After a lengthy break for us here at DCIAB, it’s great to have you back. As summer begins to wind down, DCIAB prepares for our peak season of content. But first, I would love the pleasure of presenting my second annual “State of the Arsenal Address.” I have spent my approximately five minutes of free time each day this summer obsessively reading soccer and Arsenal Reddit, listening to all quality soccer podcasts in existence, browsing random soccer blogs, and falling asleep watching YouTube player highlight packages. Because no one seems interested in keeping up with my European soccer obsession, I find myself with an elephantine slate of thoughts regarding the upcoming season with no outlet to release them. Now, I will take the opportunity to spill them out in as concise a manner as possible in a post that simultaneously stands as an Arsenal season preview, a series of personal takes, and an annual benchmark existing for posterity purposes.
Although the perpetual pressure of top-flight English soccer would have you convinced each season represents a singularly monumental one for a club, the 2016-17 season for Arsenal will stand as a crucial inflection point with regard to the short- and long-term future of Arsenal Football Club.
Longtime boss Arsène Wenger could well be coaching his final season at the storied club, as his contract is set to run out at the end of the upcoming campaign. Meanwhile, Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez each remain under contract with Arsenal through the 2017-18 season, though the result of this season will undoubtedly determine the fate of the two 27-year-old stars who would surely face significant demand from giants across Europe. Additionally, many of Arsenal’s key starters face the back end of their respective primes, meaning the club will need to bring in reinforcements imminently.
It is quite easy to paint the picture of Arsenal’s future as apocalyptic, as many supporters have a knack for doing. A failed year – or, even, a stagnant 3rd- or 4th-place finish – could lead to a massive changing of the guard that would usher the club into an entirely new era without Wenger, Özil, or Alexis and place Arsenal in a tricky bargaining position when trying to replace its current starters. It is also quite easy to see how such a failed year could occur. The well-documented lack of depth in central defense and in the striker position would incite dubious feelings among Arsenal fans each week throughout a 38-game campaign in this year’s ultra-competitive Premier League. Competing with around six other teams that have legitimate chances to qualify for the Champions League, a weakened squad could put Arsenal’s top-four chances in question.
Meanwhile, the window to improve the squad closes with the same deliberate pace yet fateful inevitability of the Death Star garbage compactor. For the better part of the summer, the first thing I do upon waking up is excitedly scroll through Twitter for Arsenal transfer news. Obviously, I have yet to experience a reward. I feel you, Chewbacca.
At the same time, there remains an extremely vivid and realistic scenario in which Arsenal establishes itself as a dominant force. At time of writing, it appears that signing German defender Shkodran Mustafi from Valencia is
a serious possibility almost definitely going to happen, while the hype train surrounding a steal of PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez chugs along with reputable sources confirming negotiations and mutual interest. While we have all learned to not assume either of these players – or any top players – will enter the Emirates locker room any time soon, Mustafi and Mahrez (or a player of his approximate caliber and positioning) are realistic additional hauls for Wenger and the board this summer.
With early summer signing Granit Xhaka already looking like a major contributor to the club in a position of need, adding a starting-quality centerback to partner with Laurent Koscielny as well as a high-quality attacking option would, quite frankly, make Arsenal the best side in the entire league. Before inevitable accusations of blind optimism take flight, take a moment to seriously consider the utter failures that Arsenal’s main challengers experienced last season as well as the continued plethora of questions each faces. I will refrain from going through each one by one, but it is vital to recall that as disappointing as last season felt, Arsenal finished second only to Leicester City – who, despite my belief that they will be better than many give them credit, is due for regression – and led the league in xGD by a fairly wide margin despite major injuries to the Gunners’ two best players from the previous season (Alexis and Santi Cazorla), forcing Mathieu Flamini to play a frightening number of minutes. Of course, other top clubs have made significant enhancements this summer, though each situation comes with a high degree of variance, particularly compared to the remarkable stability Arsenal has carried out under Wenger. Essentially, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Chelsea each has the potential to have a scary good season and take the league, though it is hard to see how any of them would actually have a higher projected average finish than this idealistic yet realistic Arsenal squad with top-quality players at every position.
Although all my discourse so far has surrounded Arsenal’s (lack of) transfer business, I often get sick of the obsession with the players Arsenal could have rather than the players Arsenal do have. This perspective has caused many fans – both those of Arsenal and other clubs – to forget the actual quality within Arsenal’s current squad.
