Yet again, it has been a regular transfer window for Arsenal. A lot of players linked with the Gunners, a lot of expectations and hopes about possible arrivals and…a lot of frustrations and disappointments. The season still hasn’t started yet but we already have an injury crisis in defence and our best players are out for the tricky season opener against Liverpool.
It’s not all doom and gloom though as Arsenal have signed Granit Xhaka in order to add some steel to our midfield and Rob Holding could become one of the leading central defenders in the league.
Here are the key points ahead of the new season.
1.We have never had so many rivals for the Champions League places.
It was funny while it lasted but it is a fair thing to admit that last season was a one off for Chelsea and Manchester United, even if the latter won the FA Cup. In fact, it is safe to predict that kind of a season won’t happen again now that both clubs have made managerial changes and added excellent players to their roster.
Chelsea have Antonio Conte who has a season without a defeat on his CV (with Juventus) and N’Golo Kante, the midfield dynamo of league champions Leicester City while Manchester United have broken the world record to sign Paul Pogba but not before they got themselves 50-goal-striker Zlatan Ibrahimović and a 32-assist-man Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Also, neither team will have a Champions League burden next season which means they can focus primarily on the Premier League.
Manchester City replaced tactically naive Manuel Pellegrini with the much more successful Pep Guardiola and have already spent £165.58 millions on new players (via transfermarkt.co.uk). Our imminent opponents Liverpool have been transforming more into a typical Jürgen Klopp’s high-pressure-applying team. Tottenham have added more muscles to their already physically strong side by signing Victor Wanyama from Southampton while West Ham United and Everton could offer strong competition for all the aforementioned teams. Finally, let’s not forget about the reigning champions Leicester City. They did lose Kante to Chelsea but they could be more dangerous in attack with pace of the Nigerian striker Ahmed Musa who is supposed to be a better foil to Jamie Vardy than Shinji Okazaki.
2.We usually start slowly after the big international tournaments and that is something we can’t afford this season.
In the opening six league matches we face Liverpool, Leicester City, Watford, Southampton, Hull City and Chelsea respectively. Whilst Hull City might be a cannon-fodder this season due to various problems within the club, all other opponents could hurt our title chances.
What worries me the most is not just the strength of our opponents but also the fact Arsenal have usually had a slower start after the international tournaments. That’s something we can’t afford this time, especially with tricky games against Liverpool, Leicester City, Southampton and Chelsea on the schedule.
After EURO 2012, Arsenal won just two out of their six opening games and the same thing happened after World Cup 2014. We have to have a strong start in order to stay in the title race as long as possible.
3.We haven’t found a striker who would be an upgrade to Giroud.
With all due respect to Olivier Giroud, he is not good enough to lead Arsenal to the league title. The Frenchman has failed to reach twenty goals in the league in each one of his four seasons at Arsenal and last season we dropped out of the title race during his barren spell of 15 league games without a single goal.
To say Giroud is a bad striker would be stupid because its simply not true – he adds a physical presence, link-up play and is rarely injured which is a virtue you can’t praise enough when you are an Arsenal fan. However, the fact Arsenal have tried to sign Vardy and Alexandre Lacazette proves that Arsene Wenger wants an upgrade on Giroud.
The problem is, Wenger obviously doesn’t want to spend big money on a new striker. In the world where 29-year-old Gonzalo Higuain is worth €94 million, you can’t expect that 23-year-old Mauro Icardi would cost less than £50-60 million. We need a mobile striker with a decent conversion rate to get the best out of Mesut Özil’s pin-point passes and Icardi – who scored a goal with every third shot on goal in a terrible Inter Milan team last season (via Squawka.com) – could be the guy we need. Giroud, for instance, scored with every fifth shot.
Our failure in the pursuit for a new striker means we could see an internal solution to the problem. Theo Walcott, Chuba Akpom or even Alex Iwobi might get a chance in a No. 9 role. If we had signed at least a world-class winger (Julian Draxler, for example), we could have used Alexis Sánchez as our main striker. Speaking of Alexis…
4.We have to persuade Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil to renew their contracts.
Both Alexis and Özil enter the penultimate years of their respective contracts with Arsenal. They have arrived from Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively to win titles but they haven’t had proper support from their team-mates to do so. Our last league campaign was the perfect example. Özil ran the show in the first half of the season (three goals and 16 assists in eighteen games) and Alexis led us to second spot in the final quarter of the season (seven goals and two assists in ten games) but there was nobody to pull the weight in the third quarter of the season (twelve points out of possible 27). That’s why players such as Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Granit Xhaka, Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny have to show they can be relied upon when it’s crunch time.
If we go through a season without winning a trophy or at least launching a serious title challenge, Alexis and Özil might do a Van Persie and a Nasri in order to force their exit from the Emirates which would be a major blow for Arsenal.
