Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Half of a Good Start

The Gunners have played their first two matches and naturally most of the talk is about the lack of goals scored. Were they right to sell Robin Van Persie, why isn't Olivier Giroud fitting into the side, can Santi Cazorla create good chances for his teammates, and so on and so forth. These are valid concerns of course, and going down that path of inquiry is quite reasonable for a team and fanbase that expect Champions League play again next year. However, rather than get into the questioning nature of that half of the ball after only two matches, I'd like to engage in some analysis of the defense and their play thus far.

Steve Bould is a former Arsenal (and Stoke, but let's never mention that again) center back who has worked with the youth academy for the past ten years or so in various roles. Prior to the start of the 2012-2013 season, he was named assistant manager of Arsenal, replacing Pat Rice, and the expectation was that he was brought in specifically to clean up the defense. Now, last year's Arsenal defense wasn't an old jalopy in desperate need of repair. Thomas Vermaelen is one of the Premier League's best center backs and Laurent Koscielny has been trending that way with his much improved play. When completely healthy, the Gunners can also put forward one of the best right backs in the league in Bacary Sagna, the uninteresting but mostly steady Kieran Gibbs, as well as backups like Per Mertesacker, Carl Jenkinson, and Andre Santos. The depth is lacking but the starting back line was nothing to scoff at. So why the focus on defensive improvement?

For one, Arsenal was a decent 9th in the league in goals allowed, but they lagged way behind their supposed competitors for the trophy as Manchester City and Manchester United allowed 29 and 33 goals respectively to the Gunners' 49. The defense wasn't exactly an aspect of their game worth hanging their hat on and with the far and away leading scorer leaving during the transfer window, the offense couldn't be relied upon to carry the team. More importantly, the team had a habit of giving up foolish and inopportune goals, the kind that should kill title or Champions League hopes and were simply unacceptable. Vermaelen was especially disappointing in this regard as he was caught out of position several times after pushing up into the attack, just the kind of attitude that you don't want from your supposed defensive leader. Knowing what went wrong last year, Arsenal was keen to learn from their mistakes and shore up the back.

Through two games, it is hard to argue with the success of the defense as the Gunners have held their opponents without a goal. The most important part of this transformation has been the understanding of the central defenders and their cooperation with Mikel Arteta, the deepest lying midfielder. Vermaelen is still making the occasional run forward but when he does, Arteta slides seamlessly into place to cover for him. This is a change from last year when Arteta and Alex Song were both set up deep in midfield, but Song often moved forward himself, leaving the covering responsibilities unclear. Now it is understood that Arteta is the deep man, responsible for controlling the spread of the ball, acting as the last line of defense in midfield, and providing cover when the center backs move forward. Mertesacker and Vermaelen have been an excellent pairing so far (Koscielny is currently sidelined with an injury) with Mertesacker's positional awareness playing well off of Vermaelen's pace and athleticism. Jenkinson has been starting in place of Sagna on the right side (only due to Sagna recovering from a broken femur) and while he has been less that useful going forward, he is doing a good job keeping control of his flank, especially on the quick counter. Gibbs has played both games on the left side and one thing that can always be said about him is that he's not afraid to stick a foot in. Like Jenkinson, I have problems with Gibbs' ability to provide offense but he generally is a solid defender who times his tackles well and knows how to slow a break. Altogether the defense has played well and even gave the likes of Vito Mannone a clean sheet.

The biggest problem in evaluating the defense is sample size and the challenge presented by the opposition. Sunderland and Stoke aren't teams likely to be relegated this season, but they also are known for sticking ten men behind the ball, especially against Arsenal, and relying on quick counters to score their goals rather than sustained pressure. It is positive to see that neither team managed to catch the Gunners napping on the break and even better that the defense has only allowed three shots on goal through 180 minutes of play. But again, the test has not been strong yet. Arsenal has not faced a side that attacks with pace and puts pressure on the defense in a variety of ways. This coming Sunday will be different as a match at Anfield against Liverpool looms. Vermaelen and Mertesacker will be tested by the intelligent movement of Luis Suarez and Liverpool has some speed on the flanks to put Jenkinson and Gibbs to the test. Moreover, we will see how Arteta holds up as that last line of midfield defense when he is required to continually prove himself against attackers rather than step up to stop the occasional counter or two.

