English Premier League Preview 2011-'12: Arsenal May Struggle To Stay Top 4
Under normal circumstances the old Gunners' cry of "this will be our year" would be on the tips of many Arsenal fans' tongues. However, the likelihood of Arsene Wenger leading his troops to the title looks to be about as far away as it ever has, if not further.
Since 2005, Arsenal has slowly slipped backwards every season. Their decline from greatness has even become something of a perverse form of Chinese water torture for many of the Gunners fans, as they are now significantly lagging behind not only Manchester United and Chelsea but Manchester City too.
For the last two seasons running, the Gunners have finished 12 points behind the eventual winners.
For the fans this is hard to take.
Unfortunately, the same can not be said of the board, and maybe even Arsene Wenger, who all seem more than happy to see the North London outfit perform well in the profit margins. In short, there is a diametric difference between the fans and board.
In May, Wenger said that despite everything the season had still been a successful one for the Gunners. This of course, was the Frenchman's last throw of the dice with his squad as he tried to psychologically stimulate his shell-shocked troops. When his words had no effect he eventually admitted that the 2010-'11 season had been the toughest of his career.
He said; "The last (season) was the toughest season in my career.
"Emotionally, it was very difficult because we were on a low and then you could see the last three or four weeks were very difficult."
Arsenal only won three from 15 after losing to relegated Birmingham City in the Carling Cup Final.
To put it succinctly, the Gunners season crashed and burned after March 1.
Now, as we head towards the 2011-'12 season and turn over a new leaf, Arsenal should be chomping at the bit, ready to go.
Instead, we have had to endure a summer of transfer speculation as players refused to commit their futures to the club and in doing so they have sapped the confidence of the club. And when you play a style of football where confidence is its very foundation, it means the following season is already looking like an uphill battle.
Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, arguably the club's two best players, have both stated their intentions to move on to try and win something while they still can. For Fabregas, that means his on/off transfer/love affair with Barcelona is back in the cards and realistically it should be wrapped up before the transfer window closes.
The problem for Arsenal here, and Wenger knows this, is that Barca have the required £40 million in their bank accounts ready for the deal. But they will drag the negotiations on as long as possible in order to reduce the fee by as much as possible.
This leaves the Gunners in an awkward place. There is no guarantee that the deal will go through, so do they replace Fabregas now with money they don't necessarily have and face his fee being negotiated down as a result of now needing to sell him? Or do they wait until deadline day for the £40 million and hope to replace their captain with whoever is available?
Because no matter which way you look at Wenger's squad, there is no ready-made replacement for the Spaniard.
Then we have Nasri's, Eboue's and Bendtner's potential transfers, before we even mention the departure of Gael Clichy to Manchester City or Denilson's loan move to Sao Paulo in Brazil.
All is not well at the Emirates.
Last season Arsenal was some way behind their rivals in terms of squad strength and there were numerous areas of the pitch that needed strengthening. Not one player of stature was added to the team last year and the Gunners found themselves slipping backwards.
This summer has only seen two arrivals, Carl Jenkinson from Charlton and Gervinho from Lille, for a combined fee of £11.5 million between them.
Again, they both look like classic Wenger signings, but neither will improve the team enough for a title bid.
Where will Arsenal Finish?
And if you believe everything you read, Gervinho had already stated his intent to improve under Wenger before moving on to bigger and better things!
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
Like every season since 2003, Arsenal needs a top quality goal keeper.
In previous years the thinking was that if the Gunners were going to challenge for the title they needed to have someone of stature between the posts and since 2005 that has not been the case. Last season the goalkeeping issue was a major point of concern for football pundits and Arsenal fans alike and the lack of depth in that position was one of the deciding factors in the Gunners' eventual fourth-placed finish.
However, when all things are considered, Arsenal do not need that player this year because they will not win the league. Many openly questioned the wisdom of selling Clichy to Manchester City without taking Shay Given plus cash but why bring in a top class 'keeper when the rest of the team is not up to scratch?
His arrival would only stunt the development of Wojciech Szczesny. Last term the young Pole was one of the season’s great positives and he has done enough to warrant his inclusion for the foreseeable future.
Defence was a problem last year and once again it will provide more than its fair share of trouble. A quick glance at the Gunners squad reveals only six players of regular first team quality, and only two of those are full backs.
Thomas Vermaelan will return to bolster the defence and in all probability he will also take the captain's armband should Fabregas decide to leave, while Sagna and Kieran Gibbs will provide the width on either side of the four-man defence.
The only real question Wenger has to ask of his defence at the moment is who to go with between Djourou, Squillaci and Koscielny. Thankfully Squillaci seems consigned to the bench while a blind man could tell you to go for the reliable Swiss.
However, the haphazard Koscielny started both games in the recent Emirates Cup so the only real thing you can take from that is that Wenger isn't sure about who to trust with Vermaelan and he may yet look to bolster his back line with a centre half of Gary Cahill-type qualities, especially if he is nervous about dropping out of the top four.
