A rough season ahead for Arsenal & Wenger

For the very first time, I am NOT looking forward to the start of the season as an Arsenal fan. I am simply getting tired of seeing the squad stagnate. The club has only signed three players so far. Xhaka is good enough to claim a starting spot whereas Asano and Holding are mostly prospects. What makes me angry is that the two Manchester clubs are pretty much done with their summer transfers while the Gunners still haven’t upgraded the two key positions that would turn them into potential contenders: centerback and centerforward.

Arsenal 2016-17 intro

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

We have until Aug. 31 to improve our squad but there are two significant issues. First, any club is reluctant to release its top striker in the last days of the transfer window because it’s very difficult to find a replacement who’s available. For instance, Lyon forward Lacazette has been linked with a move to Arsenal. If the French club accepts to let him go, it would lose the guarantee of 20 league goals per season and hurt its chances of securing a Champions League spot. And second, even if the Gunners manage to sign a defender and a striker, it will take weeks for the team to gel.

Koscielny, Ozil and Giroud are Arsenal’s best centerback, assists leader and top scorer respectively. They haven’t played any pre-season game and will likely miss the opening match against Liverpool on Sunday. They will also lack match fitness for the game against Leicester the following weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gunners get zero point from their first two Premier League matches. A poor start would put a lot of pressure on the club and the manager. Fans still remember those seasons when Arsenal fell out of contention by October.

What is really at stake this summer

Injuries to Mertesacker and Paulista in the pre-season mean that Chambers, Holding and Bielik are the only centerbacks available for the opening game. That sounds like bad luck but I really don’t feel sorry for Wenger. Heavy losses to Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea during the 2013-14 season showed that Mertesacker’s lack of pace was a liability. The manager signed Paulista in January 2015 to inject more pace at the back. However, the Brazilian’s dodgy performances didn’t convince anybody that Arsenal had a reliable centerback partnership.

Will the manager hit the panic button? Last summer, Sanchez was rushed back into action after his Copa America heroics. The lack of rest finally caught up with the Chile international when he picked up a hamstring injury in the winter. Wenger could make the same mistake with Koscielny this season because of the injury crisis at centerback. I can imagine an unfit Koscielny pulling his hamstring while chasing Sturridge or Vardy.

Inactivity in the transfer market has an impact not just on the upcoming season but also on the future of the club. Sanchez and Ozil haven’t signed any contract extension yet because they feel that the club is lacking ambition. Their contracts both end in 2018. They could ask for a move next summer if they think that the squad is not strong enough to contend for the Premier League title. We would then end up with a situation similar to what happened in 2011 when Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy left the club before Van Persie and Song also jumped off the ship the following year.

A flawed business plan

A lot of Arsenal fans are upset because they realize that the club is just a small step away from becoming a legitimate contender. The priority for the board is consistency and a top-four finish every year. Playing in the Champions League is obviously an important factor to sign top players when you are not a big club like Manchester United.

But there’s a flaw in the board’s business plan. The Red Devils have become a major global brand that can generate huge commercial revenues and sponsorship deals because they were the most successful British team in the past two decades. The Gunners are a big club in England but they are not a major global brand like Manchester United because they haven’t won the Premier League title since 2004. And the reality nowadays is that you need investments in the squad to win the league.

Do Wenger and the board want to win the Premier League? Yes. But if we analyze the recent transfer windows, they seem to believe that the key to success is about signing a couple of big names and developing a lot of youngsters. That idea is an utopia! Sure, the Red Devils managed to build half of their team with academy players (Neville, Butt, Scholes, Giggs, Beckham and Hugues) in the 1990’s and Barcelona repeated that feat in the past decade with Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Messi and Pedro. But those teams are the exception that proves the rule.

The reality of the transfer market

On average, one academy player joins the Arsenal first team every two years. Of the current crop, only Bellerin is an automatic starter while Wilshere, Gibbs, Iwobi and Gnabry are substitutes when everybody is fit. If I were cynical, I’d say that Ozil and Sanchez will be in their 40’s by the time half of the starting lineup is made up of academy players.

The choice for Wenger and the board is therefore pretty simple. Either they financially compete head on with the two Manchesters. Or they try to find hidden gems with great scouting like Tottenham and Leicester.

I’m not really sure that the club has adjusted to the reality of the transfer market. Arsenal slightly paid over the odds when they signed Xhaka from Borussia Monchengladbach for about 35 million pounds. But then they tried to get Lacazette for 29 million pounds, which is exactly the player’s market value. A bid of 40 million pounds would have been more realistic, knowing that there’s a normal price tag for most European clubs and an inflated price tag for English clubs and powerhouses like Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Gunners are unlikely to get any deal done if they don’t take that factor into account.

Nobody expects Arsenal to spend more than 150 million pounds in the transfer market like Manchester United or City. But you can’t ignore the fact that both Manchester teams have significantly improved with new additions. Stones, Gundogan, Nolito and Sane should feature in Guardiola’s starting lineup while Moreno, Gabriel Jesus and Zinchenko could be interesting impact players. Likewise, Bailly, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Ibrahimovic should be first choices for Mourinho. By contrast, only Xhaka among the new signings might be a starter for Arsenal.

