Expectation. The word that has defined Arsenal for the last 12 seasons, each time teasing Arsenal fans as we endeavour into a new season of inevitable heartbreak. Each of those 12 heartbreaking seasons, the squad has had its strengths and its weaknesses, with the latter costing us in the crucial months of the season. Arsene Wenger arguably has the best group of players at his disposal since the decorated “Invincibles”. So with a matter of weeks until the kick off of the Premier League season, how is the Arsenal squad shaping up? Will this squad follow the trend of previous teams, or does it have what it takes to end the 12 year Premier League drought that has plagued a club of such an illustrious nature?
Last season only two teams- Spurs and Manchester United- conceded fewer goals than the Gunners, appearing as though the rear guard of Arsenal may not be an issue, however, on closer inspection this is not the case. Whilst evidently being the best goalkeeper at Arsenal, Petr Čech has been susceptible to shots at his near post (goals conceded to Lanzini of West Ham and Yannick Bolasie of Crystal Palace being examples of this). At the age of 34, it’s unlikely that Petr Čech will iron this out of his game. Despite this flaw, the commanding figure of the Czech international has given a solid base for the defence to be confident in, with the veteran keeper having the most saves per goal (2.68) in the Premier League, highlighting how his presence is much needed if the Arsenal are to not only mount a title challenge, but come out triumphant. As for the fullback positions, Hector Bellerin rightfully earned a spot in the PFA TOTY for his tremendous performances in the 2015-16 season, the young spaniard completed 226 defensive actions last season. The spaniard on the opposing flank Nacho Monreal was as consistent as ever, completing 313 defensive actions. The problem area when it comes to Arsenal’s defence is the Centre Backs, or to be more precise, a centre back. Laurent Koscielny has proven his worth since joining Arsenal in 2010, become a leading figure in the Arsenal side, with the win percentage without the Frenchman being 39% in his absence. The Right Centre back is where issues arise. Per Mertesacker showed last season he is a liability when in the side, with the sending off vs Chelsea an evident example of this. Whilst it used to be poor punditry to point out Mertesacker’s pace as a point of weakness for the opposition to attack, it has become a genuine concern with his reading of the game dropping of last season. As for Gabriel, he reminds you of Koscielny when he first joined Arsenal, a front foot defender who wants to feel the striker he’s up against. Unfortunately, this leads to rash decisions on his part, leading to defensive vulnerability. Whilst Calum Chambers could perhaps play at centre back in the coming season, the weakness at RCB remains, and could be Arsenal’s downfall in the coming season.
Often regarded as the position of the pitch that Arsenal are “spoilt for choice” in, the Gunners have lacked a midfielder that can combine Francis Coquelin’s tenacity and defensive capabilities with Santi Cazorla’s guile and technique. Wenger and the board got business done early when signing Swiss International Granit Xhaka, who miraculously is blessed with the exact combination the Arsenal midfield desperately needed last season. The twenty three year old is a dictator of the game, possessing the ability to thread eye of the needle passes between the opposition midfield, yet has the required reading of the game to smother opposition attacks before they become a threat. Last season, a major problem for Arsenal (especially in the second half of the season), was that Mesut Özil dropped into a deep lying playmaker role far too frequently, meaning there was a distinct lack of creative options in the final third. With the Arrival of Xhaka, the German playmaker will not longer have to drop deep in order to dictate the game for Arsenal, as the Swiss midfielder can do this. More importantly, with the arrival of Xhaka, the world cup winner will now be found in between the lines on a consistent basis, meaning that Özil can thread his marvellous passes into the attackers in a position that poses significantly more threat to the opposing defence than it did previously when he has to drop deep. Alongside Granit Xhaka will likely be Aaron Ramsey, who will feel hard done by that he didn’t win the Player of the tournament for the Euro 2016. The Welshman was integral in the astonishing Wales achievement of reaching the Semi Finals. Whilst the Galatico Gareth Bale received most of the plaudits, Ramsey’s tireless work, quality on the ball, positioning both defensively and offensively was key in the Wales’ success, with the 25 year old Welshman claiming a tournament high 4 assists. With Granit Xhaxa next to him in midfield next season, we can expect the Aaron Ramsey of old back and firing for the Gunners, with Xhaka resembling the role that Mikel Arteta crucially played in Aaron Ramsey’s incredible 2013/14 season, building from midfield meaning that Aaron didn’t have to, giving him a freer role. Likewise, Xhaka will resemble this role, giving the Arsenal fans a reinvigorated Aaron Ramsey to look forward to next season.
Since the sale of Robin Van Persie a top quality striker has yet to bless its presence in a red and white shirt. Whilst Arsenal have the formidable Chilean Alexis Sanchez contributing significantly to the Gunners goal tally with 42 goals in all competitions in his two seasons for the Gunners. However, it’s a well known issue that Arsenal need a striker. Giroud has significantly improved over his 4 year tenure at Arsenal, however, when you have Mesut Özil supplying you and you go on a 15 game goal drought in the league, you simply have to ask questions. Giroud has 82 goals in all competitions over four years at Arsenal, making that an average of 20.5 goals a season in all competitions. When you consider the title winners in the last four premier league seasons have had a goalscorer with over 20 league goals (Vardy, Costa, Aguero and Van Persie.) this return isn’t good enough for a team which aspires to win the title. That said, there are positives to having the Frenchman in an Arsenal shirt.
The 29 year old acts as the vocal point to all the Arsenal attacks. When the ball arrives at his feet, he is a brick wall for the surrounding players, they can be assured they will get the ball back from him. This trait of Giroud’s is a unique trait amongst Centre Forwards in the modern game. Yes, there are physical strikers in football such as Diego Costa, but the ability to retain the ball so efficiently is something Arsene Wenger loves in a player, and Olivier Giroud possesses this trait. Giroud also adds defensive solidity to Arsenal. Giroud frequently heads clear at corners-something Arsenal have been evidently susceptible to throughout recent years- and this significantly helps to relieve pressure from the arsenal defence. In addition to this, the French international has something that often goes unnoticed, very good workrate. Although admittedly the Frenchman isn’t the quickest, he effectively positions himself in order to maximise the efficiency of his workrate.
Despite these positives, Giroud simply isn’t clinical enough, and unless an improvement is signed in the transfer window, the pre season optimism that annually arises, will quickly be replaced with a toxic atmosphere amongst the supporters, leading to a season of disappointment in which could be Arsene Wenger’s last.
Jake Lennard (@WilshereTouch)