Every year I write a preview of the season and this year will no different. Given the circumstances and the timing, however, I feel I should stress this is based entirely on where we are now. Not where we might be, or indeed hope to be, in a few weeks time.
So, without further ado, let’s start where we always do, with:
Last year’s verdict: Arsenal need a new goalkeeper. The performances of the ‘top two’ last season show they cannot be relied on and no team with goalkeepers who play that badly wins trophies. Much of our defensive frailty stems from the lack of organisation, the keeper should be a big part of that as Lehmann and Seaman were. Fabianski and Almunia have no authority, don’t instill any confidence in their back four, let alone the fans, and their positions are surely untenable.
Well, there’s untenable and untenable, yet at the time of writing both keepers still remain. To be fair to Fabianski, one fairly dodgy moment at WHL aside, he acquitted himself well until he got injured and I have no problem with him playing back-up to SZCZ.
We did get a new keeper and it wasn’t Mark Schwarzer, thankfully. Almunia started the season, out-Almunia-ed himself and then got injured/disappeared. Fabianski took over and did ok until he got injured and that opened the door for Wojciech Szczesny. He had been making noises about leaving if he didn’t get a chance at Arsenal, the club convinced him to sign a new deal and while he’s not fully established as the number 1 he’ll start in pole position this season.
Behind him Fabianski and Mannone are perfectly acceptable substitutes. I don’t know too many clubs that have much in the way of strength in depth in the goalkeeping position so I don’t really see any cause to complain about where we are. SZCZ has the confidence, ability and presence we’ve all been crying out for. It’s curious to me that people still want Wenger to buy a keeper. Doing so now, when we have a talent like him emerging, when we spent four seasons with Almunia as our number 1, would be little short of peverse.
Verdict: I’m hoping Wojciech can establish himself properly, gain the experience he needs and really push on in his development. I have no doubts about his character or talent but we have to be mindful that he’s still very young in goalkeeping terms and might need some patience from fans at points during the season. We have decent back-up and if we can find someone to take Almunia I’ll be even happier (maybe we could stick him in one of those old clothes bins you see in supermarket car parks).
Last season’s verdict: We’re short on numbers and we need an injection of experience and quality at centre-half. At least one needs to come in, the potential development of Nordtveit probably precludes more than one signing. It should be noted that our defensive record is not entirely the fault of the defence, a better team approach to defending is required, but unless we add stability with the goalkeeping signing and a new centre-half this is going to remain a serious weakness.
We got a centre-half, unfortunately Squilvestre didn’t quite work out as planned. On top of that we lost Thomas Vermaelen for most of the season due to his banjaxed Achilles, Nordtveit ended up being sold and Gael Clichy’s stagnation continued. And the point about better team defending is more relevant than ever.
While it’s easy to question the quality of Squillaci it kind of masks the real issue, which is that whichever group of defenders we play we generally look vulnerable to a) the ball over the top and b) the dreaded set-piece. Clearly the latter was a serious issue last season. We conceded more goals from set-pieces than all the other teams in the history of football ever and, frankly, it became a weak spot that teams exploited over and over again.
There has been a lot of talk this summer about new recruits in defence and, at the time of writing, that we haven’t signed a centre-half yet is staggering to me. That said, I don’t really think just adding a new centre-half to a dysfunctional unit solves the problem. It takes hard work on the training ground and there’s been talk of that already. From the pre-season games it looks as if a zonal marking system is going to be used which I think is a risky strategy but at least they’re trying something.
At right back I’ve got all the time in the world for Sagna while Carl Jenkinson’s inexperience as back-up is offset by the fact he’s not Eboue. Left back remains an issue for me. Kieran Gibbs is talented but brittle while Armand Traore is about as convincing as an elephant in a tutu pretending to be a ballet dancer. I know Wenger has done it before, replacing Silvinho with Cole, Cole with Clichy and now Clichy with Gibbs, but I’m skeptical that Gibbs is ready or reliable enough.
Verdict: I believe strongly that better, more focused defensive coaching, and a better team approach to defending will go a long way to helping solve our defensive woes. I still think we need at least one centre-half and a left back to say we’ve improved this area of the team. Scott Dann from Birmingham is being mooted as a possible arrival, it’s hard to imagine that he was the manager’s first choice – if he was surely we’d have done a deal for him long before now. It doesn’t look as if a left-back is coming, so we’ve got to hope Gibbs stays fit, Vermaelen’s return adds some much needed character and organisation to the back four, while Koscielny and Djourou can make progress from last season.
Last season’s verdict: Generally fine. The lack of cover for Song is a worry but the emergence of Wilshere might put pressure on some of the more senior players who went through the motions at times last season. I don’t expect any kind of post-summer hangover from Fabregas and Nasri’s impressive pre-season suggests he might well forge the main partnership with the captain.
I guess last season we were thinking of a formation which saw Song holding and two more attacking players ahead, hence the Nasri/Fabregas partnership. Instead we had the two deeper lying midfielders with one ahead. Unfortunately that wasn’t Cesc often enough and although Nasri played there at times his best spell came when playing on the right hand side of the forward three. He’s more of a finisher than a creator.
