The new season gets underway tomorrow, and in traditional style I’ll be making some sensible and less than sensible predictions for coming nine months. It hasn’t been the best of summers, and I sincerely hope that our transfer activity isn’t finished, otherwise we’re pretty thin on the ground, but at the same time I don’t think we’re nearly in as bad shape as some are making out.
Everywhere I look, I see predictions putting us outside the top four, which is hardly a surprise – most predictions have had us fifth before each of the last five seasons, and with all the furore around the current summer, it was hardly likely that those who have profited from our summer of angst would suddenly see our squad in a bright light. That said, the ‘top four’ placing is under more threat than in any season in recent memory, simply because the Big Four is no more – Man City have certainly added to the mix, and it won’t be Liverpool missing out every year.
As such, I’m not expecting us to suddenly become English football’s dominant force, but equally I’m not predicting the end of days. The truth, as ever, is somewhere in between.
League Prediction – 3rd (Man United champions)
For all the noises about our lack of summer activity, we’ve actually been as prolific in the market as most of our rivals. The worry stems more from the players who may yet leave, will little regard to the possibility that others may come in as direct replacements. It is indicative of the strange breed of fan we seem to have in spades, those that only see the bad, never the promise, and on occasion delight in the disappointing days because it affords them the opportunity to blaze an ‘I told you so‘ trail across the internet.
I always feel refreshed at this point of the year – for all our worries and fears, we actually don’t know what lies ahead. That said, it is worth looking at the activity of those around us, and consider that until that dreadful collapse at the end of the season, we were comfortably ahead of all bar Man United. We’re not as bad as you may think.
Speaking of the champions, they have brought in Phil Jones and Ashley Young, while replacing the retiring Van der Sar with a keeper half his age. I still see them as the benchmark, and would not be surprised to see the retain the title. As for Chelsea, they have been quiet, and their old squad gets even older. That said, they have an excellent young manager, and even with Essien missing I can see them finishing second.
Beyond those two, however, I don’t believe we should be behind anyone come the season end. City are probably the biggest threat, but for all their spending it still feels like they lack something, as I don’t think they will be consistent enough to push on from last year, especially with a Champions League adventure to distract them. Liverpool will improve, but I look at signings like Downing and Henderson and think ‘those are the sort of signings Spurs make‘. And where do Spurs usually finish? 5th-6th.
As I said earlier, Liverpool will not miss out on the top four every season, but I don’t see any of their signings propelling them back into the mix just yet. They have lifted themselves away from Spurs, but I still feel they are between the top four and the rest, and as such I can see the top four places because taken up with the same teams as last year.
In conclusion – we’re better than Liverpool and Spurs, we’re behind United and Chelsea, and City will get distracted by a Champions League run. Third it is.
Cup Prediction – kids in the Carling Cup, and a run in the FA Cup
So close to lifting the Carling Cup last season, but once that final was lost, we collapsed in horrific fashion. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wenger saw that as some kind of justification for the approach he took to the competition in previous years, and I’d expect a return to it being used as a test arena for some of the younger players. However, if that happens, I expect more effort being put into the FA Cup than usual. I’m not saying we will end our trophyless spell, but we should give it a go.
As for the Champions League, I’m mixed. The group stage never holds many fears, so if we got that far I’d expect us to qualify with our usual ease. But the preliminary round is arguably harder, and I have to say I’m a touch nervous ahead of the tie with Udinese. Get through that, and I expect us to reach the knockout stages, although I still don’t feel we have enough to go all the way.
Transfer Prediction – Cesc, Nasri, Almunia, Bendtner and Eboue to leave, one central defender and one central midfielder to arrive
Before you go ballistic on me, please be aware that this is not what I want to happen, rather it is what I believe will happen. A couple of the exits may be on loan, particularly Bendtner, given his desperation to leave this summer, but I would be surprised to see any of that quintet pull on the red and white after this month. As for those coming in, I would be staggered if we didn’t complete on one of our defensive targets, and allowing Cesc and Nasri to both leave would surely be dependent on at least one more player replacing them in midfield.
If that all happens, then I see two major holes in our squad. One is at left back, where Gibbs has issues with both consistency and fitness, but the bigger one is up front. Unless we’re looking to move to a Barcelona model of a wealth of attacking midfielders with no out and out forward (Villa changed that, certainly, but without him they function in a unique way), we are seriously lacking in a backup for Van Persie. Chamakh looked woeful in pre-season, Bendtner and Vela may be shipped out, so who remains?
There are possibilities – either Gervinho or Walcott could play through the middle, or who knows, we might see Arshavin in the target man role again. That went well, right?
Player of the Season – Thomas Vermaelen
Simply put, if we are to succeed this season, we need to defend better, and that stems from better organisation. If Cesc leaves, I hope Vermaelen is given the vice captaincy behind Van Persie, and marshals the back four as we’ve needed someone too. We missed him badly last year, and a fit season could see him establish himself as one of the finest defenders in the league.
Breakthrough of the Season – Laurent Koscielny
Some would hand this to Aaron Ramsey, but I’m loathed to expect too much of the Welshman, after seeing what terrible injuries did to Diaby and Eduardo. Ramsey is a class act, but we should be mindful of what he has been through and how that can affect careers. So instead I’m plumping for another defender, a man who impressed me greatly last season, and could really push on this year. He was inconsistent as times in his debut season, but I expect bigger and better things this time around.
Press Target – Jack Wilshere
Young Jack was awesome last season, and will be again this time around. But I would give a word of warning – the media love to build someone up and then pull the rug from under their feet, and it feels like they’ve pushed him as high as they are willing to. Expect a media bashing when he has the inevitable dip that all young players have. How he deals with that will be telling – I expect him to ride that wave well.
Fan Target – Marouane Chamakh
It seems many of the Arsenal fanbase need someone to lampoon, but with Eboue and Bendtner on their way out, Almunia forgotten, and Squillaci relegated to fifth choice if we bring in the expected central defender, they are suddenly short of options. Cue Chamakh, who can expect some unhelpful abuse from the unhelpful idiots who think lambasting a player short of confidence is someone conducive to helping your team.
And that is about that. As I said at the top, I have been disappointed by the summer, and I don’t think we’re in ideal shape – even a signing or two would probably leave us short for a genuine title challenge. But I still laugh at those putting us around sixth – compare our squad to the likes of Spurs and you might change your mind. Another trophyless season? Perhaps, but not a disastrous one either.
Here we go again.