If you’ve hardly seen Arsenal’s new signings in action, let alone live up to the hype on a frequent basis, you may be at high risk for getting carried away. But you’re excited, because they’re names you recognize, they’re each coming off great seasons, stats-wise, and your best player has just signed for Manchester United, so you really need this right now. Speaking for myself, I’ve really only seen these guys in highlights clips or in international tournaments since 2006. One 90-minute preseason match against FC Cologne dominates perception of how these players fit, because it represents the sum total of captured footage of the new signings together in action. From this background of minimal familiarity with our new saviors comes this perspective.
Robin has finally made his move, so we can now focus on players who are actually on the team. The new players have had one collective preseason runout with the rest of the team against Lukas Podolski’s previous club. Of the three new signings, I’m most familiar with Podolski, who I think more or less rules. Left winger and central striker; adaptable, ball aware and experienced. The brace on Sunday against Cologne reinforced that belief. And for this season’s annual Ligue Un signing, Arsene seemingly has done us right by landing tall central striker Olivier Giroud, who did Montellier right last season with 31 goals and a fairytale surprise league title. Third, Wenger singled out a man now destined for years of Fabregas comparisons. Newest signing Santi Cazorla could conceivably become the best player on the Arsenal squad. (Overhype alert.) Soon, even, which would prove to be fortuitous timing. But if you’ve seen only the occasional Malaga or Villareal match, it’s hard to shout “oil!” with much certainty.
Then there’s the nagging voice of sensible caution talking about adjustment to the league, complete with level-headed exhortations to manage expectations. But inevitably you find yourself incapable of resisting the hope, which then fuels the slackjaw mentality that leads one to temptation and hope and hype get unwisely intertwined.
The preseason match against Cologne best showed the new look of the attack. Van Persie played a nominal 20-minute stint, which didn’t serve much purpose beyond proving, albeit briefly, that he was still an Arsenal player. Only Podolski played more than 45 minutes, so match fitness teamwide remains uncertain. That issue aside, Podolski and Giroud look guaranteed starters once they’ve been eased into the Premier League. Wenger has said they won’t start the first match of the campaign. We’ll see. They just played a match this week. At any rate, hopefully they can integrate into the team well and soon.
Cazorla looks set to orchestrate from the middle, rather than take Theo’s place on the right wing, where Cazorla has often played. Good for us he’s got skills in the fulcrum, and a spot of luck for Theo. Ramsey’s not fully right for the job yet, and Wilshere and Rosicky are out injured. When everyone’s fit, there may be selection problems, but for now Cazorla is arriving much in an hour of need. For me, he’s the most exciting signing of the summer not because he’s one of most exciting new players in the Premier League but because from his billing he’s the player we need, the missing creativity and striker service from the middle, the cornerstone of the outfit whose last incarnation relocated to Catalonia about a year ago. If the real Arsenal Cazorla emulates the imagined Arsenal Cazorla, we may finally have restored the team to a fast, fluid side with a multi-headed attack. No pressure.
At the risk of overhyping and forgetting to wait to see how their performance actually defines our current state of the squad, things look a lot less negative than you’d have thought considering the vivid post-van Persie Apocalypse nightmares of recent times. Maybe that still hinges on Barca’s interest in Alex Song a bit, though.
Particularly given the limited time playing with one another, Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla clicked with remarkable ease in the preseason over Cologne. As each new signing played his first match in the Arsenal shirt. Giroud pulled defenders away from other attackers and Podolski scored a brace, with Cazorla delivering the corner that led to Vermaelen’s header.
Gervinho continued his good run of form in the preseason matches, confusing opponents with his unorthodox jerky dribbles and runs. He scored the fourth of the four goals against Cologne and with vP gone, Gervinho certainly has a better shot at getting in the starting team. Perhaps in his second season he’ll have this whole Premier League thing figured out. As long as we don’t ask him to do any penalty shootouts ever, we could soon see the best of the Ivorian body twitcher. He often just holds onto the ball just one second too long. Decide to pass or shoot sooner, and he could get a few goals and assists this season.
The final preseason runout showed a prototype of a possible Arsenal Attack Plan A. Perhaps conceived as a Plan B if van Persie stayed, the formation rapidly upgraded to A status when the Dutch escape artist made it clear he didn’t want to be in the plans.
Having lost one player we definitely wanted to keep, we have another whom Barcelona would like to poach, Alex Song. He was one of our best players last season, justifying Wenger’s once-confounding belief in the player. And now he could be off to the familiar bidding terrain of Barcelona. And if anyone had forgotten, Theo Walcott has only one year on his contract and presumably wants more of whatever he can get. He’s already on more than he deserves, but the possibility always exists that he’ll master the finisher role and weld it to his cheetah speed, and you’d like to be the one holding his contract if he ever puts it all together.
