The Premier League season is just around the corner, and things are looking good for Arsenal.
They've already signed Montpellier hitman Olivier Giroud as well as German international Lukas Podolski, and are close to completing a move for Spanish maestro Santi Cazorla. In addition to those signings, Arsenal have players like Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby returning from injury, as well as some promising youngsters rising into the first team like Nico Yennaris and Thomas Eisfeld, among many others.
This season could not be more important for Arsenal. Last season was always going to be a transitional one after the departures of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, but big things are expected of the Gunners after some big summer moves. The trophy drought has gone on for long enough, and there's a good feeling around the Emirates that this really could be Arsenal's year.
In the following slides is your guide to Arsenal's 2012-13 campaign, complete with players, fixtures, predictions and more.
Because Arsenal's squad is far too large to write up a summary on each player ahead of the new season, I'll instead limit my analysis of each player to just one sentence:
1. Wojciech Szczesny: Unbeatable on his day but shaky at his worst, Szczesny is the future of goalkeeping and will continue his road to the top this season.
2. Abou Diaby: He's got legs of glass, but when he's fit Diaby is just as good of a midfielder as any.
3. Bacary Sagna: Suffered two nasty leg breaks last season, but when he was fit he proved to be an integral part of the squad; Arsenal looked significantly better both in attack and defense when Sagna played, so let's hope he stays fit for the entirety of 2012-13.
4. Per Mertesacker: Took some time getting used to the Premier League, but Mertesacker is a good third choice center back and will only improve with more match time.
5. Thomas Vermaelen: Most likely Arsenal's new captain, and rightfully so: "the Verminator" showed his faith to the club when signing a new contract in the middle of the mess last season, and although his defending is suspect at times he makes up for it with his contributions on attack.
6. Laurent Koscielny: By far and away Arsenal's most consistent and solid defender last season, Koscielny is one more great year away from being considered one of the best center backs in Europe.
7. Tomas Rosicky: Rosicky's renaissance last season was parallel to Arsenal's fantastic turnaround, and the creative little Czech will be looking to build on his wonderful 2011-12 campaign.
8. Mikel Arteta: The metronome of our midfield, Arteta is like Arsenal's Xavi: he keeps the play moving, orchestrating play from the midfield with everything from the simplest of short passes to a pinpoint through ball.
9. Park Chu-Young: One of the most head-scratching signings since Wenger took charge.
10. Robin Van Persie: If Arsenal somehow end up keeping him, there's not a doubt in my mind that they'll be challenging for the title this season.
11. Andre Santos: The epitome of a Brazilian left back: attacks like a left winger, but also defends like one.
12. Olivier Giroud: Arsenal fans can't wait to see the 2011-12 Ligue 1 top scorer play in red and white, and I've got a feeling he'll be a key player to the Gunners this season.
14. Theo Walcott: I only need one word for him: mercurial.
15. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: "The Ox" is the next big thing in English football, and although he's still only 18 (yes, 18!), 2012-13 could very well be his major breakout season.
16. Aaron Ramsey: Took a lot of stick this past season, but there's no doubting Ramsey's potential as the future of Arsenal's midfield.
17. Alex Song: Shaping up to be one of the best defensive midfielders in the league, Song's infamous lofted through-balls which got him 11 league assists last season will surely continue to terrorize defenders in 2012-13.
18. Sebastien Squillaci: When are we going to finally get rid of this guy?
19. Jack Wilshere: What scares me even more than his incredible potential is the fact that it will never be fulfilled due to a seemingly never-ending injury–let's hope Wilshere picks up right where he left off when he recovers.
20. Johan Djourou: Not as bad as people make him out to be, Djourou is a fine fourth-choice centre back.
21. Lukasz Fabianski: He's made it clear that he wants to leave this summer as he's fed up with being the backup keeper—which is understandable, but he hasn't been linked with any other club and it looks like he could be sticking around for another season.
22. Francis Coquelin: One of many Arsenal youngsters poised for a breakout season, Coquelin's versatility and ability in 2011-12 was impressive, so he'll be looking to force his way into the first team this season.
23. Andrei Arshavin: Not the most loved figure in North London, most fans will be hoping that Arshavin is headed toward the exit door at the Emirates soon, but even if he stays he'll serve as a good squad player.
24. Vito Mannone: When he's not on loan, Mannone usually makes some pretty comical errors in between the sticks for Arsenal, but Wenger must see something in him if he's still hung on to the Italian keeper for all these years.
25. Carl Jenkinson: A promising young right back who most fans, like myself, don't think is ready for the first team just yet.
26. Emmanuel Frimpong: When he's not fooling around on Twitter, Emmanuel Frimpong is a very bright defensive midfield prospect who deserves a loan spell at a smaller Premier League club once he's recovered from his second ACL tear.
27. Gervinho: Clearly fatigued by last season's Africa Cup of Nations, Gerivnho looked good before his international duty and will have to prove this season that he isn't a flop.
28. Kieran Gibbs: Hopefully the next Ashley Young (minus the money-grabbing), Gibbs is Arsenal's first-choice left back when fit and seems to improve with every game.
29. Marouane Chamakh: He'll probably be sold this summer, but I'm a firm believer that Chamakh would have continued his good form from the beginning of the 2010-11 season if it weren't for the breakout of Robin Van Persie.
31. Ryo Miyiachi: One of Arsenal's most exciting young players, I see Ryo getting another Premier League loan spell this season and impressing once again.
35. Kyle Bartley: After spending two years on loan at the club formerly known as Rangers, Bartley is probably the future of Arsenal's defense but for now will, in all likelihood, only get playing time in cup matches.
52. Nicklas Bendtner: Probably the most arrogant player ever to play for Arsenal, I'm surprised "The Greatest Striker in the World" hasn't moved on to another club this summer.
TBC Lukas Podolski: Like Giroud, Podolski is a player who excites the fans and will surely be key to Arsenal's push for silverware this season.
You can see Arsenal's full fixture list here, and below I'll outline some of their key matches. Obviously there are many other crucially important fixtures that won't be below, like, for example, every match against a "big six" team, but I tried to sum it up with a few games that will likely be Arsenal's fiercest matchups.
Liverpool vs. Arsenal, September 2
Arsenal face a tough start to the season as they travel to Anfield in only their third match. With Liverpool under a new manager in Brendan Rodgers and likely to be playing a different blend of football, winning at Anfield will certainly be a challenge as always. It's this kind of match that will show whether or not the Gunners are true title contenders: if they win, it'll send out a warning message to the top of the table, but if they lose it'll show that Arsenal don't have what it takes to challenge for the title.
Manchester City vs. Arsenal, September 23
Just a few weeks after playing Liverpool, Arsenal will face off against the defending champions on their own turf. This is, once again, a huge match in determining whether or not Arsenal are title contenders. A loss would be, well, the expected result, but a win could turn them into instant title favourites.
Arsenal vs. Tottenham, November 17
The North London derby is always an exciting contest—but it's also a match that can influence the rest of the season. When Arsenal came from behind to beat Spurs 5-2 last season, it inspired them to go on an incredible winning streak that eventually saw them finish third in the league. A loss here would be demoralizing for Arsenal, but a win would give them fire to get more results in following fixtures.
Chelsea vs. Arsenal, January 19th
When Arsenal won at Stamford Bridge last season, they celebrated like they'd just won the Champions League. It was huge, and was probably responsible for Arsenal's good run of form in November (as well as a certain Dutchman), but a win at the Bridge this season will be even bigger. January is when title challengers can start to slip away, so if Arsenal are still competing near the top of the table at the turn of the year, winning at their London rivals would be immense.
Tottenham vs. Arsenal, March 2
It's this time of year that Arsenal usually start to slip up, and for one reason or another a bad string of results begins to grow. As I mentioned before, a win in a North London derby is much more than just three points, and it can affect—positively or negatively—the matches to come. Expect this to be a dramatic encounter, and one that could very well determine the outcome of Arsenal's season.
Arsenal vs. Manchester United, April 27
This one has "title-decider" written all over it, whether it's both teams fighting for the title against each other or one with the capability to spoil the other's title challenge (like Arsenal did when they beat Manchester City at the Emirates last season). Either way, Arsenal vs. Manchester United is always a good contest.
Arsenal vs. Wigan Athletic, May 12
It's never easy to play teams near the bottom of the table at the end of the season, as they're usually fighting relegation and have an extra fire and passion about them. Arsenal always tend to struggle against Wigan, losing 2-1 at home to them last season and surrendering a two-goal lead in the final 10 minutes to lose 3-2 a few seasons ago. As the second-to-last match of the season, this match will likely be crucial for Arsenal, whether it's clinching a Champions League spot or getting a title-winning result.
