Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Reasons for optimism but three major problems exist before the season starts

Pre-season is the time to be optimistic. Even though Arsene Wenger hasn’t completed the transfer deals that most think need to have been done, this is the time of the year when positivity should be the main feeling towards Arsenal.
Everyone is level in the table, a ball hasn’t been kicked in a competitive game, so no-one can make any definitive judgements on where each team is in the Premier League.
Understandably, one of the barometers used to judge where teams are is the action in the transfer market. With the exception of the signing of Granit Xhaka, Arsenal’s efforts in improving the squad haven’t been great. But in the spirit of being optimistic in pre-season, there are plenty of things that can give Arsenal fans hope going into the new season.
Firstly, the Gunners still have Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. There is a slight element of doubt about the two and their contract situations, and that is something for Arsene Wenger to get sorted very soon after the transfer window shuts. But they are two genuine world class players who are a pleasure to watch. Alexis had a slightly below par season by his extremely high standards, but with a bit more rest this summer with the Copa America finishing earlier than in 2015, it will be good to have a fully firing Chilean from the start of the season. Mesut Ozil was obviously superb last season, and he’ll probably have a slower start to this campaign because of beginning pre-season late, but with him in the side, Arsenal will always have a chance to unlock any defence.
Ozil and Alexis may well be linking up with some of the exciting youngsters that Arsenal have coming through, with Alex Iwobi leading the charge for that group, with Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Chuba Akpom, Chris Willock and Gedion Zelalem close behind him. Serge Gnabry might also get involved in first team action again as he, as I write this, is absolutely ripping up the Olympic football tournament. But it is Iwobi who has cemented his place in the first team squad following a brilliant end to last season.
Had Arsenal signed a player of Iwobi’s quality for £20m or £25m, in the current market, you’d think Arsene Wenger had got a good deal. As much as fans demand for money to be spent on new recruits, there is still something incredibly satisfying about seeing a player come through your academy and start performing brilliantly in the first team. Following a testing period of the season, Iwobi’s arrival into the team in March really freshened the team up and put some joy back into watching the Arsenal through his enthusiasm and his eagerness to just express himself on the ball without fear. If not signing another attacking player means we see more of Alex Iwobi, then I’m ok with that.
The midfield is a real position of strength for Arsenal, and if key players can stay fit, there is a lot of depth and quality to Arsenal’s options in the centre of pitch. Santi Cazorla is fit again, Granit Xhaka looks a fantastic addition, Aaron Ramsey is going into the season following a superb Euros for Wales, Mohamed Elneny made a good impact into the team when he arrived in January, Francis Coquelin remains important when he plays and we might even get to see Jack Wilshere on the pitch this season. Arsenal also have the best pair of full-backs in the league and a top class, experienced goalkeeper.
The other bit of positivity comes from the other teams in the league. While it is a worry how other teams have strengthened, they can, and will, all take points off each other. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Leicester will all think, along with Arsenal, that they should be around the top four, but as Leicester proved last season, a good run of form can really propel you up the league because of how competitive the division has become. Obviously there’s a fear that Arsenal could get left behind those sides, but before the season, there’s also just as good a chance that Arsenal will be the team to put a run of form together and get away from the others as they scrap amongst themselves.
All that good stuff does make it feel all the more frustrating that further additions haven’t been made because the team isn’t far off from being in a position to really challenge for the title. In some ways, I do have sympathy for Arsene Wenger because the transfer market is in an unprecedented phase. With the influx of television money to the Premier League, as soon as an English club tries to sign a player either from another Premier League side or from a club abroad, the price is immediately bumped up, regardless of the quality of the player. The argument that Arsenal just have to accept the market for what it is and just deal with it is a valid one, but I can understand Arsene Wenger’s reluctance.
But, having done the optimistic bit in this blog, realistically the boss still has three major things to get done, ideally before the season, but at the very least before the end of the transfer window. The first, and most pressing issue is at centre-back. At the start of the summer, I don’t think a new player in that position was as necessary as some made it out to be. As a big fan of Per Mertesacker, I always get incredibly frustrated when lazy critics write him off because he is a bit slow. He’s an integral part of the Arsenal back-line, and had he been fit going into the start of the season, I’d be feeling ok about the defence. But with his long-term injury, Laurent Koscielny only just beginning his pre-season and the two-month problem now suffered by Gabriel, a new signing is absolutely essential. If only one of Calum Chambers or Rob Holding had to play alongside one of the experienced guys against Liverpool, that would be fine, but both of them together feels like an unnecessary risk.
After the centre-back, we need a club captain. More than anything else this summer, this is the one thing I find strange not to have been sorted. It wasn’t a surprise that Mikel Arteta went in the summer, so surely a succession plan should have been in place. A decision might have been delayed after Per Mertesacker’s injury as I expected the German to be handed the armband, but an announcement has to be made this week. It’s just bizarre to be in the final week before the season and have no idea who the club captain will be. The longer it’s gone without the BFG getting the armband makes me think Laurent Koscielny might get it, but we just need some clarity on who it’s going to be. After having three seasons in a row when the captain hasn’t played many games, it’d be nice to have someone who will be there to lead the team most of the time.
The final major issue to solve is the centre-forward one. Clearly Arsene Wenger is aware that this is an issue as he went for Jamie Vardy and made an offer for Alexandre Lacazette, but they haven’t been successful. Now it’s at the stage that Arsenal are being linked with a £30 million move for Wilfried Bony. This is where I have sympathy for Arsene because if he is really the best available, then he definitely isn’t an upgrade on Olivier Giroud. But with Danny Welbeck out until February, it only takes one injury to the Frenchman and we have a serious problem again, so an attacking player still has to be a priority.
So where does this leave Arsenal going into the season? The team are in nowhere near as bad a position as some seem to think they are, and having come second last season, they can go one better this season. But there is this nagging fear that the failure to reinforce the squad, particularly in light of injuries, will cost Arsenal in the opening games if deals are left until the last knockings of the transfer window. The three issues have lingered longer than they should have done, and the longer Arsene Wenger leaves it to get them sorted, the more the pre-season optimism will be dampened.
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