Premier League Tactics: What to Watch at Arsenal This Season

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterJuly 27, 2015

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 26:  Mesut Ozil of Arsenal looks on during the Emirates Cup match between Arsenal and VfL Wolfsburg at the Emirates Stadium on July 26, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
David Rogers/Getty Images

The Premier League season is, amazingly, just under two weeks away; on August 8 fans will gather for their well-rehearsed rituals ahead of the weekend's ultimate treat: competitive football's return.

Arsenal's campaign actually starts a full week earlier, as they contest the Community Shield at Wembley on August 2 against Chelsea, squaring off for the right to earn the very first (and admittedly least meaningful) piece of silverware of the 2015-16 campaign.

With that in mind, let's take a tactical look at what we can expect from the Gunners this coming season, what's changed over the summer and what their prospects of a title challenge are. 

1. How Cech Adapts to a High Line

Arsenal's sole major signing of the summer has been Petr Cech, secured for a bargain fee of £11 million from London, Community Shield and Premier League rivals Chelsea. Arsene Wenger stands extremely fortunate that Roman Abramovich's generosity to the player has allowed him to pick up an elite goalkeeper from a direct rival for such a low price.

Cech is a great shot-stopper with superb reflexes, positional intelligence and a great command of his box. He's a strong man, good in the air and stands a serious, serious upgrade on both Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina between the sticks.

But the part of this transfer very few are willing to acknowledge is that Cech's remarkably long list of strengths does not extend to "excels in front of a high defensive line."

John Terry and Jose Mourinho's approach to defending is extremely different to Laurent Koscielny's and Wenger's—where the former have always protected their goalkeeper with a deep line that removes space in behind, the approach of the latter encourages a more aggressive, risky approach.

Credit: Sky Italia

Cech's only real experience at the top level with a high line is under Andre Villas-Boas, and that was an absolute disaster. That period in Chelsea's history flattered no one, but the defence came off looking especially bad.

Unlike Hugo Lloris—a born sweeper keeper who is excellent with the ball at his feet—Cech is slightly more traditional in his approach. That's not an attempt to knock a player who is still one of the top three in his position in the Premier League, but the reality is he will have to do some adjusting.

How quickly will Cech attune to the 10 extra yards between himself and the defensive line? Will he take to sweeping up higher up, when necessary, with ease, or struggle early on? For countless reasons, Arsenal need a strong, confident start to nail themselves in as title challengers. Cech, despite his pedigree, is under pressure to get things right from minute one.

2. Midfield Balance

In the Premier League we've seen hot starts fizzle out and midseason spurts flake into smoking embers. One season, or in this case one half-season, isn't enough to guarantee you're the real deal in such a competitive division.

Arsene Wenger has taken a big gamble in midfield this summer by opting not to purchase a competitor, replacement or insurance policy for Francis Coquelin. However you view his talents moving forward, we can all agree that if the 24-year-old gets injured, the Gunners could descend in midfield imbalance once again.

The importance of the Frenchman's introduction to the XI in 2014-15 cannot be overstated—he immediately stabilised a ship that had been sailing wonky for nigh on five years. In just his third start of the season, away to Manchester City, he brought shape and rigidity to a midfield that's been sorely lacking it—particularly in the big games.

Credit: Sky Sports

Wenger has refused to buy a dedicated anchor midfielder for a long time, passing up on several ambitious potential targets that have come to market; Luiz Gustavo, among many others, have made big moves to other clubs during summers in which Arsenal's need for a player in this ilk has been frustratingly obvious.

The Frenchman initially came in and played at the base of a 4-3-3, but after steadying themselves, Arsenal morphed that back into a 4-2-3-1, with Mesut Ozil as the No. 10 and Santi Cazorla deep alongside Coquelin in the engine room. In the past, those spots have been filled by Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere: two gung-ho, box-to-box midfielders who have shown several times they cannot lock down the centre of the park defensively together.

Coquelin's a starter, likely alongside Cazorla due to the continuation of his sparkling form in pre-season. The problem is, should the former sustain injury or get suspended—a virtual certainty over 50-plus games—the Gunners could return to their naive, soft state.

Wenger was reluctant to use Coquelin and lucked into the stable solution currently being used. Will his reluctance to build upon the "discovery" and buy another defensive midfielder backfire later in the campaign?

3. The Giroud-Ozil-Runner Triumvirate

Armed with a new £130,000-per-week contract, per Metro's Louis Sealey, Olivier Giroud can be safe in the knowledge that Arsenal won't be signing a Karim Benzema or an Alexander Lacazette this summer. He will continue as a vital part of the club's attack.

