Every time a new season approaches, Arsenal fans are filled with hope that the new season will not be like the last one, and that Wenger's "experiments" will this time pay off. I'm one of those hopeless romantics as well.
I can't imagine Arsenal playing anything less than brilliant, beautiful attacking football with a shrewd, talented squad...but I fear the lack of results these past five seasons could have bigger repercussions this season than they have in seasons past.
Le Prof is in the final year of his contract at Ashburton Grove. He himself noted in an interview with Arsenal.com that the "end of his current contract will be a serious 'check-point' in his career."
Of course, without a trophy, Wenger might not be the only one in danger of leaving North London, with players like Cesc Fabregas , Gael Clichy, and others being courted by outside clubs.
So, needless to say, this campaign is going to be one of special significance for the Gunners. It is nothing less than a make-or-break season, and Arsenal need to begin with their best foot forward in order to make a serious title challenge.
But how prepared are they? Is their preparation better or worse than previous years? Is the Arsenal squad ready yet?
My answer is no. Not yet. But they can be. Wenger has the pocketbook and the time (if only just) to begin his campaign the right way. If there ever was a time for using up your resources or pulling out a secret weapon, it is now.
I'll begin by noting the area in which Arsenal looks to be the strongest. Arsenal's midfield has been nothing short of spectacular this pre-season, showing plenty of flair and creativity from a number of sources.
If there was one person to point to who seems to be on the verge of a killer year at the Emirates, it is Samir Nasri .
The talented Frenchman seems to have transformed himself into a multifaceted midfield maestro in the off-season, almost as if to show Raymond Domenech what he missed out on. His white-hot pre-season form can only bode well for the midfield contingent.
Of course, in Cesc Fabregas and Alexandre Song , Arsenal have two other consistent, top-class performers to rely on for the upcoming campaign, but their young proteges, Jack Wilshere and Emmanuel Frimpong have shown fantastic maturity and promise in the last few games.
Wilshere has been a creative midfield force, while Frimpong has looked like a new hybrid of Song and Vieira , clamping down the back of midfield astutely, even against opposition such as AC Milan.
Don't be surprised if the youngsters step into the shoes of their older counterparts a few times this season.
Rounding out the rest of midfield, Arsenal has no dearth of talent with the attack-minded Tomas Rosicky , the improving Denilson , the fan-favorite Eboue , and the promising Aaron Ramsey , who is returning from injury.
Abou Diaby , one of the only Frenchmen who seemed to be half-decent at the World Cup, will also be back, adding more guile and firepower to the central section of the Arsenal formation.
With this group, I can imagine several excellent midfield combinations which would work well together, no matter the formation Wenger eventually decides on.
The Front Line
Arsenal's striking force this season seems to be as potent as last season's. I don't want to get ahead of myself here, but if Marouane Chamakh's performance against AC Milan is any indication, he fits right into Arsenal's brand of flowing, attacking football and knows how to time his runs perfectly, not to mention his fantastic aerial presence.
And while some may criticize Robin van Persie for his performance at the World Cup, I believe their accusations are somewhat short-sighted.
The Dutch squad purposefully left van Persie up front alone to deal with defenses on his own, but, more importantly, create chances for Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder while the opposing defenses panicked over shutting down the Arsenal striker.
Can anyone say that didn't work well? It brought the Oranje tantalizingly close to their first World Cup crown.
There was a reason the shrewd Brent van Marwik kept van Persie in the starting lineup, folks, and for that same reason, he will once again shine for the Gunners this season, provided he stays fit and healthy.
The left side of the field will most likely feature Andrey Arshavin yet again, though I believe Wenger should have the stones to remove the Russian if he is going through a slump.
But overall, he is a valuable player and a hard worker who can come up big for Arsenal in important games (I'm hoping for another fantastic performance at Anfield for the Liverpool-killer to start the campaign).
Nicklas Bendtner is temporarily on the bench due to his nagging groin injury, but once healthy, he will provide a capable replacement to van Persie or Chamakh as central striker whenever one of them is less-than-fit.
Call him clumsy, call him non-lethal, but nobody can deny that he did a great job filling in for van Persie during his absence last season, as far as numbers go.
Although he may not be as silky-smooth as the Dutchman or the Frenchman, he has an eye for goal, and more often than not his positioning and goal-poaching abilities are stellar.
He also provides a decent aerial threat, and coupling him with Chamakh could provide Wenger with some height and strength in his front line if he chooses to do so.
Of course, another exciting, attacking force in the front line is Theo Walcott , who I firmly believe will, like Samir Nasri, show his nation's World Cup coach what he missed.
Walcott's major problem is, I feel, that he needs creative players and leaders around him in order to shine.
He will most likely outgrow that as he gets more experienced, but the fact is that last season he performed far better when he was in a first-string Arsenal lineup than otherwise.
However, he is a player capable of changing the game when needed, and he is perhaps one of the best impact substitutes in the Premier League.
Finally, the two youngsters who have yet to prove themselves, Carlos Vela and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas , will most likely get a chance to shine against weaker opposition such as Blackpool or West Ham, providing the regulars such as Chamakh and van Persie time to rest so as to stay fresh for the bigger matches.
The loss of Eduardo I think weighs heavily on the hearts of many fans, but his mediocre performances since his horrific ankle injury will likely not be missed.
I think his departure will give more room for the up-and-coming youngsters to shine in a revitalized Arsenal attack.
