Arsenal season preview

The Gunners face a tricky start to the season with their first three games against Manchester City, Chelsea and West Ham. There’s a real possibility that they might have just one point in the Premier League at the end of this month.

Arsenal Training SessionPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Arsenal addressed some of their defensive issues by signing Leno, Sokratis, Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Guendouzi during the summer. It will obviously take more than a single transfer window to rebuild the squad. Even Klopp and Pochettino needed to wait until their second season at Liverpool and Tottenham to get back into the Top 4.

The main disappointment from the transfer window is that the club hasn’t managed to clear the dead wood yet. The Gunners sold Perez, Akpom and Reine-Adelaide to West Ham, PAOK Salonika and Angers, respectively, while loaning out Chambers to Fulham. But they failed to offload Jenkinson, Ospina, Welbeck and Campbell, 4 players who don’t seem to fit into Emery’s plans.

Let’s analyze the new recruits. Arsenal needed an upgrade in the goalkeeping position: Cech is past his prime and made the most errors leading to a goal in the Premier League last season, while Ospina has struggled to command his area. At 26, Leno is in the peak years of his career. He has better ball-playing abilities than Cech and will cope better with the physicality of English football than Ospina. However, his signing is a bit of a gamble because he missed out on the Germany squad for the World Cup and he has also been let down by lapses of concentration throughout his career.

Koscielny’s Achilles injury meant that Arsenal had to sign an experienced centerback. I’m not really sold on Sokratis. At 30, he only has a couple of years left at the top. The bigger issue is Sokratis’ lack of recovery pace which could become a liability if the Gunners play a high defensive line. You kind of wonder whether there was any coordination between Emery, Mislintat, Sanllehi and Gazidis in the recruiting process because Sokratis is not a good match for Emery’s pressing game.

Improving the starting XI

Did Arsenal really need to sign Lichtsteiner? Maitland-Niles and Holding could have deputized for Bellerin in the rightback position. At 34, Lichtsteiner will struggle to adapt to the pace of the Premier League. Yes, he looked good with Juventus, but Serie A games are played at a slower tempo. Wenger would have been slayed for hiring such an old defender. Fans can still remember the poor performances from Silvestre and Squillaci, who both joined Arsenal when they turned 30.

In midfield, the Gunners finally signed the ballwinner they’ve been missing for years. On paper, Torreira is the best of the 5 recruits. At 22, Torreira already has more tactical discipline and better positional play than Xhaka. Assuming Torreira becomes a key player in the team, the Uruguay international could offer a decade of good service to the club.

Arsenal also spent £7 million on Lorient midfielder Guendouzi, which is an unusual fee for an unproven teenager. Guendouzi has great potential as a deep-lying playmaker but he needs to cut some basic errors out of his game. Right now, he’s simply too casual to start in the Premier League. Expect Guendouzi to get some playing time in the League Cup and the Europa League.

The main issue I have with Arsenal’s recruitment strategy is that only Torreira and possibly Leno will improve the starting XI. Lichtsteiner won’t take Bellerin’s spot while Sokratis is a weaker centerback than a fully fit Koscielny. Remember, the Gunners declined in the past few years because they made the mistake of signing a lot of average players instead of targeting top quality players like Liverpool under Klopp.

Aiming for a Top 4 finish

I don’t expect Arsenal to be a serious contender in the Premier League this year. They finished 12 points outside the Top 4 last season and it will take more than those 5 summer signings to bridge the gap. The title race should be a dead heat between Liverpool and Manchester City, which means that Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham will fight for the remaining Top 4 spots. Let’s compare the big clubs by position:

Goalkeepers: Arsenal (Leno, Cech, Ospina, Martinez); City (Ederson, Bravo, Grimshaw); United (De Gea, Romero, Pereira, Grant); Liverpool (Alisson, Karius, Mignolet); Tottenham (Lloris, Vorm, Gazzaniga); Chelsea (Kepa, Caballero, Green).

Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs have a better No. 1 than the Gunners. The Blues are in the same situation as Arsenal because they still don’t know how Kepa will adapt to the Premier League. Maybe Spurs should worry more than their London rivals for the goalkeeping position because Lloris can be error-prone like Cech while Vorm is past his prime.

Fullbacks: Arsenal (Bellerin, Lichtsteiner, Jenkinson, Monreal, Kolasinac); City (Walker, Danilo, Mendy, Delph, Zinchenko); United (Valencia, Darmian, Dalot, Young, Shaw); Liverpool (Gomez, Alexander-Arnold, Clyne, Robertson, Moreno); Tottenham (Trippier, Aurier, Walker-Peters, Rose, Davies); Chelsea (Azpilicueta, Zappacosta, Aina, Alonso, Palmieri).

The leftback position is definitely a liability for Arsenal. Only the Red Devils have worse options at leftback with Young and Shaw. At Liverpool, Klopp has managed to turn average fullbacks into good ones. City might lack a back-up for Mendy, but Guardiola’s tactical skills mean that midfielders like Delph and Zinchenko can deputize in that role. At rightback, Emery’s main task will be to improve Bellerin’s defensive awareness. The Spaniard’s career has stagnated since his inclusion in the 2016 PFA Team of the Year. Walker, Azpilicueta, Gomez, Valencia and even Trippier seem more solid defensively than Bellerin.

No natural leader in defense

Centerbacks: Arsenal (Koscielny, Mustafi, Sokratis, Holding, Mavropanos); City (Kompany, Laporte, Stones, Otamendi, Mangala, Sandler, Adarabioyo); United (Bailly, Lindelof, Jones, Smalling, Rojo, Tuanzebe); Liverpool (Van Dijk, Lovren, Matip, Klavan, Phillips); Tottenham (Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Sanchez, Foyth, Carter-Vickers); Chelsea (Rudiger, Christensen, Cahill, Luiz, Ampadu).

The Gunners will miss Koscielny for the first half of the season. That makes the Arsenal defense highly vulnerable because they have no natural leader. The situation is so bad that second-choice centerbacks at the other big clubs (Laporte, Smalling, Matip, Sanchez, Luiz) would look like an upgrade on Mustafi and Sokratis.

Midfielders: Arsenal (Torreira, Maitland-Niles, Willock, Xhaka, Guendouzi, Elneny, Ramsey, Ozil); City (Fernandinho, Gundogan, De Bruyne, David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Foden); United (Herrera, Matic, Fellaini, McTominay, Pogba, Fred, Mata, Pereira); Liverpool (Henderson, Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Milner, Keita, Lallana, Grujic, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jones, Chirivella); Tottenham (Dier, Winks, Wanyama, Sissoko, Dembele, Eriksen, Onomah); Chelsea (Kante, Jorginho, Loftus-Cheek, Drinkwater, Fabregas, Barkley, Bakayoko, Kovacic).

The Gunners finally have every type of midfielder in their squad after signing Torreira this summer: a ballwinner (Torreira), a box-to-box player (Ramsey), a No. 10 (Ozil), deep-lying playmakers (Xhaka, Guendouzi) and utility midfielders (Elneny, Maitland-Niles, Willock). The main issue here is the quality. After losing Cazorla, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the past 12 months, the Gunners don’t have the same level of creativity in midfield as Manchester City. And they also lack the work-rate and mobility in midfield to implement Emery’s pressing game and emulate Liverpool and Tottenham.

1-2 punch

Wingers & attacking midfielders: Arsenal (Welbeck, Iwobi, Campbell, Nelson, Mkhitaryan); City (Sane, Diaz, Arzani, Sterling, Mahrez); United (Sanchez, Martial, Lingard, Mata); Liverpool (Mane, Origi, Salah, Shaqiri); Tottenham (Son, Nkoudou, Lamela, Alli, Moura); Chelsea (Hazard, Hudson-Odoi, Willian, Pedro, Moses, Musonda Jr).

