That was the weak that was

Recently I attempted to address the ‘great Arsenal progress’ debate of 2014-15. In the immediate aftermath of the FA Cup final victory, it was difficult to take distance and prevent the article from turning into a hagiography of the season that was. It is equally precarious to address where Arsenal must improve in 2015-16 for similar reasons, with a film of optimism still filtering the lens of the season. The facts remain that a) Arsenal finished 12 points behind Chelsea and 4 points behind Manchester City and b) both clubs have significantly more cash with which to strengthen (as do Manchester United).

Arsenal have been building steadily and in their position, that remains the best means available to them to compete. The club have enjoyed consecutive ‘stable’ summers, which have not been overly interrupted by big departures – Bacary Sagna was the wrong side of 30 and would’ve needed replacing very soon even if he had stayed – and have added to the squad with quality. Another summer of this ilk would represent a further building block. The core of the team will have another season together behind them and, hopefully, some wily additions will continue to push the level of the squad on an upward trajectory.

Given Arsenal’s place in the financial pecking order, waiting for Barcelona or Madrid to shake the tree before scooping up the apples that fall to earth has proved a canny transfer policy. It produces an added benefit, players that have fallen from the talons of our natural predators makes us less vulnerable pray. With Madrid all set for the Rafa-lution, keeping tabs on the goings on at the Bernabeu might be worth Arsenal’s while, though many other clubs will be harbouring similar thoughts.

I’ll leave it to sites less august than this one to construct transfer wish lists (5 PLAYERS ARSENAL MUST SIGN TO WIN THE BPL!). Instead, it is worth considering the areas in which Arsenal were weak in 2014-15 – whether those weaknesses are addressed in the transfer market or on the training ground with ‘internal solutions’ is neither here nor there for the purposes of this article. Nobody likes hearing the ‘like a new signing’ line in the age of transfer lust. Yet Francis Coquelin and Hector Bellerin very much fell into LANS territory in January. (Gabriel was also LANS – Literally A New Signing).

Coquelin not only gave Arsenal the steel they required in midfield, but his renaissance provoked a chain reaction, which allowed Santi Cazorla to reinvent himself as a deep plying playmaker, a role he would not have undertaken with Arteta in the midfield. This, in turn, allowed Mesut Özil to find happiness in his favoured central role. Bellerin’s progression at right back meant that the team could play without an orthodox right midfielder, so the Gunners did not have to spare Aaron Ramsey’s qualities either. The Catalan’s rise to prominence made the decision to replace Kieran Gibbs with the in form Nacho Monreal easier. Bellerin replicates Gibbs’ ‘roving’ qualities, albeit from the opposite flank, so Gibbs’ attributes were not missed.

Arsenal improved their defensive record last season, yet their most apparent weakness remains in this area. Even when the back line settled after New Year, the team conceded far too many headed goals, more than a third of their goals conceded arrived via the bonce of an opposing player. The loss of Bacary Sagna and the injury to Mathieu Debuchy is instructive here. Debuchy’s aerial ability was critical in convincing Wenger of his suitability to replace Sagna, not least the ex Newcastle man’s alertness on the back post, which was one of Sagna’s great strengths.

Many of the aerial goals Arsenal conceded bear an uncanny similarity, opposition winger creates a yard of space, stands ball up to the back post, where opposing striker has judiciously twinned himself with Arsenal’s miniscule full back. In the league games against Manchester United, Ander Herrera at Old Trafford and Kieran Gibbs’ own goal at the Emirates were also conceded in this manner, despite neither finish being applied via the head. The team also conceded their fair share of goals from corners. Wenger will need to consider ways in which to amend this vulnerability.

He might choose to tackle it via the goalkeeping situation. He could buy a more commanding goalkeeper, reinstate Szczesny, who is far happier to leave his line than Ospina, or coach Ospina to leave his line more confidently. Equally, he could make a switch at centre half. When Gabriel signed in January, many of us assumed that he would act as an understudy to Koscielny, since his attributes seemed more akin to the Frenchman’s. In turn, Calum Chambers bears greater similarity to Mertesacker stylistically.

However, Gabriel has typically started alongside Koscielny. Aerial clearances are one of the Brazilian’s greatest strengths; he comfortably outstrips Mertesacker in this respect. Per’s form improved notably once Koscielny returned to fitness and he remains a senior and popular figure, with players and fans alike. It wouldn’t be straightforward to relegate him to the bench; indeed it would be more than a little harsh. But the thought could just cross Wenger’s mind if he believes that it will balance the defence.

Wenger certainly found a pleasing chemistry with his midfield last season, the trio of Coquelin, Cazorla and Özil providing the platform for the team’s post New Year form. However, I fancy Wenger might tinker in this area again. Cazorla has started 106 of the 114 Premier League games Arsenal have played since his arrival and, as I stated on this blog a few weeks ago, I thought he was Arsenal’s most consistent performer in 2014-15. However, Ramsey is not going to be happy on the right hand side forever and neither is Jack Wilshere.

I think Santi will remain with the club for one more year before returning home. If that is indeed the case, I think Wenger could take a long view and that Cazorla’s role might reduce slightly. Especially if Wilshere is fit and available. The question as to whether Ramsey works alongside Coquelin could rear its head as a result. Ramsey is a very energetic player and has formed a symbiotic partnership with Mikel Arteta at the base of the midfield in the past. Ramsey and Coquelin played alongside one another at White Hart Lane in February to little avail. It could be that Ramsey is a better fit with more of a deep lying playmaker type and this is a crease that Wenger will probably have to iron out as next season progresses.

I think that Arsenal’s front 3 is one player away from being firmly settled. It still lacks a little guile. When defences are heavily manned, they sometimes struggle for a piece of inspiration to pick the lock. Ideally, I think Wenger would like to ice the cake with a top level striker. Giroud is a tactically very useful player for Arsenal, but I think the manager prefers greater mobility in his frontline. @YankeeGunner sagely point on twitter that Giroud has been left out of quite a few big games over the last two years, which suggests he doesn’t have the sort of implicit trust that the likes of Alexis, Özil, Cazorla and even Ramsey enjoy.

The advance for Suarez two summers ago is indicative of the sort of mobile terrier I think the manager would like to operate with. However, there aren’t many of those on the market, because I think Arsene has been open to buying one since van Persie’s departure. (Remember Gervinho as a false 9?) He seems to have settled on using Giroud as a flower surrounded by plenty of other goalscoring thorns for the time being. Wenger might reason that another creative / goalscoring option from wide is a more realistic option, or else he could develop Alex Oxlade Chamberlain into that very player. Chamberlain offers great directness and variety, but his numbers need to improve in terms of goals and assists.

His dancing, twinkle toed assist for Monreal at Old Trafford shows fascinating potential for him to become the Hazard like dribbler Arsenal miss in the front 3. The Ox has shown progression over the last two years, but injury has prevented him from enjoying a true ‘breakout’ season a la Ramsey in 2013-14. If Cazorla’s role does reduce, then a greater creative influence is going to even more imperative for the team, whether it develops organically from existing options or whether it is transplanted via the transfer market. Arsenal are in a promising position, but there remain plenty of equations to burgle Arsene of his sleep before September.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto


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