We’re just one day away from the start of the season now and that means it’s time for a full season preview. In this preview I’ll be running through the four main areas of our squad – goalkeepers, defence, midfield and attack – and looking at our chances of lifting silverware in 2009/10.
In Manuel Almunia we have a confident and consistent number one who showed last season that he is as good as anyone else in England. He has well and truly made the goalkeeping shirt his own with two excellent seasons in a row and will go into the season with his reputation at an all-time high. A leader on and off the pitch Almunia has the ability to get even better this season and if he can stay fit and perform to the same level as last season then we won’t have any problems in this area at all.
After Almunia we have Lukasz Fabianski – who had a bit of a shocker last season but should certainly improve in his second season at the club – as well as Vito Mannone and Wojciech Szczesny who should continue to improve. The one thing that worried me about Fabianski was his ‘energizer bunny-like’ way of running out of the penalty area and if he can calm down a bit then I think it will certainly improve his reliability.
In short: If Almunia gets injured it may make things interesting but assuming the Spaniard stays fit then we have absolutely no concerns in this area of the pitch.
William Gallas will undoubtedly go into this season as the first-choice central defender with new signing Thomas Vermaelen or Johan Djourou competing for a position alongside him. Since being stripped of the captaincy midway through last season Gallas has stepped up considerably and I would argue that his injury late on in the season was a massive contributing factor to our capitulation against Manchester United in the Champions League and loss against Chelsea in the FA Cup. I rate him right up there with Nemanja Vidic and Daniel Agger as one of the best defenders in the Premier League and with him at the back we are always going to look safer at the back.
We may have lost Kolo Toure to Manchester City but in Vermaelen we have signed a player who the manager believes can not only fill the void but improve our team. Although he’s not the 6’5 giant a lot of supporters want he is undoubtedly a fierce competitor and was signed with the intention to bring him straight into the first team. He will compete with Djourou for a spot alongside Gallas and with the Swiss defender injured for the first month of the season will have a great opportunity to assert himself and show the rest of the Premiership what he can do.
I believe the manager’s intention will be to build the relationship between Vermaelen and Djourou throughout the season to a point where the pair will begin 2010/11 as the first-choice line-up. I think Djourou is a fine defender who exudes calm and composure and if he can add a more physical edge to his game it could be a very big season for him. A lot will depend on who stays fit and who gets injured but as a first three it’s hard to argue that Gallas, Vermaelen and Djourou are not good enough.
Beyond that trio there are concerns and I believe we need to make a signing before the end of the transfer window to address them. Mikael Silvestre showed last season that he is not good enough and with age against him is not going to improve, while if Alex Song is asked to play in defence it opens up a huge hole in defensive midfield. While I don’t believe we need both a defender and a defensive midfielder it is utterly crucial that we get one of the two and if I had to choose it would be a midfielder with the option of pushing Song back if required. Ideally I would like both and I believe Wenger’s ability to improve the squad in this area between now and the end of August will have a huge baring on our chances of winning a trophy.
Out wide at the back we have no concerns with Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna an exceptionally gifted wing-back pairing. If they can maintain the form they’ve consistently shown throughout the past two seasons and the very talented duo Kieran Gibbs and Armand Traore as well as the enigmatic Emmanuel Eboue can do a job when called upon then we will have no problems here.
In short: We have an excellent trio of centre-backs but the failure to sign a fourth or a defensive midfielder could see us hopelessly understrength in the very likely event of us sustaining a couple of injuries at crucial times of the season.
Arsene Wenger’s decision to go for a 4-3-3 this season should see us utilise the midfield group of Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Denilson, Abou Diaby, Aaron Ramsey, Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky far more effectively than last season. Going into the season it seems unfathomable that Song will not start as the defensive midfield pivot for captain Fabregas and (most likely) Denilson to work around. Had he no broken his leg then I believe Nasri would have played in place of Denilson while if Rosicky was further along in his rehabilitation then it’s arguable that he may have done so instead.