Though the book isn't written on Arsenal's defense yet, the improvements are there through the first two matches. Getting Koscielny back into the rotation should help as well and we will see if Arsene Wenger can find that out-and-out defensive midfielder that he has been looking for. One thing is certain: if the offense continues to struggle to find the net and find their cohesion, Steve Bould's defense will be more important than ever.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The True Contenders

Early in the Premier League season, anything is possible. Before the ball is kicked, every fan thinks their team can win the whole thing and every worthwhile player probably does as well. A week in some may be crashing back to earth (sorry people of Norwich) but others are flying higher. After all, Swansea stands atop the table (discounting the absurd Chelsea scheduling, of course) and you never know who might probably sort of maybe join your favorite club during the rapidly narrowing transfer window. The dream has to end somewhere, however, and I may as well be the one to start things off.

Less than half the teams every year have a real chance to win the league. Everyone knows it but professional sports requires that we suspend belief to a degree because otherwise many people wouldn't bother. Of those teams, the majority are competing for Champions League spots while maintaining an outside chance of winning the title. This year I'd say that list includes Everton, Tottenham, Liverpool, Newcastle, and Arsenal. It's not that these teams can't win the title; it's that it will take an awful lot to go right (for some more than others) and some poor play at the top of the table. If Arsenal pick up another defender before the end of August, see Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud come into fine goal scoring form, have Santi Cazorla emerge as a true team-driving playmaker, and manage to stay healthy for the first time since broadband internet became a normal thing, they have a legitimate chance to win the title. But obviously this is a difficult situation to foresee and the Gunners will most likely be fighting for third place and focusing on winning their six point matches against the other teams on this short list. The reality is that, for better or for worse, the only real odds-on favorites to win the Premier League are Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United.


Alphabetical order has a funny way of working things out as Chelsea are actually my pick to finish third in the league. Cynics will point to the relative inexperience of Roberto Di Matteo as a head coach as well as the team's sixth place finish in the league last year, and rightfully so. However, it is also important to consider last year's team within the context of that very turbulent season as well as address the changes that they have made. For starters, they are playing under the same head coach from start to finish (one would think) and that should have a measurable impact in terms of consistency and expectations for the players. For example, we know that Daniel Sturridge is not in Di Matteo's plans, at least not as a starter, and therefore someone else gets to take his spot and can work with his teammates to get comfortable. It seems like basic stuff I know, but the difference can be vital when the team is in danger of dropping points against teams they should be able to beat (see: last Wednesday's match vs Reading). Having the team play under one system throughout the year could be huge when you consider that the difference between 6th and 3rd last year was just six points.

Chelsea also changed their squad through offseason additions, notably bringing in Marko Marin, Oscar, Victor Moses, and of course Eden Hazard. We've heard for years (especially last year) about how Chelsea needed to rebuild and how the old guard had to be phased out. If you look at this year's squad you have 12 potential starters under 26 years of age including important pieces such as Juan Mata, Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Ramires, Oscar, and Hazard. This is no longer a team that has to play cautious for fear of being outpaced by opponents. This is a team that can use pace and youth to their advantage to fly around the pitch and attack from many angles. The project is not over, but serious steps have been made along the way.

Chelsea are still not without problems though, and this is why I have them finishing in third place. Their finishing seems to depend heavily on Fernando Torres returning to form (which might actually be likely based on the season thus far) and the defense is good but not unbeatable, especially considering the defensive play in midfield. There is plenty of exciting, young talent but it still is young talent, and young talent can surprise both positively and negatively. This team has an excellent chance of coming together and competing for a title until the very end, but there are too many variables for me to pick them over either Manchester team.

Manchester City

Last year's champions are back in the hunt again with a mostly unchanged squad. After all, why mess with success? Well, Liverpool showed them some reasons why in Sunday's game at Anfield and the injury to Sergio Aguero should provide additional motivation. Now it is said that Roberto Mancini has roughly £60 million to spend before the transfer window closes in a couple of days, making everything right with the world since City are once again throwing money around like Martin Atkinson does yellow cards. Last year, however, City performed best when their backs were up against the wall and they were getting great performances from their star players. Is spending in the transfer market the way to get them rolling forward again?

