Arsenal FC: Picking a 2013-14 Starting XI to Include Three Transfer Targets
It wouldn't be a transfer window in world football without Arsenal being linked to just about every decent player across Europe, and that certainly doesn't look like changing for the summer of 2013.
With Arsenal's current squad in need of some bulking up, especially in the striking and defensive midfield departments, it could be a new look team lining up on the first day of the 2013-14 season.
Here's a prediction for Arsenal's starting XI next season, in a 4-2-3-1 formation, to include three transfer targets.
Agree/disagree with any selections? Let me know what your preferred starting XI would be for next season in the comments below.
Note: All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.
GK: Julio Cesar
First of all, I'm not saying Wojciech Szczesny needs to be replaced. Despite struggling for form this past season, the 23-year-old is still a promising prospect for the future, having displayed moments of brilliance over the past few years.
That being said, the Pole is far from the finished article, and it's crucial for his development that he has some competition for the No. 1 spot at Arsenal. Szczesny's best form of this season, unsurprisingly, came upon his return from being dropped for compatriot Lukasz Fabianski.
Competition is only beneficial for goalkeepers—as displayed with David de Gea's rise in form after being dropped for Anders Lindegaard—and Szczesny is no exception.
So with Fabianski soon out of contract, Julio Cesar seems like an ideal pickup. At 33 years old, the Brazilian international wouldn't bring any long-term value; however, he would bring valuable experience, having won the Champions League as well as numerous Serie A titles with Inter Milan.
Despite being a part of the train wreck that was Queens Park Rangers' 2012-13 Premier League campaign, Cesar had an impressive season, notably during the holiday period during QPR's "mini-revival," and was probably the Hoops' best player.
There's not a single chance that Brazil's first-choice keeper will be playing in the Championship next season, so he'll certainly be available on the cheap, and we all know how much Arsene Wenger likes a bargain.
The Gunners have been strongly linked to a move, according to Goal.com, so this looks like a deal that could very well go through.
RB: Carl Jenkinson
Carl Jenkinson has come a long way since his appalling performance in the 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford.
If you told someone after that game that in 19 months' time, the same right-back who just got eaten alive by Nani would be keeping Arjen Robben in his back pocket in a Champions League round of 16 match, they would call you insane.
But such is the story of Carl Jenkinson.
Although he never got an extended run in the first team this past season, he took his chances extremely well, the aforementioned game at the Allianz Arena being a perfect example.
The 21-year-old, who was playing non-league football on loan from Charlton Athletic just three years ago, is an Arsenal supporter himself, and it shows on the pitch. He seems to be the type of player who gives 100 percent no matter what—something that may seem like a given in world football but really isn't.
With Bacary Sagna clearly past his best and on the wrong side of two leg breaks, all is set for Carl Jenkinson to take Arsenal's right-back position by storm next season.
CB: Laurent Koscielny
Since winning his place back in the team just in time to put in a man-of-the-match performance in Arsenal's 2-0 win over Bayern Munich, Laurent Koscielny hasn't looked back.
After Santi Cazorla, Koscielny was arguably the Gunners' most influential player of the campaign. Even though he wasn't consistently getting playing time in the first half of the season, his return to the team in March coincided with Arsenal's run of conceding just five goals in 11 games—oh, and he scored the winning goal against Newcastle on the last day of the season.
One gets the feeling that Koscielny is just one more solid season away from becoming one of the five best center-backs in the world, and provided that he doesn't leave for greener pastures this summer, he'll be a crucial player in Arsenal's hunt for a trophy next season.
CB: Per Mertesacker
Despite Arsenal apparently in the market for a new defender, the center-back pairing that kept six clean sheets in Arsenal's final 11 games of the season shouldn't be touched.
It may sound like an exaggeration, but Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny is a title-winning partnership. The two barely put a foot wrong since Thomas Vermaelen was dropped in March, and the stats don't lie: Arsenal conceded just one goal in open play since Koscielny and Mertesacker were united—a consolation goal in the Gunners' 4-1 win over Reading.
