So, the new season is nearly here. As tradition dictates the Arseblog season preview must happen. And here it is.
Goalkeepers : From someone who made almost every Arsenal fan do a little brown wee out their bottom when he first played for us I don’t think too many people can have any complaints about Manuel Almunia at this stage. He has improved steadily over the years and is now well established as the number one at Arsenal. He had some really outstanding performances last season, not least at Old Trafford in the first semi-final, and while he’s never going to be the mythical ‘world class’ keeper I really don’t see too many in the league who are way ahead of him.
Petr Cech showed he’s not what he once was in the Community Shield, van der Sar is 85 now, Reina I put at about the same level as Almunia and beyond that it’s Premier League stalwarts like Given, James and Green who are all more or less as good as anyone else.
When you go beyond Almunia though you can’t help but worry a bit. Lukasz Fabianksi signed a new contract last season, it’s clear that he’s the number 2 and the manager will be looking for him to make a step up this season. He was not at all convincing when deputising for Almunia, nor did he cover himself in glory in the FA Cup semi-final but he is, after all, just 24 years of age, which is young in the life of a goalkeeper so there’s plenty of time for him to improve.
After that we have Italian Vito Mannone and young Pole Wojciech Szczesny and from the little I’ve seen of them in pre-season I’d feel slightly better if the latter had to play.
Verdict: As long as Almunia is fit I don’t think we have too much to worry about. He’s mature, as reliable as anyone else, and capable of match saving saves. If Fabianski can’t improve when called upon though we may suffer a bit if he has a run in the team.
Defence : In last season’s preview my verdict was:
I’m concerned that our frailty from last season has not been addressed and that we’ll remain vulnerable to that ball through the middle which opens us up like butter. I think we could probably do with a signing in here.
A few days later we signed Sylvester which really didn’t help matters at all. This season I think we’re in danger of being even weaker in the centre of the defence than last time around. Kolo Toure has gone. Arsene Wenger has looked at his stats, his performances, taken into account the fact the player wanted to go and cashed in. We have to trust his judgement on this, what else can we do?
Thomas Vermaelen has come in from Ajax for £10m. At this point he is the only summer signing. We haven’t seen a lot of him in pre-season. He’s had a bit of a hamstring strain but obviously AW is banking on an up and coming Vermaelen to fill the gap which a Kolo Toure on the downward slope has left.
I think we’re all hopeful that our new signing can do that but moving from Holland to England is a big step-up in quality and Arsene’s record of buying centre-halves doesn’t really stand up to too much scrutiny. The other options for the centre are Gallas, Djourou and Sylvester (I’m not counting Song as he’s our only defensive midfielder and despite the delay the Senderos transfer to Everton should go through sooner rather than later).
I have serious concerns about this area. We’ve been weak here for a while and I’m not sure we’ve done enough to address it. I don’t want to get into the depths of negativity but for me Sylvester is simply not up to it, and if you get an injury to Gallas (who has had one lengthy spell out each season since he joined us), Djourou (persistent knee problems) and Vermaelen then we’re essentially up shit creek.
At left back we’re blessed with three potential candidates. Gael Clichy would probably be the first to admit he didn’t have a good campaign last time around. His propensity for making unforced and horrendously costly mistakes simply has to stop. But if Armand Traore and Kieran Gibbs breathing down your neck doesn’t make you step up your game then I don’t know what will.
On the other side Sagna will be looking to kick on again, I haven’t got the slightest worry about him, and I assume the reason Eboue is still at the club is because there’s no obvious candidate in the youths/reserves to provide back-up at right back. Whether or not he’ll be happy with that role remains to be seen and while I’ve never been a great fan I don’t see any logic in letting him go at this stage.
Verdict: I think we need to sign a centre-half. We are a notoriously injury prone team and I’m not confident that the first three in that position can stay injury free for an entire campaign. And I’m sorry, I don’t see any team where Sylvester is playing in any way regularly winning enough matches to bring home silverware. Not signing a defender would be a huge gamble.