It seems that bringing in a new addition or two in order to shore up weak spots is what this team needs the most. Even with Aguero out, City are fine up front with Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli, and Edin Dzeko. They also should be mostly comfortable in the creative part of midfield with Yaya Toure, David Silva, and Samir Nasri, and their defense isn't shabby in the least with Vincent Kompany anchoring a backline that includes Joleon Lescott, Aleksander Kolarov, Gael Clichy, and Pablo Zabaleta. More than anything, City are shopping for a strong defensive midfielder and depth at the wing position. In the Liverpool match, we saw Mancini make his classic substitution: bring on a defensive minded midfielder (Jack Rodwell) so that Toure can move further up the field. Toure is so successful from this position that it is a wonder Mancini doesn't have him play there all the time with Silva and Nasri on the wings and a holding midfielder in front of the defense. But between Nigel De Jong and Rodwell, it doesn't look like the Italian coach has someone he trusts to do the job. That's why we see him experimenting with 3-5-2 formations and looking to spend money before September 1st comes around.

When all is said and done, the manager may be the key to Manchester City's season. Though he won the league trophy last year and has a wealth of talent at his disposal, it seems Mancini still does not know what his best formation and starting eleven are. Does he play Nasri inside or outside? How does he allow Toure to go forward? Does he have enough cover at the back if he plays four across? Does he love Balotelli like a son or is he secretly involved in an elaborate kidnapping plot to take the Most Entertaining Person in Soccer off his hands once and for all? Mancini will continue to toy with his lineup and his roster, especially once he brings new players into the squad, but how much does he need to do with a team that is as loaded with talent as City is? The manager settling into a groove may be the most necessary adjustment that the champs make, but I fear it will fall just short of being enough.

Manchester United

Consider this: Manchester United's midfield was in such disarray last year after Tom Cleverley (a unproven but talented youngster) limped off injured against Bolton that Paul Scholes was called out of retirement, Michael Carrick became an important part of the team, and United was routinely tested in the possession battle in their remaining matches. Where did they finish? Second. Only two stoppage time goals away from being champions yet again. With that entire team returning, plus Cleverley recovering from injury, as well as the transfer signings of Robin Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, it should be fairly easy to see why Man U is my pick for Premier League champions.

United are now having that good kind of problem, the one where you have to pick which incredibly talented players you put on the field. Even with the injury to Wayne Rooney in Saturday's match against Fulham, Sir Alex Ferguson can roll out Van Persie, Danny Welbeck, or Javier Hernandez at striker, a stable of which every team but City would be jealous. Kagawa has already shown great promise as an attacking midfielder playing behind the strikers, with Cleverley and Scholes providing the control in the middle. The wings are incredibly strong as well with Patrice Evra and Ashley Young working together on the left while Rafael and Antonio Valencia combine on the right. The only real problem currently is the center of defense and that is only due to injuries. Once players like Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones come back, United is solid from the back to the front.

The biggest challenge for Man U at this point is to make it through the injuries to the backline as well as the transition period where Ferguson figures out how best to include all the talent that he has at his disposal. Rooney being out may actually help that to some degree as Welbeck and Van Persie can work on figuring out their striker pairing on a consistent basis. Teams are always a work in progress at this point in the season, but United has the core, as well as the new talent, to become champions once again.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Sky is (Not) Falling

I feel that at the start of each season I'm always preaching patience to any Arsenal fan that will listen. It's not because I think that Arsenal has started off the last two years well (they haven't) and it's not because I see something in Arsenal that everyone else doesn't (I'm a pretty average guy). I am simply understanding of the fact that a team needs time to gel and come together. A team needs to play a little first before you can make predictions for the whole year. Yes, they should still pick up wins in the short term and we are very right to be cross with the Gunners for giving up two points at home to a not terrific Sunderland squad. But running around like Chicken Little is rarely the proper reaction.

Let us start with the newest additions to the team as they are most likely to be out of sync and slow to adjust to playing with new teammates. That was mostly the case here as Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud both looked out of top form. Podolski started as the lone striker and while he was active in pursuing the ball on defense (always a good quality to have in any player), he seemed to struggle in setting himself up to receive service from his teammates. The German international never made a name for himself in the game and at times he was drifting further and further back just to get some touches on the ball and get involved. He wasn't helped out by service into the box (more on that later) and it was mostly a "meh" performance rather than a poor one. He simply didn't get involved.

