As Arsenal begin the 2016/17 season, there are still big question marks over how the team will be constructed. That’s partly because the club have yet to finish their transfer activity—as yet, it is still difficult to complete an assessment of the squad’s strength.
When manager Arsene Wenger sits at his desk at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground, there will be three major questions reverberating around his mind.
In this piece, we look at the key issues facing the Gunners boss on the eve of the new campaign.
1. What’s his best central-defensive partnership?
The foundation of any great team is a secure defence. Arsenal’s problem is that they start 2016/17 with real doubts over the reliability of their back line.
Injuries have not helped. Wenger knew he was most likely going to have to do without Laurent Koscielny for the start of the season due to his participation in Euro 2016. However, he did not expect to be without both Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista.
Mertesacker in particular was lined up to play a key role in the campaign’s opening fixtures. Having retired from international football with Germany two years ago, he ought to have been primed and ready to go at 2016/17’s kick-off.
Instead, both Mertesacker and Gabriel have picked up relatively serious injuries in innocuous incidents in pre-season friendlies. The former Werder Bremen man is anticipated to miss the first half of the season. The Brazilian’s problem is less serious, but he could still be absent for between six to eight weeks.
Arsenal’s defensive problems have forced Wenger into the transfer market. It seems he has made Germany international Shkodran Mustafi his top target.
However, according to David Hytner of the Guardian, no deal is imminent:
Arsenal remain in negotiations with Valencia over their No. 1 central defensive target, Shkodran Mustafi, but there was no sign of an imminent breakthrough on Thursday night.
The temperature had been turned up earlier in the day when Ali Bulut, who has a connection to Mustafi, said that the 24-year-old Germany international had agreed terms with Arsenal and all that remained to be done was for the clubs to resolve the transfer fee.
There is a quiet confidence at Arsenal that they will be able to get the deal for Mustafi over the line but it will not be in time for their Premier League season-opener at home to Liverpool on Sunday, in which Arsene Wenger faces a selection dilemma in central defence.
If Mustafi is signed, he will surely be installed as Koscielny’s regular partner for most of the season.
In some respects, it could be argued that Arsenal’s injury problems have merely forced the club into a signing that was required regardless.
Last season, neither Mertesacker nor Gabriel were convincing. Wenger alternated between the two throughout the campaign, without either player making a strong case to play alongside Koscielny regularly.
Defence is an area of the field that benefits from continuity and consistency. Last season, Arsenal reaped the benefits of regularly fielding the same goalkeeper and full-backs in Petr Cech, Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin.
If Arsenal can sign Mustafi—and keep him fit—they could develop a stable core at the heart of their defence.
2. Who should comprise his central midfield?
Central midfield was another problematic area for Arsenal last season. It won’t be a surprise to any regular observer of the Gunners that injuries were a key factor here, too.
In 2015/16, Wenger had to cope with long periods without the likes of Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and Jack Wilshere.
He also lost three central midfielders this summer. At the end of their contracts, the experienced trio of Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky were all released.
It’s difficult to argue with Wenger’s assessment in those instances, as none of those players made much of a contribution to Arsenal’s 2015/16 campaign. However, it does leave some question marks over the shape of the Gunners midfield moving forward.
It’s safe to assume that new boy Granit Xhaka will play a significant part. The Switzerland international is the third most expensive signing in the club’s history, and Wenger is not a manager prone to spending big sums on a player if they do not form a major part of his plans.
In some respects, Xhaka will serve as a replacement for Arteta. Like the Spaniard, he is a deep-lying playmaker who is not adverse to putting his foot in when required.
That suggests he could be an effective foil for Aaron Ramsey. After the Welshman’s outstanding performances at Euro 2016, he seems primed to play a pivotal role in Arsenal’s team next season.
Ramsey has spent much of the last two campaigns awkwardly confined to a wide role, but Wenger suggested that could be about to change, per Arsenal.com:
I have played him wide sometimes because I feel like he can balance the team well. Of course he wants to play centrally, he wants to play behind the striker. What is the most important thing when you put players in positions is that you have to consider their psychological and physical profiles. Aaron's psychological profile means that he always wants the ball and always wants to be available, so that's in the heart of the game.
If you consider his physiological profile, he can absorb all the positions. He is certainly most suited to central midfield because he's a box-to-box player. I think he likes to come from deep and make runs going forward, so I would think that at the start he would like to play from a deeper position in midfield. That's more suited to him and therefore that gives him a tactical responsibility for us that he may not have for Wales.
Doubts remain over whether Ramsey can handle that level of tactical responsibility. However, the presence of the steadier Xhaka alongside him should help compensate for his risk-taking style.
If Xhaka and Ramsey can dovetail in the middle of the park, Arsenal will be a far stronger side.
3. Is Olivier Giroud good enough to be his centre-forward?
Arsenal have spent much of the summer looking for a new centre-forward without much in the way of positive results.
Arguably they’ve spent much of the last four years doing precisely the same thing. Since Robin van Persie left in 2012, Wenger has desperately needed a reliable goalscorer.
In that intervening four-year period, Olivier Giroud has established himself as Arsenal’s first-choice centre-forward. He is not quite in the world-class bracket of the likes of Van Persie or Thierry Henry, but he remains a good option.
However, Wenger may look to change things ahead of the new season. That could be in the transfer market—there are still a few weeks for the Gunners boss to identify a new spearhead for his attack. Alternatively, he could look for an internal solution.
In the club’s final friendly against Manchester City, Alexis Sanchez was deployed as a centre-forward. It’s a position he has played a couple of times for the Gunners before, without much success.
However, he has many of the attributes required to thrive as a Premier League striker—speed, tenacity, finishing and ingenuity. If he can click in his new role, he could bring a new dimension to Arsenal’s forward line.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout 2016/17. Follow him on Twitter here.