After another season that fell apart in the spring and ended with a growing sense of disillusion amongst fans, it may sound strange to suggest that next season could present Arsenal with a window of opportunity.
Granit Xhaka, although not yet officially confirmed, is potentially an excellent acquisition for Arsenal and will add steel to a midfield that has been crying out for an enforcer for the best part of a decade. Not only does he offer protection to the defence behind him, but his passing range should help the attacking play in front. His presence takes the pressure off Elneny and Coquelin, allowing them to progress at a steady and controlled rate, rather than be forced into playing a significant and consecutive number of games. Xhaka should also afford Cazorla more opportunity to control the tempo and affect the game, although dictating play is something the Swiss captain is equally capable of doing. The only real downside is his disciplinary record, so he will likely serve a few suspensions, whilst on the pitch he will add leadership in a key area of the pitch and improve the spine of Arsenal’s team.
The signing of Petr Cech last summer was an important one, the Gunners had been lacking a top quality keeper for a number of years and despite his advancing years, should still have 3 or 4 years at the top left in him. What Arsene Wenger failed to do last summer though, was to add to the signing of Cech and whilst the signing of Xhaka from Borussia Mönchengladbach is another much-needed component to the spine of the team, further improvements are still required.
Interestingly, Arsenal have been strongly linked with Alvaro Morata, a player they coveted before his move to Juventus and a player that crucially, has improved and developed during his time in Italy. His more finely tuned pace, movement and finishing will not come cheap, but it is just what Arsenal need at the sharp end of the pitch. Last summer I felt a midfield enforcer was a higher priority for Wenger’s side, given the combined goals on offer from Sanchez, Giroud, Walcott and Welbeck. I still stand by that opinion, but the injury problems with Walcott and Welbeck, as well as Giroud’s complete loss of form, confidence and goals, coupled with Sanchez suffering an indifferent time of it led to Arsenal lacking in attacking areas. It was encapsulated brilliantly with the following statistic:
- 2002/03 – Thierry Henry created 75 chances, resulting in 20 assists.
- 2015/16 – Mesut Özil created 146 chances, resulting in 19 assists.
Özil had an excellent season and there was clearly not an issue with creativity, but certainly a problem with finishing. A striker the calibre of Morata would surely help, but again, would not be the only requirement this summer. Centre-back is another area in need of upgrade for Arsenal, highlighted by Koscielny having a difficult year and Mertesacker seemingly coming to the end of his run as a regular starter. Though Xhaka brings more protection to the backline, bringing in a centre-back of the required standard further reduces their defensive vulnerability; belt and braces, if you will.
If Arsenal can make these signings, then the opportunity for them comes from their stability, rather than many of their rivals, who are in a period of transition. Pep Guardiola arrives at Manchester City with high expectations and a hefty chequebook, but will inherit a squad that is largely ageing and in need of a mentality change and will need to adapt to Guardiola’s style of play. Incoming Chelsea boss Antonio Conte will not only have to get used to English football, but will also have to replace ageing players and get his squad to adapt to his tactics. At a post Louis Van Gaal Manchester United, there are a lot of player changes required, especially if Jose Mourinho is the incumbent and the number of changes required at Old Trafford will take some time to manage. Liverpool are very much still a work in progress under Jürgen Klopp and the squad changes needed at Anfield to fully implement Klopp’s desired style will likely take two summers to complete.
On top of those rivals going through a period of change, Spurs look unlikely to be able to make the 10-15 point improvement needed to win a Premier League and could find the addition of Champions League an added complication. The same could be said of champions Leicester City and the likelihood of them repeating their phenomenal overachievement feat a second time is difficult to envisage.
The period of upheaval elsewhere mean that Arsenal do have an opportunity to win the Premier League for the first time in 13 years if they can make the right signings and stay the course. The window of opportunity is only a small one though, so Arsene Wenger simply has to make the most of it.