With the kickoff of the 2010-11 Premier League season rapidly approaching, our team-by-team essays are coming at a fast-and-furious pace. Our next stop is North London with Arsenal. Your Gunners breakdown comes from one of the Internet soccer-writing community's true hustlers -- Travis Clark. Be sure to check out his site or follow him on Twitter.
By Travis M. Clark
When writing up a preview of Arsenal, research is simple – dig up the last three or four season previews, add and subtract names where necessary, tweak a few key words and phrases, rinse, lather and repeat.
Perhaps the best way to sum things up is by channeling Led Zeppelin’s anthem "The Song Remains the Same' as everything facing article last year is hanging around in the Arsenal camp heading into the 2010-11 campaign.
If you’ve been residing under a rock and have no recollection of what can be best dubbed "Arsenal’s issues" here are the big three -- a lack of experience, defensive frailties, and massive goalkeeping questions.
Everyone who follows the English Premier League knows the youth policy adopted under Arsene Wenger. This year features more of the same, with only two new signings – Marouane Chamakh, a tall physical forward from Morocco, and Laurent Koscielny, who resembles a tall, lanky beanpole asked to mark EPL monsters like Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney. The fact that 18 he was plying his trade in France's Ligue 2 18 months ago is reason enough for concern.
This round of youth call-ups is exciting, in particular Emmanuel Frimpong and Jack Wilshere giving reasons for optimism. But as Arsenal fans have seen in the past, the lack of physicality that most 18-19 year olds possess are unable to mount a sustain title challenge. Wilshere is a name on the lips of thousands of England fans as one for the future, but it’s unclear what kind of role he’ll play for Arsenal’s first team.
Of course, if said youngsters are supported by the proper mix of veterans and tough-tackling midfielders, then it could be a recipe for success. Again, it’s yet to bear fruit in past campaigns, and even the most optimistic Gunner can’t overlook those dreaded questions at the back.
At the end of last season, Wenger elected to let William Gallas, Mikaël Silvestre and Sol Campbell walk. And it’s hard to question the logic – Gallas has absurd wage demands that see him remain without a club, Silvestre a step too slow, and Campbell electing to try his luck up in Newcastle. What Wenger saw in Silvestre instead of Phillippe Senderos is a question that will never be answered.
Remaining as first-choice centerbacks are just three players – the aforementioned Koscielney, who has enjoyed mixed results in preseason runouts, the oft-injured Johan Djourou, and Belgian Thomas Vermaelen. Healthy and Arsenal have never seemed to click, and if one of those three goes down, there’s going to be panic in North London.
But that panic doesn’t begin to approach the concerns of Gunners if Wenger doesn’t buy a goalkeeper. Lukasz Fabianski has put some kind of spell on the Frenchman, and could be Arsenal’s number one. And if you’ve seen any highlights of the Pole, all opponents need to do to unsettle the 'keeper is load up the box on set pieces and watch him come apart, flapping at crosses.
Another option is Manuel Almunia, fully culpable at times for mistakes but certainly Wenger’s best option -- with two youngsters in Vito Mannone and Wojciech Szczesny waiting in the wings, one who will likely be loaned out.
Without a new keeper -- or an astounding renaissance from either Almunia or Fabianski -- and a defensive signing or two, there’s plenty of reason to doubt Arsenal’s title credentials. Preseason isn’t much to read into, but after a 6-5 result against Legia Warsaw, alarm bells should be sounding in London.
Of course there’s a silver lining in it -- and it goes beyond Cesc Fabregas. Chamakh gives Arsenal a physical presence that Nicklas Bendtner can only dream of, Robin van Persie is a clinical striker and Samir Nasri appears ready to break out. The mercurial and enigmatic Andrei Arshavin brings a cutting edge, and Alexandre Song looks to build off a tremendous 2009-10 campaign.
It all hinges are Cesc, of course. Wenger has constructed his side around the Catalan, who moves and orchestrates the attack with ease and an aesthetic beauty that makes Arsenal fun to watch. Handed the captain’s armband, Fabregas was certainly unsettled by Barcelona’s advances, further dampened by a summer spent playing with 80 percent for Barca’s first team in South Africa.
However, there’s every reason to believe this could be Fabregas’ last season in an Arsenal jersey. Fresh off Spain’s World Cup win, he’ll be desperate to win a trophy and having acquired that taste with Spain, will probably have little patience to put up with another trophy-less campaign with the Gunners.
That being said, Fabregas has always seemed like the consummate professional, and despite the idle speculation and Barcelona’s angst, will once again be the driving force behind Arsenal’s hopes. Nasri has showed an ability to ably deputize in the Catalan’s absence, but it’s not far off to label Fabregas the heart and soul of Arsenal. Few in the Premier League, much less the world, can match his passing,
vision, and goal-scoring ability from the midfield, and his absence leaves a glaring hole in the first XI.
Even so, Wenger needs to make a move, and move quickly to secure the missing pieces. Teams can once again approach Arsenal by trying to kick them all over the field, but hopefully this season will come and go without an Arsenal player stretched off the pitch with a horrendous leg break. Whatever tricks Wenger has left, whoever he is scouting under the radar, he must bring in, or face another trophy-less campaign.
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