Glory next season.
Any set of fans, especially of the top clubs, will tell you that their team could win the title next year.
There's always a "next year." It is a phrase that disguises impotence and failure.
But there's a sense by which the phrase acquires real weight.
Manchester City's strong squad meant that few doubted their chances of winning this year's title, although they still might not win it. The same factor will discourage anyone from dismissing City's chances of challenging for top honors next years.
Then there's Manchester United, the reputation of which means that they're always fancied to win something every season.
This is true of Chelsea as well, just as it used to be of Arsenal, but Arsenal have lost legitimacy, such that any talk of winning something "next year" is dismissed either with a wry smile or an outrightly derisive one.
But after seven years of barrenness, could Arsenal bounce back next season? Are there any signs to suggest this?
I advance seven reasons in the following slides to suggest that, indeed, Arsenal could be the real deal in the coming season.
Recent setbacks notwithstanding, a census of the current squad gives enough reason to smile.
We've seen how irresistible the team can be at its best. It is why it swept aside a strong AC Milan side and dealt Tottenham Hotspur a blow from which it has yet to recover. On top of this, it beat strong Manchester City and Newcastle United sides.
But just as striking are the team's mediocre performances, like the disjointed affair against Chelsea last Saturday.
This means that the rebuilding isn't finished yet. But that the process is coming together is without doubt. A few key components and the team would be good to go at the beginning of next season.
By this, I mean the purchase of about five players, if the team is able to sell off players that are no longer needed.
The first two ideally should be a striker and a creative midfielder. The next two should be strong and and experienced players, such as Yossi Benayoun, Clint Dempsey or Marouane Fellaini. The last could be a cover for the left-back position, due to Kieran Gibbs' fragility and owing to the fact that there's real possibility that Wenger could convert Andre Santos to a forward.
With these components in place and with more time to consolidate the rebuilding process, Arsenal should be poised to challenge for trophies next season.
The midfield still is not very solid despite the many promising players Arsenal have. Since one can't guarantee Abou Diaby's fitness, there's real danger in the box-to-box position, although Jack Wilshere's return will give Arsenal sufficient cover.
In fact, if Diaby can stay fit, it'd mean Arsenal would have three solid players who can play in this position, and with Emmanuel Frimpong coming back from injury and Francis Coquelin already tied down for at least five years at Arsenal, it'd seem that the holding midfield position already is taken care of.
This leaves the creative midfield position, a position Aaron Ramsey hasn't settled into properly, even if albeit he has shown flashes of excellence in this position. Tomas Rosicky's return to form has briefly disguised the real need in this area.
However, it requires just a minor injury or a dip in form to expose the weakness here. It is the reason it's important that Arsenal buy a creative midfielder to supplement Rosicky and Ramsey.
In fact this is the area for which Arsenal should buy a real quality player—Shinji Kagawa? Christian Eriksen? Eden Hazard? Hernanes?
The other area of clear need is the striking position.
The priority for Arsenal, of course, will be to retain Robin van Persie, but he is the only productive leading striker at Arsenal currently. It is why Arsenal might consider selling Marouane Chamakh to make way for a new striker that could make an instant impact.
One hopes that the rumors about Lukas Podolski are true. But beside him, it wouldn't hurt to buy another striker, considering, of course, that Arsenal can find a buyer for Nicklas Bendtner.
Jack Wilshere will return next season, barring any further setback. To forestall this, I'd advise strongly against his participating in any of the summer competitions beside preseason preparation.
There is a negative relationship between points accumulation and player unavailability as one might expect. Five players missing with injuries equates to a loss of 0.2 points a game on average. Five players being suspended simultaneously results in an average drop of 0.5 points a game.
The unavailability of five players – at the Africa Cup of Nations, for example - is equal to a drop of 0.6 points per game on average.
Based on this, one can see why Arsenal lost about nine to 12 points due to the decimation of the team's full-backs.