Midfield : It looks as if the manager has decided to change the system to suit the players he has. A 4-3-3 variation has been the norm in pre-season and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change once things kick off. Especially as it can revert quite easily to the cautious 4-5-1 when we’re playing someone good, especially away in Europe.
I think we all accept he’s going to play a holding midfielder and two other central midfielders. At the moment, and if everyone were fit, I think that trio would be Song in the holding role with Cesc and Nasri ahead of him (playing the Xavi and Iniesta roles to Song’s Yaya Toure). Unfortunately Nasri is injured after breaking his leg and the most obvious replacement, Tomas Rosicky, is back on the sidelines after suffering something of a relapse, albeit ‘minor’, according to Arsene Wenger.
The other candidates for that particular role are Diaby, Denilson (who I always thought would be more of a Cesc than a Gilberto, if you get me), Ramsey and with the emergence of Jack Wilshere he’s a definite candidate there also. So I don’t see the manager buying another player for that position. Where we could certainly reinforce is in the holding role.
I have to give credit where it’s due, Alex Song made progress last season. I don’t think it was as spectacular as some people like to make it out but it was progress nonetheless. From what I’ve seen of him in pre-season he’s added an urgency to his game and upped his workrate. That said most of pre-season has been on a 400px-300px stream so I could be wrong. I hope not though.
All the same Song will be away to the ACN in January and we don’t have anyone else who can naturally play in that position. I think if we really stand a chance of winning something this season we have to strengthen here. We know he was considering Vieira, and it went a lot further than paper talk, so he’s aware this is an area of the pitch that needs attention. He might be worried about hampering the progress of Song but he’s only 21 and has time on his side.
I understand he has to weigh up decisions and think long-term but if what’s best for Arsenal isn’t quite what’s best for Song at this moment in time then there should only be one winner. Along with a central defender signing a quality, experienced midfielder would have me going into this season seriously confident of our chances.
Verdict: There’s a wealth of incredible young talent at his disposal. There isn’t a manager in the world who wouldn’t like to have Cesc, Nasri, Wilshere and Ramsey in their squad, but he needs to make sure that he gets the best out them. Given them the foundation of a solid spine behind them will do that.
Strikers : I have long been of the opinion that a change of system meant we could sell Emmanuel Adebayor and not have to replace him directly. When you look at the candidates for the three forward positions I think that still holds true although the manager’s (now apparently defunct) pursuit of Chamakh leads you to think he’d still bring someone in. Then we know AW collects forwards like we collected Panini stickers as youngsters.
Arshavin and van Persie are automatic starters, at this point anyway, and it’s who joins them that will be interesting. In pre-season the now number 52 Nicklas Bendtner looks to be the one although he seems to be playing in the wide role RVP occupies for Holland. Personally I’d be inclined to deploy him as the central striker and play van Persie from the right, his craft and ability on the ball might be best served out there, but I imagine Arsene knows what he’s doing here.
Then you’ve got Eduardo, looking sharp again, Theo Walcott who will be looking to improve and mature again as the World Cup looms, Carlos Vela of whom we’ve seen very little this pre-season and even Jack Wilshere can play in one of those wide/forward positions if need be. So really I don’t see the need for any signings in this particular area, certainly not if it means a more defensive signing is less likely to happen.
Will we miss Adebayor? I don’t think so. People might say we’ve got no striker to get us 30 goals but what we’ve got are at least four players who have the potential to get 15-20 each and I think that was in the manager’s mind when he let Adebayor go to City. We’ll be looking for improvement from Bendtner and Walcott, consolidation from van Persie, a successful return from Eduardo and with a proper pre-season under his belt a good season from Arshavin who really makes things tick.
