The 2014-15 season ended back in May, but in truth, it feels like the gap between the end of last and beginning of the upcoming season hasn’t been too long. Arsenal look the real deal ahead of 2015-16 Barclays Premier League season, which could well see them compete with fellow Premier League heavyweights for the title. There appears to be a change in mentality in the Gunners’ camp, especially from the legendary Arsene Wenger, who has tactically become a lot more astute since the beginning of last season that saw him help himself and his club to victories at the homes of both the Manchester clubs, in different competitions.
The question, as we embark on a new season that has all the makings of being a highly competitive one, is can the Gunners challenge the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United for the league title? And what will hold the key to them mounting a title challenge?
The Big Picture
The North Londoners will go into the new season confident of their squad’s capabilities of going toe-to-toe with the other Premier League heavyweights; their title challenge, for me, will depend on their ability to beat Jose Mourinho’s side, Manuel Pellegrini’s men and the Louis van Gaalacticos from Old Trafford. Unlike their three title rivals for the upcoming season, Arsenal do not seem to have problems in seeing off the mid and lower-mid table sides, with them having lost just once – winning 34 and drawing 5 – against lower-half opposition in the last two Premier League seasons.
I don’t think the No.4 position can still be seen as a weakness, considering the kind of impact Francis Coquelin had last season and the new tactical setup adopted by Wenger, a blend of 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3, after the acquisitions of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck. Santiago Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey are the hybrid midfielders for Arsenal, and Coquelin is not the only one who will be tasked with screening the back four. Yes, for instance, the defensive performance in the 1-3 home defeat to AS Monaco – a game in which Coquelin featured – in last season’s UEFA Champions League R-16 tie was ignominious and highlighted an area of susceptibility for Arsenal, but overall, I think their blueprints last year, especially against the big Premier League teams, were sensible and results were there to be seen. To add to my last point, the rise of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and a fully-fit Theo Walcott has made Arsenal an even bigger threat ahead of the new season; the two Englishmen have pace in abundance and the knack of going past defenders, meaning the Gunners can afford to sit deep, defend in large numbers and carry a genuine threat to their opponents on the break.
Talking of Arsenal’s squad dimensions, it is staggering to see them boast of such a versatile squad despite not making a single addition – apart from the goalkeeping department, that is – to the one they had last season. The gulf in quality of their first-choice personnel and those in the fringes is not much, at all, and even if a crucial player or two gets injured – Arsenal have had a curse with too many of their crucial players suffering long-term injuries in the last two seasons – they have adequate cover across all areas of the pitch; mind you, their three big rivals do not enjoy the same squad depth.
Last season’s dream Champions League R-16 draw, which saw them pitted against the club – AS Monaco – previously managed by Wenger, was seen by many as a golden opportunity for Arsenal to make their first quarterfinal in Europe after 4 continuous seasons of getting knocked out at the pre-quarters stage. This season, they have not had to play in the Champions League playoff round to book their place in the group stages of the competition, which begins mid-way through September; Arsenal will learn their group stage opponents on the 27th of August, when the draw will be made in Monaco. With the squad Wenger has at his disposal, a good run in the Champions League is not out of the question either. However, as English teams do not enjoy a winter break, the French manager will have the massive task of managing his squad cleverly while also making sure that progress in one competition doesn’t affect the other objectives for the season.
As aforementioned, Petr Cech has been Arsenal’s solitary new signing during the ongoing transfer window that has seen them loan out a few of their players, as well. Wenger has captured the former Chelsea goalkeeper, who lost his No.1 status at Stamford Bridge to Thibaut Courtois last season and subsequently found himself linked with some of the major clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, for £10m (Source: Sky Sports) and although he is a goalkeeper, Cech’s reputation as one of the best in the World can really lift the existent squad at the Emirates.
Talking of outgoings, Abou Diaby, who appeared in only 16 league games over the last four seasons for the North Londoners, has now joined Ligue 1 side Marseille on a free transfer. Carl Jenkinson has once again joined West Ham United on a season-long loan deal after agreeing to a new five-year contract at the Emirates. Yaya Sanogo, who excelled during Arsenal’s last pre-season campaign, has joined Dutch side Ajax on a season-long loan deal too.
Arsenal have also been heavily linked with Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, who Rafael Benitez believes will remain at the Santiago Bernabeu for the upcoming season.
The Gunners have a solid squad and really do not need to bring in new players for any position.
Arsenal couldn’t have warmed up to the upcoming 2015-16 season in a better way than they have. Not only have Wenger’s wizards won every one of their games, but done so emphatically, as well.
They began their pre-season preparations in Singapore, competing in the Barclays Asia Trophy (BAT) 2015 along with Everton and Stoke City as the teams from the Premier League. The North Londoners arrived in the country on the 13th of July, before kicking off their pre-season campaign a couple of days later. Their first fixture was against Singapore XI on the 15th of July, with Chuba Akpom’s hat-trick and Jack Wilshere’s spot-kick earning their team a comfortable 4-0 victory to qualify for the finals with the Toffees, who beat Mark Hughes’ men on penalties, as their opponents. Arsenal’s big names stepped up to the plate for this one, giving Roberto Martinez’s and other Premier League sides a taste of what is to come this season. Cazorla ran the show for his team, as the Spaniard scored one and set up the other two for Walcott and Mesut Ozil in his side’s 3-1 victory to lift the BAT 2015 title.