As for the departure crew, futures remain firmly, precariously up in the air. We want them to go, and quickly, but we’re probably losing a couple that’ll turn good eventually. For all his arrogance-you-love-to-hate, Bendtner may one day live up to half of his self-hype. In Bendtner we lose a pretty good striker that just didn’t really work within the team. For the past couple years, aside mostly from performances for Denmark, he hasn’t produced. He may really earn the decentest-striker-ever tag, but not at Arsenal and for now, his shoving off works best for everyone. He’s better than the other hopefully departing strikers, but that probably says more about them than about Bendtner.
Andrey Arshavin yet has some goals and assists in him, but it looks like it’ll have to materialize elsewhere. You still harbor belief he could conjure an out-of-nowhere flash of genius at any moment, but the rest of the time he contributes hardly anything, least of which with regard to defensive cover. Who knows how much it weighs on him to confront the idea of losing the Russia captaincy. Capello picked him this most recent international friendly days before the season start, but it remains a question mark nonetheless. He did pretty well at the Euros but he’s also being held to blame for Russia failing to get past the group stage. He has still got the ability, but under a new-look Arsenal, he looks like the odd man out. The sooner it gets sorted, the better.
Chamakh, Park, Squillaci–there’s no debate, the only question is how to offload them int the most expedient manner. They would probably have to take pay cuts. We may get hardly anything for transfer fee. But considering the 25-man rule, they are dead weight, so “get off our books, you ne’er-do-wells!” On the re-loan side, Denilson spends his last Arsenal season on another loan to Sao Paulo. We seem to unable to give these dudes away. With the Brazilian, we’re probably still on the hook for a chunk of his current wages.
It will/would be sad to see Alex Song go, and the possibility is not seeming particularly remote. He was definitely not on the “ship out” list, but Barcelona exerts a dream-team magnetism to which better men than he have succumbed. Nominally a defensive midfielder, he pulled out some incredible assists for van Persie last season in clutch situations and provided a creative spark at key moments. On the downside, he is way too slow in tracking back and he subscribes far too much to the Hollywood pass. Hopefully Barcelona can be repelled this time around. He’s got three seasons left on his contract and he will be useful in the season ahead. Also, we’d definitely need a ready replacement, which one would hope Wenger’s tracking in the transfer market. Possibly that’s the explanation for the Nuri Sahin loan/lease-to-buy talks with Real Madrid. But Sahin is more of a creative midfielder than defensive general.
If Song leaves, you’d have to see it as another stab in Wenger’s back with regard to his youth project visions, fresh off the double Fabregas and Nasri knife plunges of last season, but that’s how it goes. Of principal importance, who will take charge of the defensive midfielder position? Francis Coquelin? It would be a huge step up, but one he may be able to make. Emmanuel Frimpong is injured, aside from lacking readiness to take that role full time, anyway. Wilshere, same. Perhaps there’s a pipe dream that Diaby could hold down the position and manage to enforce without getting enforced upon. That in mind, hopefully someone’s on the case.
Walcott’s stalling for whatever reason, whether for more money or some longer-for transfer. Walcott divides opinions. Within a game, even. He’s fantastic for a stretch before repeatedly running the ball out. Admittedly, the boy did hook up van Persie with some good assists. Walcott self-admits, in a manner meant to emphasize the positive, that he’s “consistent in patches.” Arsenal fans see him pull off some great moves, then follow it up with abysmal all around play. He’s either a great player about to explode, or he has already reached his peak, meaning he shouldn’t necessarily play the transfer threat card too brazenly. The top teams that can pay high wages and have Champions League this season have better right wingers than Walcott. Would they pay for him to be on the bench? Would he happily accept the bench for higher earnings? We’ll know before long.
For another from the comparatively old guard, Johann Djourou understandably doesn’t love being mired in fourth-place certerback. Arsenal fans pray he never gets drafted to rightback ever again, but I hope he stays as a backup centerback. For whatever reason, we’ve been repeatedly driven to rely on third and fourth centerbacks in recent seasons, so we want good, experienced cover. Two seasons ago, he rose to the task. Last season, he didn’t blow any minds (in a good way, at least), but he can still probably do the job for Arsenal if called upon in his natural position. As fourth choice centerbacks go, Djourou can more than hold his own. It’s not his fault all the right and left backs went out injured last winter.