Anyway, discussion of either seems a rather moot point at the moment. Although Arsene was giving nothing away in his press conference today, you wouldn’t put your life savings on them being part of things this season. That means we need additions to our midfield. There’s certainly great potential with Wilshere and Ramsey but I do think we need a signing to tie it all together. Rosicky is busy but increasingly ineffectual and to lose a player like Cesc, who creates more chances per game than any other player in our team, is a massive loss for us.
I also a worry a little bit that we still have no real alternative to Alex Song. This time last year I thought a loan for Frimpong would do him good but injury put paid to that. As yet he has still to play a competitive first team game and it’s hard to imagine he’s ready for this level of football, no matter how eager he is. And I haven’t even mentioned Abou Diaby. How can you count on him as part of your first team with his unfortunate, but damaging, injury record?
Verdict: If/when Cesc goes we lose the creative hub of our team. On the one hand it might mean the burden is shared throughout the side, making us less reliant on one player to find that killer pass, on the other we may just find ourselves creating fewer and fewer chances. For a team which is clearly going to focus on the attacking side of the game that is a worry. I would hope that whatever money we get for Cesc is invested in a player of quality who can come in and do a job straight away. I like Ramsey and Wilshere but I’m not convinced they’re ready to replace a player of Cesc’s calibre just yet.
Last season’s verdict: I think we’re covered here, there’s plenty of competition for places and that’s not even including Jay Emmanuel-Thomas who could force his way into the reckoning. I fancy van Persie for a big, injury free season (I’ve just jinxed him, haven’t I?) and along with the midfield there’s plenty of ammunition in this team.
Well, I got van Persie mostly right! He had a fantastic season from January onwards and without him I shudder to think how last season’s collapse might have been worse. Marouane Chamakh had a great start to his Arsenal career but since van Persie’s return has looked a player shorn of confidence, form and, most worryingly, basic footballing ability.
Nicklas Bendtner’s obvious frustration at being played wide all the time means he wants out. While you might criticise and say he should do better – he did still produce moments like this – and if we can bemoan the manager playing him as a wide forward and not getting the best out of him, why can’t he? I’m sorry he’s going. He’s nowhere near as good as he thinks he is and should work harder but he’s got a decent scoring record and for me, anyway, is a better all-round player than Chamakh.
I think in terms of the wide areas we’re well covered and there’s an obvious change of focus – genuine wide men. Walcott, Gervinho, Arshavin are established and have end product – while the youngsters like Miyaichi and Oxlade-Chamberlain will provide some much needed pace if not much in the way of experience. I do think we’re light in this area though. Bendtner is going to leave, Carlos Vela is about to be shipped out on loan, and our only real back-up to van Persie is the aforementioned Moroccan whose form hardly merits a place in the team except by default.
Verdict: I would really like to see a signing here, another centre-forward to compete with, and provide a genuine alternative to Robin. He hasn’t gone one season without some kind of injury, of varying degrees of seriousness, so it would be a big risk to hope he can stay fit throughout the campaign. He can’t play every game anyway. The signing of Gervinho is a positive and I’m encouraged by what we’ve got to offer out wide but I still think we need to improve our options.
Again I’ll stress that at this moment in time I’m not particularly encouraged and I don’t think we’re in any way stronger than last season. In fact, if Cesc and Nasri go, Bendtner goes and with Clichy already gone we’re considerably weaker.
In last year’s summation I said:
Perhaps the added maturity of some players and the fact that others have points to prove this season will help but I just can’t look beyond the defensive weaknesses which are, and have been for some time, glaring and as yet not fixed.
Right now I’d predict a top four finish, and maybe a decent cup run, but unless we add to the squad I fear another trophy-less season.
I don’t think I need to even add anything to that, it applies so well to this year too. We got the cup run and then bottled in a way only Arsenal could. Without further recruitment in defence and attack, and a quality replacement for Cesc, I don’t think this is a team that can genuinely challenge for the title. It can certainly be in the mix for a while but when push comes to shove I don’t believe we have the quality or experience needed to go all the way.
I feel like the summer, and the various challenges it has presented, have been handled badly, and I still can’t quite get my head around the lack of investment in a team that really needs it. I’m concerned about our Champions League qualifier with Udinese and if the lack of investment is responsible for a failure to qualify then Arsene is going to be on very, very thin ice indeed.
All the same, football has a way of surprising you sometimes so you just never know what we might produce. As it stands though, I reckon we’ll be in a scrap for 4th place and I think that scrap will preclude us from taking cups as seriously as we might like.
There’s still 19 days left until the transfer window closes. We’ve got to do business, in and out, but if he’s had all summer to do it, I’m not exactly confident he’ll be on a shopping spree, no matter how much the potential sales of Cesc and Nasri bring in.
I’m looking forward to the football, excited to see what the new season brings, but I’m more worried about our prospects than at any other time under Arsene Wenger.