After Arsenal dropped points throughout the opening months of the 2014-15 season, the combination of a new marauding defensive midfielder, a finally healthy squad, and heaps of talent inspired the London club to a robust second half, a second consecutive FA Cup title, and a flawless preseason run. Now, eleven seasons removed from its last English Premier League title, Arsenal enters the 2015-16 campaign keen to dispel the troubles that have plagued the club and prove its return to the top echelon of European giants.
In recent seasons, critics have pointed to the Gunners’ absence of both star power and depth, lack of a dependable spine, poor injury record, big-game failures shaking the squad’s confidence, and tactical inflexibility as key components of Arsenal’s disappointing stretch of seasons. Today, the pieces have finally come together in Arsene Wenger’s squad, making this team’s title hopes the brightest since the days Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira donned the Arsenal badge.
To truly grasp the injection of top-class talent into the squad, I have to undergo the unfortunate task of looking back at Arsenal’s infamous 3-1 loss to Aston Villa at the Emirates to open the 2013-14 season, which happens to be the only match I have ever seen Arsenal play. While many of the starting XI names remain the exact same as those in the current squad, the few changes highlight the key advancements the club has made in just two years.
Former Chelsea stalwart Petr Čech, winner of the 2012 UEFA Champions League as well as four EPL titles and four FA Cups, has replaced an inexperienced and erratic Wojciech Szczesny in goal. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have forged a suffocating relationship at the back and are now flanked by Héctor Bellerín — a 20-year-old Spaniard who has passed up Mathieu Debuchy, who, coincidentally, starts over 2013 Arsenal right-back Bacary Sagna in the French squad — and Nacho Monreal, who has followed a shaky start to his Arsenal career with the best two-way left-back play since at least Gaël Clichy. While these may seem minor improvements, the midfield has changed from a fragile mess into a selection mess with all the talent Wenger has to choose from, with the best five (Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, and Alexis Sánchez) all out-performing any midfielder two years ago today. Finally, the striking situation of Oliver Giroud and… a Bambi-like Yaya Sanogo… is now a much-improved trifecta of Giroud, Theo Walcott, and Danny Welbeck, all of whom have turned in spectacular performances at the highest levels for both club and country.
In addition to the Özil/Sánchez/Čech transfer triumvirate and the improvements throughout the squad, the club’s depth is especially remarkable. Entering the season, Wenger will have the likes of Jack Wilshere, Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Debuchy, Mikel Arteta, Kieran Gibbs, Gabriel Paulista, Calum Chambers, Tomáš Rosický and David Ospina — all of whom could comfortably start EPL matches — on the bench, not to mention the exciting players coming up the ranks in the youth squad.
While the squad advancement is little more than a task of name-dropping, the most vital aspect comes in the growth of the club’s so-called “spine” — the men playing up the middle of the pitch. Čech provides more stability in goal than Arsenal has seen in over a decade, while the aforementioned Mertesacker/Koscielny partnership also has proper backup in young reinforcements Gabriel and Chambers. We cannot forget how just last year, Wenger scrambled to partner an exhausted Mertesacker with a cast of backup fullbacks in the middle. At striker, Giroud looked one of the most potent scoring threats in England during the second half of the season and now enjoys the possibility of Walcott and Welbeck offering prolific alternatives. The people who constantly cry for the signing of a “world-class striker” are ignoring that Giroud has been outstanding in 2015, that the side has three quality options in the role, and that by the very definition of “world-class,” there are hardly any in the world and everyone wants them, making them nearly impossible to come by, especially right now. I am not arguing that signing Karim Benzema or someone else would be bad for the club, but Arsenal can definitely win the title with the current attacking force.
Connecting the spine, Wenger’s exasperating and elusive quest to find a defensive midfielder improbably ended with youth squad wash-out Francis Coquelin, who led the EPL in interceptions per game last season and also ranked in the top ten in tackles per game, securing the role and almost instantly transforming Arsenal into one of the league’s most formidable sides.
