Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Arsenal 2013-14 season preview

That loud chewing sound you've been hearing for the past few days has been that of people eating their words. If you really thought Arsenal were going to go through the summer without spending any money, you've been reading far, far too many conspiracy theories. If you're in doubt, 9/11 wasn't a US plot.

Well, if nothing else, I've got the chaps from the NSA reading now.

Whilst it's something I've done in the past, it does seem pretty redundant to preview the season before the transfer window closes. Heck, even doing so now there's a lot which seems open to chance. Nonetheless, here's a few predictions:

- The Capital One Cup fourth round match will be followed by an eight day period in which we play Liverpool at home, followed by both Dortmund and United away. Assuming we play anybody half-decent, I'd fancy our COC run to end here, if West Brom haven't already ended it. In previous seasons, the domestic cups have been sacrificed for little reason. On this occasion, it looks pretty justified.

- The Champions League group looks difficult but manageable. I was a little puzzled to read that Arsenal had received an easy draw in previous seasons and so "deserved" to pick up the hardest draw possible from pots three and four.

As we know having won the group in the past and then faced AC Milan in the last 16, there's only minimal benefit to winning the group. So what the Champions League group stage is about is finishing in the top two of the group. And while some of the second seeds that have been in our group have been comparatively weak teams - Schalke, Marseille, Porto at that time - it still doesn't really explain our progress on its own.

What Arsenal have consistently done very well in Europe is beats teams from pots three and four. It's something Man United and Chelsea have struggled with - in recent seasons in which they've failed to progress from the group stage, their downfall has been struggles against teams from pot 3. Chelsea were knocked out last season because they blew a two-goal lead against Juve at home; Man United did the same thing against Basel (incidentally in a group also containing Otelul Galati) to not qualify.

But anyway, the idea that Arsenal have had it particularly easy in the group stage is just false. Two years ago when we drew Dortmund they were the German champions - it just so happened that we took four points off them. Despite them finishing bottom of the group, when the draw was made they were tipped up by many pundits as dark horses to win the entire thing.

All of this though does not do that much to work out whether Arsenal can get through the group. I tweeted earlier in the summer that I felt one of the few mistakes Arsenal had made in the transfer market this summer was letting Albiol move to Napoli - I suppose if he wasn't happy being a reserve at Madrid, he didn't want to be a reserve at Arsenal but he's a good player who we've supposedly long held an interest in.

I think it's clear this Napoli team isn't bad - they finished second in Serie A and have since added Higuain, Albiol and Reina, albeit for the loss of Edinson Cavani. In addition, Benitez has an excellent record in Europe. I think if Higuain scores enough goals they will qualify, although he does have a very poor record in the Champions League.

I actually think Dortmund could be the team in bigger trouble. Yes, they reached the final last year but they were also incredibly lucky to get through the quarter final against a fairly limited Malaga team, and their group stage performance whilst good, was over-rated due to Ajax being thought of as a much better team than they are, and some terrible tactics from Mancini. I could be made to look like a fool but I wouldn't be shocked if they didn't qualify. Despite Dortmund possessing four players in the positions where Arsenal are weakest - Lewandoswki, Hummels, Gundogan and Reus - the rest of their team is not special. Even accounting for focusing on the Champions League, their tally of just 66 points in the Bundesliga last season is dreadful. And while Jurgen Klopp is undoubtedly a very good manager, he's up against Rafa and Wenger who are in my opinion two of the five best coaches currently working in world football.

The trouble with calling the group is that Marseille look like whipping boys which will probably make things very close. I know Thauvin is thought of very highly, but throughout their team they don't look to have enough players to trouble the other three teams in the group. What this means is that ten points may well not be enough - like it normally is - to qualify. This will probably mean that we have to go to Naples on Matchday Six needing a result to qualify, but I'd expect us to do so. Anything beyond this is impossible to predict without seeing the draw for the knockout stage. But a favourable draw could take us a long way: with the strength of our first eleven (rather than a large squad), the need to produce three or four brilliant performances to win the Champions League looks a hell of a lot more likely than Arsenal playing well enough in the remaining League games to lift the trophy.

- Predicting how Arsenal will do in the Premier League is exceptionally difficult. I'd expect Cazorla, Giroud and Podolski to all be much better this season now they've had a season playing in the Premier League and playing with their team-mates. Flamini and Ozil are two terrific signings who any team in the League would like, and Flamini will not really need an adaptation period.

There's certainly question marks about many teams in the League - Chelsea barely finished above Arsenal last season and there's a lot of pressure on 32-year-old Samuel Eto'o to score a lot of goals if they're going to challenge for the League title. If I were a Chelsea fan, I'd be angry that a large part of the transfer budget was spent on Willian when other areas needed strengthening far more. I also struggle to see Man United winning the League: even if Van Persie stays fit, I don't think Moyes will play a style away from home that is attacking enough to win the League. (Incidentally, Everton buying James McCarthy for half of what they sold Fellaini for is brilliant business - McCarthy is the better footballer). United look thin in midfield, and an ageing Patrice Evra just has the rubbish Buttner to challenge him. I'm doubtful that Van Persie, Carrick and De Gea can win the League on their own again.

Despite a promising start, I've seen nothing to believe Liverpool are going to be doing more than challenging for the fourth Champions League place. Similarly, while Spurs will certainly improve, the bizarre transfer strategy of hoarding midfielders while picking Danny Rose and Kyle Walker at left-back looks like it cannot possibly end in anything other than Champions League disappointment yet again.

Manchester City are the team who I think will win the League. They have by far the best squad and have strengthened well in the summer. Assuming Nastasic doesn't suffer another major injury, I'd expect them to win the League.

All of this is a lengthy contextualisation of where Arsenal stand in relation to their rivals. If you were going to ask questions about this Arsenal team, it's whether they have enough strength in depth in terms of attacking players - particularly over the next two-three months while Podolski and Chamberlain are injured. The shift in tactics in the latter third of last season (and seen again against Spurs and to a lesser extent Fulham) of when necessary taking up a very solid shape that's difficult to break down was a welcome one and lends encouragement for the season ahead.

Much though we may have wanted to flog Nicklas Bendtner, he is a competent back-up to Giroud with plenty of Premier League experience (and a hilarious Instagram account). My biggest fear is an injury to Per Mertesacker, as we don't really have an 'organiser' like him to come in if he were unavailable. While the decline of Thomas Vermaelen has been grossly over-stated, I think it's fair to say that he and Koscielny do not form a cohesive partnership. It would also leave us quite possibly playing Sagna at centre back, and Jenkinson is nowhere near good enough at right-back to play regularly for a team that wants to challenge for the title.

With Ozil and Cazorla, I think Arsenal once again have the creativity to challenge for the title. Ozil is exactly the sort of signing I was talking about when I said it was clear that Arsenal were trying to sign players of a calibre who could allow them to challenge for the title once again. It's also an important tactical boon - at the point your team is challenging for the League, you need to get a decent return from the ten games against the other top six teams. Last season, Arsenal took nine points from these ten games. Assuming 86 points is the aim, we'd need to increase this to minimum 14-15 points. With Ozil, I think this is very possible. It also means that from a fan's perspective that even if we may win nothing, at least you get to enjoy a win over Chelsea (or whoever).

If Arsenal can keep the gap to the top to six points or less and then strengthen the squad with two or three more players, I think a title challenge is plausible. I would still expect us to finish just short, but a second-place finish would be an enormous improvement on the 4th place struggle of the last two years.

Keep the faith.

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