Arsenal's Keys to Winning the Premier League
After a decade of waiting, Arsenal finally won a trophy—two, if you include the Community Shield. But as important as that may be for the team psyche and Arsene Wenger’s job security, rumblings of underachievement won’t settle until the Gunners grab a Premier League title.
And this could be the year they pull it off.
The Alexis Sanchez signing emboldened a team already spoiled with confidence after the FA Cup victory.
No matter where the Chilean lines up he’s sure to become a major contributor at Arsenal and the early timing of his signature has given this preseason campaign a much-needed sense of stability, especially considering the fickle nature of the post-World Cup schedule.
And for once, there are no rumors about major players skipping town.
Past departures of Robin Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and others left Arsenal scrambling, which not only opened up major holes in the starting squad but also exposed an unsettling lack of foresight in team management. There was no backup plan and play suffered.
And though I think momentum from trophy wins is generally blown out of proportion, Arsenal have been under such tremendous pressure in recent years that the FA Cup triumph may be an exception. Expectations clearly hampered Arsenal in years past and play may loosen up a bit this year.
But it won’t be easy.
While Wenger has done well to put his team in position to succeed, so have his rivals. Diego Costa and Fabregas join an already dangerous Chelsea team. Louis van Gaal looks poised to rebound Manchester United. And Manchester City may very well repeat as champions.
Here are some measures Arsenal must take to remain in contention.
Build Defensive Depth
Mertesacker is an extremely intelligent player who rarely makes a mistake and uses his imposing stature to clear away dangers. Koscielny is effective reading an attack and his absurd league-leading 93.5 percent pass accuracy helped jump-start the Arsenal counter-attack.
Kieran Gibbs, meanwhile, has developed into a top left-back and new signing Mathieu Debuchy is arguably an upgrade over Bacary Sagna on the right, having won the starting gig over the veteran on the French national team.
But one injury or rest day would leaving Arsenal with a gaping hole. Now that Thomas Vermaelen has left for Barcelona, there's simply no one behind Mertesacker and Koscielny who wouldn't be a liability.
That's despite Chambers' centre-back performance in the Community Shield 3-0 win over Manchester City, which Arsene Wenger described as "outstanding." The talent is there, but at only 19 years old he is simply not ready to shoulder the demands of the centre-back position on a weekly basis.
Wolfsburg's Luiz Gustavo would be a solid addition, and one whom Wenger has targeted in past windows, per Joe Bernstein of the Daily Mail. Gustavo is traditionally a defensive midfielder—which just so happens to be Arsenal's most desperate need—and has played centre-back for spells throughout his career.
Gustavo could slot into the starting squad at defensive midfielder and drop to centre-back in case of injury or to give Mertesacker or Koscielny a break, essentially filling two needs. Signing Gustavo or a similarly versatile player would greatly contribute to the title push.
After winning the Community Shield Wenger admitted: "If I can find another centre-back I will do it," and that seems like the logical move for Arsenal. Failing to make a depth signing would stir up the usual complaints about Wenger's transfer window shortcomings, possibly reversing some of the positive mojo around the club.
Manage the Midfield
Arsenal's strength, as always, lies in its midfield. Arsene Wenger has a wealth of options but while that depth will be invaluable throughout a long season, the manager has a lot to consider for who cracks the first team. Keeping everyone involved and healthy will be a tall task.
The wild card is Alexis Sanchez. He's generally been considered a winger and is certainly dangerous in that role, but he has been effective as a striker, as well.
As Wenger told Arsenal's official website: "He is a striker and he's a good finisher. He made a great impression in Italy. I saw him there and he was really outstanding. ... I like the fact he can play left, right, up front and that's why I went for him."
The versatile Chilean is likely to adapt to different attacking roles throughout each game as the opposition makes adjustments and subs change Arsenal's dynamic. He's unique to this roster as the only player who can effectively shift attacking positions and Wenger is sure to rotate him from week to week.