While the Frenchman is the more aggressive of the two, putting in tackles and taking advantage of his pace to catch up with attackers, the big German is more of a "sweeper," staying back and making up for his lack of pace with his excellent reading of the game.
Arsenal must do everything they can to keep this partnership together, as it could just be the solution to their defensive troubles.
LB: Kieran Gibbs
Kieran Gibbs has clearly come a long way since being the nervous understudy to Gael Clichy and was one of Arsenal's most improved players of the season.
Solid in defense, the 23-year-old seemed to have a newfound confidence going forward, forging a superb partnership with Lukas Podolski when the two were played together on the left flank.
Nacho Monreal, on the other hand, is yet to really make his mark at the Emirates. Signed from Malaga in January to make sure Andre Santos never again touches a football in an Arsenal shirt, the Spaniard put in some solid performances, bringing consistency to a back four that's usually capable of self-destructing at any moment.
Now that Arsenal have not one, but two respectable left-backs, the battle between Kieran Gibbs and Monreal for the starting spot will be one of the major storylines in Arsenal's 2013-14 season.
CM: Mikel Arteta
To put it simply, Mikel Arteta is one of the most underrated footballers in the world.
That might sound like the product of a biased Arsenal fan's idle mind—after all, the 31-year-old chalked up just six goals and four assists all season, with only one goal coming from open play. But what Arteta does isn't flashy or eye-catching: Adopting the holding midfield position since the departure of Alex Song, Arteta has been the dictator of Arsenal's tempo. He's like the metronome of Arsenal's midfield.
Essentially, Arteta is Arsenal's Xavi.
What people don't realize is that Arteta is statistically one of the best in the world at doing this particular job. After Xavi, he has the highest average completed passes per game (80.9), and boasts a pass completion rate of 91.5 percent. Still, he doesn't shy away from his defensive duties, with 3.2 tackles and 2.9 interceptions per game.
Mikel Arteta may no longer be the No. 10 he was in his Everton days, but his positional change has revealed that the Spaniard is an incredibly efficient midfield anchor.
CM: Marouane Fellaini
To the extreme jubilation of Arsenal supporters, Goal.com recently reported that Arsenal had activated Marouane Fellaini's £22 million release clause. Even more recently, though, multiple sources, including the Express, reported that Arsenal were not willing to meet Everton's £23 million price tag on the player.
Ah, silly season. It's useless to speculate which rumor may be true, but there's no doubting that this would be one hell of a good transfer for the Gunners. Arsene Wenger's side have missed Alex Song in defensive midfield and, in truth, haven't had an out-and-out defensive midfielder since Patrick Vieira.
Even though Fellaini spent most of this season playing just behind the forward, he told the Daily Mirror that he still sees himself as a defensive midfielder—the position he would surely be playing in for the Gunners. Even at forward, he still mustered decent defending stats: 2.6 tackles, 1.2 interceptions and 4.9 aerial duels won per game.
The Belgian international has had his best ever season and has admitted his desire to play Champions League football on BBC TV show Football Focus (h/t Goal.com)—something that Everton failed to achieve this season despite a respectable sixth-place finish.
Although Arsene Wenger might not be so fond of the price tag, signing Fellaini would not only be a major improvement to the squad but also a statement of intent.
RW: Theo Walcott
Speaking of players who have had their best season yet, Theo Walcott's 2012-13 campaign proved that he may finally be fulfilling the potential he once promised.
The 24-year-old netted 21 goals in all competitions, usually playing as a right winger but also getting some playing time as a striker, where he scored a hat-trick in a memorable 7-3 win over Newcastle. Walcott also notched up 11 assists, but don't be fooled—he still hasn't learned how to cross a football.
