Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Arsenal season preview 2015-16

When I walked into the Emirates on Sunday, my only concern was that something had to give. For all Arsenal had enjoyed a successful pre-season and West Ham had struggled past the third-best team in Malta before being knocked out of the Europa League by Astra Giurgiu, I was concerned that at some point, Arsenal’s sensational record against bottom-half teams was going to take a hit.

After the draw with Hull on the 22nd of October, Arsenal dropped just two points against bottom half teams in the rest of the season, an unlucky 0-0 draw against Sunderland in a game of almost zero significance. It was in this light that I sort of saw Sunday’s result coming.

Arsenal weren’t great on Sunday but they still had 22 shots to West Ham’s eight. Even if you think that none of Arsenal’s shots were particularly threatening, the same can be said of West Ham. And yet the team went down 2-0.

That’s why it’s so hard to preview this season. In 2013-14, Arsenal finished seven points behind the champions, City; in 2014-15, although the gap to the champions was larger (12 points), I felt the team had markedly improved. But there’s still a nagging doubt in the back of my mind, that the team is going to drop quite a few more cheap points this season, just because that’s what normally happens to even very good teams. Combine that with a really poor away record against good teams (one win against the top nine) and it’s a little concerning.

Clearly, there’s large room for improvement in that away record, but the extent to which that’s based on realistic expectations, rather than hope and conjecture is limited. The only team in the top nine who Arsenal actually did win away to were in terrible form and missing a series of key players. Granted, I wouldn’t expect another defeat away to Swansea, but nonetheless, a serious improvement in this area where the team secures three extra wins seems unlikely.

And on top of this all, the fixture list isn’t exactly kind: Arsenal have a history of dropping a huge number of points following Champions League games, particularly when playing away. To this end, the lack of a qualifier is a boon, where four points were dropped last season. But nonetheless, although it’s not quite as bad as last season where five of the six group games were followed by away games, the three home League games following group games are against Man United, Everton and Spurs. That’s difficult to begin with, but it may well be exacerbated by the new seeding system meaning Arsenal play these games having just chased Barcelona around for 90 minutes in midweek.

All of this notwithstanding, there’s still room for optimism. While I expected a degree of regression against the bottom half teams, that was mainly because Arsenal’s 2014-15 League season can be seen in two distinct phases: the first third was dreadful, the second two thirds was almost flawless.

The regression against bottom half teams could come instead of results like dropped points against Leicester and Hull, rather than requiring even more poor results. As for the away record against good teams, a settled team with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil fit and playing was not the side seen playing away to Chelsea, Stoke, Liverpool or Southampton.

Add in Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin as a full-back partnership being a huge improvement upon Kieran Gibbs and Mathieu Debuchy, and there’s a lot to be optimistic about. I’ve voiced my doubts about the Petr Cech signing already but I’m still convinced he’s a very good player and has a lot which might help the team improve, notwithstanding Sunday’s horror show. A little more defensive depth ensuring players like Debuchy and Monreal don’t have to play centre back again is also no bad thing.

But my main concern remains Francis Coquelin. I think there’s two ways of viewing Coquelin as an attacking player: one, is that he simply lacks the attacking vision and prowess to play effective forward passes, both long and short, which stretch the opposition. You can point here to his long-standing failure to do this, both in an Arsenal shirt and when out on loan at Freiburg and played in a more attacking role.

The second way of viewing Coquelin is that he does have it in him, but was just inhibited in the second half of 2014-15 by trying to establish himself as the first-choice defensive midfielder.

I’m not really sure it matters for one very simple reason: the rest of the players in the team quite clearly don’t believe he has it in him. The reason the team has struggled attacking against defensive teams towards the end of last season, and against West Ham on Sunday (ignoring David Ospina’s appalling kicking) is that players like Santi Cazorla and Ozil keep dropping deeper into central midfield to get the ball off Coquelin, because they don’t think he can get it to them further up the pitch.

The knock-on effect is fewer options for them to then pass it on to further up the pitch, compounded by it being easier for the opposition to organise. To some extent, it doesn’t matter: Ozil and Cazorla are good enough that even from a weaker starting position, they can make attacks work.

But when picking Coquelin is questionable in how effective it is defensively, and definitely diminishes the attacking threat, it’s hard to see how that’s going to lead to Arsenal winning an incredibly competitive League, in which four teams harbour realistic aspirations of being champions.

If a new defensive midfielder comes in or Mikel Arteta regains his place, I reckon with a bit of luck Arsenal could win the League. Without that, I see a title as being highly unlikely. Despite the horror-show against Monaco last season, once again, I remain more optimistic about success in the Champions League, where teams are (generally) less likely to set up as defensively, and there may be more passing channels available to Ozil and Cazorla.

So, realistic predictions (these would have been bang on last season if David Ospina made half an effort to save Kondogbia’s shot):

League: 2nd
Champions League: Quarter finals
FA Cup: Semi-finals

Keep the faith.

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