Another season is upon us and while the thirst for new recruits is as insatiable as ever, there are plenty of current players for whom 2017-18 represents something of a watershed. Every team needs organic improvement, irrespective of market activity. Teams train to become closer knit, tactically tighter and to learn from the mistakes of the season past.
Internal improvement in existing players is a key marginal gain for any side looking to progress. Greater maturity, fitness and comfort in surroundings can all aid team progress. Arsene Wenger signed 5 first team squad players during the summer of 2001, but it was undoubtedly the improvement in the likes of Lauren, Ljungberg and Robert Pires that gave the Gunners their most significant edge.
So while the bulbs of Lacazette and Kolasinac are lovingly planted into the ground, Arsene will look to some of the other flowers in his garden to continue blooming in 2017-18. Here, I look at 3 players for whom the next campaign represents, if not quite make or break, a season that will go a long way to defining their Arsenal careers. It’s going to be a big season for…..
Welbeck is a very popular player amongst Arsenal fans and for good reason. His mobility and pressing from the front is very suited to the team’s style of play. He can fulfil a number of roles across the frontline in a variety of different systems. This was why Alex Ferguson liked him so much. Also, he seems to like scoring against United, his boyhood club and, as an added bonus, he doesn’t go in for that ‘non-celebration’ nonsense when he does. He’s very likeable.
Yet Arsene Wenger has just spent the guts of £50m on a striker with very similar attributes, who operates in a very similar fashion. The difference between Lacazette and Welbeck is their respective goal threat. I have a United supporting friend that referred to Danny, jokingly, as “Unlucky.” This was because the Stretford End would often leave themselves reaching for that descriptor after Danny skied a presentable chance- usually following some smart build up play.
I have another friend that refers to him as “Everything but the Goal.” That is the crux of the issue with Welbeck, he is a very good footballer, but he is not necessarily a very good striker. The FA Cup Final offered a neat microcosm of his talents. He was absolutely excellent, closing Chelsea down from the front, occupying their defenders by prowling in the channels.
But he missed two very presentable chances in the first half. He did something very similar when he came on in the semi-final against Manchester City too. He played excellently, but missed presentable opportunities. His legion of close range scuffs are actually becoming a regular avenue of assists for his colleagues.
That Arsene has dropped £50m on Lacazette tells you that he doesn’t necessarily have much faith in Welbz fixing that defect. Now aged 26 and having fully recovered from his knee injuries, Welbeck could easily become a top class striker and one of Arsenal’s most important players if he could break into the 20+ goal bracket.
If Arsenal are to lose Alexis Sanchez, a lot of end product will walk out of the door with the Chilean. It would be a good time for Welbeck to finally discover the killer instinct. Welbeck has 2 years to run on his current contract, so the club will be sitting down to talk new terms pretty soon. He could strengthen his hand in those negotiations by having ‘a contract year’ in NFL parlance.
Xhaka’s debut season was a mixed bag, despite some particularly hyperbolic commentators exaggerating their criticism of the Switzerland midfielder. I covered some of the reasons for his topsy turvy campaign back in April. What is clear is that there will be a lot of eyes on Granit this season and a lot of judgements will either be re-evaluated or confirmed.
The move to a back 3 played very much into Xhaka’s hands, or, more appositely, his feet. Granit needs to the game in front of him to be effective, the second he has to turn back towards his own goal, he feels as though he has lost control. His lack of athleticism often causes him to make the cynical foul. He needs a setup and a midfield partner to cover his flaws and accentuate his strengths.
Basically, he needs mobility beside him. The move to three centre halves closed up some of the gaps behind and also enabled him to receive the ball more frequently from defensive colleagues. The partnership with Ramsey is the only one that remotely convinced due to the Welshman’s energy levels. However, it is still not the most defensively reassuring combination.
Xhaka’s form will largely depend on how cohesive the team is. The addition of Lacazette is a promising one for the midfielder, a striker that likes to plunder the channels can look forward to good service from deep. But Xhaka is still going to have to work on some of his more notable weaknesses- his right foot, his impetuousness, the ease with which he is dribbled past- if he is to make a success of his Gunners career.
The Brazilian has two years to run on his contract. That marks the point where a club really has to think quite deeply about whether they want to extend the player’s terms or sell. There is little to no noise suggesting there are negotiations for a new deal afoot, which suggests that Wenger will probably use this season to decide whether to retain the centre half.
Gabriel will have to make a similar decision as to whether he sees his future at Arsenal too. As yet, he hasn’t been able to make himself an undisputed first choice and Wenger’s decision to spend £35m on Shkodran Mustafi last summer is a little revealing. However, if Arsenal retain the 3 centre half system, there will be more opportunities for Gabriel to fully establish himself.
Per Mertesacker is certainly retiring at the end of the season and the sun is about to set on Calum Chambers’ Arsenal career. In the back 3, Gabriel impressed in a right sided centre half role. The Brazilian excels at defending in one on one situations and in the channels and the 3421 enables him to express those attributes.
With Cech behind him, Bellerin to his right and Mustafi immediately to his left, he has Spanish speaking colleagues that reduce the impact of his lack of English. Though it is difficult to see him truly excelling as a defender in the Premier League without a better command of the language. Gabriel’s Arsenal future might be settled in the classroom as well as on the pitch.