From an Arsenal perspective, it could hardly be more exciting. Summers of negligence and tardiness in the transfer market feel part of a bygone era as an influx of new players, as well as the glory of the FA Cup, has given the squad a spring in their step. The doom and gloom vultures which circled the club this time last year and been shooed away and, for once, the club has a radiance of positivity which is actually reflected amongst the fanbase. The financial restrictions have finally been lifted and that clingy trophy monkey has been flung from our backs. The new season is upon us, and we can’t wait for it to get going.
Alexis Sanchez – The addition of Sanchez adds extra pace, drive, and energy high up the field. The injuries to Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain meant Arsenal’s attack was one-paced and stagnant during the latter stages of the season. Sanchez can occupy any attacking midfield role, and Wenger has suggested that he is likely to feature up top at some stage too. He scored 21 goals in all competitions last season, and was behind only Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Diego Costa in the La Liga goalscorers chart. On debut against Man City in the Community Shield, Sanchez provided a dangerous counter-attacking outlet on the right-hand side – something that was seriously lacking in Walcott’s absence. What he can bring to the table will make Arsenal a considerably more dangerous proposition.
Mathieu Debuchy – With Bacary Sagna leaving on a free, Arsenal were most desperate for a replacement at right-back, and the acquisition of Mathieu Debuchy feels like a no-brainer. For all the speculation surrounding Serge Aurier earlier this summer, the Ivorian is young, rash, and inexperienced at Premier League level. Debuchy has adapted to English football admirably in a struggling Newcastle side, and has been ahead of Sagna in the France pecking order for three years now. Statistically, Debuchy stands up to Sagna in almost every area. In fact, defensively, his numbers suggest that he’s an upgrade on Sagna, having made 71 tackles to Sagna’s 45 and 69 interceptions to 51. His 68 per cent rate in aerial duels is marginally better than Sagna. Even going forwards, Debuchy looks an upgrade. He shows greater willingness to take the ball past his opposition, as was evident in his impressive performance in the Community Shield. For £8 million, Debuchy feels like a steal. Sagna is highly regarded, and having moved to a top level side, Debuchy’s stock could rapidly rise.
Calum Chambers – Some people scoffed at Wenger’s decision to shell out £16 million on a 19-year-old lad who is yet to shed his water wings when it comes to Premier League football. Chambers appeared 22 times for Southampton last season, filling in at right-back. Traditionally, he is a central midfielder, and Wenger has suggested that he sees the youngster occupy this role in the future. Right now, his versatility means that he is likely to play second fiddle to Debuchy at right-back, and act as back-up to Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny in the centre. His debut against Man City was as promising as could have been hoped for. Chambers was commanding in his decision-making and composed on the ball. Mertesacker’s enforced absence through his World Cup participation will see Chambers fill in for the opening fixture against Crystal Palace, and the early signs suggest he will be a more than adequate replacement.
David Ospina – The goalkeeping ‘crisis’ of previous years has been extinguished due to the progression of Wojciech Szczesny, but the departure of Lukasz Fabianski created an unwanted gap in the squad. Colombia’s number one David Ospina has been brought in by Wenger to provide the requisite competition for Szczesny’s spot. He impressed at the World Cup, demonstrating his astonishing reflexes and athleticism. In terms of shot stopping, Ospina is arguably of a higher calibre than Szczesny. The Pole is still guilty of letting the occasionally daisy-cutter slip through his hands. Ospina actually conceded less than one goal per game in his 28 Ligue 1 matches last season, compared to Szczesny’s 1.11 – a statistic that is skewed by three anomalous results away at the top three. Wenger has confirmed Szczesny remains number one, but Ospina will doubtless get his chance to show his capabilities. Fabianski had proven himself as a capable deputy to Szczesny. Let’s hope that Ospina can provide even more competition this year.
The quality in the depth of the squad is as strong as I can remember in Wenger’s years. Arsenal boast a wealth of talent in both wide and central attacking midfield departments, and have a host of players who Wenger can chop and change without affecting or compromising the style of play too badly. When everyone is fit, the starting XI doesn’t necessarily pick itself, which is testament to the talent in the side.
The team appears to have finally matured following years of abhorrent defending – barring two or three collapses last season – and a settled partnership in the heart of defence who complement one another is hugely beneficial, and a far cry from the days of Squillaci and Djourou pairing up at the back.
There is also a good balance of ages in the squad. Many of the big-name players have age on their side, and are theoretically yet to reach their peak. The likes of Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta, and Per Mertesacker add leadership, whilst experience extends to many of the younger players in the side, with Ramsey, Wilshere, Gibbs, Walcott, Gibbs, Chamberlain and Szczesny having all developed into recognised Premier League performers.
Whilst the squad is, on the whole, stronger than previous years, the lack of experienced defensive cover is problematic. Vermaelen’s exit puts immediate pressure on Calum Chambers to hit the ground running, and a knock to him makes Nacho Monreal the fourth choice centre-half. It’s hardly ideal. And for all the strength in depth in midfield, there is a general consensus amongst many Gooners that the club still need this fabled ‘DM’. Arteta came up short in certain fixtures last season, and had to shoulder much of the blame (quite unfairly). The midfield probably does need a bit more physicality, but to find a player who can perform as consistently as Arteta whilst also adding the required muscle, reminiscent of Vieira or Gilberto, is far from easy.
It also remains to be seen whether Wenger has learnt from hie side’s shortcomings last season. Tactical naivety and large-scale panic were overwhelming features of the heavy defeats away at Chelsea and Liverpool last season. Wenger isn’t one to try to alter how he wants his side to approach fixtures too readily, but a more conservative approach may well be required against the tougher teams if there is to be any progression on that front.
One To Watch
Many are predicting a big season for Jack Wilshere this year, and injury-permitting, that may well be the case. But one player who, if fit, adds another dimension to the side is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The 21-year-old (happy birthday) was out for the majority of last season after suffering a knee ligament tear on the opening fixture against Aston Villa, but when he was fit he demonstrated what he brings to the table. He has the ability to take the ball anywhere on the field and make powerful, direct runs at the opposition. When on the wing he is devastating when he has his full-back isolated and is equally comfortable dragging him to the byline or cutting inside. Wenger sees his future in the centre, but his poor showing at Stamford Bridge last season showed he may still lack the finesse and composure to see so much of the ball in central areas. If he stays fit and enjoys a full season of first-team football then he could well make the difference. He’s still maturing at the top level, but he’s already a proven game-winner.
We’re shaping up well for this season, but so are others. Chelsea, Man City, Man United and Liverpool all have squads that can last the distance. Arsenal still have a reputation of blowing up when the going gets tough, and until they free themselves of that psychological burden of overcoming the top sides, I fear we may find ourselves lagging behind. We’re in for a fight amongst four others, and would do remarkably well to come out on top. If injuries don’t hamper too much, we could see second. If they do, another fight for fourth could well be on the cards