas’ importance to this team cannot be underestimated:  in his 20 starts last season, Arsenal scored 44 goals, winning 13 and drawing 4. Extrapolated those numbers over a season would give Arsenal 84 goals and 82 points, two more than champions Man Utd.

Key Player

Both Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas would be huge losses to Arsenal, but regardless their main man is Dutch striker Robin van Persie. He proved his worth last season with a gluttony of goals, and if they can keep him in one piece for a whole season he’s one of best in Premier League when it comes to providing plenty of goals and assists.

Opening Fixtures

Newcastle (A), Liverpool (H), Man Utd (A), Swansea (H), Blackburn (A), Bolton (H)

Given the recent trend of starting the season fairly well, Wenger may well be somewhat pleased to see the trip to Old Trafford early on the slate. The first three games could bring back nightmares for the Gunners who may recall throwing points away at Newcastle having led 4-0 and at home to Liverpool in the 102nd minute. A poor 1-0 loss to Man Utd is unlikely to bring back warm memories either. Better performance this year followed by three winnable games could set Arsenal up nicely for another a) run at the title, b) late season collapse (delete as appropriate).

Where will they finish?

With the lack of good additions to the squad and the uncertain futures over a number of their top players, our optimism for Arsenal has been dampened after having tipped them for title success last season. Out of all of the top four clubs, Arsenal’s place might be under the biggest threat from big spenders Liverpool. But we think Arsenal will hold on til the finish. 4th

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