That may come to pass if Spurs or Liverpool can strengthen significantly in certain areas. For Tottenham that means a new centre forward while the Reds will be looking to improve a one-paced defensive unit.
Midfield-wise, the arrival of Jack Wilshire solved many problems. But no sooner has the 19-year-old bedded in than it looks like his preferred partners, Nasri and Fabregas, are both moving on. This will leave Wenger with significant ground to cover. Wilshire, phenomenal talent that he is, is still learning his trade and badly needs some experience beside him to help him out when times get rough.
Alex Song is not that kind of player, and if Fabregas moves on much will be expected of the Cameroonian in terms of leadership and, most importantly, creativity. Nasri may stay and rotate with Aaron Ramsey or Abou Diaby but that will still leave the Gunners extremely light weight through the middle, especially if, as expected, Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin are positioned out wide.
So once again, midfield will be a problem area.
In the longer term, Wilshire's arrival may mean Wenger could revert to a 4-4-2 away from the 4-5-1/4-3-3 that he has used over the last couple of seasons.
Up front, Arsenal fans will have great hopes for Gervinho.
The Ivory Coast international is not the most prolific of strikers. He only scored 50 goals in 160 games in France, a much weaker league, but he is physically strong, if not tall (he stands at 5' 10"), and he may be just what Arsene Wenger needs if the Gunners are moving towards a more counter attacking style of football with van Persie dropping off as a link.
But when all is said and done, Arsenal has not improved enough to win the league and they still face the prospect of moving ever backwards again if they lose certain players.
Arsenal's Most Important Player 2011/12: Thomas Vermaelan
The Belgian international has not featured for Arsenal in the EPL since making his 50th appearance for the club last August against Blackburn Rovers and since then a lot of water has passed under the bridge.
Manuel Almunia is no longer first choice 'keeper, Gael Clichy has joined rivals Man City and the club's best two midfielders have stated their intentions to leave so Vermaelan does not return to a happy dressing room.
However, his level of assured performances and leadership skills could have a huge effect on the younger players in the Arsenal dressing room and the 25-year-old may just be the leader the club has been crying out for over the last six years.
If Wenger can keep his prized defender off the treatment table and make significant additions then Arsenal will have a great chance of progressing well in the cup competitions and perhaps sneaking past City if the Champions League takes too much of the Citizens' attentions.
Arsenal's Player To Watch 2011/12: Wojciech Szczesny
If Wenger does not strengthen his defence and midfield the 21-year-old from Warsaw will have an incredibly tough season. And even if Wenger does bring in the required reinforcements the youngster will still be his team’s last line of defence.
Wenger likes his "kids" growing up over the course of a couple of seasons before they are introduced as first team regulars. Szczesny will have to do that and more this year. So far he has only played 15 games for the Gunners but in that short time he has shown that he is far more adept in the dark arts of goalkeeping that either of his chief rivals, Manual Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski. A big season beckons, especially with Euro 2012 kicking off in Poland in June.
Arsenal Prediction 2010/11: Fourth to Sixth
The Gunners have stood still this summer. Perhaps the paralyzing effect of Fabregas and Nasri wanting to leave has helped stay Arsene Wenger's hand in the transfer window, but instead of needing three to four players to challenge for the title Arsenal now face the prospect of needing five or six.
Confidence has been allowed to ebb away from the team, as their recent performances in the Emirates Cup prove, and if Arsene Wenger thought last season was challenging, well he hasn't seen anything yet.
On their day, Arsenal is a match for anyone. Having only lost by the odd goal to Barcelona in the Last-16 and having seen the EPL Champions Manchester United decimated by Barca in the final, hopes should have been high for the new season.
Instead there is a dark ominous cloud hanging over the club. A whopping 69 percent of Arsenal fans reckon that Wenger's football philosophy takes too much precedence over winning trophies while 42 percent of fans feel that if the club finish the 2011-'12 season trophy-less the Frenchman will have taken the club as far as he can.
There is no way around it: This is a make-or-break season for the club.
Spurs and Liverpool are hot on Arsenal's tails while Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City can all either boast more experience, more money or bigger squads.
For Arsenal to win the league they need three to four clubs to collapse while their own players go the season without any major injuries or mistakes. Looking at their defence and Robin van Persie, who averages 23 to 24 games a season, that just isn't going to happen.
Fourth place should be guaranteed unless Spurs can add a Didier Drogba-style striker to their forward line while Liverpool badly needs some wide midfielders and perhaps one or two defenders. Because if Harry Redknapp and Kenny Dalglish can do the business in the transfer market then this could be the first time since 1996 that Arsenal finish outside the top four.
This article was previously published on Premier League Report.
You can follow me on Twitter @WillieGannon
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