Bielik & Holding are not ready

The Gunners have only spent about 40 million pounds this summer, which is less than Liverpool and Chelsea, who have splashed about 64 million pounds each despite missing out on a Champions League spot. Given Arsenal’s financial results, I would have assumed that Wenger got a transfer kitty of at least 80 million pounds like in 2014 when the club signed Sanchez, Chambers, Welbeck, Debuchy and Ospina. But recent comments by the manager about scouts looking in the lower leagues suggest that the board did not give Wenger much maneuvering room financially.

I’m not really optimistic for this season after watching the summer friendlies in America and Scandinavia. At the back, Bielik and Holding are not ready yet for the Premier League. Their decision-making was terrible against average sides and could prove a disaster against top English clubs.

Bielik tends to hold onto the ball for too long and can make poor passes when he’s under pressure. One of his turnovers led to Drogba’s goal in the game against the MLS All-Stars. Holding may have great potential but he’s still too naive in my eyes. He cheaply lost possession against Chivas, lost a key duel against Viking forward Pedersen, and tried to dribble twice in his own half against Manchester City. Aguero ghosted past Holding to tuck home the opening goal.

Some fans have suggested that Chambers is a reliable centerback. Well, they just need to watch again his performance in the 3-0 loss to Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup last season to understand his limitations. Chambers made a reckless challenge against Chivas, and gave Manchester City a counterattacking opportunity with a sloppy pass.

On the same wavelength

Midfield is the one area we don’t have to worry about. Elneny has replaced Flamini as a utility midfielder, Xhaka has filled Arteta’s shoes as the pacesetter, and Iwobi has taken Rosicky’s spot as an attacking midfielder.

In their first game together, Xhaka and Cazorla showed a great understanding against Chivas as if they were on the same wavelength. If ever Ozil gets injured this season, Cazorla will probably be the main alternative as he shone in the playmaking role against Viking. Xhaka’s smart positional play enabled him to make a couple of interceptions against Manchester City. After winning the ball back, Xhaka also slipped a through ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose chip sailed wide.

Ramsey produced outstanding performances as a free-floating midfielder for Wales at the Euros. The manager obviously noticed that and played him in a similar position behind the striker against the Citizens. With his trademark deep runs, Ramsey ghosted past Fernando to head a Sanchez cross over the bar before leading a counterattack to fire a powerful strike that Caballero parried.

Zelalem and Reine-Adelaide have been touted as having a great future but the reality is that they are still miles away from the Premier League level. Wenger used Zelalem as a deep-lying playmaker in the summer friendlies. The American teenager struggled to have an impact. Physically, Zelalem must beef up a bit to win duels in midfield. Tactically, he needs to improve his defensive game, especially when the team loses possession.

Typical goal poacher

Reine-Adelaide started his Arsenal career as a winger. The manager tried him in the No. 10 role against the MLS All-Stars and Viking. Obviously, Reine-Adelaide needs to be more efficient in the final third. He also needs to simplify his game and release the ball more quickly. He often lost possession because he either took too many touches or showed too much of the ball.

Up front, Walcott showed against the MLS All-Stars that he’s not really thinking like a centerforward. He had opportunities to make runs to the near post but didn’t seize them. Walcott clearly feels uncomfortable when he’s playing back to goal, which explains his poor link-up play against the MLS All-Stars and his inability to hold the ball up against Viking. He also proved wasteful by missing some good chances against Chivas and Viking.

Wenger moved Walcott back to the right flank for the Manchester City game. The difference was obvious: Walcott is a more lethal weapon when he can make those smart runs from the right wing. He set up Iwobi for an equalizer and then played a one-two with Sanchez to chip Hart for a 2-1 lead.

I would be very surprised if Walcott starts as a lone striker for the opening match against Liverpool. Akpom or even Sanchez would be more suited for that position. Akpom might be given a chance since he scored four goals in the summer friendlies. He is the typical goal poacher, in the right place at the right time, and able to outmuscle his marker to score from close range. But shining in the pre-season is no guarantee of a brilliant campaign. Sanogo shone in the 2014 Emirates Cup but then failed to score in the Premier League.

Not a contender

There’s also the issue of work-rate. Akpom doesn’t contribute as much defensively as Giroud. When Akpom was on loan at Hull, Bruce dropped him to the bench because of his attitude. Sanchez would be a better choice up front for a high press although he doesn’t have Akpom’s aerial threat and physicality.

On the wings, the Ox displayed some great footwork to beat two defenders and the keeper for a solo goal against Chivas while Iwobi and Campbell scored three goals each in the summer friendlies. Willock also got some playing time, showing some good decision-making and a laudable work ethic.

I don’t think any of the youngsters will have an impact on the first team like Wilshere and Bellerin did after shining in the Emirates Cup. Some of them might play in the League Cup but they will most likely be loaned out to Championship sides to hone their skills.

Right now, the squad is not strong enough to contend for the Premier League title. We struggled at both ends of the pitch last season and haven’t solved those problems since we still haven’t signed any seasoned centerback or centerforward. On paper, the two Manchesters are the overwhelming favorites to win the title.

Finishing in the Top 4 will be even more difficult than in the past seasons. Liverpool and Chelsea have a big advantage over Arsenal because they are not involved in any European competition. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4 for the first time under Wenger’s tenure.