And we’re back (again)!
We’ve spent the summer relaxing on beaches sipping grapefruit mimosa’s and speculating on Stan Kroenke’s hair-maker. All that alone time has left us loose and looking forward to the season ahead.
All this week, we’ll be bringing you our Regular Columnist’s Season Previews including our ideal XI’s, star and breakout players, thoughts on transfer dealings, and season predictions (Check out Luke and Simon’s from earlier this week).
Without further adieu, here’s our final preview – #ABW Regular Columnist Drew Thompson’s (@AFCBvB1410) look at the season ahead.
With the 2016-17 Premier League campaign just a week away, expectations surrounding the season are perhaps higher than ever in recent memory. On the back of a second-place finish behind the Cinderella story that was Leicester City, Arsène Wenger’s troops are primed for a fresh crack at a run to the top of the English footballing ladder.
Though on paper a credible finish to the season last term, you’d be hard-pressed to find many supporters who didn’t transition into a Euro-filled summer with some pep in their step. The 2015-16 edition gave us the joy of yet another Tottenham collapse in the final weeks, coupled with the Manchester duo finishing below us as well – but the truth remains that most of us, myself included, feel that last season was there for the taking. Full credit must be given to the Foxes for their charge into the EPL history books, but in a season where every one of our major rivals finished below us, we still failed to finally bring the title back to North London. It was, in a phrase, “not good enough.”
That said, given the height of anticipation surrounding the club in all aspects from transfer activity to the possible starting XI and what players hopefully stand tallest amongst the very best the Premier League has to offer, let’s take a bit of a closer look at what we can potentially expect from our beloved Gunners this season.
Naturally this is all subject to change, given that we still may have more business to be completed before the transfer window slams shut, but my preferred XI utilizing our current options (excluding long-term absentee Mertesacker) would be as follows;
Čech; Monreal, Koscielny, Chambers, Bellerín; Coquelin, Xhaka; Özil; Sanchez, Iwobi, Giroud
The back four once spoke for itself, even with Mertesacker injured, but now the question of what to do in the wake of Gabriel being on the treatment table comes into play. For me, neither Chambers or Holding are ready to be a routine starter for the club (it’s bad enough it’s likely to be our pairing against Liverpool on Sunday) and are in need of loans to guarantee they progress in their development, but now it is absolutely vital that we bring in a center back before the window closes. Until then, for me it has to be Chambers next to Koscielny.
In regards to the midfield, despite what many say about Xhaka, he is not an out-an-out holding player, but shines in a box-to-box role. With Francis Coquelin being the only player we have that can effectively play that holding role (some say he’s overrated, I say they’re insane), he provides the perfect shield for the back four that would allow Xhaka to get further forward and control tempo in the midfield. Free of added defensive responsibilities, Xhaka could shine in that role and for me it’s the key to get the best out of him as a player and from a tactical standpoint. With Mesut Özil at the top of the midfield triangle, it allows our supply line to our main source of creativity to be shorter and more easily supported.
Having slotted into a deep-10 role during his time at Werder Bremen and Real Madrid, Özil would be familiar with this type of deployment, rather than being further up the pitch from a positional standpoint when the build-up begins. Being in constant tactical contact with Xhaka, who excels at distributing to the centers of creativity, Özil would then have the luxury of picking his head up and looking for the forward runs of Sanchez or Iwobi (or whoever is on the right-hand side at the time). He could also choose to play through the middle via Giroud, who’s hold up play and vision on the ball is amongst the best in the Prem.
For me, a tactically flexible 4-3-3 offers better balance, more attacking options, and leaves us far less open to being hit on the counter than when we deploy in our traditional 4-2-3-1. As long as we aren’t rigid and constantly relying on our routine approach, we shouldn’t struggle in causing the opposition a few massive headaches.
Players to Watch
Key Player: Mesut Özil
Our resident puppet master and the greatest customer service representative the world has yet seen, Özil, for me, will yet again be the key to the way we operate in the final third. A fit Santi Cazorla (or even Xhaka, depending on how he’s utilized) remains the center of tempo control when we’re in possession, but Özil’s intelligence, playmaking abilities, and delivery on set-pieces are all absolutely vital to the side. While I do agree he could maybe add one or two more goals from the run of play (he definitely scuffed far too many chances last season), as long as he remains healthy for the duration of the campaign, there’s no reason to expect anything less than him topping the assists chart come the end of the season, which truthfully is more than enough to help our hopeful surge to the top.
Breakout Player: Alex Iwobi
Some say he broke out last season, but for me personally, he’s just beginning. Able to play on either flank or even behind the center forward, Iwobi brings the tactical flexibility preferred in a modern footballer, something that Wenger loves in a player. Young, hungry, energetic, technically sound and possessing an eye for goal as well as the odd-creative spark, Iwobi has never had a better chance (well, other than last season of course) to cement his place in our XI. With Walcott still having it all to prove, and the same being said about Ox, as well as the unfortunate reality that Campbell often times no longer exists as a human being (let alone a player) during the season, the Nigerian international is in a prime position to capitalize on the question mark that is the right side of our attack. If a player is good enough, they need to play, despite their age – Iwobi is certainly good enough, he just needs the continued faith already placed in his ability last season to be shown yet again.