Giroud had one obvious mistake: he missed an absolute sitter off of a brilliant pass from Santi Cazorla. Open ten yards from goal he has to bury that ball in the back of the net or, at the very least, make the keeper make a save. His run into the box was very clever but lead-up isn't enough and it should have been 1-0 after that chance. Other than that, he was fine but not a force upon the match. He didn't get many touches on the ball, similar to Podolski, and he didn't have much of an impact in the game. Both of these strikers need to learn how to receive the ball from their teammates if they are going to make an impact in these matches.

The main player providing them with the ball would seem to be Cazorla and he was the lone bright spot among the new additions. His touches were terrific, his dribbling simple but effective, and he was always looking to be positive and attack the goal. His shot from distance early in the first half was a solid effort and he also slipped Giroud through on the should-have-been-a-goal play. He truly does seem to be the creative midfield presence that Arsenal needs on offense and it will be very interesting to see if his connection with his teammates increases over time. With Mikel Arteta providing the control and possession coming out of the back and Cazorla acting as the link to the attack-minded players, this Arsenal team could be very talented at switching from defense to offense.

The biggest threat to the offense at the moment seems to be the play of the wing backs. Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson were absolutely dreadful going forward and they are making life much difficult on their wingers if they can't get up into the attack and create overlapping opportunities. In my mind, both Gervinho and Theo Walcott were good in this match, Gervinho almost looking like he might be making strides to move on from the Bad Decision Machine that he was last year. The problem is that they were often coming inside, either on the dribble or to receive the ball, and there was no overlapping outside run to threaten the defense. If Bacary Sagna and Andre Santos had been in this game, they would have been flying down the sideline and serving balls into the box almost at will. Jenkinson and Gibbs only started getting forward toward the end of the match and their service into the box was atrocious. If Podolski and Giroud aren't quite used to how their teammates think and move, then winning crosses is going to be a bit more simple than playing through the middle. But the crosses were shit and contributed to the disappearing act of the strikers. If ever there had been a match that was screaming for Santos, this was it. So why Arsene Wenger took off Walcott for Andrei Arshavin rather than making another more positive move that didn't require exposing Arshavin's uniform to fresh air is beyond me. That might have been the way to save the game, but we'll never know.

All of the criticism is valid, but do you know what it means? Arsenal did not play as well as they could have on Saturday. That. Is. All. This team is going to be vastly different in two weeks, let alone two months. Predicting doom and gloom at this stage of the season is fruitless because the people that do never account for things changing, which they always do. Now, it is possible that things may change for the worse, but looking at this team progression is so much more likely. Podolski and Giroud will work themselves into the offense; Cazorla will develop an even better rapport with his teammates; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will see the field, as will Jack Wilshere, as will Sagna, as will Laurent Koscielny (although the middle of the defense played pretty well). Wenger has also hinted at using the money from selling Alex Song (god bless you Song; I will miss you and your ridiculous hair) at bringing in another player or two, and they do need to do that. We will not have to suffer through this same performance week in and week out because the team will change, either in makeup or cohesion.

This is not meant as a blanket excuse for Arsenal, however. They should be better at the start of a season and they have to be better. You can't be a big team, a contender for the title, and come into each season still trying to figure out what your best lineup is and who needs to play where. If Manchester City or Manchester United came out looking as lackluster as this at the beginning of the year, fans would be absolutely right to wonder what the hell was going on. A "big club" like Arsenal should be able to still be figuring things out and win this Sunderland match 2-0. However, this does not mean that they will be dropping points to Fulham in January (again; ugh) and it does not mean that they can be written off as underachievers (or untalented or whatever other label you want to slap on them) after one match. Narrative drives sports these days, but the most honest thing to do is judge game to game and see how a team evolves. Only then will you approach something resembling the truth.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Five Players to Watch

Today is the start of the Premier League and not only is this a time of high hopes and foolish dreams, but it is the time to make wild predictions and then brag when any of them remotely come to pass. In that spirit, I present to you Five Players to Watch. This is not a list for the Wayne Rooneys and Gareth Bales of the world but it is also not a collection of no names who might not make their team. This is for the players that haven't quite made big names for themselves yet and are on the cusp of playing a major role for a contender, or having one of said contenders overpay for their signature next season. In no particular order, here are your players to watch:

Tom Cleverley - Manchester United

Cleverley looked set to play a key part in Manchester United's run at a Premier League title last season, providing the organization and link-up play that the Red Devils needed. He impressed early in the year, but we did not have much time to pass judgment as his season came to an abrupt end against Bolton in September. United's midfield was in such disarray for the next few months that they were forced to turn to recently retired Paul Scholes to fill the void that Cleverley left. Back again and looking to complete his first full season in the Premier League, Cleverley has to make a name for himself all over again. If he can play the 2012-2013 campaign as he started his last, United will be there at the end yet again.

