Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Arsenal Preview 2014-15

After several seasons in a row of Wenger being asked whether they could finally end their trophy drought, which ultimately stretched to nine years from the 2005 FA Cup victory to the 2014 version, Arsenal enter the EPL season this year with greater ambitions. For too long the question was whether they would finally fall out of the top four, what star(s) would leave, whether Wenger would finally spend some money, if this was the season Tottenham would finish above them and a general sense that they were on the cusp of falling off the top rung of teams in the league. Now Arsenal are considered outside favorite to snatch the title ahead of Chelsea and City. Why? The spectacular capture of Alexis Sanchez, the return of Theo Walcott, the replacement of Bacaray Sagna with the man who played ahead of him for France at the World Cup this summer, an exciting backup goalkeeper to challenge for first-team football and a young British star on the rise, in Calum Chambers. This is all backed by the returning stars who won that FA Cup at the end of the 2013-14 season and followed it up with the Community Shield victory over Manchester City last weekend.

Arsenal led the league last season for longer than any other team –122 days in total. Their failure to take that momentum to the crown reminded of previous years when the “late fade” left them struggling to secure fourth place and the “trophy” of Champions League football for another season (the streak now stands at an impressive 18 straight years). They headed to the meat of the second half with the lead, before heavy losses to Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton ended any chance of taking the title back for the first time since the 2003-04 “invincibles” season (the only time in the history of English football that a team went through an entire season undefeated). Near the end of the campaign, there were even fears that Everton could beat them to fourth place, before a loss to City put Arsenal back in the driver’s seat. It seemed to be déjà vu all over again as the Gunners fell 2-0 behind Hull City early on in the FA Cup final. But a Santi Cazorla goal started the comeback that was completed by a late Aaron Ramsey finish. The drought was over and the four signing this summer have raised expectations even higher. Let’s take a look at the team and areas that might need addressing:

DefenseAfter a shaky first season in England, German Per Mertesacker has established himself as one of the better “readers” of the game in England and developed a formidable partnership with French international Koscielny. The two actually went unbeaten for an incredible stretch and it was only when one or both was out, or the rest of the team played poorly, that they allowed even a sniff of goal. The pair played so well over the past season and a half, captain Thomas Vermaelen found himself on the outside looking in. He has now moved on to Barcelona for 15 million pounds – which is still hard for me to believe, given the dip in form and lack of playing time – and one clear need for Arsenal is a third centre back to backup to the two starters. Calum Chambers, the signing from Southampton could potentially play a role there as well, but is also the backup to right back Debuchy, captured from Newcastle as a strong replacement for Sagna (though he seems better going forward than in his defensive responsibilities). On the other side, the combination of an improving Gibbs and a relatively solid Nacho Monreal should suffice. And at goalkeeper, the Polish international Szczesny finally has decent competition in David Ospina, who should expect to get time in the cups as he seeks to unseat the first-team regular for the past few seasons.

MidfieldMidfield is the place where the Gunners are the most stacked, though many including me continue to believe that they should bring in a quality defensive midfielder to provide cover to the back line. At present, that role belongs to new captain Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini, though both are aging and the latter is a little too reckless in his tackling, always in danger of being sent off. Some think young English star Jack Wilshere could fit into that role, but I am less sanguine, as he is more natural in an advanced position with his vision, passing ability and dribbling skills rather than deeper, where his tendency to overcommit to tackles and constantly look for fouls could see opposing players rounding him far too frequently. Abou Diaby could also take on this role, if he could stay healthy, which is all but impossible to imagine, recognizing that he has had over 60 injuries since joining the Gunners (yes, over 60 – arguably brought on by the fact one leg is slightly longer than the other). Looking in the more advanced role, Arsenal have an absolute cornucopia of riches, from the best assists man in Europe (in Mesut Ozil), to the two-legged diminutive threat that is Santi Cazorla, to one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the world last year in Aaron Ramsey to the able backup Tomas Rosicky. Again, questions remain about whether a DM should be brought in (with Carvalho the best option available, to me) and whether Wilshere will finally live up to all the hype that has surrounded him for the past several years.

Forwards This is the one other area on the pitch where questions remain, though the purchase of Sanchez and the return of Walcott, together with an improving Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (the “Ox”), mean Arsenal will have the pace that was missing for the second half of last season – undermining the ability of Ozil to find attackers running past the defense on the counter or in the slot. Giroud is a fine striker and could improve with some much-needed rest, but should Wenger buy a backup to give him more time off the pitch? At present, it appears Yaya Sanogo, largely unproven potential with only one game as a Gunner where he scored a goal (though it was actually four, in a friendly earlier this season, is the prime backup with the potential that Joel Campbell might hang around as well. Sanchez, Walcott and Podolski can all slot in and play through the middle, though none has the holdup ability of Giroud. Podolski is actually another question, as even though he is clearly the best finisher on the team, his tendency to disappear for long stretches of games and his failure to get back and defend has left him out of favor with Wenger. With Sanchez and Walcott fit, it is hard to see where he will get game time from, except as a potential impact sub (something Arsenal have arguably lacked for several seasons now).

So things are looking up for the Gunners, who have strengthened in concert with their major challengers for the crown. At present, Chelsea are arguably the favorites to win the crown, with City a close second, but Arsenal just put on a display that reminded City that repeating as league champions is never an easy task (except for Juve and Bayern, it appears). It was only a friendly, with stars missing from both teams, but certainly put the league on notice that Arsenal are not going to sit on the laurels of one meager FA Cup crown. A good start to the season will be key, staying at or near the top of the table. They will also have to improve against the rest of the top six, where they were only able to accrue 10 points all last season (two wins over Tottenham, a win at home against Liverpool and a draw on a late equalizer against Everton). They will need to curb their tendency to suffer from too many long-term injuries, a problem they have sought to address by bringing in a new physio coach. And they might have to make at least two more signings to accomplish their goals – a defensive midfielder and capable centre back.
Winning can be contagious, and Arsenal have finally emerged from a long slumber to grab two pieces of silverware. Are more on the horizon? It is certainly decent money with this squad.

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