So, while some proclaim that Arsenal need at least one more striker, I am not so sure. Yes, we only have a few proven attacking forces in the front line, but Arsenal's attack comes more from the fusion and fluid exchange between attacking midfield and central strikers than from lone strikers.
Arsenal have always been a potent attacking force as the goal tallies show, and will remain so this season. The problem lies elsewhere.
Now we come to the sections which demonstrate Arsenal's lack of preparedness for this season. On paper, it was hard to criticize the members of Arsenal's back four individually.
Bacary Sagna is a consistent performer on the right side, and with Eboue filling in once in a while, and Havard Nordveit gaining experience there too, right back looks to be a solid position.
Same story for left back. Gael Clichy (while some may disagree) is a valuable, talented defender on the right side who has the ability to get ahead and provide dangerous crosses to those inside the penalty box.
Of course, if Clichy just isn't your cup of tea, Arsenal also possess the promising youngster Kieran Gibbs , who might even have been in contention for the England squad had it not been for his injury. I mean, even Armand Traore is half-decent. Left back is covered.
Additionally, last year's pairing of Vermaelen and William Gallas was quite strong as well. Both were tough defenders who could even score goals on occasion.
So what was the problem? I think there were three main ones.
1) Arsenal lacked a hard-nosed merciless mentality of a defender who loves tackling as much as scoring, and can strike fear in the heart of opposing defenses; somebody who loves to stay back and shut down any attackers who look to enter the sacred realm of the Arsenal penalty box.
2) When one of the center backs were injured, we were left with a less-than capable replacement in Mikael Silvestre . And while Sol Campbell performed admirably, he was not the ever-present defensive rock he used to be.
3) They lacked a goalkeeper who could take command of his area and marshal his defenders into forming an impenetrable wall. Jens Lehmann could do it. David Seaman could do it. Manuel Almunia just can't. But more on the goalkeepers later.
The point is, Arsenal were prone to momentary slip-ups in which they would allow goals and end up with draws or losses in games which they should have won. That is simply not a characteristic shared by a championship team.
The question now remains: has the situation improved for this season?
1) Is new boy Laurent Koscielny capable of being the tough, fear-inducing center back we need? Maybe. He loves physical play, as he has said himself, and can't wait for the Premier League season to start.
Couple that with Vermaelen, who has now spent a season getting more accustomed to the play of the English League, and we've got two central defenders who are capable of being forceful and resolute.
The combination of the two may be enough to strike a change from last season.
2) This is where I start getting really concerned. Let's say Vermaelen or Koscielny get injured. Or start getting very fatigued. What happens? Do we have a capable enough replacement in the back to take over?
We must not use Alex Song or Emmanuel Frimpong as a makeshift center-back like last season.
Johan Djourou is back to full fitness, and while he is a promising defender, I'm not going to be deluded into believing that after such a long absence, he will be able to slip into the rigors of the Premier League season without trouble.
Moreover, it's simple math...we lost four experienced center backs this season: Gallas, Silvestre, Senderos , and Campbell. We brought in only one, and got one back from injury.
We could maybe use Nordveit if he's up for it, but he still remains young and inexperienced in a position where Arsenal need experience more than anything else (personally, I feel the loss of Campbell was the biggest blow this off-season, as he provided experience and could serve as a capable replacement in the absence of the starting center backs).
Arsenal need one, if not two more experienced center backs. Wenger has the money to do it, and he needs to ASAP.
Per Mertesacker's addition would be amazing, though I fear defenders like him might be put off when they consider that they will most likely not have as many first-team starts as they would at their home club.
But whatever happens, Le Prof needs to work his magic and his pocketbook to bring someone to the Emirates before the season starts. Else this entire campaign may be in vain.
And now the position that makes me most nervous: the guy in front of the "Ol' Onion Bag." As I alluded to before, we need a goalkeeper who is both a consistent, good performer with great base skills, and is able to take command of his penalty box and make strikers nervous whenever they enter the area. Can any one of our goalkeepers do that? Let's review:
Manuel Almunia? Only good on occasion, but can't command the penalty box as well as he should.
Lukasz Fabianski ? Has talent, but is far from consistent, and let's just say I wouldn't feel confident and safe if I was a defender with him behind me in net.
Vito Mannone ? Talented, but again not super-consistent, though I feel he has enough confidence to become so, given more experience.
And Wojciech Szczesny ? Supremely talented, confident, and commanding, considered by Wenger and most fans to be the future No. 1 of Arsenal, but is simply not experienced enough yet.
The ideal situation would be to bring in an experienced Premier League keeper who could serve as No. 1 for a few seasons while training Szczesny and Mannone to take over once they get slightly older.
Yes, I'm thinking Mark Schwarzer . He is consistent, commanding, and reaching the twilight of his career. Bingo.
So overall, Arsenal need to bring in an experienced defender and an experienced goalkeeper before they can be considered ready for the upcoming season. And in fact, I'm a little concerned that Wenger has waited so long to buy one of them.
Just look at the situation: this is the make-or-break season at Arsenal, and for the first time in a few seasons, Arsenal have a decent-sized war chest to use. It seems like a perfect time to spend.
I'm not saying become like Manchester City and buy anybody who's been in the headlines for a ridiculously high price, but is it too much to pay a little bit more than the Wenger bargain price for a quality defender or goalkeeper?
Bringing in the likes of Per Mertesacker and Mark Schwarzer would work wonders at the Emirates, and Arsenal's trophy collection might get a new addition as a result.
Invest, Le Prof, it's time for silverware.