With the 2012-13 English Premier League season on the horizon, Tezini’s crew of soccer experts is here to get you ready for all the cracking finishes, devilish challenges and unforgettable drama. Over the next two weeks, we’ll give each club its proper due in a free-flowing roundtable discussion. We continue with Arsenal.
AJ: I’ve felt this way about Arsenal for quite some time. I’ve probably harangued all of you about it at some point. But allow me to put it into words once more. Arsenal, with their French manager, their tradition of recent success, their rabid worldwide fanbase, their at times slavish devotion to a system for building a club, and, most importantly, their location in the beating heart of England’s media capital, are often painted as a club in crisis, despite the fact that the results on the pitch during this mini-title drought almost wholly contradict that perception.
Put more succinctly, Arsenal are just fucking fine, and the shirt Robin van Persie is wearing Sept. 3 [Ed. Note: It'll be Manchester United red], as I’ve argued on this site before, probably won’t change that simple fact. So, dear English media and hyperventilating fans (both of whom seem to delight in painting Arsene Wenger as a foppish incompetent), can we stop pretending that the Gooners’ ship is about to be dashed upon the proverbial rocks? I see plenty more Champions League football in this team’s future.
To get down to brass tacks, I’m actually quite bullish on what Arsenal has done so far this summer. Unlike last summer, when the protracted Cesc Fabregas transfer saga seemed to leave Wenger holding a bag filled with Park Chu-Yongs, Mikel Artetas and Andre Santoses, the Gunners seem quite prepared for the impending departure of van Persie. Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski are in, along with Santi Cazorla. That’s enough firepower in my estimation, to make up for a possible RVP departure, and it’s a necessity even if they manage to keep him on, since they can’t expect him to repeat his 2011-12 campaign in the health department if nowhere else. It doesn’t transform them into title contenders in my eyes, but barring a PSG-style spending binge, Arsenal is going to need its young players already on hand — Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Song [Ed. Note: Maybe not Song, as he's off to Barcelona potentially], Jack Wilshere — to instigate that sort of transformation.
Despite all the nailbiting, I guess I’d argue that Arsenal are actually one of the most stable clubs in the Premier League and have been for quite some time. It never seems that way, but maybe perception isn’t supposed to match reality given the particulars of the spotlight shone on the Emirates.
Mark: I’ve been a full-throated supporter of Arsenal selling high on Van Persie, given that until last year he hadn’t played in more than 30 league games and is going to command an absurd fee for someone 29 years of age. Yes, they’ll miss his goalscoring and yes, it would be preferable if he ended up somewhere in Italy rather than up the road in Manchester. But Wenger and Co. seem to have sensed his departure early and brought in some new toys — and I emphasize the plural because RVP’s production needn’t be replaced by just one guy. Of the three new attacking toys Wenger has brought in, I’m bullish on Podolski (who, inexplicably, is two years younger than RvP) adjusting to life in the Prem quite nicely, but that’s based on a hunch more than anything. Plus, unlike Van Persie, I’m fairly sure Podolski doesn’t seriously (if inadvertently) injure children.
Last season was a bit of a reversal of what we usually see from Arsenal, though not entirely. They got off to a putrid start, at least partially caused by the late-in-the-game departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri last summer. Their finish, which is usually putrid, was slightly better than in years past though still not great. They also (gasp!) showed quite a bit of character by coming back in a number of games to grab points. Even without the awful start, there’s no way this team would have caught either of the Manchesters, but I’m continually surprised by Arsene Wenger’s inability to coach his team to a solid finish year after year. Is it a lack of depth catching up at the end of a grueling campaign? Is it bad luck? Is it an excessive devotion to young players whose sea legs are simply not ready? I don’t know, but it’ll be interesting to see if this team, a year older and mostly intact (save for possibly RVP), can finally man up when May hits.
For a team whose image is built on short passing and finesse, Arsenal were quite aggressive in 2011-12, finishing with the fifth highest yellow card tally in the league and fifth highest in tackles per game as well. I’d say Alex Song, the non-Van Persie MVP of this team, and Laurent Koscielny, should cut back on the fouling a bit, but it’s not like most of Arsenal’s fouls were in a dangerous spot — they still conceded the fewest shots per game of anyone in the Prem. If reports are true and Song is off to Barcelona (which is just so effing predictable), a lot of that sneaky toughness is gone, and with it my bullishness on this team.
I feel like everyone says this every year, but it’s high time we figured out what Arsenal’s starlets are made of. I feel like I’ve been waiting for Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshire to take the league by storm for four years now, and while that’s probably not fair, all these departures sure have opened up a red carpet. You can excuse Wilshire’s delay because of injuries (he’s out until at least October), but isn’t it time Theo Walcott stopped doing his impression of the fast kid on skates who couldn’t stop in Mighty Ducks 2 and started learning how to give better service from the right? Wojciech Szczesny seems to have planted himself in the goalkeeper role without having a complete mental meltdown, which would be funny if it weren’t an actual upgrade for this side. You’ve also mentioned The Ox, AJ, who seems to have leapt over Theo and Jack as the next great hope at the Emirates — and deservedly so, probably. Per Mertesacker, along with Koscielny, gave them some unspectacular stability in central defense that they haven’t had in years. There are just very few weaknesses and scabs at which we can pick, which I suppose isn’t surprising given that we’re talking about Arsenal.
At the end of the day though, it seems that Arsenal are a sports car going downhill stuck in neutral. I obviously see this team competing for Champions League football (indeed, I see them finishing fourth behind United, City, and Chelsea), but they finished 19 points back of the leaders last season, and that ground is very certainly not going to be made up given this offseason. But also, doesn’t this team run at least a small Liverpudlian risk of failing to properly replace players and taking a tumble down the table? I, like you, don’t buy that scenario, but I understand why it’s on the minds of the club’s fans. Frankly, for a team who seems to lose their top two players every year (and may yet this summer), third or fourth as the new normal is not an insignificant feat.
AJ: It brings up another question altogether to me — were Arsenal ever designed to compete in a league that has such financial clout at this stage? It seems to me that the Gooners’ glory days coincided with a more fiscally sane time and that, in that sense, the league has passed them by. There’s no one to blame for this, by my estimation, though I’m guessing that won’t be nearly enough to satiate Arsenal fans, who see the revenue generated by the Emirates, remember the Invincibles of the not so distant pass and look across town to Stamford Bridge and up north to Old Trafford and the Etihad and wonder “hey, why can’t that be us?”
As a Newcastle fan, I can’t begin to feel sorry for them. They’re still one of the best teams in England, and while they’re closer to the 5-7 pack than the 1-3 pack at this stage, they still seem to have plenty of breathing room in that final Champions League slot.
RVP and Song going makes for a devastating day, but at least there are, as you’ve rightly pointed out, replacements already on hand for the former and time to find one (or several) for the latter, with a now-ample transfer kitty to boot. I’m sticking to my sky-is-not-falling pontification. With or without these players, you’re right Mark, it’s all on Arsenal’s vaunted next generation (that feels like it’s been coming along for, yes, about four seasons) to step up.