Ryo Miyaichi - Wigan Athletic

It feels a bit strange including a Wigan player on a list like this, but Miyaichi should bring a lot to the table during his season long loan away from Arsenal. The 19 year-old Japanese international impressed in his half year loan at Bolton last year, tallying a goal and two assists in limited playing time. With the impending Robin Van Persie trade there were those who thought the Gunners would keep Miyaichi for depth at striker, but instead he was sent out to a team where he has a true chance to blossom. Wigan were the surprise of the 2012 portion of last season and Roberto Martinez has shown a knack for developing players over his years of managing. With or without Victor Moses to provide some of the offense, Miyaichi may prove to be essential to Wigan's survival.

Joe Allen - Liverpool

Am I one of the only non-Liverpool fans that thinks the team will be much, much better this year? Their defense is solid with Daniel Agger and Martin Sketel providing cover in front of Pepe "Why Did I Have to Play While Iker Casillas Exists" Reina while Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique bomb down the sides. The attacking options are interesting at the very least with the ever dangerous Luis Suarez being the focal point for Fabio Borini and toy pony (real life pony?) Andy Carroll. The midfield has talent with captain Steven Gerrard and returning defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva, so it would appear that all that is missing is getting used to Brendan Rodgers' system. Enter Joe Allen who was the fulcrum for Rodgers at Swansea and is now in a perfect position to make his mark at Anfield. If Liverpool make a real run at Champions League places, expect Allen to play a large role.

Nikica Jelavic - Everton

If you paid any attention at all to Everton last year, then you must have seen Jelavic emerge as one of the smartest signings during the January transfer window. The Croatian (smartly) traded Rangers for Everton and promptly scored nine goals in ten Premier League matches, pairing a killer instinct in front of goal with a deft touch for redirections. Much like Allen will play an important role for Liverpool, Jelavic must provide for the "other" Liverpool team as one of the main issues with David Moyes' team looks to be goal scoring. If the striker can keep up even half of last year's pace during this season, the battle for Merseyside bragging rights will be hotly contested once again.

John Ruddy - Norwich City

It's tough to call a man now seeing time as an England international an up-and-comer but not that many people are talking about Ruddy. Perhaps because he plays for Norwich, the same Norwich who let more goals in last year than any other team that wasn't relegated. But buried within that seemingly damning stat was excellent play that saved the Canaries time and time again. Though he only recorded three clean sheets through the year, Ruddy confounded teams continually, keeping his offensive minded team in games where they otherwise would have been run off the field. This year will be an even tougher test as the sophomore slumps kicks in, highlighted by manager Paul Lambert's move to Aston Villa, and if Norwich are to stay in the Premier League for a third year then Ruddy will need to play as big as he has been.

There you have it, five players that could prove essential for their clubs in this season and perhaps beyond. Regardless of whether I get to hold this over people's heads at the end of the year, the 2012-2013 Premier League season is upon us. Enjoy it one and all.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The State of the Squad

Today's news was long-coming but still disheartening: Robin Van Persie is going to sign with Manchester United, pending a medical, after the two teams agreed upon a transfer fee believed to be in the area of £23 million. I won't go on about how much of a middle finger to the heart (shut up, it's totally possible) this is to Arsenal fans because it's Manchester United that he's signing with, but instead would just like to look ahead briefly to this season and assess Arsenal's chances. Please note that this commentary is being done on the 15th of August while there are still over two weeks left in the transfer window. I reserve the right to change my mind about some things when the end of the month comes.


Wojciech Szczesny has been the subject of several of my Arsenal related off-season conversations and the main difference of opinion seems to be how good he can be vs how good he will be. My opinion of the Polish keeper is more positive: he is good with his positioning, a solid reaction shot stopper, and needs to get better with his decision making when the ball is in the air. I choose to minimize the mistakes he's made (and he's had some howlers) by pointing out that he's young (22), he's coming along, and he can only get better as he's been the starting keeper for less than two years. The more pessimistic side says that the mistakes are more of who he is than they are the outcomes of a learning curve and he doesn't have the ceiling I believe he does due to his mental errors. I don't know for sure which side is correct. What I do know is that other than Hugo Lloris, there wasn't a realistic way for Arsenal to upgrade at keeper during the transfer window and considering Szczesny's baseline as well as his potential, I didn't mind keeping from throwing £12 million or so at a position that didn't need to be fixed. I believe that he's already in the top half of keepers in the Premier League (if not higher) and he's much more likely to progress than regress, so this position seems to be well covered.


