By Tyler Outlaw
Cautious optimism is my default position as it relates to Arsenal. In the past I have been burned by a belief that Arsene Wenger had finally signed the player that would make the difference towards mounting a proper title challenge. After obliterating our transfer record and signing Ozil, I believed that we had turned the corner. We were top over the Christmas period, but our injuries finally caught up with us and the challenge was short lived. The following summer we signed Alexis and I was all in on Arsenal to top the table. Three weeks in and we were already playing for second. So when we signed Petr Cech, I made a conscious effort to not get carried away with visions of us lifting the elusive trophy come May. Although I believe that we will be much improved, I convinced myself that we would come up just short of catching Chelsea at the top of the table.
Part of me says we will come up short because I genuinely believe that Chelsea have better players in a few, incredibly important positions, namely center forward and central midfield. But my pessimism is chiefly a coping mechanism of sorts. If I expect Arsenal to win the league (like I did last year), those periods where we cannot get a result hurt even more. Thus, I was going into the season expecting us to easily finish top four, while challenging Chelsea for the top spot deep into the season. These expectations seemed reasonable enough to me as I presented them on the inaugural Soccer Toddcast this week.
However, when I arrived home from recording I sat down and began to watch the season preview presented by NBCSN. After spending an hour touching on every team in the premier league, the two Robbies made their predictions for the upcoming season. Mustoe picked Chelsea to finish top, which I have a hard time arguing with. But Earle, beautiful Robbie Earle, picked our beloved Gunners to finish top. The two Robbies were then guests on the Men in Blazers season preview. When it came time to make their picks, Robbie Earle waxed poetically about the upcoming season. He remarked, “Data and fact says Chelsea, heart and romance says Arsenal.” It was as if Robbie Earle, of all people, had the ability to peer directly into my soul. I have been picking Arsenal to win the league for years based on the romance of it and now that I had finally lowered my own expectations, a trusted pundit was picking my boys to lift the trophy. I immediately began to question whether an expert would pick Arsenal for the same reason as Gooners regularly do. Maybe, but I reckon a bit of “data and fact” may indicate Arsene Wenger’s boys are the team to beat this year.
We should begin by examining the defense. Defensively, Arsenal were not a great team in the first half of last season. Our best defender, Laurent Koscielny, had a bit of a knock and we were forced to play Nacho Monreal and Mathieu Debuchy centrally. While both performed admirably, their selection centrally indicated an unsettled back four from the off. Add to this the youth of Hector Bellerin, as well as the balancing of our fullback options (as wonderfully examined by Tim Stillman this week), and it is easy to understand why we struggled to perform in the first half of last season. The unsettled nature of our back four was compounded by the fact we were relying on an error prone and out of form Wojciech Szczesny in goal.
Our problems at the goalkeeper position have been well and truly solved. Bringing Petr Cech to the Emirates was quite the get for Wenger. We’ve added a world class shot stopper, something we have lacked for a decade or longer. More importantly, we’ve added a real leader to our squad. This is a man who has won everything, a man who leads both vocally and by example. I think it would be difficult to overstate how important Cech’s presence will be to us in the forthcoming seasons. The argument between Szczesny and Ospina is one that has divided our group on Facebook throughout the summer. Most favored the undeniable contribution Ospina made in the latter stages last year, while a few (myself included) advocated for the taller, more premier league proven entity in Szczesny. However, the capture of Cech rendered this argument unnecessary. He is among the first names on the team sheet, and we are incredibly lucky to have a player of his caliber leading our defense. He is a vast improvement on what we had last year, and is one of the chief reasons many pundits are expecting Arsenal to challenge for the league this year.
The capture of Cech will undoubtedly improve our defensive record this year, but a settled back four will also be a contributing factor. Mertesacker and Koscielny should be first choice from the first match of the season. Mertesacker, along with Cech, brings calmness and leadership to the back line. In Laurent Koscielny, I believe we have the very best center half in the whole of the league. He has all but eliminated his penchant for silly fouls and mistakes that lead to chances on goal. He covers a lot of ground, and is exceptional at nicking possession early. Additionally, Bellerin and Monreal were among the most productive and exciting full-backs in the league last year. We managed to hold on to Nacho, despite reported interest from Spain and I expect him to maintain his form from last season. Bellerin was a revelation last year, and I believe he has the talent to push on and continue to produce. He is going to continue to be one of the scariest full-backs in attack, he just needs to work on his positioning in defense to progress.
Not only is our first choice back four strong, we also possess an impressive amount of depth. This is one of our strengths in the squad, but is especially true in defense. We all know what to expect from Ospina as our cup keeper. He may be small, but he showed last year that he certainly has what it takes at this level. Debuchy could be counted incredibly unlucky to come into this season as second choice. Two long injury layoffs last season allowed the young Spaniard to get some time, and Hector took his chances well. Debuchy would start for a vast majority of Premier League clubs. On the other side, Kieran Gibbs is a full English international who has been first choice for Arsenal in the past and who has performed admirably. We also have young Callum Chambers who can fill in at full back or center half. Most excitingly, I really rate Gabriel (despite injuring Jacky boy in training) to help us this season. Every time he has played he has impressed and I think the calls for him to supplant Mertesacker are coming in the not too distant future. He’s aggressive, quick, and good in the air. Tactics expert Michael Cox recently compared him favorably to his countryman Lucio, which shows just how highly many rate the Brazilian. With our defensive record from the second half of last season, and the incredible depth we possess at each position, Gooners can expect the team to be tough to break down in the upcoming season.
