For Arsenal, the summer that has passed seems almost normal given what occurred a year ago, and the season that followed. The débacle that took place in 2011 looked as though it would be avoided: Champions League qualification had been sorted back in May; the signings of Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski were completed in June, meaning that they were insured when Robin van Persie did what the little boy inside him told him he must; the foundations of a good squad were in place, and the club seemed to have learned its lessons from the year before. Oh dear.
Van Persie made his statement in early July. It was evident that he would not be a part of the new team, but no worry – Podolski and Giroud are ready and able to go their way to filling the void. A plan was formulated for life without him. And far from looking bleak it was more akin to a sunny day with a subtle yet strong breeze, only one wherein you had forgotten a jumper. Not ideal, although easily rectified. The deficiencies in the squad were plain to see; both lay in the midfield: they required more creativity and more destruction. The latter was far more pressing than the former.
The lack of creativity was addressed with the stunningly cheap arrival of Santi Cazorla. After missing out on him for reasons mysterious a year before, this time they pursued him with a new-found ruthlessness, which yielded results. Now therewas a squad capable of challenging. It would be risky relying on Alex Song to play as an actual defensive midfielder, while relying on the fitnesses of Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere, respectively, but gambles that could be afforded for the time being.
Van Persie was sold. It was the only course of action, but the destination was far from satisfactory. After various training ground incidents, Arsène Wenger decided to get rid of Song. With two weeks remaining, there was plenty of time to replace him. Two weeks later, the window closed. No signings had been made. Song would have to be replaced internally. This left a positionally converted Mikel Arteta as Arsenal’s only holder, with Francis Coquelin as his backup, and Diaby, Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as the defined options for the other midfield role, with Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and potentially Aaron Ramsey (a player I will cover in another article) being able to cover in times of need. In theory, this should be fine. Arteta showed the discipline and intelligence to be a holding midielder last year (and early this); Diaby is more than capable of replacing Song; Wilshere returning will be “like a new signing” or ‘LANS’ and Coquelin and Chamberlain have shown great promise in their positions.
‘In theory’ is a wonderful domain.
More realistically, depending on Wilshere, Diaby and Rosicky for fitness is insane. Coquelin has shown wild inconsistency, while it is likely that Chamberlain – whose performances have also fluctuated wildly – will be used out wide. This leaves them an Arteta injury away from a potential disaster. Diaby and Arteta is an excellent working partership, but at this stage, behind them is only Coquelin (fnar!) and Chamberlain, who is more likely to be used as a more forward-going option. IfDiaby stays fit, there is no problem. If. If Wilshere can do likewise and hit the ground running when he returns, the problems also diminish. Realism, thy name is Arsenal.
Safe to say, they are light in midfield. And, it can be argued, in attack. Giroud and Podolski are new to the Premier League; adapting will take time for both of them. Especially Podolski, whom Wenger sees as a centre forward, although he has never played there before (much as Van Persie had not done so before the 2009/10 season). Then there is the man harder to remove than food stains on a bright carpet: Marouane Chamakh. His ability is not lacking, but the Chamakh of August-December 2010 is all but confined to the deepest recesses of memory. For now, Giroud is the only recognised central striker.
In quite the departure from the norm, the foundations for any success from this Arsenal team may be located in the defence. With Kieran Gibbs and André Santos there is a battle between two adept and underrated left backs for the first choice role, Bacary Sagna – arguably the finest right back in the league and three top class centre backs in Laurent Koscielny, Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker. There is a worry with the backup for Sagna: Carl Jenkinson has potential but remains occasionally erratic and inexperienced, and Coquelin similar, with the added factor of not being a natural right back. Under the tutelage of Steve Bould and Neil Banfield they appear to be working as a more solid unit, with Wojciech Szczęsny having made the number one shirt his own (literally, this summer).
If Arsenal are blessed with the luck that has so noticeably abandoned them in recent years, there is no reason as to why this season cannot be a success. Success, of course, is circumstantial. Trailing a summer in which Van Persie has been lost and Song sold and not replaced, I would define success as a comfortable, Champions League-earning finish coupled with a victory in a cup competition (preferably not the League Cup but 8 years down the line, you take what you can get). If luck, with regard to injuries and refereeing decisions deserts them again, a top four finish should still be on the cards, mainly due to the other chasers of said place.
A future without Van Persie is a source of extreme irritation; as is the possible situation in the midfield. But if it goes the way Arsenal fans hope, they will surprise many. If the team can gain more cohesion and not succumb to a raft of ridiculous injuries, there is much cause for excitement. They have an extremely talented team, which desperately needs fortune to favour them.
And they have Arsène Wenger. With him in charge, there is always hope; and absolutely nothing to fear.