Arsenal, like many European clubs even at the elite level, has a glaring weakness: left back. Friends mocked me for being upset at Arsenal losing Gael Clichey, but Clichey was at least someone who I was comfortable with playing every week. The Gunners currently choose between the powerhouse combination of Kieran Gibbs and Andre Santos, a decision that can be tactically interesting from week to week, but is more likely to contribute to way too many white knuckled "why the FUCK would he do that?!?" moments. Gibbs is the more stabilizing force in that he's not an awful defensive player but suffers when getting forward. He's the bland "ok, we don't need any fuck ups today" choice. The problem is that even that option isn't available all the times as he appears to be constructed of glass, little toe bones, and old pieces of baseball card gum. Santos, on the other hand, is the all out offensive choice. He gets up the field very very well and has shown an ability both to cross as well as cut inside and shoot. The problem is that he is a complete liability on defense. He doesn't have the pace to recover quickly and he can easily get caught out of position. If Arsene Wenger were to spend a large portion of the RVP money on, oh, say Leighton Baines, I would be a incredibly happy man.

The right side is more set in stone with Bacary Sagna as Arsenal's obvious choice to start. The problem here is that Sagna is coming off a broken femur and who knows what his level of fitness will be like. I do think that Carl Jenkinson and Nicholas Yannaris aren't bad cover for the position, but I would only like to see them get time when Wenger wants to put them in. I would not want to rely on them. Hopefully Sagna has a full season in him and the youngsters can spell him when they can, but depth did prove itself to be an issue last year.

The center of the defense is, theoretically, where the Gunners are the strongest. Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny are talented on the ball, strong in the air, and able to work passes out of the back to relieve pressure and get Arsenal's attacking game going again. Per Mertesacker is the most positionally aware defender and his presence gives Wenger more choices to play on matchups or to provide rest. Vermaelen did show some bouts of irresponsibility last year however. Several times he was caught out making a run forward and this exposes a back line that was often cobbled together with leftover threads from disappeared buttons and scraps of cloth from old moth ridden t-shirts. This year should not (please god let it not) be as bad as last in terms of injuries, but if Vermaelen made his runs forward when the team most needed him to be a solid stay at home defender, who's to say he won't be emboldened this year?

What Arsenal need to do this most is not give up fluke, foolish goals. It happened too many times last year and it starts in the center. Vermaelen and Koscielny are very talented but need to be disciplined, lock down, no nonsense defenders whose primary focus is protecting their goal rather than getting into the attack. If they can do this reliably, then it will protect the midfielders as well as the weaker part of the defense, the backs, not to mention give confidence to a young keeper. If they can be sound, Arsenal can be dangerous.


This is the strongest part of Arsenal's lineup in almost every way. The most important member by far, in my humble opinion, is new addition Santi Cazorla, formerly of Malaga. Carzola is an incredibly versatile player who can run on the wings or drop deeper into the midfield to control possession and look for incisive passes. So far, Wenger has asked him to play high up in the midfield behind the striker and this looks to be where he is needed most, both due to his abilities and due to the talent around him. From this position he can shoot from distance (which he is quite capable at), set up passes to the striker or wingers, and make runs through the middle to open up space. I was thrilled when Arsenal were first linked to him in the press and even more excited when he was purchased for a relatively low fee (believed to be in the £12-15 million area). He truly could be the creative attacking element that makes the engine run this year.

Lying deeper in midfield will be Mikel Arteta and Alex Song. Arteta had a quietly brilliant season last year controlling the play and maintaining possession, making sure the team didn't get too jumpy or wasteful. The difference in play during his games and the games he was absent was notable and the Gunners will need him to help control the pace again. Song has been linked to Barcelona in recent weeks and he may still be signed by them, but if he stays then he will have an important role again this year. Last year he was both steel and one pass creativity, often picking out Van Persie with clever balls over the top as well as springing wingers with well placed through balls. The reason I wouldn't be inconsolable if Song was bought by Barcelona is that I would prefer Arteta's partner to be a true holding midfielder who is less creative and a more dynamic, aggressive defending force that refuses to let teams come through the middle of the field easily. Emmanuel Frimpong is still a bit too crazy to be handed the job at this point, but someone like him who is committed defensively is more my preference for this Arsenal squad. So if the price is right from the Catalans...

