Arseblog season preview 2017-18

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Time now for the traditional Arseblog season preview in which I take a look at the squad – as it stands – and assess our readiness for the new campaign. We’re aware the transfer window remains open, and have factored that in as much as possible, but it’s really about where we are now, and how I think we might fare overall (trying my best to ignore the childlike optimism I still feel on the eve of every new season).

As ever, we start with:

GOALKEEPERS

Last season’s verdict: I don’t think we can have any complaints about this area of the pitch. Cech’s experience and quality is going to be important, especially if we start the season with relative inexperienced central defenders, while Ospina is a fine deputy.

I don’t think you could say the goalkeepers were our biggest issue last season, even if both Petr Cech and David Ospina had unconvincing moments from time to time. I’m not convinced that the current time-share set-up is ideal, even if it is in play at some other clubs. But if you want experienced back-up, and Ospina is better than most other number 2s in the Premier League, you have to give them some playing time.

The decision to sell Wojciech Szczesny to Juventus means one long-term option for the position is now gone, and it feels like it’s an issue that will need to be sorted – perhaps at the end of this season. Cech is not getting any younger, while Wenger admitted it was difficult to convince Ospina to stay. If it were me, I’d have brought Szczesny back  – if he’s good enough to understudy and replace the legendary Buffon at Juventus, he’s good enough for us and I think he’s a better keeper than Ospina.

Emi Martinez has gone to Getafe on loan, so hopefully a good season of first team football will help his development, but it also means injuries/suspensions to the two will mean digging into a well of inexperience.

Verdict: Even if we were minded to buy one, I don’t think there was an outstanding keeper on the market this summer, and our spending should be focused elsewhere. What we’ve got is one very good experienced keeper, and while I feel Ospina’s size is a fundamental weakness he’s pretty decent back-up all things considered.

DEFENDERS

Last season’s verdict: Experience and quality is needed here as soon as possible. Even when Gabriel returns to fitness, there are question marks over his ability. We need Koscielny to get back into his groove and not suffer a post-Euro final hangover, and Mertesacker will be missed. If the two young Englishmen can step up, then that would be great, but given their age and relative inexperience, it’s asking a lot of them. What actually happens on the pitch may well prove me wrong, but the centre of our defence is not terribly convincing at this point in time and that’s a big, big worry.

The move to three at the back has increased our need for central defenders, or at least players who can play in that system. As it stands though, we’re well covered there with Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Gabriel, Shkodran Mustafi, Rob Holding, Calum Chambers, Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac all potential options. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see us lose someone from that group before the end of the window with Chambers and Gabriel the two main candidates.

On the left side we can call on Monreal, Kolasinac and Gibbs (for now, but I expect him to be sold), while on the right Hector Bellerin is first choice with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as deputy. It seems unlikely to me that the England international will be happy with that, which would leave us short if he were to depart. In the longer-term, identifying and clarifying back-up to/competition for the Spaniard is something we need to do.

Verdict: You can always argue for more quality, but in terms of quantity we’re well covered. We may have an issue in the right wing-back position though, especially as Jenkinson and Debuchy are almost inevitable departures, and the new signing really adds some power and physicality to the side.

MIDFIELD

Last season’s verdict: Central midfield looks as strong and dynamic as it has done for a long time. Xhaka has quality and an edge that we’ve missed for too long. Some of the ‘niceness’ associated with us could be done away with, and that’s a positive. How the manager puts it all together and makes it all work isn’t clear yet, but hopefully the depth and competition we have will bring out the best in them, and make us better able to cope with injuries.

Perhaps the most prescient line of last year’s verdict was about how unclear the possible combinations were. I always felt like Xhaka and Ramsey was what he wanted, but it wasn’t a partnership he was able to field consistently until much later in the season because of injury and suspension. The loss of Santi Cazorla robbed us of one of our best players, and seemed to stymie Wenger for a while, while Jack Wilshere demanded a loan move when he really should have stayed.

While Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny are players who add depth to the squad, it feels like we’re missing something here. Cazorla remains sidelined, Ramsey is dealing with a calf problem and his injury record is always a bit of a worry, while it’s impossible to say with any certainty how much football Jack Wilshere will be available for (if he stays) – so it’s hard to look at him as anything other than a bonus option.

Despite Oxlade-Chamberlain’s desire to play centrally, the manager seems reluctant to pick him there, and to feel really positive about the new campaign I’d like to see more quality in this area of the pitch.

