How would you define Arsenal’s season? Satisfactory? Frustrating? Decent?
What fans will remember from the 2013-14 season is how the Gunners ended a nine-year trophy drought by winning the FA Cup. It didn’t come easy as they had to knock out Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton before rallying past Hull 3-2 in the final. They were also in contention for the Premier League title until February while in the past seasons they were out of the race for the top spot by November.
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Skeptics will point out the humiliating losses to Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton which exposed Arsenal’s poor defending. The Gunners had a good defensive record against weak or average sides. But they leaked too many goals against the good teams by proving vulnerable on the fast break.
You can blame it on our tactical setup. Arsenal’s 4-3-3 formation turns into a 3-4-3 system when attacking with Gibbs and Sagna both bombing forward and Arteta dropping back to organize the team’s passing game. That means we just have Mertesacker, Koscielny and Arteta to protect our goal on counterattacks. Mertesacker and Arteta are both slow runners while Koscielny’s decision-making can be dodgy.
It was disappointing to see Arsenal’s title bid fizzle out in February while Liverpool went the distance by putting Manchester City under pressure until the last day of the season. Maybe it would have been a different story if Ramsey, Ozil, Wilshere and Walcott had not been injured in the second half of the season. But injuries are part of the game and the manager can only blame himself for not having a deep bench.
Improving our striking options
Wenger’s lack of rotation contributed to some injuries. The key for next season will be to have a squad strong enough to contend for the title and rest players a bit more. Liverpool’s squad may not necessarily be stronger than Arsenal’s but the Reds had the luck this season of not participating in any European competition whereas the Gunners played 10 Champions League matches. That difference in workload helps explain why Liverpool was still fresh in the second half of the season while Arsenal’s form dipped.
The top priority in the summer transfer window will be to improve our striking options. The Gunners had the fourth most prolific offense in the Premier League with 68 goals, far behind Manchester City and Liverpool which scored more than 100 goals each. This is Arsenal’s lowest total since the 2008-09 season. To put things in context, the Premier League champion has scored at least 80 goals six times in the last 10 seasons. The Gunners last scored more than 80 goals in the 2009-10 season.
Giroud had a good season but he’s not a world-class striker like Van Persie or Henry who can score 30 goals per season. And when Giroud needed a break, Wenger only had Bendtner and Sanogo as back-up centerforwards. What the Gunners need is a top striker, fast and strong in the air. Campbell could be back from his loan spell at Olympiacos, but he’s shorter than Podolski and is therefore unlikely to play as a target man. Sanogo is still a work in progress and won’t take Giroud’s spot in the starting lineup next season.
Conceding less than 30 goals
The No. 2 priority should be to hire a top centerback. Arsenal had the fourth tightest defense in the Premier League by conceding 41 goals, 14 more than Chelsea. To put things in context, the Premier League champion has allowed more than 40 goals only once in the last 10 seasons. And six times the champion has conceded less than 30 goals. The Gunners last allowed less than 30 goals during the Invincibles era.
Mertesacker and Koscielny are decent centerbacks for a team chasing a Champions League spot. But they are not good enough for a contending club. You wouldn’t put them in the same class as Kompany and Nastasic. And when Sagna decided to join Manchester City on a free transfer, Arsenal not only lost an outstanding rightback but also a good centerback.
The No. 3 priority should be to sign a ballwinner. Arteta and Flamini are good value midfielders but there’s a reason why they’re not part of the Spain and France squads. Arteta lacks pace to protect the team defensively while Flamini does not have Arteta’s passing skills. Let’s not forget that Arteta is 32 and Flamini 30. You never know when a player will lose a step. Vidic was 31 when Manchester United won the title in Ferguson’s last campaign. Under Moyes the following season, Vidic suddenly looked old and shaky.
The club’s new ambitions
Last but not least, Wenger will need to sign a rightback and a back-up goalkeeper to replace Sagna and Fabianski. Jenkinson is too limited technically to become a reliable starter while Bellerin is still honing his skills. Toulouse defender Aurier is the name the most mentioned in the news media. He scored six goals and made six assists in the French league last season, which is a very good tally for a fullback. At 21, he still has room for improvement in terms of positional play and reading of the game.
The club has enough money on paper to significantly strengthen the squad, especially with the new commercial deals kicking in and broadcast income from this season. Now the key question is whether the Gunners will be able to find the top players they need to become legitimate contenders. Wenger is no longer looking for average players such as Chamakh and Park or players past their prime like Silvestre and Squillaci. Ozil’s arrival last summer showed the club’s new ambitions. It wouldn’t make sense to take a step back.