With the transfer window still open, it’s a tricky proposition to write a pre-season preview. So much can change in the next fortnight as clubs seek to finesse their squads ready for the coming campaign. Arsenal are no different from many in that sense, there is still business to be done to strengthen in places.
Unlike many, there is a residual feelgood factor around the place. The FA Cup win lifted the millstone of the trophyless years from around the club’s neck. Even players who were not professionals when Patrick Vieira last struck a football for Arsenal, felt the pressure, the weight of expectation. That’s gone now or rather, shifted. For trophyless years, read a decade since they were last crowned champions.
Having topped the Premier League for around four months last season, there is a belief that the squad can take those lessons a step further, particularly with the knowledge that they are winners, that when a finishing line is in sight, they can cross it to lift silverware. It’s something I have believed and written about for several years; the squad needed to know they could win when it mattered before proving themselves in the longest race of all. The FA Cup win ought to be a stepping stone to better things.
Yet doubts remain that it will.
The new season sees the squad a year wiser to the perils that await them. Amassing a total of 66 points out of 78 against teams who finished 8th or below is title-winning form. It foundered with just 13 points won from a potential 36 from the matches against seventh place or above. It’s obvious where the work needs to be done and not a new problem for the manager, coaches and players to resolve. Arsenal record against the top four – or the traditional version of it – has been appalling in recent seasons and shows no signs of abating.
Victory over Manchester City at Wembley offers little in the way of pointers for the coming season. It replicated the comfortable win in Helsinki twelve months previously but that proved to be something of a false dawn; the hope remains that lifting the Community Shield offers more confidence than before. That’s something Arsenal will need, along with strength. September offers some indicators in that respect with the visits of City and Spurs to The Emirates.
However, the away fixtures is where it matters most, turning the losing habit into one where points are taken. Last season’s drubbings are uncomfortable reminders of Arsenal’s naïvety in these matches, Wenger’s selections left the team vulnerable with the top five ruthlessly exploiting them. It is comfortable – if that’s the right word – to compartmentalise those results as aberrations, one-off’s never to be repeated. Whilst the level of defeat may prove that right, the manner of the performances is more of an indicator as to their uniqueness. A criticism of the manager was a lack of tactical flexibility and that is one area where improvement must come.
The received wisdom is that the top four is going to be more congested this season with the Van Gaal factor inspiring United and Liverpool investing wisely to replace Suarez. Arsenal are, so it goes, vulnerable to losing their place at the top table. Whether that is true or not remains to be seen but it is not a new accusation for the club to face. For years, Everton or Spurs have been usurping Arsenal from the top four, which never materialised as their own form imploded. I am unconvinced Liverpool will replace Suarez’s goals so readily or that Van Gaal is going to bring such a significant improvement from essentially the same squad Moyes had. Some new faces yes, but the core of the side woefully failed last term.
Even so, Arsenal cannot afford to be complacent and it will be a real test of a squad that some have hailed as the strongest Arsène has assembled in half a decade or more. Despite this, there is still a strong sense that it needs additions before there will be substance to that claim. Informed sources believe the club is on the lookout for a central midfielder who can double as a centre back if anything happens to the first choice pairing of Mertesacker and Koscielny. Lining up in pre-season with Monreal alongside the promising Chambers lends credence to that theory. Lining up in the season with that duo would be the most testing of circumstances.
It is always the nightmare scenario that brings about nervousness for the future, even if the likelihood of it happening requires an alignment of the stars that few could foresee.
Versatility is something of a by-word with this squad, the forward line in particular filled with players who are capable of playing wide or centrally. The addition of Alexis Sanchez has certainly added to the attacking variety available to the manager and despite the naysayers, he is more likely to be a success than a failure. Whether that happens immediately remains to be seen but his transition from Serie A to La Liga was relatively seamless so why not his move to the Premier League?
But scratch beneath the surface and there are concerns. Sanchez, like Theo Walcott, can be used as a central striker and Wenger did look briefly at him in that role during the second day of the Emirates Cup. There is a world of difference between a friendly and competitive football. Were the manager seriously considering it as an alternative to Giroud, playing the Chilean there in the Community Shield against Manchester City would have made sense.
A cult is building though around Joel Campbell and Yaya Sanogo. The latter has fourteen games and counting without finding the net. Four goals against Benfica proved to be a false dawn as the City defence comfortably snuffed him out at Wembley. He would benefit from a loan spell. Growing up in public is always testing; growing up in public at Arsenal has broken many players in the past and his manager’s confidence in the player will surely be sorely tested if his barren spell continues.
Campbell has built an equally ardent band of admirers. Costa Rica were everyone’s favourite nation at the World Cup, surpassing every expectation of them. Leading the line, Campbell found the net once against Uruguay but worked hard for the team. Nothing wrong in that ethic at all but is he capable of deputising for Giroud in the worst case scenario? Playing wide in Greece, his scoring record of a goal every four games is vastly improved on his time in Spain and France but still not hugely impressive. Perhaps the Premier League will bring the best out of him even if his opportunities seem limited.
It leaves Arsenal hugely reliant upon Olivier Giroud’s fitness and form. He has been lucky with the former throughout his career, long may that continue but I wonder if he feels pressure on his place in the starting XI in the same way he might were there a credible alternative to him in the squad? When the club pursued Gonzalo Higuain, Giroud noted that he felt threatened. It wasn’t the case with Luis Suarez nor I suspect, Alexis Sanchez. It remains a weakness in the squad and not one that is likely to be addressed.
Competition exists elsewhere. Arsène replaced Lukasz Fabianski with David Ospina, a different level of competition for Wojciech Szczesny. The Colombian is first choice for his country and will want to retain that by becoming first choice for his club. It can only be good for Arsenal as the Pole’s consistency levels improve, driven on by genuine competition for his place.
Equally positive were the signings of Debuchy and Chambers. Both replaced Bacary Sagna, indicating how much of a loss he was in the sense of his versatility. Both have been solid in their pre-season matches and add depth to a defence which still needs to fill the hole left by Thomas Vermaelen’s departure. Chambers has the potential to be a good signing down the years for the club with his apparent versatility but being young, still has much to learn. His positional sense was found wanting at times at Wembley but the same accusation can be levelled at seasoned professionals so it might seem harsh to pick on that fault. The great defenders though, learn from those mistakes.
Last season was derailed as injuries took their toll, Shad Forsythe is reckoned to be the most important signing this summer as the club seek to improve that ghastly record. And much of this season’s hopes and aspirations rest on this area. If Arsenal genuinely have title ambitions, they need to keep the likes of Ramsey, Walcott and Wilshere fit for longer than was managed last time around. If that happens, the outside chance of the title can become more realistic but it’s a big IF, requiring cultural change at the club.
Being entirely dismissive of Arsenal’s title chances is as daft as proclaiming them favourites. The hope is there, the possibility of a title might happen but repeating the ruthlessness against the bottom 12 teams whilst improving the record against the rest of the top eight, seems a tall order, a bridge too far this time around. Whatever the outcome, the next nine months is sure to be an emotional rollercoaster. It always is.