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Arseblog Season Preview 2013-14

The summer is over, the time has come. It’s the traditional, almost always annual, Arseblog season preview in which I assess the state of the squad before the season begins.

The caveat is the same every year: this is about where we are now. A lot can happen between now and the end of the transfer window [*tumbleweed*], but all we can do at this point is assess our readiness on the eve of the new campaign. So, without further ado, we’ll start with:

GOALKEEPERS

szcz_fab1Last season’s verdict: I’m very happy with Szczesny as our first choice keeper, and if he stays injury free I think he’ll improve again this season. Fabianski doesn’t convince everyone but as back-up I think he’s probably fine and if he’s determined to press Szczesny for the first team spot then the competition will be a positive thing.

Not much has changed really. I still like Szczesny and my thoughts on Fabianski are much the same. The point about competition is interesting though. In pre-season Wenger has rotated his keepers, and in the game against Man City they played 45 minutes each.

Although I suspect Szczesny is most likely to start on Saturday, he’s by no means established as the number 1, and for that he needs to look long and hard at himself. Vito Mannone was a trier, but never quite good enough, and with Fabianski out injured for most of last season, the younger of the Poles had a real chance to make the position his own.

However, youthful hubris and complacency saw his performance level drop somewhat. Not the point of horrendous mistakes week in, week out, but you felt he wasn’t as good or sharp as he should have been. The manager delivered a short, sharp boot up the hole by dropping him for a fit-again Fabianski, and only further injury allowed Szczesny back in.

In the run-in the level of his performance was much higher and he made some outstanding saves to help us to 4th position. So, for me, he’s the guy with the shirt for now and hopefully the realisation that he’s got to keep playing well to keep it drives him on.

Verdict: Doubts over this area persist, both in terms of the personnel and the coaching. Fabianski is injury prone and with only young Argentine Damian Martinez as back-up, you do wonder if a Poom-esque signing might be prudent. I still like Szczesny, and think he’s got excellent potential, but he really does need to have a solid, consistent season.

DEFENCE

per_kosLast season’s verdict: The constant shuffling of back four combinations last season didn’t help, nor did playing players out of position, so hopefully some continuity will help make things better. However, individual errors were costly last season, and our ability to concede the silliest of goals hasn’t gone away. As mentioned the presence of Steve Bould is something that lends one to be more optimistic about our chances of defensive improvement, so let’s hope he can start to put things right back there.

In terms of personnel I think it’s obvious we’re light at centre-half. Squillaci, Djourou and Miquel are gone. Only Koscielny and Mertesacker are fit at the moment, and although there’s talk of Sagna as cover, he’s our best right back and should play there.

Thomas Vermaelen is out for 6 weeks, has missed all of pre-season, and is trying to recover from the sort of slump in form that isn’t turned around overnight. He’d have wanted the summer to get himself fit and sharp, and it looks like it’ll be well into the new campaign before he’s ready.

I like our options at full back, and the Mertescielny axis is one that works extremely well together, but a knock or a suspension and we’re in a bit of trouble.  I’ve seen people ask ‘Who is this 4th choice centre-half we could buy?’, but why buy a 4th choice centre-half? Buy a player as good as or – and I know this is revolutionary – better than the ones you have. It’s not like we don’t have the resources.

Verdict: It’s overlooked that Arsenal finished with the second best defensive record in the Premier League last season. Admittedly, much of that was because of a renewed team focus on the defensive side of the game, but we’ve got good players back there and good relationships in key positions. Adding a good quality centre-half would complete us in this area.

MIDFIELD

Arsenal midfieldersLast season’s verdict: If Song goes you have to think we need somebody to replace him, beyond that, however, I think we’re well stocked for midfielders and if we can get Jack Wilshere up and running again, he could well be the man to make an impact in the second half of the season. The one worry I’d have is that we might not be as physical as we’d like but physicality is not the be all and end all these days.

This time last year Diaby was fit, we had Francis Coquelin who looked promising, and there were high hopes with the addition of Santi Cazorla. This time around Diaby is knackered (again), Coquelin has gone, and we look short on options – especially now that Mikel Arteta has been ruled out of the start of the season.

Aaron Ramsey kicked on in the second half of last season, forming a very effective partnership with Mikel Arteta, while Rosicky, Cazorla and even Oxlade-Chamberlain can play as the attacking tip of that trio. The big question is where does Jack Wilshere fit in? As part of the two deeper lying players, or is this season when we see him move forward to show why he’s got the number 10 on his back?

Lack of options is a huge worry too. As much as I like Rosicky and Wilshere, you can’t look at their injury records and express surprise if they miss games again. That (in terms of the season) leaves us with Arteta, Ramsey, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain (I’m making the assumption that Frimpong won’t be involved, and even if he is around, I don’t think he’s a realistic option anyway).

It’s hard to understand why we didn’t more aggressively pursue Luiz Gustavo who ticked many boxes in terms of quality, versatility and availability. I’ve seen some suggest his wages were too high, but he’s a 26 year old Brazilian international coming from the Champions League winners. What do people expect? It seems penny wise, pound foolish.

