Arsenal started the 2013-14 season ominously after the well documented 3-1 home loss to Aston Villa on the first day of the season. Pressure was already on Wenger after losing Van Persie, effectively handing United the league and enduring another underwhelming campaign. The loss caused even more alarms bells to ring. Black scarf sales were up. Management was called to react. It reacted with the signing of Özil. After that Arsenal went on an incredible run which saw the Gunners climb the table and remain at the summit for nearly 3 months. Despite camping at the top for so long, pundits and rival fans alike never tipped Arsenal to go on and win the title. Unfortunately for Gooners, the critics were right and Arsenal capitulated, ending the season in the familiar position of 4th. Despite the collapse of last season, the FA Cup buoyed Gooners who became confident of a title charge that never materialised. How much longer will we have to wait for a sustained Arsenal title challenge? How far are the Gooners from being serious title contenders?
Looking at the top sides in the Premier League and continentally that have enjoyed recent success on the pitch (Bayern Munich, BVB, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester City, Real Madrid), certain common characteristics can be seen in the DNA of their teams: an imposing shot stopper, a tough centre-back pairing with one who regularly contributes with goals from set-pieces, fullbacks that provide an attacking threat whilst not leaving the defence exposed, a midfield blended with attacking creativity and one (or two) tough defensive midfielders, and a prolific striker (or three!).
Arsenal’s goalkeeping department had been an area that finally seemed to have been stabilised but this season that myth was debunked. Szczesny’s development has stagnated over the past 2 seasons. His decision-making has notably regressed causing him to be benched. Ospina has yet to be seriously tested and one hopes that he can convince and stake a long term claim while Szczesny searches for himself on the sideline.
In front of the keeper, Debuchy, Mertersacker, Koscielny & Gibbs may provide the ideally blended defence. Debuchy, with a build similar to that of Ivanovic, next to Mertesacker and Kos provides a physically strong foundation for the team. Kos, then provides the aerial threat reminiscent of John Terry, Carles Puyol and Mats Hummels. Gibbs on the left is an adequately solid defender on his day while also providing pace on the left-wing to assist with attacking.
The attacking wealth in Arsenal’s midfield has been passionately hyped by fans and media alike. Ramsey, Özil, Wilshere, Cazorla, Rosicky and captain Arteta give Wenger a selection headache many coaches can only dream of. With Diaby driting through the Emirates like a myth, it’s largely down to Wilshere to provide the physicality needed to dominate the defensive midfield role. If Arsenal is to mount a sustained title challenge, either Wilshere must be played in a defensive midfield role or Wenger must sign a physically imposing midfielder that can also read the game.
Up front Sanchez has awakened the spirit of Thierry Henry and has played like a man possessed. 18 goals all competitions is an impressive return for the Chilean. Unfortunately, Giroud and Welbeck are not consistent goal threats but their continued movement in around the box can help open space for Sanchez while Giroud also provides a decent aerial threat and physicality which is necessary against certain teams. Once Walcott regains his touch after being sidelined for a year, his finishing ability bolstered by insane pace will be invaluable. It is crucial to Arsenal’s success that Walcott remains fit.
The team selection is dependent on the players available thus making it important for Arsenal to remain largely injury free. It is impossible for Arsenal to challenge for any silverware while their best players continue to occupy the medical room. It has been a highly frustrating feature of Arsenal that whenever a player is on form, an injury hampers their momentum. Even the out of form players aren’t afforded the opportunity to find form as they are simply overplayed, due to a lack of squad depth. The onus is the on the coaching staff to fix this.
In recent years Arsenal has become increasingly predictable despite the change in players and systems. This can largely be attributed to lack of tactical variety being employed. The opposition watch one Arsenal game and know how to beat the Gunners for the rest of the season. Tactical flexibility is needed. There are instances where Giroud’s physicality would be more useful than Welbeck’s pace, or instances Flamini would be more effective in destroying play than Wilshere, or Bellerin’s pace would assist in dragging out defences instead of Debuchy’s crossing. More tactical options need to be explored. Arsenal has been perpetually poor on the transition from attack to defence and counter-attacks have lacked a clinical element, introducing a clear tactical plan would address this. Quick one touch passing will not always be sufficient. There must be variation.
Arsenal is not far from being title contenders and in the bulk the squad needs very little additions and transfer activity. Regardless of the players signed, the Gunners need to find consistency and remain injury-free to challenge for the title. This will only happen once the coaching staff takes a long look in the mirror and begins changing things from inside of the club.