Giroud has his flaws—notably a severe lack of pace and a penchant for missing key one-on-one chances with goalkeepers—but it's undeniable he's the perfect link striker for Arsenal in certain phases. His ability to play as "The Wall," as Michael Cox brilliantly puts it, opens up the Gunners' quick passing game.

Ozil's first proper pre-season with the club should see him hit the ground running immediately, and if he takes his form from the end of 2014-15 into 2015-16, every defence in the league should be on red alert. Arsenal have a clear pass path marked out: Play to Giroud, lay it off to Ozil, who finds the runner in the channels ahead.

Credit: Sport Diretta

The German's passing borders on ridiculous at times—he sees avenues and openings others simply do not—and the key for Arsenal is to get fast players running ahead of him so he can pick them out. The Emirates Cup showed how valuable it can be to allow Ozil to wait and pick his pass, with both Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scoring good goals directly off his service.

Giroud may not be the quickest, but if Arsenal can surround him with pace and allow their magnificent German to pull the strings, they'll score goals for fun and punish teams just like they did with Lyon.

4. Theo Walcott's One-Two Punch

Another key decision Wenger must make this summer is how Walcott will be used. The player wants to be used as a central striker, and his manager is on record stating his belief that he can emulate Thierry Henry and make the switch in position, per Colin Mafham of the Express.

On the final day of last season, Walcott bullied West Bromwich Albion and scored a magnificent hat-trick. That saw him start the FA Cup final, in which he tore the Aston Villa defence apart at the seams and netted the opener in a big win. In pre-season he's also looked good, scoring a proper "striker's goal" in Singapore against Everton to affirm his comfort in the middle.

Giroud and Walcott form a big man-small man partnership, except they never take to the pitch together as a striking pair. It's one or the other, allowing Wenger to choose his approach on a game-by-game basis.

Credit: FOX

Walcott's searing pace and directness, coupled with his returning confidence in front of goal following a bad knee injury, appears to be interesting Wenger more than Giroud's reliable chest control. But the question is whether the speedster can impact against the better defensive lines; it's all well and good being a flat-track bully, but if you go missing against John Terry and Co., Arsenal can't win the title.

It's quite often longed for by fans, but splicing the two men would create the all-star, all-powerful striker the Gunners truly need. Walcott has as much to prove as Giroud this season, and the marker for progression will be how well he does as a centre-forward against Europe's best defences.

5. The Ox's Ascent

Arsenal will likely spend the first few weeks of the season without, or at least partially without, their best player from last season: Alexis Sanchez. That's a problem for any club, but Arsenal have good depth in his position and have one player, arguably, who can can claim he's pretty similar to the Chilean stylistically.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain needs a big season, and the first few games could represent a chance to seize. On face value he takes a place on the bench—he's not displacing Cazorla, Ramsey, Coquelin, Ozil or Alexis when fit, is he?—so his only hope for 25 starts this season is to start fast and carry on.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 26:  Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of Arsenal moves away from Daniel Caligiuri during the Emirates Cup match between Arsenal and VfL Wolfsburg at the Emirates Stadium on July 26, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Imag
David Rogers/Getty Images

What Alexis brings to this Arsenal side—hard running, tenacity, speed, work rate, good technical ability and, perhaps most importantly, the willingness to shoot from distance when the slow build-up isn't working—can be replicated by "The Ox." No one in this squad does what those two do, tactically speaking.

With Alexis "in the red" for much of last season and physically exhausted from a gruelling Copa America 2015 tournament, Wenger has granted the energizer bunny an extended period off. In fact, he was already worrying and complaining about the situation during the post-match press conference at the FA Cup final, revealing the Chilean would take a four-week holiday after the summer tournament finished.

This is the window for Ox to replicate his skill set and give Wenger something to think about.

Projection

Wenger is rolling the dice this season; he's expected to challenge for the Premier League title due to the addition of Cech and the settling of what is now a very good side, but he might fall short in the striking department.

It's an exhausted argument, but it's no less true than it was three years ago, and opting to award Giroud a new £130,000-per-week contract signals the club's decision to place faith in Giroud (and Walcott) to score the requisite goals.

There may be a decision to make in three spots on the defensive line at some point, as Hector Bellerin continues to hold off the far more expensive Mathieu Debuchy, Per Mertesacker's battle with Gabriel Paulista stiffens and Nacho Monreal fights to keep Kieran Gibbs on the bench. Only Laurent Koscielny is safe in the knowledge that his place is there for him every week.

That competition in defence is a commodity the Gunners have seldom had over the last few years, and with the addition of Cech it makes their defensive unit as strong as it's ever been. The midfield is so stacked Jack Wilshere can't get a game and Mikel Arteta is being hurried into a part-coaching role

The only concern is up front.

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