Thursday, 14 August 2014

Arsenal 2014-15 season preview

It feels slightly weird not to be going into the new season wondering at what point Arsenal might actually spend some money and strengthen the playing squad. For the first time in years, the Arsenal squad looks at least somewhat better than when the season ended.

What’s more, positive feeling in the stands tends to help on-pitch performances and there’s no doubt that Gooners are buoyant, with many even talking of winning the League. I’m just unsure we really should be.

The truth is that to get 79 points last season was a remarkable return from that squad, particularly considering the injury problems in the second half of the season. Sagna was nowhere near as good as he used to be, Kieran Gibbs was improved but nothing special, Flamini is superb at kicking people but less good at kicking the ball and Szczesny was better without ever being brilliant.

And that’s just defensively. Offensively, you have a choice on the left wing between Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (yet to consistently deliver in goals or assists), Lukas Podolski (yet to actually ever sprint in an Arsenal shirt) and Santi Cazorla (not really a left winger). Combine that with question marks over Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky getting no younger and a great deal of uncertainty about how Theo Walcott will recover from his ACL and the optimism around the Arsenal camp seems more misplaced. That’s without even mentioning Olivier Giroud’s pretty average finishing.

I’m not trying to destroy the whole squad here, I’m just making the point there seems to be an awful lot of pressure on Koscielny and Mertesacker staying fit once again, and an expectation that Aaron Ramsey will continue to excel and Mesut Özil will kick on from an impressive first season.

So, the question is can Alexis Sanchez, Calum Chambers and Mathieu Debuchy push Arsenal on to greater things? I think there’s no doubt that Sanchez is an excellent signing for Arsenal, especially with Walcott injured. Even when Theo returns, Sanchez could fill the troublesome left-wing spot or provide an alternative to Giroud up front. With Özil delivering through-balls for both Walcott and Sanchez, Arsenal could score many, many more goals, as they really need to.

When I was previewing last season I said there needed to be more goals from midfield to really challenge - while Aaron Ramsey provided them, Theo Walcott’s injuries meant that the team was still short of goals. 68 goals scored is not nearly enough to win the Premier League these days, especially considering the number of shots on goal conceded last season. I fully expect Sanchez to help address this and I’d be surprised to see Arsenal score fewer than 80 goals over the League campaign.

Of the other signings, Debuchy is a good player but it’s not exactly inspiring and I think very few people would pick him over either Cesar Azpilicueta or Pablo Zabaleta. Calum Chambers is a lot more exciting and was secured for an excellent price, particularly in the context of the English player premium and the way transfer prices seem to have spiked this summer. Even so, I’d be surprised to see him start more than 20 Premier League games unless Koscielny’s achilles injury is worse than feared. I don’t expect David Ospina to play in the League unless Szczesny is injured.

Given that there have only been two major departures (Sagna and Vermaelen), its certainly fair to say that this Arsenal squad looks better than last season. And I should add that I’m basing my predictions on no there being no further major additions to the Arsenal squad.

So why my lack of shared optimism? First, to get 79 points last season was the squad massively outperforming itself. Momentum is incredibly important in football and Arsenal definitely benefitted from having easy fixtures stacked together in the first half of the season. The fixture list doesn’t allow Arsenal to (easily) build up momentum in the same way in the season ahead. In other words, just to stand still the squad needed to get better.

Not only that, but Arsenal have a very poor record playing away after Champions League games: over the last four seasons, Arsenal have played away 19 times after Champions League games, winning just seven times and losing eight of those matches. Providing progress is secured against Besiktas, the Gunners will play away after seven of their first eight Champions League games: that’s a minimum of 20% of League fixtures in which you can expect Arsenal to only win one out of three games. That’s going to be a major stumbling block to winning the League.

Most importantly, I just think Manchester City and Chelsea have superior squads to Arsenal. Chelsea have filled the obvious defensive holes in their squad while at the same time signing Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa. I certainly think its plausible that Costa could struggle - I’m just unconvinced it matters. Chelsea were pretty good last season without a decent striker and have now added one of the best playmakers in the world. City only got better as last season went on and if Sergio Aguero can play over 30 games will probably win the League again.

There’s definitely some important caveats I should add here: an easy Champions League draw for Arsenal (assuming qualification) would diminish the importance of playing away repeatedly after playing in midweek. But equally, if you want more pessimism, Arsenal haven’t made a serious title challenge in a year after an international tournament since 1998-99.

So, realistic predictions: 3rd in the League, Champions League quarter-finals and maybe a domestic cup.

Keep the faith.

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