Ultimate Guide to Arsenal's 2016/17 Season

James McNicholas@@jamesmcnicholasFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2016

ISLINGTON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 10:  Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal looks on during the Official Premier League Season Launch Media Event held at Market Road pitches on August 10, 2016 in Islington, England. (Photo by Alex Broadway/Getty Images)
Alex Broadway/Getty Images

It’s easy to forget that Arsenal actually finished last season as runners-up. After besting their rivals for most of the season, Tottenham Hotspur capitulated in the final few fixtures to allow the Gunners to leapfrog them and claim second place.

As much as Arsenal fans enjoyed getting one over their neighbours, there was still an overwhelming sense of frustration among the supporters about the fact that they were pipped to the title by humble Leicester City.

The prevailing feeling is that last season was a unique opportunity for the Gunners to recapture the title, with so many of their traditional rivals falling by the wayside.

In 2016/17, those giants are likely to be back in the hunt. There are a host of new managers and signings to contend with—even Arsenal’s customary top-four spot now looks under considerable threat. 

In this piece, we examine the key themes and issues that will dominate the next 10 months at Arsenal.

   

Is this Wenger’s swan song? 

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

Arsene Wenger starts the new season with just 12 months to go on his contract—and, as of now, there is real uncertainty as to whether he will extend his deal. 

That means this could be his final season at the Emirates Stadium. It’s almost impossible to conceive of Arsenal without Wenger now—his name has become synonymous with a club built in his image.  

Wenger has intimated that he will wait until late in the season before deciding if he will renew, telling Amy Lawrence the Guardian: 

It’s not about me, it’s about the club. My role is just to serve the club as well as I can and after see where I stand and where the club is. I have to forget about myself even if people who want to create unrest don’t. I will continue to give my absolute best to do well next season and then after that, we’ll see. 

My appetite is stronger than ever. Even if I decide in January that I will not extend my contract, that will not affect my attitude.

There are not many clubs where the manager effectively gets to decide his own fate—but Arsenal is one such team.

Right now, it is very difficult to ascertain what conditions would see him decide to quit. It’s possible that a successful season could make him want to go out on a high. Alternatively, if Arsenal fail to challenge for major honours, the discontent among the supporters could force Wenger to consider his position.

Arsenal are potentially on the cusp of the end of an era. For that reason alone, this season could be a hugely memorable one.

   

The New Boy: Granit Xhaka

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN - AUGUST 07: Granit Xhaka of Arsenal during the Pre-Season Friendly between Arsenal and Manchester City at Ullevi on August 7, 2016 in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images)
Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images

Thus far, Arsenal’s only major summer signing has been Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka. The club have also recruited youngsters Takuma Asano and Rob Holding, but neither player is expected to play a particularly significant role in the forthcoming campaign—Asano may not even qualify for a work permit.

Although the Gunners will still be hoping to make more senior additions, Xhaka is undoubtedly an excellent acquisition. 

Wenger certainly seems convinced by the ability of his new signing, telling Arsenal's official website (h/t Evening Standard): "[Xhaka brings] his passing ability to play through the lines from deep positions, his work rate, and he's good in the air. He’s a young boy as well, 23 years old. There's a lot to come from him."

Xhaka is effectively a replacement for the retired Mikel Arteta—a deep-lying distributor who is as tenacious in the tackle as he is intelligent on the ball.  

Last season, central midfield was one of Arsenal’s real problem areas. Wenger will be hoping the addition of Xhaka can restore some bite and balance in the middle of the park.

   

The Bright Young Hope: Alex Iwobi 

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN - AUGUST 07: Alex Iwobi of Arsenal during the Pre-Season Friendly between Arsenal and Manchester City at Ullevi on August 7, 2016 in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images)
Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images

At the start of last season, Alex Iwobi was not even considered a contender for a place in the first-team. Despite an impressive showing in the 2015 Emirates Cup, it was expected he would spend the 2015/16 campaign either in the youth team or out on loan. 

However, by the time the season finished, he had become a regular fixture in Wenger’s XI. Iwobi has a silky maturity to his game and quickly established himself as an integral part of Arsenal’s intricate approach play.

Iwobi recognises that in some respects retaining his place will provide an even greater test. He told the Arsenal website: "The challenge for me is to play as many games as I can, and to try to use the opportunities that I get. Hopefully, like today, I can try to get as many goals and assists as I can."

On the evidence of his pre-season performances, Iwobi will not be letting go of his spot without a fight. 

   

The Welsh Wizard: Aaron Ramsey

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN - AUGUST 07: Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal during the Pre-Season Friendly between Arsenal and Manchester City at Ullevi on August 7, 2016 in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images)
Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images

Aaron Ramsey was one of the stars of Euro 2016. However, the question now is whether or not he will be able to replicate that form in an Arsenal shirt next season.

The key to unlocking his potential may be restoring him to a central role. In each of the last two seasons, Ramsey has had spells on the right flank, but the key to his international performances has been a central berth.

Wenger now seems eager to field him in that position with Arsenal, telling TribalFootball's Paul Vegas:

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.

If Wenger can combine Ramsey and Xhaka in an effective midfield pivot, he will have solved one of the biggest strategic problems with his side.

   

Reviving Rivalries 

There are plenty of teams ready to do battle with Arsenal for the Premier League title. The Gunners boss believes more clubs than ever are equipped to lift England’s biggest prize, telling Simon Collings of the Telegraph: 

Never before [have so many teams been in the title race], but that can make it easier as well.

In that way everyone can drop points. There can be not one team that just walks away with it and nobody can catch.

The hope will be alive in the Premier League for everybody maybe longer than ever and so on that front, if you are consistent, it can as well be easier. 

Manchester United will certainly be hoping to figure in the title race—and Wenger will not enjoy coming up against his nemesis Jose Mourinho once again. That said, Mourinho’s return to English football does give Wenger another chance to try and record a first Premier League victory over his rival. 

It will also be interesting to see how the Gunners fare against neighbours Spurs. Tottenham may have collapsed at the end of last season, but they will take heart from a promising campaign and hope to finally end Arsenal’s north London superiority.

   

Prediction 

As things stand, this is not an Arsenal squad equipped to win the Premier League title. They need more additions, crucially at centre-half and centre-forward. 

However, even with those signings, this looks like a difficult season for the Gunners, who could be dogged by uncertainty over the manager’s position. Every defeat could be painted as a potential nail in the coffin of Wenger’s reign, and the club may soon realise that a definitive announcement one way or the other could be beneficial. 

The club should be able to cling on to their customary Champions League spot, but it’s currently difficult to envisage them doing much better than that. A familiar fourth position could well be on the cards.

   

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.