While the forwardmost element of attack is all-new, the defense moves into its second full season together. Per Mertesacker has proponents and detractors, but until his injury he put in a good shift. Vermaelen returned from the wilds of the medic zone, Andre Santos and Kieran Gibbs offer different strengths in the marauding leftback role, Koscielny made his sophomore season a breakout one, as did Wojciech Szczesny, who can improve even more this season with better decision making. Jenkinson is the rawest, but he can put in a damn precise cross when he’s downfield, so that’s better than nothing, certainly. He looks able to improve, but we won’t be fully solid until Sagna resumes at right back.
The current defense, with the current personnel, can sort it out and make it work. With a starting four of Gibbs, Vermaelen, Koscielny and Sagna (Jenkinson if Sagna’s leg is still in rehab mode), they could enforce a real defensive solidly at the back even by just cutting out some of the rookie mistakes. Szczesny is still learning, but he’s the man in goal and he instills confidence. Granted he makes mistakes, not least at Euro 2012, but he pulled off many crucial, excellent saves during the most horrendous parts of last season: the abysmal beginning, the bleak month of fullbackless January, the end of season inability to kill off the race for third, through the firestorm periods, Szczesny held it together when the defense repeatedly collapsed around him.
As for betting the on farm on any one prediction of where we end up in the table? No idea. Manchester United has re-lethalized. Manchester City the Bionic Superteam probably has a big buy or two in them, Chelsea have snapped up some players with deafening buzz, Tottenham have kept Bale, may keep Modric, or may suddenly have the money to buy £30 million in a few new players. And Arsenal rebuilds from the loss of captain/previous go-to and look to make it work with possibly all three new starters from the off, although a promising three. The team could go any direction. If the team gels quickly, we’re looking at a bright future. If the attack doesn’t click in the early matches, or if the defense turns out to be the bugaboo, we could be looking at a grim opening to the season. How grim, may we never know.
Sunderland at home. Stoke away, which usually turns out poorly for us. Ramsey could elaborate. Then Liverpool at Anfield, Southhampton at home, first Champions league match, and Manchester City in Manchester not long after. The game in Germany helped make sense of the new side with time running out but friendlies are just warm-up games. But with the whole squad finally (possibly) operational again, we could make a strong first push right from the gates. Or totally mediocre. Or one that makes us long for the days of 8-2. We’ll see how it pans out. Except hopefully the first scenario.
Arsenal travel to Sunderland on Saturday. We have to power to cause Martin O’Neill to go apoplectic as his team gets pummeled on the scoreboard. To go with a prediction, I may live to regret, I definitely see Podolski and Giroud to each get 15 goals this season. Walcott and Gervinho, either side of the 10 mark. Cazorla, Arteta and Vermaelen will each contribute, and hopefully Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere can get in on the action. Van Persie’s goals can be replaced.
May Arsenal finally win a trophy this year. The words “nothing since 2005” need never be spoken again. Cazorla in particular seems like he could really get Arsenal firing again. Losing Cesc was brutal is that regard. Nasri, even.
Right wing is the big question mark, even with Cazorla in the middle. When Walcott’s not fending off Oxlade-Chamberlain, and maybe Gervinho, he’ll need to forge a new working relationship with the target men. If he can learn to cross to Giroud’s head with any sort of consistent, he could lock up the position as his. And maybe Chamberlain will play in the middle more often, playing alongside Cazorla, Arteta and Song. Hopefully, Wilshere and Rosicky will heal and rejoin that pool of midfield options soon.
Mikel Arteta sat out the friendly in Germany because of knock picked up in training. Oxlade-Chamberlain exited the Cologne stadium with an ankle injury that has ruled him out of this week’s strangely timed international friendly. Laurent Koscielny also has withdrawn from the France squad with a calf problem. Wilshere, Rosicky and the medics will have some company in the short term. (But perhaps never again van Persie. If Robin writes a book one day, hopefully a few at least from the medical staff will land in the acknowledgments.) Abou Diaby seems to have survived his runout against Cologne, which is tentatively positive. Having pulled out of England training with a bruised thigh, one would think Walcott would still get picked for the Sunderland match on Saturday.
May Diaby have a remarkable fitness run, with the least injured season of all time. May Cesc consider returning and inaugurate a new tradition of attracting the best players from Barcelona and Manchester City for dirt-cheap prices. May weeks and weeks of incredible Arsenal victories await, each better than the last until you almost wish the team wouldn’t humiliate the opponents so much, but figure “end of the season, goal difference may carry the day…” and then it never need come down to goal difference. Our play being so vastly superior and all.
Farewell to van Persie. He made his move, and while the move may be distasteful, he played amazingly the last season and a half, and when possible during the injured periods. Thanks to him, we had Champions League soccer with which to attract a new strikeforce. In the total drag of his departure, we remain a team in contention for another season yet. Let’s see how far we can take it.