The key for the manager this season will be to keep his midfielder fit and fresh through regular rotation to allow our very best passers and creators – Fabregas, Nasri and Rosicky – to be fit and healthy in the games that matter. While I still have my doubts about Denilson’s overall ability as a player I do feel that 4-3-3 may bring the best out of him while the lack of a defensive midfield signing means Song will be under huge physical and psychological pressure to both remain fit and play well throughout the season. My major concern in this area (as I outlined in the defensive section) is that we do not have adequate cover for Song and I would be hugely surprised if Wenger did not bring in another midfielder before the window closes.
Meanwhile this is set to be a make-or-break season for Diaby and I have a funny feeling that after a relatively poor 08/09 he may be the surprise performer in the Arsenal midfield. Additionally, if we are to achieve success this season then Nasri and Fabregas will need to add goals to their otherwise well-rounded repertoires.
In short: In terms of quality we look excellent but in terms of numbers we’re one short. Song has the ability to become the defensive midfielder we need to make Fabregas and Co. look good but if he goes down injured or has a dip in form we may be in trouble.
If there is one area of the squad that we look brilliant in more than any other it is our attack. The very talented yet uninterested Emmanuel Adebayor may be gone but in Andrey Arshavin and Robin van Persie we have two of the very best forwards in the world game and in Eduardo and Nicklas Bendtner two more excellent options. Add in Theo Walcott, Carlos Vela and the up-and-coming Jack Wilshere and have a seriously versatile bunch of quality players.
The shift to 4-3-3 should see Arshavin’s impact increased and he could take the Premiership by storm this season while both van Persie and Bendtner will want to improve on their goal tallies from last season. It appears as though Bendtner will begin the season as the right side of the front three and if he can get a couple of early goals this season then I can really see our #52 enjoying a breakthrough season at Arsenal.
It will be interesting to see the role that Eduardo plays this season given he is now fully fit and I feel he could well work his way into the starting line-up if any of the first-choice trio’s form starts to slip. The same could be said for Theo Walcott as well although I do get the feeling that he may be used more often as an impact sub to get the most out of his pace and direct style of play.
In short: We might not have a Fernando Torres or Didier Drogba in our ranks but we possess arguably the most versatile forward-line in English football and the switch to 4-3-3 should get the most out of them.
Unlike some of the doom-mongerers and journalists out there who are once again predicting disaster for Arsenal, I am exceptionally excited about Arsenal’s chances of lifting silverware this season. In saying that though, a large part of that excitement will evaporate should Wenger fail to bring in at least one of (preferably two) a centre-back or defensive midfielder.
While I don’t think there is any chance of us finishing lower than 4th even if no signings were made I also don’t believe we could get higher than 3rd if no new face arrives. If we get the defensive cover we need however, then I can’t see any reason why the Premiership Trophy is beyond us. Aside from one key area we have an exceptionally talented squad with depth to match all three of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea.
A key area that appears to have been overlooked by a lot of people in rating Arsenal’s chances this season is the obvious changes in team spirit at the club from one year ago. Fabregas will start the season as captain, Gallas with far less pressure on his shoulders. Rosicky and Eduardo, both experienced players who are clearly great influences in the changing room, are back while Arshavin will be well-settled and ready to exert his natural leadership in the final third. Bendtner and Eboue have fought back to silence the boo-boys, Song has a bit of buzz around him while finally, finally Almunia is starting to get the credit he deserves between the sticks.
It goes without saying that all of this morale will mean nothing if we fail to make a crucial signing or two but if Wenger gets the cheque-book out and brings in exactly what we need then I believe we are a very good chance of winning the Premiership. We obviously have a very tough start to the season but if the boys can get through that relatively unscathed and build the sort of run they managed in the second half of the last campaign then there is much to be optimistic about.
In short: Arsenal can win the Premiership this season but a failure to make crucial signings means 3rd may be the limit.
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