By Tim Charlesworth
As we head deep into the interlull with the transfer window closed, it finally feels like the football season is ready to start. The first three games had a curious ‘pre-season’ feel to them, with summer weather, lots of teams missing players following the Euros and everyone looking a little ‘under-cooked’. Unfortunately we will start the ‘real season’ five points behind our main rivals, but now at least the shape of our squad looks a little clearer, and this seems like the right point to review its strengths and weaknesses:
Goalkeeper: We can expect another season of Cech with Ospina as the rotation option, and possible competition. Ospina will presumably play the cup matches, but it will be interesting to see whether this includes Champions League games. This appeared to be the arrangement last season until Ospina made a horrible error in Champions League Game 2, dropping an Olympiacos corner over the line in a 3-2 home defeat.
Centre-Halves: Overall, the centre back department looks strong, certainly from the point of view of strength in depth, and possibly also in terms of quality. My assumption is that Koscielny will play most games with either Gabriel or Mustafi. Holding looks like a strong fourth choice and Mertesacker will return in the second half of the season at an unknown point in the pecking order.
Koscielny looks world class and has done for a few seasons now. He is about to turn 31, which is mature, but not too old for a centre half. His output may start to decline in the coming few seasons, but barring injury, I still expect a lot from him this season. Gabriel and Mustafi still have to prove their ability to turn in consistent performances. There is a minor concern that, without the BFG, we lack aerial presence at centre back. Koscielny, Mustafi, Gabriel and Holding are all 6’0 or 6’1. They are all good headers of the ball, but not aerially dominant, and may find it hard against big centre backs at set-pieces, or powerful strikers like Carroll, Lukaku and Ibrahimovic.
Right Back: At right back, Bellerin has had an unconvincing start to the season, but there is every reason to expect another top quality season from this talented young player. The backup and rotation options at right back are less clear. Jenkinson and Debuchy remain at the club, but neither looked good last season – Jenkinson playing 20 league games for WHU before getting his injujry. Holding and Mustafi can both play the position, but have never done so for Arsenal, so it will be interesting to see how Wenger plays this one.
Left back: Monreal had a summer off, but still managed to look underprepared for the new season. He has done well for us without ever setting the world alight and will turn 31 this season. Gibbs will provide the competition and I have a sneaky suspicion that he might win back the starting berth at some point this season. Gibbs is a talented player who now brings more maturity to the table. He has always been impressive going forward and now age and experience may bring him the defensive solidity that he still needs to prove. There is a feeling that this is a make or break season for him. If he fails to play regularly this season, I suspect that both parties will reluctantly part ways.
Central midfield: This is an intriguing area. For the sake of this discussion, I will assume that two defensive midfielders are played. There is some flexibility here, with sometimes a defensive midfielder paired with a box-to-box player, and sometimes more of a ‘double pivot’ with two midfielders alternating responsibility for protecting the back four.
This is the area of the pitch that really let us down last season, and has seen significant reinforcement with the arrivals of Xhaka and Elneny. After a good start to last year, Coquelin and Cazorla picked up injuries in November and neither recovered before the end of the season (Coquelin came back into the team, but didn’t look right physically). We played the crucial part of the season with Flamini and Ramsey filling these roles, and paid the price.
Overall, this appears to be an area of strength with Coquelin, Xhaka, Elneny and Cazorla providing the main options (Ramsey and The Ox are also possible). Instinctively it feels like we haven’t enjoyed such riches in this area since the halcyon days of Vieira and Petit, followed by the invincible line-up of Vieira and Gilberto with Edu and Parlour in the wings. Before we get too carried away however, I would sound a few notes of caution:
- None of these players has a proven ability to play a whole Premiership season in this position – Coquelin and Cazorla played the second half of 2014/15 here and then the first half of 15/16 before injury intervened for both. Xhaka is obviously new to the league and Elneny did well in the second half of last season, but still needs to do more to fully convince me.
- Cazorla is aging (32 in December) and needs the right partner to cover for a lack of aerial ability.
- Coquelin still looks like he hasn’t 100% recovered from his knee injury last November.
- Above all, this area of the pitch is about partnerships and Cazorla-Coquelin is the only partnership with any track record; I am not convinced that the romantically attractive Cazorla-Xhaka has enough defensive grit; Elneny-Coquelin looked horrible together against Liverpool and lack creativity; Elneny-Xhaka is short on Premiership experience.
- My feeling is that Coquelin and Elneny have the greater defensive ability and Xhaka and Cazorla are more creative, but we are still getting to know Elneny and Xhaka in particular, so this view might change.
Wide midfielders/wingers: The main options here are: Walcott, Ramsey, The Ox, Sanchez, Iwobi with possibly Perez and Reine-Adelaide. Wenger often likes to play one player who is more of a ‘forward’ (Walcott, Sanchez etc.) and one who is more of a midfielder (Ramsey, The Ox etc.).
