The Chilean spearheads some shrewd summer signings at the Emirates Stadium but Arsene Wenger may be a player or two short of a Premier League title challenge
With the FA Cup and Community Shield in the bag, a big-money, big-name signing on board and three World Cup winners to come back, things are looking up for Arsenal.
Headline arrival Alexis Sanchez aside, Arsenal’s summer signings have been shrewd, rather than spectacular. The early arrival of the Chilean forward meant that much of the momentum and goodwill created by May’s FA Cup success continued into the early months of the summer – beating Liverpool to the former Barcelona man’s signature helped in that regard.
Arsene Wenger would no doubt have preferred Bacary Sagna to have signed a new contract, rather than see him tread the familiar path from Emirates Stadium to the Etihad - but in Mathieu Debuchy he appears to have found a more than adequate replacement.
The 29-year-old arrives with plenty of Premier League, international and European experience and though defensively he may not offer the same dependability that Sagna guaranteed for virtually his entire Arsenal career, he will provide a greater attacking threat.
The €20 million outlay on Calum Chambers raised eyebrows but the Southampton prodigy has shown enough promise in pre-season to suggest Wenger will again profit from the Saints' prolific youth academy. Chambers has looked at home at centre-back in pre-season and will also provide cover at right-back and most intriguingly in midfield throughout the coming campaign.
David Ospina will represent top class competition for Wojciech Szczesny in the goalkeeping department but the Pole’s improvement last season means that the new signing from Nice is likely to be restricted to cup appearances unless the current No.1 suffers injury or a drastic loss of form.
For the second summer in succession Arsenal have enjoyed the benefit of the mega wealthy European vultures focusing their attentions elsewhere.
Whether it is an indication of Arsenal finally being in a position to withstand the bully boy tactics employed by Barcelona and Manchester City, who have plucked players from north London at will, or not, the fact that Arsene Wenger has been able to pick and choose the players he deems expendable represents a major step in the right direction.
Bacary Sagna’s departure has been offset largely by the signings of Calum Chambers and Mathieu Debuchy – Hector Bellerin also appears to represent a healthy long-term option at right-back – while Thomas Vermaelen has been short of his best form for almost three years now. Injured already, the €19m Barcelona paid Arsenal for the Belgium international could end up representing one of the worst pound for pound deals of the summer.
Squad players Lukasz Fabianski, Nicklas Bendtner, Thomas Eisfeld, Park Chu Young as well as a clutch of youngsters have been offloaded, while the Gunners could also net up to €19m after Real Sociedad activated a €4.5m buy-back clause in Carlos Vela’s contract.
Despite an unprecedented summer’s spend Arsenal’s squad appears to be familiarly short of the depth and balance required to maintain a sustained assault on the Premier League title.
The addition of Alexis has added a sprinkling of stardust to an attack that was devoid of pace and at times imagination last season, particularly once Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey succumbed to injury.
Mesut Ozil was rendered largely impotent as one by one Arsenal’s most direct attacking threats fell by the wayside, spending more time on the treatment table than on the pitch. The signing of Sanchez, Ramsey’s return and Walcott’s impending comeback allied to the additional options provided by Joel Campbell, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should see a side tailored exactly to Ozil’s wants and needs. It is up to him to provide the ammunition, there really can be no room for excuses now.
Despite Yaya Sanogo’s eye-catching, if still erratic, displays in pre-season and Olivier Giroud’s stunning effort in the Community Shield, Arsenal still lack, regardless of Wenger’s intention to turn Alexis into a centre forward, a striker to compare with their likely title rivals but a lack of firepower is unlikely to be their undoing this season.
Wenger has so far relented from signing an authentic holding midfielder, the sort of player that perhaps would have helped prevent his team from the brutal and psychologically damaging results the suffered away from home against Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool last season.
Moreover, it beggars belief that the Arsenal manager is yet to invest in further cover at centre-back. Laurent Koscileny’s Achilles injury and Per Mertesacker’s late return from the World Cup is likely to see a partnership between a 19-year-old rookie and far from rock solid left-back entrusted with the responsibility of steering Arsenal through some tough early season fixtures, as well as a two-legged Champions League play-off against Besiktas.
Arsenal will hope Mesut Ozil justifies his fee and reputation, that Alexis provides the wow factor that has been missing since Robin van Persie was sold and that the coming campaign represents, at long last, defining ones for Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere. Their key man, however, remains Aaron Ramsey.
The Welshman’s rise to prominence neatly mirrored Arsenal’s return to tangible success last season. Written off as weak, scarred and damaged beyond repair Ramsey proved all of his doubters wrong and then some.
Providing tenacity, drive, energy and vision from the heart of midfield the former Cardiff man decorated Arsenal’s early season form which saw them lead the table before an unmanageable workload manifested itself in a near season-ending injury.
Ramsey returned in April to help cement Champions League qualification and provided his side’s season defining moment with the winner in the FA Cup final, his 16th goal of a breakthrough campaign. A smartly taken goal in Sunday’s Community Shield win saw Ramsey pick up from where he left off and demonstrated that last season is unlikely to represent a flash in the pan.
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Few would have forgiven Arsene Wenger for taking the easy option and waltzing off into the sunset with the FA Cup victory providing a fitting end to his Arsenal career back in May. Instead, the Frenchman has opted to sign on for a further three years in the belief he is capable of extracting the most from the best group of players he has had the benefit of working with since the move to Emirates Stadium seven years ago.
In order to do so, however, Wenger will surely have to prove he has learned from the crushing defeats, losses he accepted full responsibility for, his side suffered last season against the Premier League heavyweights.
The Frenchman needs to demonstrate a degree of tactical flexibility, whether in shutting up shop away from home or sacrificing a midfielder for an extra striker at home in order to make short work of the lesser lights. Should he remain wedded to his favoured 4-2-1-3 formation whatever the opposition then Arsenal are likely to fall short again.
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After ending their nine-year wait for a trophy expectation levels have been raised further following the summer arrivals, led by Alexis Sanchez. Winning the Premier League would be an almighty ask given the strength of the teams that finished above Arsenal last season and the strides Manchester United are expected to make under Louis van Gaal.
Still, Arsenal appear to boast many of the tools needed to last the distance and it is worth remembering they finished only seven points off the pace last term despite, even by their standards, an almost unprecedented injury list.
An improvement on fourth place would still represent progress as would a title bid that lasts beyond March and does not falter as a result of all too familiar failings.
Given the size of the squad, Arsenal must target at least the last eight in the Champions League having failed to make a significant impact in the knockout stages of the competition since they reached the final in 2006.
Off the field, given the problems they have often run into with regards to extending the contracts of their star players, sorting out new deals for the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and the like well ahead of schedule would also represent a healthy change of tact.