Assessing Arsenal’s squad

Let’s analyze the quality of Arsenal’s squad after the summer transfer window closed last week. Some fans are unhappy because the club didn’t buy an established centerback and a holding midfielder. No one can deny that we still have holes in our squad. On the other hand, no one can deny the club’s commitment to improving the squad. Arsenal recorded a net loss on the transfer market for the second straight season. And this is the first time the club has spent more than 75 million pounds in a summer.

Arsenal Squad

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

If we put those signings into context, Arsenal spent more than Manchester City but less than Manchester United. A fair comparison with Liverpool and Chelsea would be more difficult because those clubs significantly increased their war chest by selling Suarez, Luiz and Lukaku. The first explanation for our relatively limited maneuvering room is the net debt of the club around 100 million pounds. The reimbursement for the construction of the Emirates stadium is not over yet.

A second explanation lies in the implementation of UEFA’s financial fair play rules. Clubs must balance the books and can no longer afford massive losses on the transfer market, unless they make big profits like Manchester United. And a third reason is the next transfer window. That would be dumb to miss out on a great opportunity because the club spent all its war chest just for the sake of signing a centerback or a defensive midfielder. See how much Neymar, Suarez, Bale and Di Maria cost, and you’ll get an idea of the value of a world-class player.

Bridging the gap

I think fans need to show more patience with the improvement of the squad. For years, the club had its hands tied because of its financial situation, which led to a widening of the gap between Arsenal and the top clubs in terms of investment. In the most optimistic scenario, the club will still need a year or two to bridge that gap.

Let’s compare the current squad with the one from last season. In goal, Ospina is a stronger second choice than Fabianski while Martinez is weaker than Viviano as a third choice. Ospina gives Szczesny more competition, but if both get injured, the onus will be on Martinez to protect our net. The young Argentine goalkeeper performed well during the Emirates Cup, but again there’s quite a difference between summer friendlies and Premier League games. Obviously, the Gunners don’t have two world-class goalies like Chelsea, but if Szczesny gets rid of occasional lapses of concentration and improves his ball distribution, then we have a decent goalkeeping situation compared to Manchester City or even Liverpool.

Can Bellerin break through?

There’s been some change at the back with the departures of Sagna, Vermaelen and Miquel and the loan of Jenkinson. On the right flank, Debuchy contributes more than Sagna offensively but is not as sound defensively. During his time at the club, Jenkinson has never been able to challenge an aging Sagna for a starting spot. That tells you how reliable Sagna has been for the club but also how limited is Jenkinson’s potential. Bellerin’s technique is outstanding for a fullback but his first-team breakthrough will depend on his defensive improvement. If Bellerin doesn’t make the cut at fullback, I could still see him become a good winger.

In the short term, the 19-year-old Chambers is a weaker option than Vermaelen because he doesn’t have the Belgium defender’s experience. But within a couple of years, Chambers could prove a better centerback. I realized Vermaelen wouldn’t be the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense when his poor positional play allowed Ibrahimovic to score twice in a Champions League game. Wenger looked furious along the touchline that day because he couldn’t believe Vermaelen could make that kind of mistake twice. Miquel’s departure could give Hayden and Ajayi the opportunity to shine in League Cup matches, although Chambers and Monreal are clearly the back-up centerbacks in the manager’s mind.

Status quo in midfield

Changes made this summer didn’t fix our vulnerability on the fast break. Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Koscielny’s dodgy decision-making are still a concern. I believe Arsenal will again concede more than 30 goals this season. Manchester City overpaid for Mangala, who’s powerful and strong in duels. However, Mangala is not even a starter for the France team and I think Chambers can match his potential. Rojo is an interesting signing for Manchester United. The Argentine defender shone at the World Cup but I’d like to see how he’ll adapt to the Premier League. The centerback I would have liked to get is Hummels, but Borussia Dortmund didn’t want to sell him.