Summer Transfer Dealings
Tomáš Rosický (released): I loved him since his days at Borussia Dortmund (I’m sure most of you by now have figured out that they are indeed the second club I give my time to), and it pained me that, despite injury, didn’t seem as appreciated as he should have been – all the best to you, Tomáš.
Mathieu Flamini (released): While I may not have been a massive fan of the Flaminator in his second stint at the club, he did provide memorable moments and experience that many of our central midfield options could have tapped into. Surely though it was time to move on.
Wellington Silva (to Fluminense/undisclosed): I couldn’t be happier for him and his move to Campeonato Brasileiro outfit Fluminense – after never getting a chance with us, and still just 23-years old, he has every opportunity to resurrect his career.
Isaac Hayden (to Newcastle/undisclosed): The right move at the right time for him. Truthfully it was hard to see him ever establishing him at the club, and now in the Championship with Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle, it gives him a better platform to potentially progress as a player.
Mikel Arteta (retired): I probably should avoid mentioning Senor Arteta and his reunification with buddy Pep Guardiola at City in a coaching capacity, but he was loyal as a player and enjoyed his time here…so I’ll go easy on him…for now.
Wojciech Szczęsny (on loan to AS Roma): Mr. smoke in the shower, dressing room, or wherever else he deems acceptable, has gone back on loan to Serie A side AS Roma for another season-long rental agreement – probably for the best for all parties involved.
Jon Toral & Dan Crowley (on loan to Granada & Oxford United): Two young players with potential, both are at the point in their development where first-team minutes are crucial. It’s still unclear if either has a future at the Emirates, but for the moment they’ll be getting football and that’s what is required.
Granit Xhaka (from Borussia Mönchengladbach/£34m): Arsenal’s third most expensive signing in its history, the Swiss international midfielder comes to the club with heavy expectations. Having seen plenty of him over the last few seasons, I have heavy reservations in regards to certain aspects of his game, but he does have quite a few positives to be excited about, and his age (23) suggests he will in fact improve substantially.
Takuma Asano (from Sanfrecce Hiroshima/£3.3m): No one can say they know a ton about the Japanese international center forward, but if Arsène’s words are anything to go by, it’s a low-risk move for a player who will likely be no higher than fourth in the pecking order – surely a deal with the future in mind.
Rob Holding (from Bolton Wanderers/£3m): Another deal for the future, Holding comes to the club from the Championship, a league with a proven track record of developing underrated talent. Though at first viewed as cover and a potential long term replacement, his performances in pre-season have made Le Prof stand up and take notice. He could be in-line for more time than first thought, if the squad is rotated frequently.
The Potential Needs
Center Forward: Though inconsistent and wasteful in front of goal at times, Olivier Giroud has done well for the club…the question is, should we be trying to improve on him? He’s 29-years old now, and with Danny Welbeck set to miss the vast majority of the campaign, any serious injury to Giroud could see us having to suffer through Theo Walcott, Alexis Sánchez, the unproven Chuba Akpom or (insert negative opinion here) Yaya Sanogo through the middle. Links to Alexandre Lacazette are virtually everywhere, but the rumors aside, if we can bring in a striker who is better than Giroud, we certainly should.
Center Back: Let’s just get down to brass tax – Per Mertesacker is quickly regressing, Gabriel comes with too many questions and we certainly haven’t seen the best from him, and Calum Chambers and Rob Holding both, realistically, need a Jack Wilshere-type loan to the Championship to guarantee they are getting first-team minutes regularly. In short, we need a center back. We are a “Laurent Koscielny set to miss six months though injury” headline away from hiding under a rock for the remainder of the season, complete with refusal to surface for sunlight.
Right Wing: Walcott is not good enough, many have envisioned Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s future to be through the middle, Alex Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide probably need loan-spells to develop (though Iwobi could very well be Sanchez’s understudy on the left) and apparently Joel Campbell barely exists once the season starts. We’ve been linked this summer with interest in Henrik Mkhitaryan, Julian Draxler, Mario Götze, Riyad Mahrez and a few others. While I cannot see us spending on both a center forward and a right winger, if we do move for the latter of the two, it could be a serious upgrade on an attack that relies too heavily on Giroud and Sanchez for goals.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
This will be, undoubtedly, the most difficult Premier League season to date. With City chomping at the bit to roll the league under Pep’s stewardship, a likely revitalization of Chelsea with Antonio Conte at the helm, an improved Jürgen Klopp-led Liverpool, and the likes of United, Spurs and a handful of other clubs making huge strides, top to bottom, this will be a dog fight from match-day one till the final whistle is blown come May.
Truthfully, I cannot see us winning the league, as I genuinely think that is reserved for City as long as Pep gets them firing on all cylinders within the first month or two of the season. There are too many sides capable of causing upsets on any given day now, and with the competition for the European places gearing up to be an incredibly tight contest, I think we can yet again finish top four, but not end our league trophy drought. To go on record, I’d say we finish a respectable third (given the current squad), but further key additions could easily sway my opinion to come under further review.
Until next time, COYG.
Drew is one of our #ABW Regular Columnists and can be found on Twitter as@AFCBvB1410. When not writing for us, he also writes for Outside of the Boot and he’s a regular on the Football Hipsters Podcast.
Check out our latest Radio show from the summer right here and don’t forget that the Pod is back this Thursday.: