Welcome to Arsenal’s Premier League Season Preview. Tomorrow is the first game of the new season and Arsenal are live here in the States on NBCSP for the 7amkickoff. In case you’re not excited by the upcoming season, let me take the whip you’ve been using to beat the dead horses of Suarez and Gustavo and use it to instead whip you into a frenzy over the new season.
First, I will break down who the competitors are for the top four spots. Then I will give my analysis of Arsenal and hopes for players in the second section. And finally, we’ll save transfers for last and I will write that section in moon runes which can only be read by the waning crescent moon on September 1st.
Chelsea, City, United, Spurs
No matter what you think of the man personally, you have to admit that Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho is no fool. Inheriting a team which played a torrid schedule of world football last season (Petr Cech played 65 games for Chelsea and nearly 80 for club and country) and which struggled in the League and the cups owing to that schedule. Without all that distraction this year, Mourinho will make sure that Chelsea come out the gates strong.
He is often thought of as a defense-first style manager owing to his being the one who first said he would “park the bus” against Arsenal. But who wouldn’t want to park the bus when you have speedy counter attacking midfielders like Hazard, Mata, Oscar, de Bruyne, and new boy Andre Schurrle? Rumor has it that Jose is ready to hand Lukaku a starting berth in the center forward role, which means that he will basically have the exact same formula for the first Chelsea team he used to steamroll the League: conceding just 12 goals, losing just once, and gathering an incredible +79 GD on the way to a 95 point tally. For me, Chelsea are the favorites to win the League.
One of the things that I keep hearing people say has been overlooked but which actually hasn’t been overlooked is how Man City have quietly brought in several new faces at the start of the season and strengthened what was already a very strong squad. In case you were one of the poor souls who had overlooked that, you’re welcome. City spent £90m “quietly” to land Jovetic, Negredo, Fernandinho, and Jesus Navas. They also made a bit of a surprise move and landed Manuel Pellegrini, former Malaga manager, to head up their squad. Pellegrini is a highly regarded manager who spent one year at Real Madrid with the most expensive team ever assembled and… was sacked at the end of the season after failing to win any trophies owing as much to Barcelona’s dominance as to an embarrassing cup exit to 3rd division Alcorcon. In fact, Pellegrini has never won a major trophy. Still, City have, on paper, one of the strongest squads in the League: Kompany is my favorite center half, Zabaleta is underrated, Yaya Toure is one of the best midfielders in the world, and while Aguero is coming off a bad year you’d be somewhat foolish to think that will continue. They will be a strong team.
Manchester United’s appointment of David Moyes was a breath of stale air. In United, English football have a rock that they can tie off to and be secure in the knowledge that things never change. United will play some sort of 4-4-2, they will try to score goals from wide positions, they will whip in crosses, and they will score from corners. Praised for what he did with limited resources, Moyes managed to put together a competitive Everton side on a shoestring budget. But in all those years at Everton, Moyes only made one cup final appearance, and got Everton to Europe just once. I used to be a big Moyes supporter, clouded in my judgement because I really do like Everton, but Moyes has never proven himself and his record against top four clubs (he has won just 15 games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Man U and lost an incredible 59 times) speaks volumes. The thing you will hear people say is that “they are champions” and that’s true, under Sir Alex Ferguson’s guidance, Manchester United won yet another title with a team with a core group of 5 players over the age of 30. Players that Moyes cannot seem to replace, in a system which demands a certain style of football, playing in front of a fan base that is used to winning every trophy. The stage is set for a huge tragedy as Moyes falls on his knife in cold December and pizza face takes back over to rescue them from 5th place.
And then Tottenham. The upstarts who want to gain entrance to the top of the table and who have lavishly for years trying to get there but who will live or die by the left boot of just one man: Gareth Bale. Bale accounted for 47% of Tottenham’s points last season. He won them 11 games. And while they have been excellent at collecting parts (unlike Arsenal) they are not good on the whole: defensively, they are very weak despite so many oohing and ahhing over Vertonghen and Lloris. It really all just comes down to one player at Spurs, Bale. And I say that regardless of the fact that they landed one of the tubs I’ve been thumping for Arsenal to get for a year and a half in Ettienne Capoue. Without Bale, they will not finish in the top 6 much less the top four. With him, they are contenders for 4th.
Arsenal finished in fourth place last season by just one point on the back of a run of 10 matches unbeaten which started immediately after losing to main rivals for 4th place, Tottenham 2-1. Moreover, that run started after Arsene Wenger dropped the captain and starting center half Thomas Vermaelen and benched keeper Wojciech Szczesny.
But that narrative about Arsenal’s season propped up by a 10 match run is actually a bit thin. The changes had started in January, right after back to back losses to Man City and Chelsea. From that point on Arsenal played 16 matches, won 12, drew 3 and lost just one. Those 16 matches account for 42% of the season but 39 of Arsenal’s 73 points, 53% of the total haul. Moreover, Arsenal conceded just 11 goals in that run, regaining an early season defensive nous which saw Arsenal tout the second best defensive numbers in the League finishing with just 37 goals allowed. That run of 16 matches represented an incredible 29% of Arsenal’s total goals conceded.