The only area where nothing has changed is our midfield. We still have Arteta and Flamini as holding midfielders, Ramsey, Wilshere and Diaby as all-rounders, Ozil and Rosicky as playmakers and Coquelin and Zelalem as fringe players. Yet, we still lack protection for our back four. Arteta can’t stop counterattacks while Flamini is a better defender but doesn’t have Arteta’s passing skills. A Ramsey-Wilshere partnership in midfield might be the solution in a couple of years but right now their positional play and tactical discipline are not good enough to shield the defense.

Ozil’s mental block

Wenger has showed his faith in Ozil by ignoring a deal for Fabregas this summer. But that should not lead to complacency. Fabregas scores more goals and works harder than Ozil. In my eyes, that means Fabregas is a better player. Some fans think Ozil would score more goals if he played behind the striker. But the reason why Wenger moved Ozil to the wing is to protect him from rough challenges and help him escape marking. Unless Ozil toughens up, he has no chance to play in the hole.

Last season, the manager explained Ozil’s poor scoring record by a mental block. The mental part of the game is definitely an area Ozil needs to work on. His work ethic is also an issue. Our defense has sometimes been exposed because of Ozil’s failure to track back. Let’s be honest: he’d be crucified in other clubs for his weak defensive contribution. If Ozil can’t change his attitude, it will be tough for the club to recoup an investment worth 42.5 million pounds.

The Gunners may have more creativity in midfield than Manchester City, but the defending champions have more steel with Toure and Fernando. Likewise, Chelsea can match Arsenal in midfield after having acquired Matic and Fabregas.

More striking options

Arsenal had plenty of options on the wings last season with Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, Podolski and Gnabry. But Wenger still decided to add another winger by hiring Sanchez. The manager claims Sanchez can also play as a center forward. That may be true in European games, but that’s very unlikely in the Premier League where teams give Arsenal very little space by using a low defensive line.

I still think it’s a good move from the club to have signed Sanchez. That puts less pressure on Walcott and Gnabry, who are recovering from long-term injuries. That also gives us more firepower as the Gunners scored only 68 goals in the Premier League last season. And last but not least, Sanchez would be a great role model for Walcott to improve his work rate.

Up front, The Gunners have more options as they brought Campbell back and signed Welbeck on deadline day. Welbeck is an upgrade over Bendtner and Campbell can’t do worse than Park. At 23, Welbeck still has room for improvement. Whether Welbeck becomes a 30-goal striker or only scores 10 goals per season in the Premier League, he’s still a good investment.

A top 4 finish

Looking at the club’s recruitment strategy, I would say it has been tailor-made for Ozil, who thrived on the speed of Di Maria, Ronaldo and Benzema at Real Madrid. Giroud is not the kind of striker who’ll make runs behind the defense to chase Ozil’s through balls. Because of his power and lack of pace, the Frenchman obviously prefers crosses and short passes. Now Ozil has three outlets that perfectly fit his passing game with Walcott, Sanchez and Welbeck. While Arsenal had the weakest striking options among the top seven clubs a year ago, I believe we only trail the Red Devils, the Blues and the Citizens this season.

The Gunners can’t be considered legitimate contenders because of weaknesses at centerback, holding midfielder and striker. But the squad is good enough to finish in the top four. Finishing second or even third would be somehow a success because it would be a step in the right direction and because the club wouldn’t have to participate in the Champions League playoffs, which are a real burden for Arsenal’s schedule.

Improving the scouting network

I think one major area where the club must improve is its scouting network abroad. When Abramovich took over Chelsea, he spent a lot of money on big names. However, his approach has changed a little bit over the past few years. The Blues still sign stars like Fabregas, Costa and Drogba, but they have also made a bet on youngsters like Courtois and Schurrle, who were unproven at the top level when they signed with Chelsea. Will Christensen, Ake, Pasalic and Atsu be in Chelsea’s starting lineup in a few years? If they do, it will show that Chelsea is clearly ahead of Arsenal to scout talent abroad.

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