Arsenal then returned to London and played host to the likes of Olympique Lyonnais, Villareal CF and Wolfsburg in the annual Emirates cup. It was only a two-day event that saw each team play two games, meaning the Gunners did not go head-to-head with the La Liga outfit but played against two teams that will be playing in the Champions League this season: the Ligue 1 and Bundesliga sides.
Lyon were humiliated despite only being a friendly, by the 6-0 scoreline against the Premier League giants who, in about 9 first-half minutes, scored 4 goals, playing some of the best football any team would hope to. Alex Iwobi, the 19-year old Nigerian, impressed one and all with the speed of his play, more than anything else while the spine of Arsenal came to the party once again. On the following day, 26th of July, Wolfsburg gave them a much stiffer competition, but Walcott’s 51st minute winner helped his side win – on the virtue of most points, 13 to Villareal’s 10 – its second title in pre-season.
Their final pre-season fixture was against Mourinho’s Chelsea for the FA Community Shield on the 2nd of August. The Portuguese tried to downplay the fixture prominently called ‘the annual curtain raiser’, but Arsenal and Wenger were having none of it; they adapted well to the caliber of opposition, often willing to defend in numbers and keep the opposition out from scoring. They created chances when they did have possession, but their blueprint against arguably the best defensive side in Europe was spot on. Chamberlain scored the decisive goal – an absolute peach with his left-foot, though from inside the box – early on in the first-half and albeit the defending Premier League champions pushed and probed for the equalizer, last year’s 3rd placed side was more than up to it defensively. What transpired after the final whistle? Nothing; Arsenal were given their winners’ medal and the shield, which they have now picked up for the second season in succession, this time with the hope that they will be able to mount a title challenge.
The likes of Ramsey, Ozil, Cazorla, Chamberlain, Cech, Walcott, Giroud, Coquelin and Koscielny – who make the spine of this Arsenal side – played a sufficient number of minutes and with great intensity too in pre-season, and should be in a very good frame of mind ahead of the new campaign.
How Arsenal’s fixtures shape up over the season?
The North Londoners do have a tough start to their Premier League campaign, which they kick off against London rivals West Ham, at home, on the 9th of August. They play against two of their rivals for the title in their first 10 fixtures, also during which a home clash against Liverpool on the 24th of August will by no means be a gimme either.
A trip to Stamford Bridge on the 19th of September, right after Matchday one action in the Champions League on the 15th or 16th of September, is probably their biggest fixture early on in the campaign and will no doubt be a stern test of Arsenal’s title credentials. On Gameweek 8 of the Barclays Premier League, they face Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United (on the 4th of October) at the Emirates, another fixture that follows Matchday two action in the Champions League on the 29th or 30th of September.
Emirates will also play host to the season’s first North London derby on the 8th of November – after Matchday four action in the Champions League on the 3rd or 4th day of the same month – following which Arsenal face the likes of West Bromwich Albion (away), Norwich City (away), Sunderland (home) and Aston Villa (away) in their next four fixtures at a time when the league table, you think, will begin to take shape. Wenger’s side, as aforementioned, does play well against the bottom-half teams and you would put your money on them garnering the 12 available points from the quartet of fixtures. A home clash against Pellegrini’s Manchester City (on the 19th of December) awaits the Gunners in Gameweek 17 of the 15/16 Premier League season, and it should be an intriguing fixture featuring two attack-minded sides.
In the second leg of Arsenal’s Premier League campaign, they have away fixtures against the Reds (on the 12th of January, 2016), Red Devils (27th of February, 2016), Spurs (5th March, 2016) and Cityzens (7th May, 2016), and their title aspirations may well hinge on the results they manage in these tough away fixtures. Not to forget their home clash against the Blues on the 23rd of January, 2016, that will be just as important as the aforementioned fixtures.
One of the noteworthy aspects of Arsenal’s fixtures is that they do not have back-to-back games – unlike United, for instance – against their direct rivals for the title, and such a pattern could actually work in their favor this coming season.
Because of their involvement in Europe, Arsenal will kick off their Capital One Cup campaign from the 3rd round, which will take place during the week commencing 21st of September.
Note: The aforementioned dates and fixtures are subject to change depending on Arsenal’s participation in various competitions, including the FA Cup, which will begin in the first week of January 2016.
Potential problem areas
Looking at the Arsenal squad, it is probably in defence that they look a bit fragile and skeptical. Laurent Koscielny is their best defender with Per Mertesacker as his primary defensive partner, who didn’t have the best of times last season after being part of the FIFA World Cup-winning Germany squad. Gabriel Paulista and Calum Chambers are the backup centre-halves, who will have massive shoes to fill if one of Koscielny or Mertesacker suffers injuries.
However, in the fullback positions, Hector Bellerin, Mathieu Debuchy, Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs offer a variety of options for Wenger, with Debuchy in particular, capable of playing at centre-back, too.
Compared to midfield and attack, Arsenal’s defence doesn’t pose the same solidity, however, given that they now defend and attack as a team, it may not be so much of a problem.
Looking ahead to the new season, consistency is crucial to Arsenal winning the long-awaited Barclays Premier League title. Lack of consistency was what actually cost them during the last two campaigns, with the 2014/15 season seeing them make a flimsy start and take as many as 3 months after the start of the season, to get going; in the 2013/14 campaign, it was their inability to make the most of a very good first half, that proved to be their undoing.
Arsenal have the squad, a much-needed change in mentality, and thereby, the substance to compete for the league title. They got to believe in their own ability and, as aforementioned, be consistent throughout the season.