Verdict: There are just too many IFs for me at the moment. If Ramsey can stay; if Xhaka – who I think is excellent – can stay on the right side of referees despite not doing much wrong last time around; if Coquelin can find a way to dovetail with the first two more effectively. I like Elneny, he’s a solid if unexciting option, and I’m basically writing off Santi and Jack.

It’s such an important area of the pitch, and it’s one that hasn’t been quite right for too long. There are too many variables, and I really think an injection of quality is needed if we’re to properly challenge.

FORWARDS

Last season’s verdict: I hope we’ll see a fired-up Alexis this season, and for all his faults, Giroud is essentially a 20 goal a season player across all competitions. The worry is how reliant we become on him, and that’s something that has to be addressed between now and the end of the window. Campbell, Iwobi, and Oxlade-Chamberlain should be able to contribute to varying extents, but it feels like the season is dependent to large degree on who else we bring in to add the requisite firepower.

This was before we signed Lucas Perez and while Danny Welbeck was injured. Campbell was loaned out, the Ox scored six goals but just two in the Premier League, while Iwobi had a difficult second season.

This time around we’ve obviously brought in a striker, club record signing Alexandre Lacazette, who has to show he can make the step-up from Ligue 1 to Premier League – something that has been a challenge for plenty of players before him. With Olivier Giroud set to stay and Welbeck an option up front, there’s plenty of competition and enough diversity in terms of playing styles. Giroud in particular is a fantastic option from the bench.

The roles of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, as the two chief creators behind the striker, seem fixed, and with 45 goals and 25+ assists between them last season,their importance is obvious. How quickly Lacazette can get on their wavelength will be a crucial to his success this season,

We could also see Iwobi make strides in there, there’s the talented Reiss Nelson as an option for some of the less crucial fixtures (perhaps Europa League), while Theo Walcott may find himself marginalised. He’s no longer a striker, he’s not a creator, and if the manager considers his squad top heavy and is required to sell before he can buy again, the England international’s position could be more precarious than people think.

Verdict: The goals are there, the creativity is there, there’s good depth, and some world class talent in Ozil and Sanchez. Is it strong enough to sustain a title challenge? So much depends on the success of Lacazette and how quickly he can adapt to English football. Some early goals would help him settle and grow in confidence, and if he can hit the ground running then you’d feel pretty positive about what we have in this area of the pitch.

OVERALL

Last season’s verdict: I think this is a team capable of having a really good go, the balance of experience and youth is right, we don’t have any obvious deficiencies in terms of numbers (e.g – lack of a centre-half last summer), and it feels like the players are very focused on improvement. I think it’s the best squad we’ve had in a long, long time, the key is consistency. If we can find that, I think we’ll be there or thereabouts in May.

Consistency. Well, we were consistently inconsistent between the end of January and the end of April, a period of the season which did so much damage to us on and off the pitch. There’s no question that off-field distractions played a part, and while we’ll avoid that kind of thing this season when it comes to the manager, the longer the contractual situations of Ozil, Sanchez, Oxlade-Chamberlain and others go without clarity, the more they will start to dominate the news cycle.

One way of making those stories non-issues is by winning games. Every problem is exacerbated by losing. A defeat reverberates for days, weeks at times, so a lot depends on how we start this season. It’s a difficult opening, Leicester at home followed by Stoke and Liverpool away. It’s down to the team to set the story of the season, and you feel like it won’t take much to scratch the surface of discontent and for some of last season’s ire to re-emerge.

The squad is big in numbers, but as I said above, lacking in one crucial area of the pitch. I hope that between now and the end of the transfer window – when things inevitably hot up – we can get move on some of those deemed surplus to requirements, and add a genuinely top quality signing in this area. Without it, I fear we’re going to struggle to achieve what we would like to.

Verdict: This is a team that has shown it can win big games against big opposition, but our issues of mental fragility, inconsistency, and mid-season slumps remain a millstone around our necks. Other big teams – but not all of them – have strengthened, and while I’m positive about the two players we have brought in, it’s how big an impact they can have and how quickly they can make it.

We also have the Europa League to contend with this season, and how we approach that – particularly in the group stages – will be interesting. I think we’ve got the ability to finish top four and get back into the Champions League, and I believe that the Europa League is a tournament that we ought to take more seriously than some suggest.

Nevertheless, people’s doubts about the manager and his ability to fashion a proper title challenge are understandable, and based on empirical evidence. We haven’t done it for far too long, for reasons that are varied, of course, but which still frustrate.

Football can surprise us, of course, but to me this feels like a season where the title is a little bit beyond us, but I think we’re more than capable of a top four finish, and we could achieve success via the Europa League if we give it the right focus.

Let’s see where it takes us.