Everyone hailed Arsenal’s pressing defense at the time but worryingly, by my count, in that run of 16 games Arsenal still allowed a normal number of gilt chances for the opposition. Instead of denying the opponents good shots what happened was that the opposition failed to convert. All season, I counted 53 gilt chances wasted by the opposition and 14 scored. 11 of those gilt chances were scored before the run of 16. That means, prior to the run of 16, Arsenal’s opposition scored 11/40 gilt chances and after the run they scored 3/27. To put this another way Arsenal allowed about 1.8 gilt chances per game before the run and 1.7 and the opposition scored one every two games before but just one every 5 after. In fact, in that final run of 10 matches, the opposition created 12 gilt chances and scored zero.
This probably matches well with your recollection of the final 10 games as most Arsenal supporters were on pins and needles as the defense let players like Lukaku have cracks at Arsenal’s goal from very good scoring positions. Most of that is down to the quality of the opponent but not all: Berbatov missed, van Persie put a wide open header softly into Szczesny’s arms, and Michu missed in the Swansea away match I attended.
Looking at this positively I have to hope that form follows from results. In other words, the good results of the final run emboldens the players. Giving them confidence in their abilities as defenders. In fact, that’s all we can ever ask of our players is that they get better every season, learn from their mistakes, and grow. Szczesny, in particular, made some great saves to deny some of those players and save Arsenal points. So, I will be looking for his growth over the coming season and whether or not Arsene can find the right mix in midfield which will help to shield the back four and limit the number of these gilt chances the opposition are sometimes gifted.
We know that finishing begets finishing is often the case with forwards and the Arsenal forwards were actually quite rapacious in the final four games, finishing 6 of 8 gilt attempts and hitting the woodwork twice (both Walcott). I have tipped Walcott to have a real break out season this year and I stand by that. He is one of only a very few “double-double” players, guys who can get you double figures in both assists and goals over the course of a season. I also think Giroud has room to grow in terms of both his ability to hold up the ball and in turning to attack the opposition when he does have the ball. He is often decried as a player who doesn’t score away goals because he got just one in League play (10 home) but in the other cup competitions he scored 5/6 goals away and against teams like Bayern as well. Giroud’s overall problem last season wasn’t home or away it was putting away gilt chances. By my count, in League play Giroud scored just 2 of 23 gilt chances and hit the woodwork 6 times. If gilt chances are the bread and butter of forwards, he’s getting plenty of butter, he just needs to get some more bread.
In midfield Arsenal have the return of Jack Wilshere. Arteta had a fantastic season, Ramsey was great, though needs to work on finishing, and Cazorla is the standout player of the club: our modern equivalent of Dennis Bergkamp, running the show from the number 10 spot. But it’s Jack who is a threat from so many different ways. His dribbling ability (58%) is outstanding considering where he operates in the Arsenal lineup and he’s another one of the Arsenal players who tackles in the high 80% range (85% and Ramsey is 90%). What I think we’d all like to see from Jack this season is how well he and Ramsey get along in midfield.
Ramsey is a pure runner and will make himself available for his teammates to make a pass to all day every day. He works very well with Arteta then who is always looking for a teammate to pass to. But Jack is more attack minded and somehow the two of them struggled on the pitch both in terms of shielding the defense and in terms of generating offense. This partnership needs to grow in order for Arsenal to have a successful League campaign.
Injuries too could play a major part, they have for every season since moving to the Emirates. Arsenal really need everyone fit and 100% ready to play this season. Though, to that end, we are off on the wrong foot with Arteta and others either out or “struggling to pass fit”.
Nope, Arsenal haven’t added anyone except for Sanogo. In fact we have been rejected by Higuain, rebuffed by Liverpool, and Luiz Gustavo slapped us in the face today choosing Wolfsburg over Arsenal. This is a problem with an Arsenal team who haven’t won anything for a while shopping on the top shelf and looking for bargains. Players simply do not want to join us unless they are of the Luis Suarez variety (read: desperately in need of a makeover). Moreover, we seem to be stuck on this idea of “valuation” and players meeting our “valuation”. The reality is that you as fans and Arsene Wenger as manager of this club need to throw away this old notion of “valuation”. Teams and players know that they have us over the barrel. Top players like Lewandowsi will not make the switch from a Borussia Dortmund side who were runners up in the Champions League to an Arsenal side that looks happy to win 4th place every year. At least they won’t do that without a significant incentive. I still feel confident Arsene Wenger is going to add two players. However, I grow less and less confident that they will be the top top quality that we always say we buy and more of the Gervinho quality. But hey, there’s uhhh, 16 days left in the transfer window who knows what gemtacular bargains Arsene might find?
I do believe that Arsenal have a strong core of young players who, with a few additions of actual quality, could push on and really give the Chelseas and Citys a run for the title. However, without some additions this thin squad will not only look threadbare but given the injury history of some of the main players might start to look like the decks of the Marie Celeste. But first match is tomorrow, so we go to war with the players we have, not the players we wish we had. And no matter what happens or how I feel about the transfer season, I really do love the Arsenal and will cheer on anyone in red and white tomorrow.
See you, then, at 7am. For the kickoff.