The themes for this season squad is surely talent and depth. Nowhere in the team do we possess more talent and depth than in the midfield. If we’re going to challenge properly, this is where we will have a distinct advantage over the other would be contenders. Unsurprisingly, it all starts with the meteoric rise of Frenchman Francis Coquelin. After returning from loan during the Christmas period, Coquelin became the defensive midfielder Arsenal fans had been crying out for. Hard in the tackle, intelligent with both his positioning and simple distribution, he was certainly one of the reasons our fortunes turned after the holiday fixtures. The question is: can he continue this great form and even improve? I am hopeful that he can, but have doubt to whether he will. I think his form could be a major factor in how our season ends up. Additionally, as of writing we lack a like for like replacement for him should he pick up a knock or lose form. I love Mikel Arteta and believe he receives a lot of unjustified stick from fans, but his game is completely different than the Coqs. If Coquelin goes down, it could be a disruptive force throughout the squad and that could mean the end of our title hopes. This is the position I believe we most need to strengthen. We do not need a world class player, just someone similar to Coquelin who will challenge him and provide similar cover.
Ahead of the young Frenchman is an absolute selection nightmare for the boss. Santi Cazorla had a wonderful campaign in the deeper role last year. Aaron Ramsey has said that he is much more comfortable centrally, as it is easier for him to time his runs into the box. It seems to me that Wenger must decide between the two of them on a weekly basis, and I think we will see both of them make important contributions next to Coquelin this season. We also have recently injured Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to choose from in this crowded midfield. All of these options have loads of talent and provide useful depth for a team that wants to challenge on all fronts.
I fully expect Mesut Ozil to take hold of the #10 role early, and barring injury make it his own for the whole of the season. Ozil is another who receives a fair amount of criticism, but his run of games in the second half indicate that this could be the season he puts it all together. His movement, ability to beat a man off the dribble, as well as his ability to pick out the key pass required to unlock deep defenses will all be on show this year. I expect him to build on the second half of last season and challenge for player of the year honors come April and May. This is a big season for our record signing, and he will show that yet again Arsene Wenger made the right decision in building a squad around his talents.
“If Arsenal add a world class striker, they can go on and win the title this year.” Supporters and neutrals alike can be heard saying this in pubs across the world over the past few months. While I would certainly welcome a world class striker, I am not convinced that it is truly a need. More importantly, I don’t think Wenger believes it’s true. Hear me out on this.
No team in the Premier League, bar Manchester City perhaps, has the kind of exciting talent that we can rely on out wide on a weekly basis. Alexis is going to play every week. His debut season was almost unheard of from a newcomer to the Premier League. Defenders are absolutely terrified of his pace, his technique, and his ability to score and assist at an incredible rate. If he avoids injury, he is going to play 35+ games for a team who is going to score a lot of goals. I would not be surprised to see him get 15+ this season. Opposite of him we have a number of options, but I believe that Oxlade-Chamberlain will make the right his own this season. He provides the pace of Walcott, but also has the requisite technique, intelligence, and work rate to contribute in the build-up and defensively. It is the trendy pick after his goal against Chelsea in the Community Shield, but I truly believe he will nail down a spot in the team this season. Depth is also not an issue out wide. Walcott, Rambo, Jacky boy, Welbeck, and even perhaps Gibbs can do a job out wide.
Centrally, I believe Arsene Wenger is more than happy with the options he already has. He has faith in Olivier Giroud, a man who has seemed to improve every season under Wenger’s tutelage. He has had double digit goals in the league every season at the Emirates and has yet to hit a truly purple patch. If he is first choice this season, I predict he finally gets to 20 league goals and settles the ongoing debate about whether or not he is championship quality. It should also be added that he, like Welbeck, contributes a lot in our meticulous build up play. These two both have room for improvement in front of goal, but I think Wenger trusts the goals will come. He also can call on the likes of Walcott and Sanchez to do a job up top, and these guys have shown in the past that they can perform in that position. Because of the talent, promise, and depth we already possess up top, I do not expect Wenger to sign any reinforcements here. However, if a world class option presents itself, the boss has shown over the past three summers that he will not let the opportunity slip through his fingers.
It should be apparent that I really rate the boys to build upon a successful campaign last time out. While my heart wants to pick them to win the title, I am going to stick with my pick for us to finish second. I completely agree with my buddy Ryan (@Billfan78) when he says that a successful season for us would be challenging for the title, advancing past the round of 16 in the Champions League, and another good cup run. I would be genuinely happy if we hit all of those marks, but a part of me feels like this could be our year. Let’s enjoy it together! Get out to Slim’s or George’s as much as possible, and let’s continue to grow our community while we watch the best Arsenal team since the Invincibles have a right go for the trophy we all covet.
Up the Arsenal!
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