Gervinho's participation in the Africa Cup of Nations has left him a shadow of himself since his return. It may be the reason Yaya Toure's form has dipped alarmingly.
Talking injuries, if Arsenal can be lucky with this next season, avoid freak injuries such as the one to Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta and Andre Santos and if players like Abou Diaby and Kieran Gibbs could stay fit, then it wouldn't be a fairy dream to say Arsenal would indeed be in a good position to win the Premier League title.
It isn't an excuse when one says that this season's injuries put paid to any real competitiveness in the title challenge that Arsenal otherwise would have had.
The hope is that Arsenal have paid their dues in this regard, that next season things will be different with injuries.
[There's] a positive relationship between league points accumulation and wages spent. This is a well-known relationship but the model also showed that increasing a club’s wage bill by £100m would lead to an average expected increase of 0.8 points a game.
In a similar vein, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski write:
[T]he more you pay your players in wages, the higher you will finish; but what you pay for them in transfer fees doesn't seem to make much difference. (This suggest that, in general, it may be better to raise your players' pay than risk losing a couple of them and have to go out and buy their replacements.)
Arsenal wages have increased in the last few years, and it's set to increase again at the end of this season when the club would seek to retain the services of players like Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott and Alex Song.
It is critical that the club does all it can to retain both Van Persie and Walcott. When one takes a census of Van Persie goals, one sees how important his partnership is with Walcott. Walcott has raked in a great amount of assists to Van Persie.
The fact that a number of Arsenal players have pleaded publicly with the club to retain Van Persie is a testimony to his importance to the team. It isn't advisable to let such a player go. When this happened in the case of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, it nearly sank the team.
No one wants to see a repeat of this. It is therefore expedient that the club comes to an agreement with these players regarding their wages. If this means sending a number of players on loan and releasing the extra ones, so be it.
Consolidating what already is on ground is critical to the team's ambition of winning something next season.
In fact, if this happens, beside other factors, the team will be in place to compete for the Premiership title in the coming season.
In one of my recent tactics articles, I highlighted a few ways Arsenal's tactics are evolving. This belies the claim by some that Wenger and Arsenal are tactically stagnant. This is far from the truth.
How, for example, does the person who claims this explain Wenger's shift from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 in the first couple of seasons, and then eventually to 4-3-3 and his preferred 4-2-1-3 (or 4-2-3-1), and even presently to a more fluid 4-3-3?
What has fascinated me is Wenger's recent experimentation with the team's shape. This escapes casual observers, which is why the silly claim that he is tactically barren persists. I call it silly because it's nothing but an oxymoron.
One of the formations Wenger has used this season.
What I see is a man building and evolving his team gradually, besides the fact that he doesn't approach each match the same way, despite the similar ostensible shape the team may deploy itself at kickoff.
There is, for example, the new-found dexterity at playing the offside trap and the use of the enigmatic structural V, which is hard to beat on the breakaway.
This surely isn't coincidental or accidental. And the fact that Wenger has rebuilt the current team on the fly is nothing if not remarkable.
Dude, the man knows his tactics, so enough with the "he doesn't know tactics" naivete.
Giving enough time and proper players, therefore (considering, of course, that Wenger has learned his lesson and will buy quickly in the transfer market), there's no reason why a more ready and coherent team shouldn't take to the field at the beginning of the coming season.
A good start to the season might go a long way toward ensuring a title. For example, had Arsenal started the current season well, they'd be racing for the title right now.
The key to good tactics is having enough players to execute them, which is why rotation is critical to winning titles. A team can start the season well, but if it burns out post-January, it can't win titles—ask Spurs and Arsenal.
Tactics are thus useless without fresh legs.
My point: There should be enough quality and experience spread across the 25-man squad for the season.
It is why I'd like to see Yossi Benayoun stay on Arsenal, because his experience is essential to the squad. Barring this, Wenger should think seriously about buying a couple of experienced players.
