Cesc Fabregas’s proposed move to the Nou Camp looks as though it is petering out with each day the midfielder looking more and more likely to be staying put- for now.
While that may be great news for the Gunners, it’s not for the rest of the Premier League with Arsenal starting the season, arguably for the first time in four years with as just as strong a squad- if not stronger than the one before.
Every season for the past four, the Gunners have lost some of their best players in the summer, with the likes of Patrick Vieira, Ashley Cole, Thierry Henry, Alexandr Hleb and Emmanuel Adebayor all departing.
This summer though, Arsene Wenger has managed to not only keep hold of his prized asset but can also look forward to the return of some players who were not readily available last time round.
Jack Wilshere has looked impressive in pre-season and had is coming off the back of a superb season at on loan at Bolton, Wenger has said the midfielder has shown him enough to stop him entering the transfer market for a similar player. There’s a lot to be said for loaning out a younger player to a Premier League club and Wilshere will not face any surprises when the season kicks off.
Theo Walcott is another player who’s impressed in pre-season and following his World Cup omission and rather disappointing time last year may have something to prove. There’s no doubting Walcott’s talents, and if he can find any form of consistency he could be one of Arsenal’s leading lights over the next ten months.
There’s also the case of Robin Van Persie, who’s absence last season arguably cost Arsenal a real shot at the title. Like Walcott, RVP having missed the majority of last season and being fairly anonymous during the World Cup- despite Holland’s run-will be keen to show he’s capable of challenging the Wayne Rooney’s and Didier Drogba’s of this world for the golden boot.
Defensively Arsenal still have certain frailties, particularly in the centre back department.
A lot will depend on new signing Laurent Koscielny and whether he can fit straight into the team, although if his debut season is as good as Thomas Vermaelen’s was then he may be good enough to be part of a title winning side. Wenger has made comments that he may sign another defender and with time running out he will have to act soon. This is the one area I can see being a real Achilles heel for the Gunners, as if they face injuries and suspension, they may have to either play someone out of position or throw a youngster into the fray and centre back more than anywhere else on the pitch is the one place you cannot hide. Recently there have been rumours of German defender Per Mertesacker joining the club- well at least it’s a change from the ubiquitous Mesut Ozil- which if prove to be true could well be the difference between success and failure in the Gunners title bid.
Wenger’s took a step in the right direction by getting rid of some of the older defenders in his ranks. Former centre-spot warmer William Gallas has taken his sulkiness elsewhere, although where that will be is still unknown, and has been joined by Sol Campbell, Mikael Silvestre and former world footballer of the year Phillipe Senderos. While these departures may rob Arsenal’s defence of experience it has also relieved them of three players who all struggled at times to be reliable. Gallas’s problems, including the infamous day at St Andrews, not to mention his criticism of his younger colleagues and subsequent stripping of the captaincy will surely not be too missed in the Emirates dressing room. When it comes to Silvestre the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson was willing to sell one of his defenders to one of his main rivals should have made Wenger see the warning signs. While Silvestre has always been capable of putting in a decent shift, he’s never been a truly world-class player and is at least 3 years past his best, which is about the same amount of time as Campbell. As for Senderos, there are still Italians sitting in the San Siro wondering how on earth the Swiss defender ended up on loan there, and no doubt their bafflement will be shared by a few Fulham fans this season. While Wenger has signed an array of unearthed gems in his time, Senderos surely falls into the Pascal Cygan, Igors Stepanovs school of mistakes.
In the full back departments if Gael Clichy can stay injury-free on his day he’s up there with Patrice Evra’s and Ashley Cole’s as not just one of the Premierships best left back’s but arguably one of the world’s. Bacary Sagna is one of the more reliable right backs around, while in Keiran Gibbs and Emmanuel Eboue- when he’s called to that position, Arsenal have ample cover.
The one position which could make or break the Gunners title aspirations is undoubtedly between the sticks. Manuel Almunia is about as consistent as David James’s barnet and often cited as reasons why Arsenal have failed to in their attempts to finish above Chelsea and Manchester United these past few years.
There’s been talk of Wenger replacing the bleach-haired blunderer with Mark Schwarzer of Fulham, whether this is likely is debatable and at 37 years-old the Australian would certainly be no long-term solution, however for this season he could well be the reliable ‘keeper needed for a championship.
If Wenger does stick with Almunia, then all is not lost, after all, the Spaniard, while never joining the likes of Pepe Riena, Edwin Van Der Sar or Petr Cech in the list of premiership’s best is still capable of turning in enough decent performances that if the defence does it job Arsenal may just get away with it. The same cannot be said for Lukas Fabianski however, although his inept performances last season may have inadvertently done the Gunners a favour as Wenger must have realised he needed to strengthen the goalkeeping department, or at least find a better understudy.
As almost any Gooner will tell you, Arsenal failed to last the title distance due to a list of injuries that would make Owen Hargreaves blush. The quality of some of the fringe players was at best very high and at worst far too inconsistent. While almost every player at the Emirates is capable of top-drawer football, some more than others cannot be relied upon to string a run of good performances together. One such culprit is Niklas Bendtner who the term ‘from the ridiculous to the sublime’ could almost have been based on. Champion’s League hat-tricks are all well and good but if you cannot put away at least one chance in six against average PL opposition then that simply isn’t good enough.
Bendtner, like everyone else at Arsenal is young though and will surely only improve as time progresses, and in new signing Marouane Chamakh, Wenger may have found a useful different option should anything happen to RVP.
The point is, Arsenal are looking in good shape for the coming season and may now finally be poised to end the Chelsea/Man U recent dominance. There hasn’t been a great deal of improvement at either Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge this summer, while the likes of Javier Hernandez and Yossi Benayoun will no doubt provide goals and excitement at their new employers both Chelsea and United contain a fair amount of squad players the wrong side of 30, who may struggle this season. The same cannot be said for Arsenal who’s almost exclusively young side is looking more and more ready for the task ahead.
The five year trophy drought will also be hanging like the sword of damocles over the heads of many associated with the club and while a League or FA cup would be a good way to end it, winning the title would eclipse either one and justify both Wenger’s transfer policy and his faith in youth. With the prospect of this being Fabregas’s last season at the Emirates, Wenger may know it might just be both his best and last chance to finally silence his critics and give the fans more than just the pride of playing attractive football. The question is if Arsenal should finish yet another season trophy-less will pretty football still be enough?
Read more Justin Mottershead’s work on his excellent blog ‘Name On The Trophy’