Newcastle vs. Arsenal, May 19
I pray that Arsenal don't need three points going into this match, because Newcastle is a very difficult place to win at. It's unfortunate that Arsene Wenger's side were handed such a tough season-ending fixture, because the odds are that the Gunners will need a result at St. James—I mean, the Sports Direct Arena. This will be 90 minutes of pure battle.
Arsene Wenger faced perhaps his hardest season in charge of Arsenal in their 2011-12 campaign.
After failing to replace two of the club's most important players in Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, Wenger took all the blame for Arsenal's horrendous start to the season, including the 8-2 thrashing at the hands of Manchester United. And I think it's fair to say he took that blame rightfully. Fabregas and Nasri were two key players to Arsenal, and to not replace them at all was definitely a cause for concern for Arsenal supporters.
But Arsene Wenger was also responsible for the Gunners' remarkable turnaround—you know, the one that saw them go from 17th place to third place. After all, it was he who bought Robin Van Persie all those years ago for just 2.75 million pounds. It was he who developed Alex Song into a pass master and he who bought Mikel Arteta on deadline day (although admittedly, Wenger should have signed a midfielder long before then).
But never mind the comeback to third place. Arsenal haven't won a piece of silverware in seven seasons now, and the fans are more impatient than ever. Arsene Wenger seems to be changing his ways, signing experienced and quality players so far this summer, but if Arsenal still haven't won a trophy nine months from now, it'll be, as usual, Wenger with questions to answer.
If Robin Van Persie does in fact leave this summer, it'll likely be Thomas Vermaelen to replace him as the team's captain. If Van Persie stays, the captaincy could go to Vermaelen anyway as he's proven to be a more faithful and loyal team member.
It might just be an armband, but captaincy has shown that it can do a lot to a player's form: exhibit A being Van Persie, who found the form of his life after becoming Arsenal's skipper. Vermaelen definitely had a good 2011-12 season, but his defending was unusually suspect at times after being such a rock in his debut season.
There's no doubt he's one of the best attacking centre backs in the league, scoring six goals this season, but as the captain and leader of the back four, Vermaelen has to make sure Arsenal's defense won't continue to leak goals. There's no question that Arsene Wenger's side will score goals—they're always one of the most attacking teams in the league, but the real problem is when it comes to conceding them.
Vermaelen will be crucial this season in shoring up the defense, and the likely future Arsenal captain will certainly have his work cut out for him.
With all of the new additions to the squad, Arsenal's starting lineup won't be as clear-cut this season as it was last.
Wojciech Szczesny in between the sticks is one of the few no-brainers. At right back will be Bacary Sagna as long as he's fit, but since he's likely to be out for the start of the season I see Francis Coquelin filling in for him. The trusty centre back pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen will hopefully stay injury-free, and at left back will be Gibbs, with Santos as his backup whenever the young Englishman gets injured (which happens to be a lot).
In the two holding midfield positions will be Mikel Arteta and Alex Song, who formed a brilliant partnership last season. Although Song's passing and creativity was excellent last season, his positional awareness still needs some work as a defensive midfielder, and often he'd be more focused on finding a killer pass than just protecting the back four. Arteta, as I said before, will keep the play moving with short passes, switches, long balls, through balls—you name it.
The attacking midfielder in Arsene Wenger's 4-2-3-1 will be Lukas Podolski, acting more as a centre forward behind the striker. On the right will be Theo Walcott, whose starting spot won't be so concrete this season, with Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both fighting for that position and likely making substitute appearances. On the left is new signing Santi Cazorla, who can play in just about any attacking midfield position, and will likely drift into the center anyway.
Up top is Olivier Giroud, but this definitely depends on the Robin Van Persie situation. If he stays, he'll either play up front instead of Giroud, or Wenger will find some way to play them together (maybe in a 4-2-2-2). We all know what Van Persie can do as a forward, but Arsenal supporters are looking forward to seeing Giroud play nonetheless. The Ligue 1 top scorer certainly knows where the back of the net is and will have plenty of support next season with all of Arsenal's attacking prowess.
In short, that starting 11 looks impressive. Title-winning, maybe?