Usually, though, I expect him to line up on a wing. Despite Wenger's insistence that he wants to turn Sanchez into a striker, Olivier Giroud should thrive with Sanchez and Ozil drawing defenders.
Look for Walcott to get most of the action (if he's healthy) with Cazorla backing him up. Though Oxlade-Chamberlain's talent cannot be ignored, he's yet to truly establish a position and will probably shift around the field as needed.
That leaves the biggest gap in Wenger's squad: defensive midfielder. It's been a position of need for a few seasons now and Arsenal would do well to sign someone capable before the window closes.
Mikel Arteta has been a valuable leader in the role but opposing teams have routinely capitalized on his weaknesses. He should maintain his spot, however, since Arsenal lack other options. Jack Wilshere may be tough enough to play in a holding role, but he's really more of a box-to-box player. And Calum Chambers' inexperience keeps him from being a serious threat to Arteta, though, I wouldn't put it past Wenger.
That leaves Walcott and Sanchez wide, Ozil in the middle, Ramsey in support and Arteta holding.
It's hard to imagine Arsenal without Wilshere, but considering the options Wenger must work with, there are few arguments in his favor. He will be a valuable asset, just not part of the preferred starting team.
Clearly, Wenger has a lot of quality to work with. How he manages that talent will determine where Arsenal finish.
Let the Offense Loose
The much-maligned Olivier Giroud can be frustrating at times. He's a bit clumsier than you'd hope and his finishing can be inconsistent. He's good, but you'd hope someone with his physical traits and a generous midfield would dominate.
But the deck was stacked against him last year. Giroud was the only viable option at striker. Yaya Sanogo looks good now, but a year ago he was a work in progress (and he's not a reliable first-team option even today). Joel Campbell was on loan at Olympiacos.
The entire workload fell to Giroud and he responded well, at least until the fatigue of a long season set in. The campaign clearly took a toll on the Frenchman and his play suffered as a result.
But despite that, he still managed 16 goals, tied for sixth-best in the league. His ability to hold the ball and allow his team to move forward was invaluable. And at times, he still dazzled.
This season—with Alexis Sanchez there for relief and Sanogo an option for some tournament play—Giroud should excel, even if Sanchez poaches some playing time.
But Arsenal's greatest offensive strength is pace. Sanchez is speedy and he joins Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—two of the fastest players in England. And Aaron Ramsey's thundering runs down the middle defined the first half of Arsenal's 2013-14 campaign.
In Mesut Ozil, Arsene Wenger has a reliable distributor who should be able to hang above the holding midfielder and feed balls through to Walcott, Sanchez and others.
No matter which personnel take the field, the game plan should work through the middle of the field to Ozil. The German excels at turning and picking out runs—a trait that should improve now that he has another year of familiarity with his team-mates.
And the threat of runs should open the field for Alexis Sanchez. More than any other player on this year's roster, Sanchez thrives when receiving the ball in open space and dribbling straight at his opponents. It works because his rare combination of finesse and power make him a threat to pass or score at any moment.
Whether Sanchez lines up at forward or winger, Wenger should let him loose to wreak havoc. He doesn't fit the traditional mold for a Premier League player and that can be his advantage. Sanchez excels at reading the field and if he sees an opening Arsenal would do well to let him experiment.
Arsenal were plagued by bouts of lethargy throughout parts of last season. Sanchez could be the cure, assuming he's allowed to break out of a prescribed role.
The team's superior pace and stock of playmakers is the best Wenger has had at his disposal in years. Arsenal's could become the most lethal attack in the Premier League.
Beat the Top 4
After an embarrassing 3-1 home loss to Aston Villa to open the 2013-14 season, Arsenal did well not to drop points against the cellar-dwellers. But games against the Premier League's elite weren't so favorable.
The 6-3 loss to Manchester City in December seemed inexplicable at the time; possibly an outlier. But it proved to be a precursor to equally embarrassing losses down the stretch—5-1 to Liverpool, 6-0 to Chelsea and 3-0 to Everton.
