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
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.