There is a stunning array of talent here, but also a few players who need to prove that they can deliver on a regular basis. It seems that Walcott will focus on this position this season, and Wenger may not give him another season if he doesn’t make a success of it. The Ox is younger and may have more chances in the locker, but the failure of this sumptuously talented young man to deliver on a regular basis is a never ending frustration.
Iwobi was fabulous last season and it might be unfair to expect more this season, but I hope he surprises us again. Sanchez looked better last season on the right than the left. I get the feeling that Wenger wants to give Walcott a chance on the right and this might have implications for Sanchez as discussed below.
Number 10: This position is a problem that every team in the world would like to have. Ozil is a world class player who can literally take your breath away with his vision and imagination. He is not replaceable, but we will play games without him due to injury and rotation.
It’s not clear who will act as Ozil’s primary back-up. In the first two games of the season, Ramsey and then Cazorla played at no 10. Iwobi played no 10 a few times last season and impressed everybody, but against Liverpool he was on the left and then injured for the Leicester game.
I still expect to see Iwobi play in this position, but Wenger obviously sees Ramsey as an option here too. This makes sense, as Ramsey clearly demonstrated last season that he is too attack minded to play as one of the sitting midfielders. My bet is that Ramsey will be mostly a no 10 or wide midfielder this year. The Ox and Sanchez can also play 10.
Number 9: The striker position looks like our biggest weakness. It is not clear whether Sanchez is temporary cover in this position or Wenger is making a serious attempt to establish him here. It seems to me that Wenger could have selected Giroud to play against Watford, and it was significant that he didn’t do so. Wenger has serious form in converting players to centre forward (Henry and RVP being the most notable examples). It seems like he has conceded defeat with project-Walcott, is project-Sanchez next?
Sanchez is the kind of ‘fighting centre forward’ that Wenger seems to admire. The Sanchez-Ozil dynamic looked interesting against Watford and I think Wenger might like to see that again. Sanchez is a bit small for a traditional 9, but this size can create problems for defenders. Against Watford, Amrabat found Sanchez’s head inconveniently located near his arm as he ran back into the penalty area. The result was that he caught Sanchez around the head with the crook of his arm, flattening him and conceding a penalty.
Sanchez is 5”5”, light on his feet, quick, aggressive and unpredictable. If you are a big centre half, this is a recipe for accident. If you try to mark him tight, you are almost inevitably going to knock him over at some point in a dangerous position, and then you are in the hands of how the referee ‘sees it’. If you don’t’ mark him tight, you give him the opportunity to receive the ball at his feet, and from there he can be devastating.
In the first three games, Sanchez has, at times, looked a little bit like a ‘false 9’, dropping deep for the ball. I don’t see this as a great problem for a team like Arsenal. The false 9 line-up can be very difficult to defend when you have lots of players making late runs, and with Walcott, The Ox and Ramsey in the team, this is exactly what we are likely to produce. It looks to me like Ozil is also making more effort to make runs into goalscoring positions this season. The run and header to score the third goal against Watford looked particularly out of character.
Giroud is the other main option in this position. I know opinions are divided, but I like Giroud. He is hard working and contributes well to the team. He is not a world beater, but I thought he had a good season last year. Unfortunately he lost form in the crucial early months of 2016, but I think this was mostly the result of being overplayed. As Wenger lost faith in Walcott, Giroud played 15 consecutive games through December, January and February, averaging 4.9 days between games. I expect Giroud to get more rest and better retain his form this year.
I don’t expect too much from Perez this season. Strikers are rarely an instant hit in the Premiership, and he may play more as a wide player or bench option in the first half of the season. In the second half of the season he may have to compete with a returning Welbeck. I don’t foresee a lot of action for Akpom or Sanogo as striking options, but injuries could change this.
Overall, this looks like a good squad. I thought we had plenty of depth last season, but I turned out to be wrong. This squad has even more depth than last year’s, and doesn’t have any obvious ‘single points of failure’ like Coquelin in last year’s squad. Of course, injuries and losses of form can quickly change the outlook, and we don’t know how these will affect us. After the interlull we will play 7 games in 22 days (averaging a game every 3.1 days) and this will be a good test of the whole squad. My main concerns are:
- Ozil – can he avoid injury and lead the team to glory?
- Can we find a good, lasting partnership in central defence?
- Will we be defensively strong enough in the air?
- Can we find a good partnership in central midfield
- Can our ‘jury out’ players (Walcott, The Ox, Gabriel, Coquelin, Ramsey) prove their worth?
- Can we find enough quality at no 9?
- We need our new signings to make a contribution. How quickly can Mustafi and Xhaka adapt? We should not expect too much from Perez
We look like we can cover injuries in most positions. Bellerin may be the greatest risk here, but perhaps Holding and Mustafi are stronger than I think in the right back slot. Ozil is a magician and totally irreplaceable, but this is the price you must pay for having one of the best players in the world.
I like the look of this squad more than any other in recent years. If it can steer clear of too many injuries, I think it had a good chance.
If you liked this article, you might enjoy Tim’s book “It’s Happened Again”, which is now available on Amazon (print and Kindle versions). Read a sample chapter at www.itshappenedagain.com
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