The scorelines didn't just mean three dropped points, they proved that Arsenal didn't have what it took to win the league. That Wenger's experiment failed once again. That they are doomed to second place finishes. And in many ways, they start this season in that shadow.
Beating Everton away in the second week would set a tone for the season to come. It would be a first step to reestablishing the dominant, confident Arsenal that were dashed at the Etihad. And beating—or even tying—Manchester City at home a few weeks later would put Arsenal in the mix of favorites.
“Our big defeats away from home have taken something of our charisma from the team," Arsene Wenger admitted after losing to Everton last season. "Is that fear? Is that belief? Is that confidence? Maybe a bit all together.”
The math is obvious—losing to a contender means a six-point swing on the table. But for Arsenal, it's more than that. It's about proving they belong.
There's no question Arsenal have an injury problem. Aaron Ramsey's thigh problem deflated his otherwise career season. Abou Diaby's extensive injury history defies reason. Neither Theo Walcott nor Jack Wilshere can seem to stay on the field.
In May, fitness coach Raymond Verheijen left no doubt to his feelings about the team's fitness routine:
Clearly something is going wrong. If you look at the law of the big numbers, something in the last ten years is going wrong. It’s clearly incompetence but it’s unconscious incompetence. The only way you can improve is if it’s conscious incompetence, so you’re aware of it. Then you can act. If you are in denial, you are blaming the outside world for the injuries and not looking in the mirror then you will stay incompetent. If it happens occasionally then this is a gut feeling. If it happens regularly, over 10-12 years, then coincidence is out of the question.
Finally, Arsene Wenger has made a change and hired Shad Forsythe, fresh off a fitness gig with Germany, where his intense approach helped Die Mannschaft survive and win a rigorous World Cup. The move could prove to be critical as the season takes its toll.
The Guardian's Amy Lawrence analysed the “performance culture” Forsythe's methods bring to a club and how Arsenal players are already responding well to the approach. Considering the team's German influence, that should be no surprise since many of these players already bought in to the system during the World Cup.
If Forsythe can turn around the Gunners' injury issues, Arsenal can maintain a legitimate shot at a Premier League title. A full season of Walcott and Ramsey now paired with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil could be unstoppable.
Of course, fitness isn't everything. No amount of drills could have saved Ramsey from breaking his leg in 2010. But this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Wenger has at the very least acknowledged the problem and provided a solution. It's a major step forward from a manager who's been known to be stubborn.
And even though a few missed games are inevitable, Forsythe might just be the man to stop the bleeding.
There's no question Arsenal have improved this offseason. Adding Alexis Sanchez, Mathieu Debuchy and others shored up some major holes and gave Arsene Wenger dangerous tactical options.
But I still don't see Arsenal winning the league.
Chelsea and Manchester City are the consensus favorites and for good reason. Neither team has any obvious flaws and both have the ability to score at will. Jose Mourinho—now with a year of adjustment out of the way, Cesc Fabregas commanding the midfield and Diego Costa racking up goals—will be disappointed with anything short of first place. And Manchester City are just as strong and as deep as during their winning campaign last season.
Unless Arsenal can find a defensive midfielder and prove Alexis Sanchez is capable of carrying his new team, the Gunners will be fighting for third place. I'm confident they can achieve third fairly comfortably, but that won't be much comfort to a fanbase used to playing second fiddle. Still, it's hard to imagine any other result.
Sure, Arsenal could win it all. The talent is there, and maybe the Gunners pull out some big wins against other contenders. I just wouldn't put money on it.
But Wenger is hungry and he seems ready to take chances and fight for the top as his retirement looms in the not-so-distant future. The Frenchman has pulled crazier tricks from his sleeve. There's no reason he couldn't find a way to win again.
Disagree with a third place prediction? Think there are better options than those listed to jump-start an Arsenal title run? Well leave it in the comments or tweet to @GoonerDave87.