In terms of end product, Arsenal wingers and attacking midfielders are far behind the other big clubs. Don’t expect Mkhitaryan, Iwobi and Welbeck to have as many goals and assists as Sane, Sterling and Mahrez at City, or Mane and Salah at Liverpool, or even Alli and Son at Tottenham. Nelson’s presence in the Arsenal squad is a huge bonus for a team that has been missing a natural dribbler since Oxlade-Chamberlain’s departure. But Nelson is only 18, so his performances will lack consistency.

Strikers: Arsenal (Aubameyang, Lacazette, Nketiah); City (Aguero, Jesus); United (Lukaku, Rashford, Wilson); Liverpool (Firmino, Sturridge, Solanke, Brewster); Tottenham (Kane, Janssen, Llorente); Chelsea (Morata, Giroud).

With Aubameyang and Lacazette, the Gunners may have the most fantastic 1-2 punch in the Premier League behind Manchester City. Rashford and Sturridge don’t have the same level of consistency as Lacazette while Janssen and Llorente are poor back-up options if Kane gets injured. Giroud is a decent Plan B at Chelsea but it’s doubtful that Morata could reach the heights of Lukaku or Aguero.

Finishing in the Top 4 would be considered a successful season for Emery while placing 5th or 6th would look normal for a season of transition. But finishing beyond 6th place would be a failure for Emery because Arsenal would then fall into the category of Tier 3 clubs like Everton and West Ham (Tier 1 clubs challenge for the title, Tier 2 clubs chase a Top 4 finish, and Tier 3 clubs only chase a Europa League spot).

Kroenke’s buyout

The start to the season has been somehow overshadowed by Kroenke’s buyout of Usmanov’s shares. Making the announcement this week is smart timing from the owner’s perspective because the fans are unlikely to sabotage Emery’s debut by staging protests against Kroenke.

Most fans obviously fear that Kroenke could take out dividends or even load debt onto Arsenal, which would be ethically unacceptable at a time when the club is still making annual interest payments for the construction of the Emirates stadium. Kroenke could have appeased those fears by purchasing Usmanov’s shares with his own cash instead of financing the buyout with a loan from Deutsche Bank.

Another worry for the fans is Kroenke’s poor track record with his American clubs. As an owner, Kroenke seems more interested in financial results than in success on the pitch. Henry at Liverpool and Levy at Tottenham have shown more ambition without leading their respective clubs to bankruptcy.

Let’s have a quick look at Kroenke’s American clubs. In the NFL, Kroenke has been the majority owner of the Los Angeles Rams since 2010. The Rams have only made one playoff appearance in the past 8 years: they lost their wild-card playoff against the Falcons in 2017. Kroenke’s wife currently owns the Denver Nuggets, who missed out on the NBA playoffs in the past 5 seasons. In the NHL, the Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 2001 just a year after Kroenke purchased the franchise. But in the 8 past seasons, the Avalanche missed out on the playoffs 6 times and lost in the first round of the playoffs twice. Kroenke also purchased the Colorado Rapids in 2004. The Rapids won the MLS Cup in 2010 but failed to qualify for the playoffs in 4 of the past 7 years. Their best result during that period was a loss in the 2016 Western Conference final.

Those are average or mediocre results if you consider the context: it is much more difficult to finish in the Top 4 of the Premier League than to make the playoffs in American sports. In the NFL, 12 teams out of 32 make the playoffs. The bar is lower in the NHL with 16 teams out of 31 reaching the playoffs. Also more than half of the teams make the playoffs in the NBA (16 teams out of 30) and the MLS (12 teams out of 22).

If the Gunners keep missing out on the Champions League in the next few years, then the fans could try to force Kroenke out. They got the template from their North London rivals: Sugar had to sell his stake in Tottenham Hotspur after repeated protests from the fans.

 

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