It is for this reason I'd cast my vote for Clint Dempsey and Marouane Fellaini, considering, of course, that the buying wouldn't stop there.
In summation, the tactics are there, and they should win Arsenal the title, if enough proper players can be procured to execute the tactics.
Arsene Wenger said the following recently:
There are two basic trophies for me that are the sign of the quality of a team; they are the Premier League and the Champions League.
The Champions League is prestigious and it is half league and half cup. That means that at the end, the teams who wins must show real quality.
All the rest, they are trophies of course and they are important, but they do not really reflect the deep quality of a team. The championship does, and we want to win it.
Our ambition is intact, to win the championship. It depends on how we finish the season to decide how much we need to buy to have a chance to win the championship next season.
So there it is. Wenger wants to win the championship next season.
It is also an open secret that he fiercely covets the Champions League trophy. The only thing standing between him and this ambition is enough quality in the squad.
The key phrase in his statement above is "how much we need to buy to have a chance to win the championship next season."
If he buys well, there's no reason why Arsenal shouldn't win the Premier League, barring ill luck, which, to me, is always a huge factor—think Barcelona unable to score the necessary goals against Chelsea despite creating a ton of chances including hitting the post and crossbar twice each.
The real need to win something next season could be a real driving force to achieving this. Isn't it a similar force that drives Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United season after season, and isn't it also because they can afford to sign the Cristiano Ronaldos of this world?
It is likely that Manchester United will limp their way to this year's Premiership title. If they do, it'll be a narrow escape.
The rise of Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and now Newcastle United, and the fact that Liverpool have found it difficult to finish in the top four in the last few seasons, plus the real possibility of Chelsea finishing outside the top four this season—the first time this will happen in about a decade—implies that the Premier League may be becoming more competitive.
This surely is a welcomed development.
It also means that the tide of dominance may be turning, just like it did when Manchester United toppled Liverpool to reign supreme in the next decade-and-a-half.
If this is true, then any team savvy enough to sense the coming change and seize it by meeting the opportunity through necessary changes could be the next king of English football.
It appears that the Glazers-induced Manchester United debt could limit United's buying power in the transfer market, and this could open the door for Manchester City, who are spending as if they grow their money on trees.
It could also open the door for the likes of Arsenal, who have a better playing structure than Manchester City.
It is for this very reason that—although I'm typically adverse to mindless transfer spending—it might be wise for Arsenal to spend in the transfer market at this strategic moment.
I say this, though, with the understanding that transfer spending doesn't end with the sign-on fee. The club must find money for the wages of the new signings. The higher the pedigree of the new signings, the more it drives up the club's overall wages. So this is a huge factor.
Nevertheless, if the club's owner could advance an extra £10 million for transfer purposes—considering, of course, that he understands it to be a future investment, not one he'd immediately recoup—it could help Arsenal buy good players this coming season, players that could help the club maneuver into dominance.
What mustn't happen is that Arsenal must not allow upstart clubs to drive it the way of Liverpool.
Moreover, with Liverpool flailing and kicking for survival, they are not likely to stay under much longer, and this means competition for top honors is only going to increase.
This, then, is the time for Arsenal to be aggressive. I can sense the tide changing. The question is, does the Arsenal administration sense it?
If they do, and if they put in place necessary measures, there's no reason why Arsenal's winning ways couldn't return next season.
Proper preparation and planning will determine Arsenal's destiny in the coming season, and this rests on one man's shoulders: Arsene Wenger.
It is anyone's guess what he'd do.
As fans, we can only hope that he acts decisively once this season is over. But if there's hope anywhere, it must lie in his fierce competitiveness.
The man hates to lose; he hates to be second best. One therefore can bet his or her bottom dollar that he is tired of being second fiddle to Manchester United and Chelsea; that he loathes upstarts like Manchester City.
This should rouse him to proper action. One thing is certain: It's time Arsenal won something again.