It’s Going to be a Big Season For….

In something of an annual pre-season tradition, I decided to cast an eye over three Arsenal players for whom this season represents a crossroads. I have penned an article of this ilk for the last 8-9 seasons taking account of my Vital Arsenal days. I think Jack Wilshere (stay fit) and Theo Walcott (your goals are lovely when they arrive, but please also work on learning to trap a football) have featured 6-7 times apiece, so I will spare them the repeat diagnosis on this occasion, as I pop the bonnet and give the tyres a good old kicking on three Arsenal squad members about to undertake a pivotal campaign.

GABRIEL
Shortly after his, ahem, ‘difference of opinion’ with Diego Costa last season, Gabriel’s stock was very high amongst Arsenal fans. As the season developed, his reputation has subsided a little with some inconsistent performances post Christmas. Generally speaking, this is a journey most new signings undertake to some extent. A new signing, or recent academy graduate, tends to be viewed very sympathetically by supporters initially.

Then we become slightly more familiar with the player and, consequently, are more attuned to their flaws. Mohammed Elneny, for instance, will undergo a similar arc as 2016-17 progresses. However, Gabriel is no longer the new boy. How he performs this season will go a long way to governing our impressions of him. A long term knee injury to Per Mertesacker simply intensifies that focus.

Having been in London for a year and a half now, Gabriel will need to fully acclimatise and increase his confidence with the language. His partnership with Koscielny has yet to convince, the suspicion that the pair are too similar pervades. It looks as though Arsene is slowly turning Arsenal into more of a pressing team and that would certainly suit Gabriel’s qualities. He has an air of aggression about him that is not found in too many of his colleagues.

But his high risk / high reward style of defending will need to yield lots of reward. It seems likely that Arsenal will buy a new centre half this summer too and how Gabriel dovetails with Mr. X remains to be seen. Laurent Koscielny is 31, while he is not quite ready for the glue factory just yet, Gabriel needs to demonstrate that he can either partner him effectively or else that he can replace him. It won’t be easy, but Gabriel has fought bigger battles in life and won emphatically.

ALEX OXLADE CHAMBERLAIN
Too often, injury has curtailed the beginnings of a promising Chamberlain campaign. Last season, the reverse was true, injury against Barcelona put him out of his misery more than anything. That he obtained the injury by miscontrolling the ball during a dangerous looking counter attack was symptomatic of a season where he managed a solitary goal. I do think there is a smidgen of mitigation for his impoverished performances last year. Injuries to the team’s ball strokers hit more direct players like Chamberlain, Walcott and Ramsey pretty hard.

2016-17 will be The Ox’s sixth season with Arsenal, the line between ‘mitigation’ and ‘excuses’ has disappeared. Chamberlain cannot be a source of deliberation again this time next year. He either has to perform consistently and realise his potential (and I think he has plenty of it) or else his Arsenal story threatens to draw to a Sopranos style conclusion. (Anti-climactic and confusing). His contract situation will need to be resolved one way or another over the next twelve months, so he is singing for his supper this year.

The problem for Chamberlain is that it is difficult to envisage he and Alexis operating on opposite flanks simultaneously. Alexis already brings many of Chamberlain’s better, more direct traits. It is my opinion that the Gunners something soothing and orchestral on the opposite side of Alexis, to balance out the Chilean’s heavy metal grooves. The Ox really isn’t that player, but significant improvement to his end product would still go a long way to making his case.

AARON RAMSEY
To quote my @ArsenalVPodcast colleague @YankeeGunner, Ramsey is the individual that Arsenal are currently getting the least out of, relative to the ceiling of the player. A midfielder with the potential for regular 8-9 out of 10 performances clocked in with a lot of 7s last year. Much of that was due to being partnered with Mathieu Flamini, who is both average and entirely unsuited to Ramsey’s skillset.

Ramsey was often asked to play a far more conservative role following Cazorla’s injury last season. He is capable of executing those duties to a satisfactory level, but it does not optimise his best attributes. There lingers a suspicion that Ramsey is a square peg in the Arsenal setup. But his manager clearly believes in his ability and that belief will have been reinforced by his showing at the Euros. It would be an incredible shame to throw the towel in on such a talent, but shoehorning players into unfavourable systems rarely bears fruit.

Ramsey’s performances as the most advanced of Wales’ midfield trio at Euro 2016 earned him a place in the team of the tournament. Obviously, whilst Mesut Özil is an Arsenal player, Aaron will not play in the “enganche” role. That said, Wales are a counterattacking team. So Aaron’s starting position is quite deep and probably comparable to Arsenal’s number 8 in the majority of games where Arsenal dominate the ball.

He played in a very similar fashion when Arsenal defeated Manchester City at Eastlands in January 2015. Alongside Coquelin and Cazorla, Ramsey played in a tight midfield triangle that restricted space for City’s attacking midfielders and starved Aguero of oxygen. The trio constantly offered one another out balls in tight spaces; Ramsey’s peerless energy levels meant that he was able to break at speed at the tip of that triangle. On that day, Mesut Özil was an unused substitute.

However, Ramsey has flourished in the same structure as Özil once before, with Mikel Arteta anchoring the midfield, supporting the structure with his endless laundering of possession. I have my suspicions that Granit Xhaka has been bought as a present for the Welshman. For home matches against well stocked defences, I have an inkling that Wenger might look to recreate that 4-3-3 shape from the 2013-14 season. Xhaka is a player capable of playing passes between the lines and out to the flanks, removing the need for Ramsey to become bogged down in build-up play.

The Gunners need more goals and Ramsey is currently an underused source, but making the leap from theory to practice will be his goal this season. I don’t think Arsene will look to move him on whatever happens. But another string of ‘satisfactory’ performances might see the player take matters into his own hands. The suspicion that Ramsey is more likely to reach his ceiling elsewhere will permeate a little further than sections of the Arsenal fan base. There would be no shortage of big clubs happy to try and coax the best from Aaron Ramsey if Arsenal cannot.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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