That being said, the England international is becoming more than just the pace machine that he used to be. He's vastly improved his finishing, an aspect of his game that used to be frustratingly inconsistent; however, Walcott's most common criticism is his lack of a football brain.
Even after a season where he achieved double digits in both goals and assists, the fastest player in the Premier League still seems to have the same "football IQ" that he had as a teenager at Southampton. He rarely tracks back to support the right-back and often goes completely unnoticed even in games where he'll score, with Arsenal's 1-0 win over QPR serving as a perfect example.
Theo Walcott's goals will be absolutely key if Arsenal are to challenge for a trophy next season, but there's no denying that he's still got some work to do in order to become the finished product.
CAM: Jack Wilshere
Jack Wilshere has had an injury-ravaged past two seasons, missing 15 months from August of 2011 to October of 2012, before a smaller injury limited his playing time in April and May of this past season.
With his injury nightmares now behind him (knock on wood), the 21-year-old should be fit and firing for the 2013-14 campaign. We all know how good he is, that he's the future Arsenal and England captain, but it's time for him to consistently show his class on the pitch by completing a full Premier League season.
On his day, Wilshere is Arsenal's best player, but there are still several areas of his game that he needs to improve—for instance, his goal output. In 20 Premier League starts he failed to score once, netting just twice all season with one each in the Champions League and the FA Cup.
The England international is really more of a Spanish midfielder, in the sense that his game is more about bursting runs and neat through balls rather than Frank Lampard-esque screamers and trademark Steven Gerrard long balls.
Wilshere has an incredibly bright future and can probably be the best midfielder in the world one day, but it's time that he begins to fulfill his obvious potential.
If Arsenal's 2013-14 campaign is to finally bring silverware, Jack Wilshere will be the star man.
LW: Santi Cazorla
It may have come one year late, but Arsenal have found the replacement for Cesc Fabregas.
Santi Cazorla was one of Arsene Wenger's best signings since the Invincibles era, arriving from financially stricken Malaga for £16.5 million last summer and immediately adapting to the Premier League.
He played in every single game of the rigorous English season, winning Arsenal's player of the season award. Bar Juan Mata and Gareth Bale, you'll be hard pressed to think of an attacking midfielder in the Premier League who had a better 2012-13 season than Santi Cazorla.
In short (no pun intended), Cazorla is the perfect playmaker. His passing, dribbling and shooting abilities are all superb, but best of all, he's the most two-footed player in the Premier League (can you think of a more two-footed player?).
Each and every one of the 12 goals that the 28-year-old netted this season seemed to be spectacular for a unique reason, whether it was the left-footed dipping shot at West Ham or the uncharacteristic diving header against Reading.
Interestingly, you'll have noticed that I put Cazorla at left winger rather than central attacking midfield.
While some may be under the impression that Cazorla is best used in the center of the pitch, the stats say otherwise: In 14 appearances as a left winger, he contributed to 11 goals total (four goals, seven assists). In 29 appearances as a central attacking mid, he contributed to 13 goals total (eight goals, five assists). You do the math.
With a year of experience in England now under his belt, expect even more from the little Spaniard in 2013-14.
ST: Gonzalo Higuain
With The Sun reporting that Italian giants Juventus are also in pursuit of the Argentine's signature, Arsene Wenger must act quickly—it's not every day that a player of Higuain's quality becomes available on the market.
As a clinical striker, the 25-year-old is exactly what Arsenal need. Higuain is a player who takes his chances—despite his limited playing time in Spain last season, he managed to score 16 goals in 19 league starts.
Since Robin van Persie's departure, the Gunners have lacked a forward who has that killer instinct in front of goal—Lukas Podolski is currently the best finisher at the club but is played on the left wing, while Olivier Giroud consistently struggled to finish chances all season.
Arsenal are apparently set to break their transfer record for the former River Plate man, and with him leading the line the Gunners will have a real shot at ending their trophy drought this upcoming season.