5.Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere have to step up.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has been at Arsenal for half a decade and it’s time for him to show that his enormous talent can deliver the goods. His final product hasn’t satisfied anyone so far even if some of his big performances helped us to win trophies (against Liverpool and Everton in the FA Cup 2014, against Chelsea in Community Shield 2015). It’s time for him to show he can be a great player and not just someone who fails to meet expectations.
Pretty much the same goes for Wilshere. He is a 24-year-old midfielder who has already lost two-and-a-half seasons through injury. With our central midfield strong in quality and quantity, Wilshere will have to break into the starting eleven first.
He is one of rare English central midfielders who can dictate the tempo and control the ball with his passes and runs and it would be a shame for both Arsenal and England if Wilshere doesn’t make it.
6.Our Spanish full-backs will have to be the better half of the defence.
Whoever partners Laurent Koscielny in the heart of our defence, he will take time to settle and to forge a strong partnership with the Frenchman. However, our Spanish full-backs Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal have been excellent and that’s something we’ll need next season as well. Bellerin’s pace is second to none in the league and Monreal’s defensive qualities could force Wenger to pair him with Koscielny again which could mean a life-line for Kieran Gibbs.
7.Which 2016 signing will make a bigger impact – Granit Xhaka or Mohamed Elneny – and what does it mean for Francis Coquelin?
Xhaka and Elneny couldn’t be more different characters yet both of them have a lot of in common. Both used to play for FC Basel, both are central midfielders, they are taller than our midfielders in previous years and both of them are expected to protect the defence while spraying passes forward.
Xhaka exudes confidence in his every interview and believes he has everything to be a leader. His playing style reminds me a lot of Emmanuel Petit’s (both are 1.85 m tall and left-footed), especially his long balls forward that will give our team a chance to switch the game from one flank to the other.
Elneny, on the other hand, is a rather humble guy with endless stamina. He doesn’t dive into tackles but rather stays on his feet to cut the passing lanes rather than pressing the opponent who has the ball. He has been at Arsenal since January which gives him an advantage over Xhaka as he is already adjusted to English football.
Now, the signings of Elneny and Xhaka could spell trouble for Coquelin. The Frenchman is arguably a better defender than either of the former FC Basel midfielders but he offers very little going forward. He hasn’t performed at the same level after the injury he had picked against West Bromwich Albion in November 2015 and that could either force Wenger to turn Coquelin into a make-shift central defender or to use him in matches where Coquelin’s aggression and tackling will be needed.
8.Which youngster will make the big breakthrough: Chuba Akpom, Krystian Bielik or Jeff Reine-Adelaide?
Here is some funny trivia about Chuba Akpom: he is the last Arsenal player that earned a penalty for Arsenal at the Emirates (v Aston Villa, Februar 2015). That doesn’t say as much about Akpom as it says about the referees’ treatment of the Arsenal attackers but it may be a clue that Akpom has a direct approach that either leads to goals or to opponents’ fouls in a dangerous area. His spell at Hull City wasn’t very successful though which suggests he might need a special approach by Wenger to make the best of his non-disputable talent. Akpom has been prolific during preseason scoring in each of his four appearances. He is a real poacher which combined with his pace could make him a great asset for our attack. He has been a long-time friend with Alex Iwobi which could make their partnership on the pitch a successful one.
Krystian Bielik is a defensive midfielder who has been used as a central defender in the preseason matches. He has height and intelligence that an Arsenal central defender should have but at the age of 18, he might be too inexperienced to carry the burden of being a first-choice central defender on his back. Bielik will be the one for the future, there is no question about it, but it seems Wenger believes he could be the one for today as well.
Jeff Reine-Adelaide is probably the biggest talent from the bunch. The Frenchman will probably get a chance on the wing at some point of the season. It’s up to him to prove his technique, passing, dribbling and pace are good enough for the highest level of football.
9.Can Petr Čech win points on his own for us again?
Whilst it’s true Čech has conceded too many goals from the outside of the box since joining Arsenal, Arsenal fans should remember that Čech’s place was once reserved for Manuel Almunia and pray to whoever they pray for Čech’s good health. The legendary goalkeeper won The Golden Glove in his first season at Arsenal and picked 20 clean sheets across all competitions. His commanding presence will mean a lot to our defence, especially during the absence of Per Mertesacker. Young defenders Calum Chambers, Bielik, Holding and others will need his guidance next season.
10.Can Arsene Wenger win both the league and a new contract for himself?
Wenger is 67 and hasn’t won the league for 12 years. His rivals in the league are younger and most of them have an upper hand on him. He has already admitted Arsenal can’t compete with some of them on a financial level which came as a disappointment for the Arsenal fans who believed the years of austerity were left in the past. He enters his final year of his contract and it will take a really good season to earn a new one. Let’s support him this season to make it happen!
The season for us starts tomorrow against Liverpool. We can hardly conclude how our season will pan out based on the first match but the issues that still can be solved will be visible from the beginning. Let’s hope we’ll have a flying start and win the league for the first time since The Invincibles!