Verdict : I’m happy with what we’ve got up front. I think there’s plenty of goals in these players although Walcott and Vela aside there’s not a huge amount of pace. Maybe that’s something the manager is considering when he looks at the likes of Chamakh but it looks like that’s dead in the water unless Bordeaux drop their price. Either way there’s plenty of competition and with three places in the team to be filled there’s plenty of football to go around and keep everyone happy.
Overall : I have to admit I waver between quiet optimism and quiet concern. I think the manager is looking at some of his players and banking on them being better than they were last season. It’s not an unreasonable assumption to make given they’re more experienced, older, slightly more mature, but I do feel it’s a gamble all the same.
We’ve seen what the addition of experienced quality brings to the squad. When we were struggling last season the arrival of Andrei Arshavin provided an injection of football amphetamines to this squad. I have no doubt that similar signings in the positions outlined above would do exactly the same. He’s moved on Adebayor who was, like it or not, a negative influence on and off the pitch. A clearly unhappy Kolo Toure has gone as well. If Vermaelen can find his feet in English football quickly then I don’t think we’re any worse off than we were last season.
I don’t think our place in the top four is under threat but the main question is are we good enough to win the league? Personally I don’t quite think so, I just feel the squad is lacking a little bit in quality defensively. The spine of the team is just not quite strong enough to see us through the rigours of a full season but I honestly believe we’re two players away from being a truly competitive side, domestically and in Europe.
That said, however, I don’t see any of our rivals being any better than they were and if there’s a natural improvement from some of our players because of their age/experience etc then we could benefit from that. Chelsea look the strongest to me, Liverpool are hugely reliant on Gerrard and Torres while United are going to find life without Ronaldo quite challenging, I think.
The start we make is vital. I can’t remember such a difficult opening to the season. Everton away is tough, the two games against Celtic will be epic, then there’s the two Manchester clubs away and how we fare in those games might well shape the season. Can we survive an early defeat? Will they be mentally strong enough to cope with that if it happens? On the other side coming through those fixtures successfully could be just the platform we need to really kick on so those opening games are critical. You cannot win the league in the first part of the season but you can go a long way to losing it.
I hope that Arsene is working at bringing in at least a couple of players because I think with those additions we’ll have the depth of squad we need to win trophies. For the sake of a nail the shoe was lost and I think Arsene’s Arsenal shoe needs a nail. Hah.
However, despite all that there’s a childlike part of me that gets giddy at the start of a new season. While my head might have concerns about the squad my heart is already picturing league tables with Arsenal P38 D0 W38 F154 A18. Stupid, yes, but for as a long as I can remember that’s the way I feel before things kick off (then you get spanked 4-0 by Liverpool in the Charity Shield and you crash back down to earth!).
It seems to have been a long time coming, this summer has stretched on endlessly but here we are on the eve of the eve of a new season. Let’s get behind our team, give them the support they need and hope they can do the business.
COME ON YOU GOOOOOOOOOOONERS.
Right, a quick news round-up. As mentioned above it seems we’ve pulled out of negotiations for Chamakh. I think it’s obvious Wenger won’t pay what Bordeaux want given the player’s contract status. He’ll either pressure them into a late transfer window sale at a more agreeable price or he’ll look elsewhere.
Nicklas Bendtner has changed his squad number to 52 and offered refunds to any fan who has bought his 26 shirt already. A nice gesture. I don’t understand any fuss about the number 52 either. Who really cares as long as he scores goals and once he does that he can wear whatever number he likes.
In an article about us giving up on Chamakh The Sun reports that Jay Emmanuel-Thomas is set for a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday.
Hopefully all our players arrive back from international duty unscathed. Eduardo got a goal for Croatia but I haven’t checked to see who else might have done something good. The manager’s got only got Friday morning then to prepare for the Everton game before they travel to Merseyside on Friday afternoon. Not ideal by any means but c’est la vie.
That’ll be that for today. Tomorrow sees the return of the Arsecast with a season preview, a look ahead to the Champions League games against Celtic and more of the usual guff.