Arsenal secured Champions League football on the final day of last season with victory at Newcastle United, edging North London rivals Spurs out of 4th position. The end of the match sparked wild celebrations from the Arsenal players, scenes that were criticised by many in the media as they argued it was a blatant indication of Arsenal’s dramatic fall from grace, from winning the title in 2004 without losing a game all season to celebrating 4th position like it was a Champions League Final victory less than ten years later. Aside from a strong run at the end of the season, Arsenal were largely mediocre by way of challenging for the Premier League title and a lack of leadership down the spine of the side, particularly after the sale of Robin van Persie to Manchester United, meant they struggled to take points off of the teams above them. Also, eliminations from both domestic cups by lower league opposition and a round of 16 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League meant that Arsenal’s eight year quest for silverware continued. To counteract the disillusionment of large sections of the Gunners support, Arsenal promised to spend big this summer in an effort to compete with the top side at home and abroad. There have been no signs of that promise bearing fruit so far this summer and Arsenal are facing into another campaign where their squad just seems that bit short of what is needed.
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Perhaps all that has kept Arsenal in and around the top four in their barren spell of nine years without a Premier League title has been the management of Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman, facing his 17th season as manager of the North London side, is now the longest serving manager in the league after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in May and will hope that the continuity his club has afforded him will give his side a slight advantage over the three teams who finished above Arsenal last year, whom all have new managers. Wenger moved to the Gunners in 1996 after spells at Nancy and Monaco in France, where he won 2 trophies before a brief spell in Japan. Since moving to England, the Frenchman has gone on to become one of the country’s most successful managers, winning four FA Cups and three Premier League titles, which broke Manchester United’s stranglehold on the trophy which they had dominated throughout the 1990s. Wenger also brought Arsenal to the 2006 Champions League Final where they lost 2-1 to Barcelona in Paris. Wenger’s last trophy, an FA Cup triumph over Manchester United in 2005, was over eight years ago and season-by-season, the Frenchman has come under increasing pressure from fans to bring Arsenal back to their glory days of the late 90s/early 00s. Part of the frustration lies with the club’s recent policy to let player contracts run down to the final 18 months, which has all resulted in world class footballers such as Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas leaving the club. To further add to the frustration, Wenger seems to be hesitant to spend money to replace these players and instead seems transfixed on giving youth a chance, which is at odds with club’s public statements of ambitions to win titles. With money seemingly there to spend should Wenger want to use it, it is very strange that the Frenchman has again seen fit to not add proven quality to a squad that was so obviously short last season. Silverware is a must for the Gunners this season but for that to be a realistic possibility, Wenger will have to dip into his funds before the end of the window.
Key Player: Jack Wilshere
English footballers are often criticised for their inability to pass the ball and play with the flair and imagination that has proved successful for other national sides. However, in Jack Wilshere, England have a player who would comfortably fit into a Spanish or Brazilian side. Quick, energetic and with a wide range of passing, Wilshere is one of the most gifted midfield players in the Premier League and at just 21 years of age, the Arsenal man is only going to get better. The worry is, though, that he won’t get enough time on the playing field to realise his massive potential, such are the scale of his injury problems. In the last three seasons combined, Wilshere has only managed 60 Premier League appearances, including none in the 2011/12 season and just 25 last season, this is worrying not only for Wilshere but for his club Arsenal who in the young man, possess a real talent that just cannot get enough momentum going to explode onto the next level in the way Cristiano Ronaldo and Cesc Fabregas did at such young ages. In a side that often shows indiscipline by way of attacking football, Wilshere is the cool head in the pack, picking out the right pass at the right time, knowing when to step up a gear and when to play it simple, something Arsenal seem unable to do in his absence with attack minded players like Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain often filling the role ineffectively through no fault of their own. Wilshere is one of the few players in the league who can dictate the pace of a game and with such intelligence on such young shoulders, it is maybe understandable why Arsene Wenger places so much faith in the promotion of youth players. However, in a crucial season where Arsenal simply must challenge for top honours particularly with neighbours Spurs significantly improving their squad, it is time for Wilshere to step up to the next level and become Arsenal’s main man. A season of 40+ games in all competitions would do wonders for the development of the young man and would highly improve Arsenal’s chances of challenging the top dogs. With little sign of strengthening down the spine of the team, Wilshere’s calmness in the centre of midfield may be the deciding factor for Arsenal this season.
What Arsenal lacked last season was simple; the team had no spine. Starting with the goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who at just 23 years of age could be forgiven for lacking the leadership needed at a club whose fans demand silverware. At centre-half is where the problems begin to rear their ugly heads. For some reason, Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen seem to hit form at opposite times to each other and can never consolidate a partnership which on paper looks like it should work. At the beginning of the season Vermaelen put in a string of top performances whereas Koscielny was woeful during that time. Yet by the season’s end, the roles had reversed and from February onwards, Vermaelen only managed a handful of substitute appearances. During both periods of the season, Per Mertesacker was called upon to fill in and for a club with ambitions to challenge the Manchester clubs and Chelsea for Premier League titles, the German centre half simply does not cut it. In centre midfield, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla (pictured above) apart, Arsenal are stocked with inconsistent and unproven players. Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky seem to struggle and get easily overrun in big games and players like Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin have yet to prove that they are up to the standard required. The deficiencies continue in attack as after the sale of Robin van Persie, the Gunners failed to find a suitable replacement to hit the 25-30 goals needed to win serious silverware. Both Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud chipped in with their share of goals, both scoring 11 goals in the league, as did top scorer Theo Walcott (pictured below) with 14 goals yet none of these frontmen were prolific enough to bring Arsenal where they want to go, which is to the top of the table. The above problems do not seem to have been seen to in pre-season and so Arsenal will face the same difficulties they did last season. While this side should be good enough to finish in the top four, presuming Gareth Bale leaves Tottenham for Real Madrid, Arsenal’s statements of belief in the current squad’s ability to challenge for the title seem ridiculously far-fetched and one can only predict another frustrating season for Gunners fans with the only celebrations coming when they secure fourth spot, if indeed they can manage that.
By James Mullarkey (@jamesmullarkeyy)