Verdict: I still worry that we lack some creativity, although Ramsey’s pass for Walcott’s goal against City was a perfect illustration of what we need and what he’s capable of, and some robustness/physicality too. There’s no doubt in my mind that at least one signing is required in this area. We just don’t have anywhere near enough depth and for such a crucial, and physically demanding, area of the pitch we’d be bonkers to ignore that.

STRIKERS

Arsenal strikersLast season’s verdict: Podolski and Giroud are good signings and are experienced enough to settle in quickly. Walcott’s ‘consistent in patches’ approach to the game brings some rewards and I would hope that Gervinho’s second season sees him improve. He showed flashes in pre-season but really needs to step it up. I think it looks a better balanced forward line up, with Cazorla and AOC also capable of playing wide as well as in midfield, but I’d feel more comfortable with another option (and not one that’s scored just 1 goal in nearly 2 years).

While I’d be the first to advocate signing a striker, I don’t think last year’s crop did that badly. Podolski got 16, Giroud got 17, and Walcott 21 in all competitions. Even Gervinho chipped in with 7, so while still being firmly of the opinion we can improve, we’re not counting on players like Chamakh or Park to make a difference. All of these guys can score goals, and I expect them to do so again.

It’s obvious that Arsene Wenger is trying to sign Luis Suarez, and we wanted Higuain to the point of agreeing everything with him until Madrid put the price up and we walked away. I’ve written at length about both these guys, and given the absolute mess the Suarez situation is right now, I do wonder if we’ll come to regret passing up on the Real Madrid man. Even if Suarez was your preference, I think we’d all be feeling a lot better about the start of the season if we had him on board right now.

What’s clear is that we need to be more efficient in front of goal. Too many chances went begging last season, and for a team that went through periods when they struggled to create chances in the first place (something that’s still a worry), bringing in somebody who can add a little bit extra up front is a must. At this point, however, who that might be is anybody’s guess.

Verdict: If we can maintain our defensive record, and improve up front, it suggests that the kind of games which passed us by last season are more likely to produce a better result. But with most of the big names already on the move, and serious complications about our other main target, it’s difficult to see who is going to come in and it’s worrying. I think I’d also like to see another option in the wide areas (not Ryo, who I think is far too raw).

OVERALL

arsene2013Last season’s verdict: As ever I’m looking forward to the football but with just about 2 weeks until the transfer window closes, I hope our start to the season isn’t disturbed by the business we still have to do. At this moment it’s hard to be specific about where I see us finishing this season but with some defensive improvement I think we can increase our points tally and, at the very least, we won’t be cacking our pants about a top four finish, and hopefully we can do more than that.

Funnily, we ended up three points better off but spent the last few months cacking our pants about a top four finish. Having achieved that, I truly felt we’d go out and do good business and do it early, simply because it made so much sense.

Yet here we are, the day before the first game of the season, and nobody’s come in bar Yaya Sanogo. We’ve lost the 11 goals Gervinho contributed to last season, and in simple terms, we have far fewer players and options than this time last year. Granted, most of those options weren’t up to much, but at least we had the ability to cope with a crisis if one hit. I’m not sure that’s the case now.

As it stands, I see another top four scrap as the best we can hope for in the league. I’m worried that the cup exits weren’t simply unlucky coincidence, and I don’t see us doing much in the Champions League should we come through our qualifier. Again, this is mostly down to lack of depth, rather than a slight on the players we do have.

It’s hardly what we’d have hoped for at the end of last season, and for me it’s made worse by the fact I don’t think it would take much to make this lot real title contenders. I’m at a loss to understand why, with the resources we have, new players haven’t come in before the start of the season. That should be the self-imposed deadline for our transfer business.

Yes, the window closes on September 2nd, but there are 9 Premier League points to play for, and two Champions League qualifiers, before then. Any failure in those games will be met with a complete lack of understanding and forgiveness, and there’s no hiding place for the manager or the club if that happens. However you want to dress it up, we’re seriously undermanned and our preparation (and by that I mean making the team better) for the new season has been little short of abysmal.

The best case scenario now is that the players we do have pull off what’s required between now and the end of the transfer window, and in the meantime Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidis find some way to work together effectively, because right now it’s hard not to think we’re utterly dysfunctional in the transfer market.

It’s hugely frustrating that we haven’t used the money we have sitting in the bank. We’re cash rich, but spendthrift. The club set the expectation of big spending this summer, that there’s increasing anger that it hasn’t materialised is entirely on their heads. We have such fantastic potential, it’s mind-boggling that we haven’t done more to fulfill it.

Much as it pains me to say it, without new players, this season will be another struggle and I don’t think one that will bring an end to the years without silverware.

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arseblog

Fan of Arsenal, Robert Pires and most everything to do with rum and whiskey. Writer, podcaster, ace flintknapper, sluggish centre-half. Smiter of those that ought to be smote.

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