AFCB editor and chief writer Andrew Weber previews Arsenal’s 2010/2011 season…
The fresh scent of a new season could not come sooner for Arsenal supporters, who spent the duration of the World Cup and beyond wondering whether their captain and talisman Cesc Fabregas would remain at the club for another year.
In the end Arsene Wenger’s decision to ignore two formal offers from Barcelona for Fabregas was a firm statement of the club’s intent for silverware as well as their excellent financial position.
It has also ensured that for the first time in over three years – a period in which Emmanuel Adebayor, Mathieu Flamini and Thierry Henry have all departed – Arsenal will go into a new season without any significant personnel losses in the squad.
Fabregas’ presence will undoubtedly have a big impact on the the squad and may just be the difference between some of the younger players believing they can win the league rather than just competing for it.
Although the Spaniard will likely be rested for the first couple of games of the season along with fellow World Cup finalist Robin van Persie, his quality and leadership on the pitch will count for a lot as the season wears on.
One defender short
Arsenal’s biggest problems in the previous campaign were undoubtedly at the back as an inability to defend consistently as a team was exacerbated by the unsettling goalkeeping merry-go-round.
Unfortunately, just four days out from the season opener against Liverpool at Anfield, it appears as though those problems have been only partially addressed.
The exits of William Gallas and Sol Campbell have been balanced by the signing of wiry Laurent Koscielny from Lorient FC and the return of 6’4″ Johan Djourou from long-term injury, while the deadwood that is Mikael Silvestre and Philippe Senderos have also been released.
It will be a big season for both Thomas Vermaelen, who must step up from deputy to Gallas to the leader in the Arsenal defence, and Djourou, who has the talent and physical presence to become one of the very best central defenders in the world but is consistently hampered by injury.
How this pair work together, with assistance from Koscielny, could define Arsenal’s defensive performance this season.
As things stand Arsenal are one centre-back short of the four required to cover this area of the pitch and problems will emerge throughout the season if Wenger fails to fulfill his promise to address this.
The goalkeeper situation, meanwhile, looks even more troublesome.
First-choice Manuel Almunia performed poorly last season and never imposed the same confidence of the year before, Lukasz Fabianski was error-prone and Vito Mannone’s impressive debut at Fulham was followed by several below-average performances.
In truth the best goalkeeper currently on the books looks to be 20-year-old Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny, who received rave reviews during his time on loan at Brentford.
Just whether Szczęsny is ready for a full season of Premier League action is another question entirely, of course, and Wenger’s single biggest priority before the transfer window closes is to bring in a goalkeeper capable of improving Arsenal’s defensive record.
At the moment Australian and Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer looks quite a realistic signing and would certainly provide the improvement required.
Options in the midfield
Fortunately for Arsenal supporters the problems effectively stop in their tracks with central defence and in goals as the rest of the squad is superbly balanced.
The return of Kieran Gibbs from a broken foot will keep Gael Clichy looking over his shoulder at left-back while Bacary Sagna and Emmanuel Eboue will both get opportunities at right-back – the latter more likely to feature at Emirates Stadium where lesser opponents tend to park the bus.
In midfield Fabregas will be supported by last season’s most consistent performer, Alex Song, as well as any one of Abou Diaby, Samir Nasri, Denilson, youngsters Craig Eastmond, Emmanuel Frimpong and Jack Wilshere or the currently injured but extremely talented and tenacious Aaron Ramsey.
There are still some questions to be answered regarding the roles of certain midfielders, most notably Nasri who has enjoyed a marvelous pre-season and will start in Fabregas’ spot against Liverpool, but whose future position in the team is unclear.
Stronger in attack
While the midfield looks impressive it is up front where Arsenal look most threatening, both in the quality and depth of their attack.
Eduardo’s exit was seen by most supporters as emotional and unfortunate, yet the harsh truth is that with Marouane Chamakh arriving from Bordeaux the forward unit has grown stronger.
Van Persie’s extended holiday and Nicklas Bendtner’s groin problem has prevented the manager from so much as hinting at his first-choice front three, but my personal opinion is that Wenger will generally play two of van Persie, Chamakh and Bendtner as well as Andrey Arshavin on the left.
That formation would provide the aerial target he desires on the right as well as the opportunity to consistently rotate the forward trio and ensure that the physical demands of intense pressing in the first third that was so apparent in the early part of the last campaign – and is vital to the success of Arsenal’s new 4-3-3 – can be maintained over a full season.
Providing further options for the aforementioned four are Theo Walcott, who is facing something of a make-or-break season at the club, Tomas Rosicky and Carlos Vela, as well as Nasri and Eboue who both really qualify as midfielders.
Conclusions and predictions
While the top six of the Premier League are getting stronger and Manchester City now has a squad capable of actually winning it, it is still hard to see this Arsenal team finishing anywhere lower than the third place it managed last season.
In contrast, Arsenal’s ability to finish any higher than third will likely hinge on whether Wenger can make the two signings required to truly complete the squad: a first-choice goalkeeper and a fourth central defender.
Should those signings and a significant improvement in the defensive mentality be made then Arsenal already have the midfield and attack to make a genuine push for a first Premier League title since 2003/04.
One suspects, though, that they will fall short again.
Arsenal Best XI (4-3-3)
Almunia; Sagna, Djourou, Vermaelen, Clichy; Song, Fabregas, Diaby; Chamakh, van Persie, Arshavin
Arsenal Reserve XI (4-3-3)
Fabianski; Eboue, Koscielny, Nordtveit, Gibbs; Denilson, Ramsey, Nasri; Walcott, Bendtner, Rosicky
This article was originally published in Soccerlens.