For those new to the Premier League, there was a time that Arsenal did not finish in third or fourth (where they’ve finished the last five seasons). Yes, it’s been seven seasons since the Invincibles went unbeaten through a whole Premiership season, a feat that looks even more remarkable after Chelsea won the league with six losses in 2009-2010.
Arsene Wenger always puts one of the most attractive teams in the world on the field, and – particularly recently – has been able to do it without the budget that Chelsea, Manchester United, and now Manchester City have. Cesc Fabregas has emerged as one of the most valuable players in the Premiership, and Andrei Arshavin might not be that far behind.
But, at the end of the day, there were 11 points between the Gunners and Chelsea, just as there were 18 points separating Arsenal and champions Manchester United the year before. Three years ago, when Fabregas was just emerging as a star and the team was extremely healthy, the gap was only four points, and that’s the model Wenger will be looking to follow to bring his team back to the promised land. They certainly have a shot, but I think they’ll be just short of the top two:
2009-10 standing: 3rd
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Gaffer: Arsene Wenger (15th season)
Best new signing: Marouane Chamakh – Full disclosure: if this were another team signing Chamakh, I’d probably be very skeptical. A Moroccan who scored just 10 goals in the French league last season (for Bordeaux) despite not missing any time due to injury? Sounds like a decent pickup for a Wigan or a Stoke, but for Arsenal? But as I don’t have to tell you, Wenger’s eye for talent goes beyond keen to virtually impeccable. As pretty much the only player Wenger brought in, Chamakh has some pressure on him, but I’m done doubting Wenger, at least for this lifetime.
Biggest loss: William Gallas – He is getting up in age and struggled at times last season, but the real question is who does Wenger replace Gallas with? It will likely be either Lorient import Laurent Koscielny or Johan Djourou, neither of whom would likely come into the conversation of best center backs in the world. Arsenal struggled at times against direct teams that pumped balls into their penalty box, and if you’ve been paying attention to these previews, there are plenty of those in the Premier League these days.
Key player: Cesc Fabregas – There are others that Wenger will need to step up (yes, you Robin van Persie), but everything for Arsenal goes through Fabregas, which is why – in my mind, at least – there was no way they were going to sell him this summer. Look at the numbers: in 27 league games, he not only posted 15 goals, but added 13 assists with van Persie out for most of the campaign. Fabregas will probably have to shoulder the load this season, but if he plays anything like he did last season, he should be able to handle it.
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Random stat: While Arsenal has a reputation – and deservedly so – for being above the fray when it comes to destructive play and being overly defensive (the over/under is about 15 for number of times Wenger says to the press, “There was only one team that came to play football today, and that makes it difficult to play.”). But Wenger did start Alex Song 26 times and allowed him to rack up 10 yellow cards, double the number any of his teammates received (Fabregas had 5).
You never like to go into a season with questions in the back, and that’s where Arsenal finds itself, with the aforementioned center back situation, and the issue at goalkeeper. Manuel Almunia is currently the starter, but the Gunners are openly shopping for a new keeper, which always does wonders to the confidence of the current guy in net. It’s possible they may get someone in the next couple of weeks, but it’s also possible that they won’t.
You have to worry a little about Fabregas’ mindset. While it seems by now he’s resigned himself to playing this season in London, if his heart is in Barcelona, that can’t be good for a team that needs him to be at the top of his game. There’s always the health question, as well, when it comes to guys like van Persie – who was extremely productive when he was on the field. There aren’t many English players on the senior roster, which doesn’t bode well for the new rules the FA is implementing.
As they showed last year on their good days, they have the attacking talent to really worry anyone. A guy to watch may be Theo Walcott, who has looked very impressive in the preseason. Yes, we’ve seen flashes out of him before, but when you consider he only started 12 league games (scoring 3 goals) last season and the fact that he’s now 21 and a little more mature, you have to figure he’ll be much more productive this season.
Despite injuries and problems in the back, Arsenal was still in the title race until late in the season, and there’s no reason why they won’t be in the mix again as we head toward March and April.
It really looks like more of the same for Arsenal, doesn’t it? The Gunners are very good, will have days when they pass people to death, and will have days when they pass themselves to death. They will have trouble with direct teams, and then Wenger will complain to the press about it. It’s all been pretty predictable for Arsenal over the last couple of seasons.
One thing people tend to forget, though, is that Arsenal was right there with Chelsea and Manchester United for most of last season, and were hurt by not only van Persie’ injury, but maybe more so by Fabregas’, one that came at the worst possible time for the Gunners. Walcott should be better, they’ll score plenty of spectacular goals, but I think that – as they have in the last five campaigns – Arsenal will come up just short of the top two.