First things first: an apology for delaying my season preview. I was waiting to see how the Robin van Persie situation ended up (not well, argh) and then along came the harder-than-concrete Alex Song to Barcelona rumors.
I didn’t want to write a wishy-washy preview full of ifs and buts and that’s why this is coming to you at the eleventh hour. It is also why I am making the assumption that Song will go to Barcelona — as I trust this source highly (even if ANR’s opinion pieces are often way off the mark) — and writing about our team without him in mind.
Secondly, rather than a general overview at our squad and how it is shaping up (you can find them all over the place, I particularly liked Jimmy Gooner’s) I wanted to write a more focused piece that looked at the 9 big questions I feel will define our season.
So let’s hop to it…
1. Will Szczesny kick on from a promising start?
Wojciech Szczesny has the potential to be a great goalkeeper. He’s young, confident and blessed with a presence that we’ve lacked since the days of Jens Lehmann. His teammates respect and trust him, he has the backing of the supporters and he seems like a genuinely nice guy, honest and direct in his assessment of himself and the world he lives in.
Yet Szczesny has not quite made it yet. He’s the undisputed #1 now — a shirt switch officially confirms that a year after it was already fact — but the feeling must be there that he can go up another level. Mistakes crept into his game last season — a couple of odd shots from range got beyond him, a few times he was caught wandering outside the area — and those little wobbles were compounded by a horror show in goals for Poland in their Euro 2012 opener against Greece where he was sent off.
I have no doubts about Szczesny’s ability to become an absolute superstar for Arsenal but an improvement on last season is a must if we are to challenge for honours.
2. Who will partner Vermaelen?
The news that Thomas Vermaelen has been made captain of the club — a position he appeared destined for after a rip-roaring first season with Arsenal — means he will be the first name on the team sheet, with Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker (not to forget Johan Djourou) competing for the second slot. Who will Wenger choose?
The answer might be that he doesn’t have to choose. Koscielny and Mertesacker are such different options that Wenger’s choice may be made based on our opponents or indeed, in the case against Sunderland for our season opener, for which Koscielny is injured, who is available at the time. There is a natural ebb and flow regarding injuries that suggests Wenger might not ever have to decide who his best partnership is, just which will work best at a particular time or against a particular opponent.
It is worth noting that for all the goals that we shipped last season our central defence looks to be a particularly strong area of our team. Koscielny has developed into one of the best pure defenders in the league, Vermaelen has a drive and presence about him that accounts for his occasional positional lapses while Mertesacker’s organisation skills have been highly-regarded by teammates and undervalued by supporters.
3. Are the wing-back positions our biggest weakness?
We have a very interesting situation brewing with regard to our wing-back positions. With Bacary Sagna out of action for another month due to injury there is a lot of questions marks about our quality in these spots.
On the left Kieran Gibbs is better-than-talented but injury-prone and inconsistent while Andre Santos is a player that defends by attacking, something that probably won’t sit well with new assistance coach Steve Bould. On the right Carl Jenkinson is athletic and positive going forward while behind him is Nico Yennaris, an inexperienced but nippy player in the mould of Phillip Lahm.
All four are good options but nobody is comparable to Bacary Sagna and our opposition will know that.
4. How will Song’s absence be handled?
Alex Song has been one of our best players over the past three seasons, incrementally improving his game and winning a lot of fans in the process. However a misconception has formed that he is our only out-and-out defensive midfielder and that his exit will leave a huge gap in our squad.
I don’t believe this to be true for two reasons. Firstly, that he is not an out-and-out defensive midfielder (he was given far more license to room last season and actually struggles a bit with his positional play) and secondly that wedo have players of this type. Wilshere and Arteta played more defensively than Song when they were paired together.
It has also become clear that a holding midfielder is not a priority of Arsene Wenger: he wants a fluid system where the midfielders rotate and share roles. His willingness to part ways with Song suggests he seen the value of a player like Arteta and is confident in the options in his squad. And my goodness there are options: joining Arteta and Wilshere is upcomers Coquelin and Frimpong, Ramsey, Rosicky, a fit-again Diaby, new boy Cazorla and the very-likely signing of Nuri Sahin, who played in a Xabi Alonso role during his time at Borussia Dortmund.
In other words: I think we’ll be just fine.
5. Is Arteta, Carzorla and Diaby an unlikely trio made in heaven?
Relying on Diaby to stay fit is risky but he is a player that I rate incredibly highly and one that, given guidance from two intelligent thinkers like Arteta and Cazorla could flourish. It is only my opinion and I’m not sure many people will agree, but this trio is one that is impeccably-balanced and would function remarkably well.
There is of course the small matter of integrating Wilshere into the team (as well as keeping the likes of Rosicky, Ramsey and Co happy via rotation) but as with the central defenders, the natural ebb and flow of injuries and availability means this will happen comfortably. Midfield is an area of the pitch that we are spoilt for choice and the current crop of players give us variety, intelligence and the ability to out-possess any other team in the league.
