On one side of the coin, the upcoming season presents many a familiar challenge for Arsenal; the fans’ opinion on their long-serving manager remains split, and key players are linked with moves away.
But on the flip side, the new campaign provides a host of fresh hurdles for the Gunners, particularly with the prospect of Europa League football as opposed to the Champions League for the first time in years.
The weekend’s Community Shield win over Chelsea will have given even the most stubborn of fans a reason to look forward to the year ahead; friendly or not the matchup threw up many positives for the Gunners.
But looming on the horizon is the reoccurring question over whether Arsene Wenger’s side has the mentality to hold up a strong title challenge.
And will the pressure on the French manager be too much this year, following a bold decision to extend his contract despite a season of protests?
In recent years the main adjective to describe an Arsenal side would be consistent; Wenger’s record of 17 consecutive seasons in the Champions League can not be a forgotten feat. However, with these consistencies suffering a blip last year, all eyes will be on the Gunners to see how they respond this season.
Wenger has admitted his side remains a few players short of his ideal final squad but is facing troubles luring fresh faces to the Emirates with his current side actually exceeding the Premier League limit.
With players like Lucas Perez, Gabriel and Kieran Gibbs expected to depart, and names such as Thomas Lemar and Jean Michael Seri being tipped as potential arrivals, Arsenal’s transfer business seems to be far from over.
So with that in mind, this piece will seek to decipher the Gunners’ potential going into the new campaign, and whether their recent Wembley victory poses as a false dawn or a new beginning.
Arsene Wenger faced the age old Arsenal problem before the Summer transfer window of finding an out-and-out, prolific striker and a strong, organised defensive minded player.
By the turn of July both these boxes had been ticked, with the Gunners spending only £52 million to do so; a respectable figure in the current market.
First came the signing of Bosnia-Herzegovina international Sead Kolasinac on a free from Schalke as early as the 6th of June. The left-back brings a mixture of strength and desire that Gunners fans have been craving for years, as seen during his “outstanding” substitute appearance against Chelsea in the Community Shield.
“I had hesitation over playing him from he start today,” noted Wenger post game. “I thought maybe the pressure of Wembley [would be too much]…but when he came on, he was outstanding.
“There are some players who are pumped up in the gym and players who are born strong. He is the second part.”
The ‘Bosnian Hulk’ looks an absolute steal in today’s market, and will go some way to fixing the defensive frailties that saw Arsenal struggle both domestically and in Europe last year. Featured in the Bundesliga Team of the Season in 2016/17, Kolasinac will fit directly into Arsenal’s new 3-4-3 system as a commanding left wing back.
His stats last season are sure to have the Gunners faithful purring with delight; one key figure from the 2016/17 season highlights how no other player in Europe’s top five leagues made more interceptions in a single game than Kolasinac’s 12 against Hamburg. The Bosnian also poses a threat going forward, as Chelsea found out to their expense through his late Community Shield equaliser this weekend. Last campaign Kolasinac recorded 3 goals and 9 assists in all competitions, highlighting his effectiveness if used as a left-wing back both offensively and defensively.
A new attack-minded left back is not the only way in which Arsenal have strengthened going forward this summer, with all £52 million being spent on a new striker to rival Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck.
Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette was Wenger’s second high profile signing of the summer and became the club’s record purchase.
An apparent long term target for the Gunners, Lacazatte’s signature is a key example of the intent shown by Wenger this transfer window following a disappointing last campaign. Hailed as a “very efficient finisher” by the Arsenal boss, Lacazette held a greater goals per 90-minute ratio (excluding penalties) than any other striker in the Gunners’ ranks with 0.47; that’s excluding Olivier Giroud who’s stats were inflated by substitute appearances.
A goal on his debut for the North London side in Sydney was not far from the perfect start, with the French forward also showing promise during the remaining pre season fixtures; after an impressive bit of build up play, Lacazette was unfortunate not to open the scoring during the Community Shield as he hit the post.
However, some deem the former Lyon man a ‘penalty merchant’; 10 of his 28 Ligue 1 goals came from the spot last campaign. But there should be no reason for the Gunners faithful to be so concerned at such an accolade, especially if this appears to be his overriding weakness. Last season Arsenal won nine penalties, and only six were converted; a 67% success rate is hardly an encouraging stat for a top side.
Lacazette himself holds a far superior 80% success rate on penalties, meaning Wenger has brought in a man with a cool head, willing to convert under pressure when needed.
So with the majority of the summer transfer window now gone the Gunners can be content at their purchases so far. Also, with names such as Thomas Lemar looking likely targets for the upcoming weeks, Wenger’s business may not be over yet.
How are they Expected to Line Up?
During the final months of last season, Arsene Wenger altered his traditional 4-2-2-1-1 formation to the 3-4-3 shape which took the Premier League by storm in 2016.
