That time of the year. Hope springs eternal and the tribulations of the season are yet to rear their ugly Mike Dean-shaped head. So time to look at the coming campaign.
The season is, as usual, dependent on injuries with the added spice of players coming to the end of their contracts. Most people are fairly relaxed about Mesut Özil extending his deal; even Barcelona’s reported interest should they not land Philippe Coutinho didn’t send social media into apoplexy, which in itself is some sort of achievement.
Most accept Alexis Sanchez’s departure as inevitable while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain divides opinion. Footballers come and go; you don’t want to lose the good ones, particularly with the list below of those which we’re struggling to shift (or just ones I think we can afford to move on). But when players do move, it’s up to the manager to find replacements which improve the XI.
However, as Arsène admits, uncertainty over contracts creates a negative environment in the dressing room. Will it have the same effect with two key players and perhaps the most versatile member of the squad in limbo? It’s hard to see how, the longer it drags on, it can’t.
On the pitch, we’re in fairly good shape as a squad. Improving the group is always a matter of personal preference but the consensus is for a central midfielder. The flat back four isn’t consigned to the history books but a back three is the formation du jour.
Much of this season’s success or failure will depend on how quickly Arsène reacts to problems on the pitch. The crumbling form in winter / spring of this year can’t be repeated nor ignored. It’s not about knee-jerk reactions but resolving the problems. There’s a small army of analysts and coaching staff watching matches; Arsène, as well as his own experience, has to take on board their views in finding the solution. No man is an island, etc.
Not Just Down To The Manager
While Arsène is responsible for preparing the side, once they cross the white line it is down to the players. A common theme through the years has been a lack of mental strength during hard times. We lost six Premier League games last season in back-to-back clusters: Manchester City & Everton; Watford & Chelsea; Liverpool & West Brom. The issue isn’t new, we’ve always reacted badly to defeats but I don’t recall us losing so many back-to-back games and ultimately, it cost us the revered top four finish.
Defensively, we are in a better position than before and while I think trying to land Virgil Van Dijk is a no-brainer, I suspect we’ll go with the central defenders we have. We saw in the cup and Community Shield that it can function, and survive when it is rocking under pressure. That has to become a force of habit until confidence returns.
My guess is that the opening games will be tougher than normal with Koscielny’s suspension and Mustafi’s fitness in question. However, neither Leicester nor Stoke should hold any fear in our minds.
In midfield, the usual question marks about fitness exist. Santi Cazorla is the new Tomas Rosicky and I can’t see plans being made around the mercurial Spaniard until (if) he proves his fitness. Two season’s lost is a lot of ground to make up in the twilight of his career.
Sunday gave us an interesting glimpse into Arsène’s thinking. The Xhaka / Elneny partnership is a case of needs must but it did give us a stability defensively, and provide a strong attacking platform in the absence of so many key players. Can they replicate that in the Premier League? It’s a different intensity to the friendlies but there’s no reason yet to believe it won’t a good pairing. Until Aaron Ramsey returns and I suspect he’ll drop into the XI without a second thought.
Alexis’ contribution will be scrutinised like no other and I expect to see a lot more criticism of the Chilean on social media. It’s almost a defence mechanism against him leaving, with a subset of fans declaring that he’s not as good as everyone thought. That will ratchet up when Alexandre Lacazette begins scoring on a regular basis. Pre-season saw some good movement and linkage on the tour and at Wembley; hopefully it won’t be long before consistency in front of goal becomes evident.
Where We’ll Finish In Premier League
Anywhere from 3rd to 5th, depending on the investment by Liverpool and Tottenham, as well as our own winter wobble. No higher than 3rd.
Never say never. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t make a decent fist of winning the Europa League (last four). Domestically, the FA Cup is our personal property and to win the cup again at Tottenham’s home ground is rubbing salt into their wounds.
Fixture In Which The First Groundhog Day Surfaces
The optimist in me: Chelsea (A). The pessimist: Stoke (A). In Reality: Liverpool (A).
Elsewhere in the Premier League
Top four: 1. Manchester City; 2. Chelsea; 3. Manchester United; 4. Arsenal
Relegated: Huddersfield; Watford; Brighton
First manager to be sacked: Tony Pulis (WBA RFC)