The winger position should create many interesting decisions for Wenger this year as Arsenal could realistically play Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, or new addition Lukas Podolski as the first choice starters on any given night. Podolski seems sure to split time with Olivier Giroud up top in the striker spot, but he's gifted on the left as well so he can still get into the lineup if the Frenchman is playing up top. Walcott is almost an automatic start on the right side so that leaves Chamberlain with a bit more of a varied role. The youngster has proven that he can play on the right, the left, attacking behind the striker, or sitting deeper to see more of the ball. Wenger could also chose to use him as a supersub due to his relative inexperience, but The Ox is so talented and has such potential to change games that it's hard to see him only being used sparingly. A rotation of these three is likely when the top players are necessary.

The great thing about this section so far? I haven't even mentioned Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky, Gervinho, Andrei Arshavin, Abou Diaby, or Francis Coquelin (and only mentioned Frimpong as a throwaway joke). That is serious depth in the midfield when last year Arsenal was often forced to start these players regularly. Rosicky can play behind the striker when Cazorla needs a rest or needs to be moved around; Gervinho can jump in and play winger when his pace is necessary and his poor decision-making might be overlooked; Ramsey is most likely to benefit in coming off the bench as he often cracked last season when he was relied upon. And we haven't gotten to perhaps the most important player for Arsenal this season, Jack Wilshere.When he comes back from injury, his skill could catapult the Gunners to a whole new level. If he's not completely ready or if he has to shake the rust off, Arsenal still has the depth to survive.


This is the saddest section to write because it means I have to mentally acknowledge that Van Persie is gone. While this is certainly a blow to Arsenal's pursuit of hardware, it isn't quite the death sentence it would have been last year if he had gone down injured instead. Giroud and Podolski will split time up top and both are European internationals who have shown that they know how to put the ball in the back of the net. Wenger appears to have caught both of them at the right time in their career arcs, but it will be important for them to adjust to the Premier League and be in consistent form. Assuming that there are no drastic losses to injury or transfers, this team won't need their new strikers to score 30 goals in a season like RVP did. They will only need to present a threat and play at an even level to make sure the attack and scoring is balanced. Ryo Miyaichi would have been welcome in this squad in my opinion, but he is out to Wigan on loan which is probably best in the long term for his career (though I really did want to see him get some time with the first team). Regardless, the new strikers will have to spread the burden between them because I do not want to look up and see the gelled visage of Marouane Chamakh spending any time whatsoever on the field.


So how good is this team? I think they're Champions League good (3rd or 4th place). If they had found a way to keep Van Persie then I honestly believe they could have contended for the title. I really do. I think Cazorla is that good of an addition and that Wilshere could make that much of a difference upon his return. But alas, it was not to be. Still, Giroud or Podolski could be a better option than we think they will be. I'm looking for consistency but if I get real talent, I wouldn't complain in the least. That really is the word of the season: consistency. Last year Arsenal gave too many points away when they didn't need to even though they won some big matches. This year they need to not let themselves slip up. They need to take care of what they should take care of and try to get up for some big wins when necessary. This year, Manchester City is still very good, Manchester United got better (at our expense, and with Shinji Kagawa who I think will prove to be an excellent addition), Chelsea got better, Liverpool got better, Newcastle didn't lose all their players like everyone thought they would, and Tottenham is still Tottenham. A Champions League spot won't be a walk in the park, but they also need to think that they are better than that. They need to believe that they can win the league and with their depth in midfield, they might have an outside shot.

I'm going to try to put up a brief post Friday night about the league in general, but if I don't get around to it (work is quite busy, sorry) then I want to at least get these predictions on record before the season starts. So, here are the seven teams I believe could legitimately challenge for a Champions League spot and what order I think they'll end up in when the year is over:

1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Liverpool
6. Newcastle
7. Tottenham

Everton is the only other team I could see cracking the top seven, but that depends on if they improve their squad and if they let any key players go. Even if they only trend upwards, I think they're a top seven spoiler at best, not a top four spoiler.

Thanks to everyone for reading and it's good to be back. Can't wait for another year to start.