A final important note on the current squad: It is the healthiest it has been since Wilshere was too young to get hurt. I do not have precise data on this, but I have seen the data that back this obvious intuition: While Chelsea have ridden a wave of incredible injury luck to recent titles — not to take anything away from their success, but it still makes a massive difference — Arsenal have faced more projected win shares lost to injury than any club in the EPL. The Gunners enter the campaign with just Welbeck and Rosický — two ultimately replaceable players with everyone else fit — sidelined, and of course Wilshere has already potentially broken his fibula since I wrote this. Current injury record is no predictor of future injury record, but the two controllable factors right now — health entering the season and squad depth — put the Gunners in an unprecedented favorable position entering the campaign. Additonally, after the World Cup ruined much of Arsenal’s last preseason, only Sánchez missed this year’s preseason due to his allotted summer vacation. He is really the one player who does not need a full preseason, and it also provides Oxlade-Chamberlain with an outstanding opportunity to get a run in the team.
Finally, after years of facing demolition when traveling to the top clubs’ grounds, a huge 2-0 victory over Manchester City at the Etihad in January served as both a catharsis and a massive confidence boost. Perhaps most remarkable in that match was Wenger’s willingness to concede possession and win on the counter, a strategy for which critics have cried for years, which also helped deliver the club’s second consecutive Community Shield win this past weekend in its 1-0 defeat of Chelsea. Other big matches throughout the campaign began to swing in Arsenal’s favor, including a memorable FA Cup victory over Manchester United. It is also vital to remember that even through Arsenal’s struggles against top opponents in recent years, no club has had as strong a record against non-top-four teams. That may sound pointless, but every game counts for the same. And while a good recent performance run against top teams guarantees nothing this season, the “ARSENAL CAN’T WIN BIG GAMES” narrative has quieted and the squad’s confidence has tangibly escalated, culminating in two FA Cup titles, which count for something.
If a talented, healthy, confident Arsenal has finally solved all of its problems, then what can stop the club from taking the coveted league title? Well, the answer is ultimately in the question. Thankfully, there will almost surely be no talent exodus from this squad (R.I.P. Fabregas, Nasri, van Persie, Clichy, Song, etc.), but the other factors face more risk. An unlucky injury spell could obviously cripple the team’s chances, but while even the club’s stars are spelled by capable replacements, the aforementioned spine serves as the most irreplaceable portion of the team. A long-term injury to Mertesacker or Koscielny would devastate the partnership that has become the cornership of the squad’s defensive end, but it would certainly not be the end-all, be-all for the club.
In my mind, it is difficult to see Arsenal winning the league without a strong season from Coquelin, who ESPNFC’s Tom Adams called “a silent superstar,” which arguably makes him the most important player in the entire squad. As Gunnerblog wrote this week, “It’s now impossible to imagine an Arsenal XI without Coquelin anchoring the midfield. And that’s the worry. If the Frenchman were to succumb to injury or suspension, there is no obvious alternative that can replicate his rugged but disciplined game.” The rise of perhaps the league’s greatest ball-winner directly coincided with the club’s second-half renaissance, and it now looks like a major injury or drop in form for Coquelin stands as the biggest danger entering the campaign.
Ultimately, despite the near flawlessness with which Arsenal enters the season, it is entirely possible that Chelsea and Manchester City simply play better. Chelsea’s lack of depth and Manchester City’s defensive troubles and simple absence of team cohesion should worry their respective fans, but they also possess at least as much talent and experience as Arsenal. If you are shouting from your chair that Manchester United will win the title, you are foolishly believing another stream of signings will solve a laundry list of problems — like having a defense, having a striker not named Wayne Rooney, and knowing how to play together — that plagued a vastly overrated side last season. United could easily place higher than fourth this year, but topping all three seemingly superior clubs looks a tall task.
Now, with Arsenal’s season kicking off Sunday versus West Ham, we can finally stop reading the foolish season previews that omit Coquelin and Cazorla from their lineups and see if the club can truly mount a title contention.