With the exception of the worrying right centerback position following major preseason injuries to Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista, the back line stands as quite formidable. The stout Laurent Koscielny (1st) and consistent Nacho Monreal (4th) rank as remarkably strong defenders via Squawka’s game score, while 21-year-old rightback Héctor Bellerín was named the league’s top player at his position last season. Behind the back line stands Petr Čech, winner of last season’s Golden Glove, backed up by Colombian international David Ospina, who looked great when starting last season and in this summer’s Copa America. Additionally, new signing (!) Rob Holding, Krystian Bielik, and Calum Chambers look encouraging options for the back line’s future, while Arsenal veteran Kieran Gibbs (that feels weird to say) and Carl Jenkinson – who returns from two years on loan at West Ham – will spell the fullback positions. (Also, Mathieu Debuchy remains technically on Arsenal!) In sum, the defensive situation at Arsenal is quite clear: The club is in a nice position defensively this season and in the future, but the right centerback position will be absolutely vital to the club’s success or failure this season. Just one major signing would vault the back line from a glaring weakness to a arguably the top in the league.
Fortunately, the midfield situation stands out as a key strength for the Gunners. Xhaka appears to be the genetically engineered defensive midfielder Arsenal have clearly needed for many years. The Swiss international offers a unique combination of physicality, game control, and tackling ability, which he exuded in the Bundesliga last season and in France this summer. Additionally, Xhaka has exhibited exceptional ability to both pass and shoot from long-range, which will offer an element of verticality the club has lacked. Perhaps most importantly, a robust force in back will allow Euro 2016 star Aaron Ramsey to operate with the freedom he needs to play as a consistently top-class player in the center of the park. Without getting into a deep tactical analysis, it is abundantly clear that partnering Ramsey with Francis Coquelin or even Flamini – both of whom have significant limitations when facing any form of an opposing press – was disastrous. Xhaka and Ramsey will likely claim the first-choice midfield pairing, while the still-magical Cazorla, the incredibly versatile and underrated Mohammed Elneny, the healthy (for now!) Jack Wilshere, and the tackling madman Coquelin will all offer unique alternative options. Ahead of the more deep-lying pair will operate the [every positive superlative within the English lexicon] Özil.
Of course, the forward and wing positions are the most common victims of outcries from fans and critics. The most prominent and talented member of this position group is the formidable keg of energy Alexis, who offers an attacking package that few in the world can match. A tough spell after returning from injury last season caused Wenger to switch the Chilean to the right wing, where he banged in goal after goal. A shortage at the striker position has caused some intrigue around Alexis taking the spot, where he struggled to impress… in a 45-minute opportunity at Everton two years ago. I do think this is a plausible solution, if only to give Olivier Giroud some much-needed rest throughout the year. Elsewhere, Theo Walcott continues to perplex even himself as he cannot decide whether he prefers playing as a striker or winger, despite failing to offer a consistent end product at either position in years. The potential for Walcott remains evident in flashes, as it appears confidence is a major barrier to his performance. Meanwhile, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joel Campbell, and youngster Alex Iwobi all show varying levels of promise and first-team quality. Mahrez would certainly be an upgrade, though I genuinely believe there is enough quality in these options (not to mention an endless list of talented teenage attacking midfielders/wingers on the brink of the first team) to contribute to the Arsenal attack. Finally, Danny Welbeck is quite possibly the best striker on the squad, but another major knee injury will keep him from playing a factor in the upcoming campaign.
Giroud could receive his own book, but I’ll give him his own paragraph here. While the Frenchman is far from a top-class striker, he has curiously become one of the more underrated at his position in European soccer. Critics, of course, point to his lack of pace, which so happens to be the one weakness even my dog could spot, whereas his key strengths include his ability to link play in tight spaces and position the attack with his hold-up play – much more subtle traits that my dog and too many fans cannot intellectually grasp. Thus, his weakness is exceptionally conspicuous while his strengths are quite subtle. Separately, Giroud holds the weight of expectation of a squad that has possessed few alternative goal-scoring options – both in terms of depth at the striker position and alternative players on the field who offer an end product – causing critics to point to the player who is most tasked with converting goals. Arsenal will never win the Premier League with Giroud as its only striking option, but he can be a regular starter in a League-winning side as long as the squad does not rely on him so strongly for goals.
I have much more to say regarding how the club approaches transfer business, the absence of support for Walcott, the peculiarities of fans lauding a French striker who failed to make the Euro squad rather than the starting French striker, what this season means for Wenger, the attacking-midfield-heavy youth squad, etc., but I will save those conversations for another day or another forum and leave with some concluding words.
I do think fans focus too much on the allure of the transfer window. Yet, with Arsenal facing the start of an absolutely pivotal year, what happens by the end of August can determine much of the club’s future. Ultimately, the current squad positions Arsenal for another second-to-fourth-place finish, but even the next few weeks – both on and off the pitch – can dictate whether the club will seriously contend for an elusive Premier League title or face the danger of missing the Champions League for the first time since the we all watched Chewbacca in a trash compactor. This potential Mustafi deal alone could make Arsenal as serious a title contender as any.
Finally, simply as a fan of English soccer, I would like to say how profoundly captivated I am by this season. The league appears as competitive as ever, with a widespread influx of talent and money, a wide open title race, a handful of clubs looking to make transformational leaps, and even immense competition taking over the eventual bottom of the league table.
These are stressful times, but they are also exciting times. Let the journey begin.