Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Arsenal, a massive season ahead

The spotlight is on...
Arsene Wenger
This is Arsenal’s most important season, ever.

If that sounds like hyperbole, it really isn’t.

Without a trophy in eight years, Arsenal supporters are increasingly desperate for silverware. And with the rest of the top four – Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea – undergoing major changes, it’s reasonable to suppose this is Arsenal’s best chance to challenge for the title.

Logic dictates that this is a window of opportunity for Arsenal to build on their stability and steal a march on opponents that are in respective transition periods.

However, with the clock rapidly counting down to the season’s kick-off, this optimistic view is fading somewhat.

At the time of writing Arsenal were still to complete the signing of Luiz Gustavo meaning Arsenal’s only notable addition has been the capture of France Under-20 striker, Yaya Sanogo, on a free transfer from Auxerre.


Arsenal’s needs

I. Luiz Gustavo

Midfield anchor needed...
Luiz Gustavo
It seems, despite the talk of a new super-striker, Bayern Munich’s Luiz Gustavo will be Arsenal’s first major signing. If completed, the signing of the Brazilian anchorman would represent a quality addition and the filling of pressing a need.

Gustavo is just the defensive midfielder – with high tactical nous and supreme physical capabilities – Arsenal needs.

Arsenal’s need for this type of player is due to their style of play.

Arsenal rely greatly on their fullbacks on offence. Arsenal’s fullbacks routinely push up to provide width in the final third as the wide attacking players – be it Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott or Santi Cazorla – move infield, as is their preference.

Without an athletic anchorman to cover space, the result has been a major weakness in transition and the brutal exposure of Arsenal’s two centre-backs. Exhibit A: Michu’s brace for Swansea at the Emirates.

Exhibit B: Andreas Weimann’s equaliser for Aston Villa, also at the Emirates.

Mikel Arteta did a commendable job at the base of the midfield, but his lack of physicality and speed was exposed on occasion. Arteta, by trade, is a creative midfielder and isn’t naturally versed in the defensive aspects of the game.

This is where Gustavo – with his astute tactical positioning and covering, exhibited at the Confederations Cup with Brazil – comes in.

Last season Gustavo attempted 81 tackles in 26 appearances for Bayern, an impressive rate of a tackle every 17.4 minutes. He also managed 44 interceptions, one every 32 minutes. And, in keeping with Arsenal tradition, Gustavo is also excellent in possession boasting a pass completion rate of 89% last season.

This is one area of need, addressed or otherwise, that could well define Arsenal’s season.

II. A clinical finisher

Off to Napoli...
Gonzalo Higuain
It’s simplistic to say Arsenal haven’t recovered from losing Robin van Persie; any team would miss his goals. In the 2011/12 season Van Persie’s scored 30 of Arsenal’s 74 league goals. However, Arsenal haven’t had adequate contingencies for the Dutchman’s loss.

(I.e. when Henry left, Adebayor took over; when Adebayor left, van Persie took the baton.)

Olivier Giroud had a decent first season scoring 11 league goals in 24 starts. Podolski and Cazorla chipped in with 11 and 12 goals, and Walcott top scored with 14.

But, none of Arsenal’s strikers were the consistent, clinical force in front of goal required to reach the top. For example, Giroud had a shooting accuracy of 43%; he converted just 13% of his chances and put-away only 17% of his clear-cut chances.

The upshot: Arsenal only scored five goals in six games against fellow top four teams.

The Replacements: Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski Stats

It was no surprise, then, Arsenal were linked with a host of big-name forwards as soon as the transfer window opened.

However, the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Stevan Jovetic, Edinson Cavani and Roberto Soldado have since moved elsewhere while there’s little movement on Luis Suarez or Wayne Rooney.

Failure to sign a top-class striker before the window closes would represent a disappointment given the club’s very public declarations of vast transfer funds available to Arsene Wenger this season.

Prospects for the season

It’s difficult to effectively predict how Arsenal will fare this season because of the eternal unknowns when it comes to Wenger’s team.

On paper Arsenal have a manageable start to the 2012/13 campaign playing five teams (Aston Villa, Fulham, Sunderland, Stoke and Norwich) that finished in the bottom half last season as well as newly-promoted Crystal Palace. The two testing matches – versus Tottenham and Liverpool – are both at home.

All the same, in order to challenge, Arsenal have to improve drastically in several areas.

One is their performances against other top teams.

Arsenal were winless against Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea last season, picking up just two points in six matches.

2012/13 Top Four Head-to-Head

Points Won
Man United
10 from 18
Man City
11 from 18
10 from 18
2 from 18

Widening the scope to encompass the top seven clubs (adding Tottenham, Everton and Liverpool), Arsenal won only two of 12 games – against ten-man Spurs at the Emirates and Liverpool.

Time to step it up...
Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott
Arsenal have supreme talent; Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey are magical footballers.

They are the reason Arsenal, on their day, can beat anyone, the reason why Wenger remains confident of a trophy as he enters the final year of his contract and the hope Arsenal fans cling onto in what is a critical season.

But, without any significant additions to the squad, it seems Arsenal’s target once again is just to make it into the top four.


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