It would be foolish to underestimate the signing of Santi Cazorla too. This is a player that the manage was desperate to replace Cesc last season and can do absolutely everything: score, create, pass and lead from the front. Less optimistic supporters may draw parallels with the likes of Andrey Arshavin, who has not achieved success at Arsenal despite coming to the club with similar attributes. However the fact that Cazorla will be given the opportunity to dictate play from a more central position should solve the problem.
6. Can Podolski and Giroud cover the loss of van Persie?
The loss of van Persie is obviously a huge blow for us but by recruiting Podolski and Giroud, two proven goalscorers at international and club level respectively, our response has been excellent.
Podolski is a player who is almost anti-Arsenal in his style of play: direct, not hugely technical and completely unafraid to take a pop when given even the slightest opening. Supporters in the “SHOOT!” club will need to come up with something else to say when the ball is at his feet. What’s more German manager Jogi Löw has been quoted as saying that Podolski’s biggest strength is his running off the ball, something that will be appreciated by our more creative players.
Giroud is not somebody I know a great deal about but at 6’4 and a great scoring record in his breakout year at Montpelier, his physical presence could be a pleasant surprise to supporters and offer the team a stronger focal point than in previous seasons. Van Persie had a wonderful season last time around but the combination of Giroud and Podolski, two players that are all about scoring, leaves us in a strong position to cover his absence.
7. Is unpredictability our biggest weapon?
I’ve already covered this in some detail but I believe our unpredictablity in attack this season could prove to be our strongest weapon. To quote from my previous article:
Le Professeur has openly admitted that he is unsure of how he will accommodate experienced German striker Lukas Podolski and powerful Frenchman Olivier Giroud into the team. There has been talk of a return to 4-4-2 with Giroud and Marouane Chamakh rotating as the target man and Podolski, Gervinho et al providing support from a classic support striker role.
Throw in the superbly-gifted Santi Cazorla into the mix and Arsenal’s attack has a thrilling air of unpredictability around it going into the new season.
Unpredictability has always been and will always be a critical facet of the attacking side of football because it creates chaos for the opponent. In more modern times where statistics are analysed and video footage is scrutinised it has arguably become even more valuable. How can one plan to defend if they don’t know how they will be attacked?
Along with the new signings we also have a tricky, unpredictable attacker by the name of
The Brain Gervinho who has been excellent in pre-season and could be set for a special year. With his brilliant dribbling skills — even watching on TV I have a hard time predicting which way he is going to go, I don’t even think he knows half the time! — and a season of English football behind him he is absolutely one to watch.
8. Do we have a deep enough squad?
Assuming that a signing is made to replace Song we just about have a deep enough squad. Our central defensive options are excellent while we have an abundance of midfielders who can play in multiple roles. There are two areas that we could strengthen further, however: at left or right back and up front.
Injuries are an absolute inevitability at this club and should be treated as such. I do have a fear that losing a key-position player like Giroud or Sagna for a decent spell would leave us looking a little weak. As I mentioned earlier our other wide defenders are still to convince while the thought of being stuck with Chamakh or Park up front for a run of important games does not fill me with confidence.
I thinking further signings in these two positions would leave us looking primed for the new season?
9. Will Wenger be able to establish a style?
For a number of seasons this team has given mixed messages to supporters relating to how it wants to play the game. There have been a handful of reasons for this: key position players often leave, there has been a gradual shift from tippy-tappy possession football to a more direct approach and injuries forced the abandonment of the zonal marking system that the team attempted to install at the beginning of last season.
The situation has gotten so strange that when I speak to an opposing fan about Arsenal’s style of play it seems to change every three months depending on the circumstance. This is an unsustainable way to run a football team and Wenger will know it. The challenge he has this season is to get this group of players onto the same wavelength and establish a style that permeates throughout the squad.
Just playing fast, technical football is not good enough. If we are to rock the boat and compete for the top honors we need to have attacking and defensive principles and systems that the players stick to on impulse. We need to have plans for set pieces, an understanding of the roles of our teammates and a desire to transition quickly from defence into attack, something that has become an absolute necessity in the modern game, particularly in England.
It takes hard work, good communication and a united vision but with a lot of intelligent, experienced and willing players now in this team it is an achievable goal. I am absolutely fascinated to see whether Wenger can create something akin to the Invincibles with regards to our playing style and achieve the sort of success that we all crave.
So there you have it. I would love to hear from absolutely everybody out there about how they are feeling about the new season, whether they feel it will be successful and what you are excited about. Leave a comment below and join the chat happening on Twitter too.
It’s great to have football and more particularly, Arsenal, back in our lives again and hopefully the season will be a journey that we all enjoy!