With 5 wins on the bounce at the end of the league season, combined with the dominant performance over Chelsea in the FA Cup final, the move seemed an inspired one by the Arsenal manager. Going into the new campaign there would be no reason for the Gunners boss to change such a system, with the arrival of offensive minded defender Kolasinac further proving such a point.
There’s also no question as to whether Arsenal’s strongest 11 is greater than that of last season, particularly with both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil likely to remain at the club. So when looking at the side position-by-position, the following players should be first on the the team sheet.
In goal remains Petr Cech; despite struggling at times last season the experienced goalkeeper looked to back to his best following an injury suffered at West Brom earlier in the season. David Ospina has expressed his desire to gain that number one spot, but Cech remains Arsenal’s greatest player in between the posts, with the Colombian a worthy option in cup games.
At centre-back Arsenal are not quite as blessed when it comes to back up, with captain Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Rob Holding the three obvious choices. With Gabriel looking to sign for Valencia and Per Mertesacker struggling physically now due to his age, the Gunners are left with the likes of Nacho Monreal and Mohammed Elneny as makeshift insurance should injury or suspensions occur.
When looking at the wing-backs the battle for the right side between Hector Bellerin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain remains, but now a new competition emerges with Monreal and Kolasinac. The Bosnian has more than made a claim for himself with his pre season performances, so Monreal may have to settle for back-up this season.
This pre season has also seen Granit Xhaka flourish in the centre of midfield, with Aaron Ramsey likely to partner him in Arsenal’s strongest lineup The Swiss international won Man of The Match in the Community Shield; gaining an assist and commanding the middle of the park for the Gunners.
There remains no argument as to who lines up for Arsene Wenger in the central attacking position. One of the plus points of the Summer has got to be the retaining of German international Mesut Özil, who will only flourish with the pacy Lacazette now ahead of him.
Up front is, of course, Alexandre Lacazette, with the pace of Danny Welbeck just behind him alongside Alexis Sanchez. Welbeck linked up well by
Lacazette during the Community Shield as the pair showed the perfect combination of pace, power and agility going forward (as highlighted by the Frenchman’s first half chance).
How they Start the Season
Arsenal will kick off the Premier League season this Friday with the very first game of the new campaign as they host Leicester City at 7:45pm.
In this fixture last season the Gunners needed a deflected Robert Huth own goal to break down a resilient Leicester defence, who are boosted in that department even further this season with the signing of Hull City’s Harry Maguire. Nevertheless, it’s a game Wenger will expect to win as he looks to lead his side to an opening day victory for the first time since 2014.
Arsenal then face two tough away fixtures in succession as they travel to Stoke City on the 19th and then Liverpool the following week. Last season the Gunners fought off their Britannia bug as they hit four past Stoke in a 4-1 victory late in the campaign, but we all know the troubles Wenger has faced there in recent years.
Arsenal have also failed to win at Anfield since March of 2012, meaning the following week will not prove any lesser of a task for Arsene Wenger’s men. A home tie against Bournemouth then precedes a trip to Stamford Bridge, in what concludes a less than comfortable opening month for the Gunners.
On the face of it, Arsenal have improved in the right areas this summer, and have seemingly retained the services of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez for at least another year. They also have the opportunity presented by the Europa League to rest key players and focus on a strong title challenge for the first time in many years.
But the overriding concern surrounds the manager, and whether he and his team will be able to respond to any set backs this season following the protests that occurred last year. Sky Sports pundit and former Arsenal man Charlie Nicholas acknowledged such a fact: “Their [Arsenal’s] strength used to be the unity but that is getting tested with the fans. When they don’t start well, the pressure is back on from the start.”
Many also raise concerns about Arsenal’s defensive frailties that reared their ugly head on far too many occasions last season. As mentioned previously they lack any real cover at the back, and Sunday’s Community Shield win brought up some worrying defensive signs despite Arsenal being the better side.
Victor Moses’ goal in the 46th minute was only made possible through the Gunners’ inability to clear from a short corner; the only reaction being to loft the ball into the air as it went up rather than out.
So defensively there remain question marks, but offensively they have unquestionably improved; the signing of Lacazette brings a new sense of pace, power and reliability to the side that they have missed since the departure of Robin Van Persie.
But will that offensive improvement be enough for a title challenge this year seeing as Arsenal fell so short last season? Further signings linked with the Gunners only centre around improving the attacking aspects of their game; the signature of Monaco’s Thomas Lemar, for example, remains in the pipeline.
This, of course, hints that Arsene Wenger is satisfied with his backline, which many feel does not compare to that of his rivals.
I personally feel a title challenge is too much a task for Arsenal this season due to the pressure surrounding Arsene Wenger and the frailties clearly still evident in the defence. However, I do think a top four finish is more than achievable, particularly with Wenger using weaker sides in the Europa League this season as he priorities the league itself.
With more signings still possible in this window it is difficult to ultimately decide Arsenal’s future prospects. But with the current squad, it’s difficult to see them challenging the likes of Manchester City and Manchester United for the title this year.
Prediction: Top Four Finish