Here we go again.
After a summer that was equal parts tumultuous and calm, the former due to the unfamiliarity of a managerial change and the off field shenanigans of the last week and the latter due to getting our transfer business done early, Arsenal head into a new season with much less certainty than previous years. That could be good, that could be bad, but one thing is for sure – it makes predictions a whole lot harder. Still….
Looking at the squad, some clear gaps have been filled – Torreira is an exciting new addition in midfield, there is competition for Cech and a mix of experience and youth at the back – but a lot depends on how well they settle, how the existing players adjust to Emery’s methods, and how effective those methods are over a long season.
The team looks strong on paper, with centre half being the area causing most concern, especially with Koscielny out long term. There’s a certain amount of depth across the board, but what is most intriguing is that the first team does not pick itself. Who starts in goal? Centre half? How do Lacazette and Aubameyang fit together?
Short answer – no-one knows, and after the predictability of the latter Wenger years that is exciting in itself. Time will tell whether that excitement leads to thrills or regret. In the meantime, let’s make some predictions!
Premier League Top Six
1. Man City, 2. Liverpool, 3. Spurs, 4. Arsenal, 5. Man United, 6. Chelsea
I can’t see past Man City to retain their title, I really can’t. The only real hope for the chasing pack is that their motivation dips after such an incredible season, and there is evidence behind that – no team has retained the league title since Man United ten years ago – but I think they still have too much.
Liverpool have strengthened well and should finish second, no matter how many pundits think (for the millionth time) that this will be their year. Behind that, it gets a lot closer.
The North London race will be tighter this year, but one advantage Spurs have after their lack of transfer activity is……their lack of transfer activity. They’ve retained players as well as not purchased, so they should hit the ground running. On the other hand, Arsenal will be a work in progress under Emery and I expect Spurs to win the battle to third this year. But, and this is a big but – the aim has to be to make this the last year that happens. North London is red, after all.
Man United are hard to predict – excellent personnel but Mourinho is into his dreaded third season and showing his usual grumpiness – I’d be surprised to see him still there at the start of next season. While I hope for a spectacular implosion as we saw at Chelsea, I think they’ll have enough to remain above his former club, who will struggle for goals.
Other teams to watch
Everton strengthened well at the end of the window and should be a totally different prospect under Silva. They might challenge for the top six if one of those clubs has a poor season. Likewise, Fulham spent like an established top ten team – they will be fascinating to watch.
Huddersfield, Cardiff, Watford
Part of me wants Cardiff to do well. The other part looks at Neil Warnock and wants him to have a miserable season.
Arsenal Player of the Season
It’s time. Coming off being blamed for Germany’s abysmal World Cup, and subsequently retiring from international football, there’s a feeling that Arsenal still hasn’t seen the best of Ozil. With a new manager building his team around him, a little bit of anger in him will do no harm, and I think he could star.
Elsewhere, Mkhitaryan could step up under Emery – with a team pressing around him he could find himself in pockets of space from which to do serious damage. And Aubameyang is a genuine Golden Boot contender.
Big Season For…
Bellerin, Mustafi, Xhaka
Bellerin and Mustafi are in similar positions – both had largely disappointing campaigns marked by individual errors, and both have doubts over them going into this campaign. For Bellerin, it surrounds his fitness and pace – he seems to have lost a yard and at his tender age that is a concern – and for Mustafi, it is whether his flaws can be ironed out by a new manager.
Granit Xhaka is an interesting one. I’ve gone on record before in saying that he is someone I’d love to see under new guidance, and I expect big things this year. He has the tools – he is technically excellent, a good passer and has a rocket shot – but he has issues with concentration and awareness that drifted under Wenger’s tutelage. In my opinion those can be resolved, and if they are there is a serious player there. How he and Torreira fit into the same team is another question.
While a cup run would be a welcome distraction, and the Europa League is one Emery knows how to win having done so three times with Sevilla, this season is all about the bread and butter of the league, and anything else is a bonus. Sort out the abysmal away form, get into that top four and move forward.
The Emery Factor
This is the biggest unknown of the lot – how will the players respond to Emery’s high-energy, pressing demands? How will he cope with a league with no ‘rest weeks’ (remember that in both Spain and France, the big clubs can play at 80% many weeks and still win)? Can he wind up Jose Mourinho with subtle digs and win us all over?
He’ll need patience. Man City is a fearsome opener and Arsenal are rightly strong underdogs for that game. A draw against Chelsea isn’t a bad result so we could easily have one point or none after two games, and if that happens, everyone has to stay calm. The press won’t, the fans must.
I’m cautiously optimistic but I suspect the overriding word that will ultimately describe this season is ‘transitional‘. That’s not a dirty word – Man United would have loved transitional instead of the more cutting descriptions of the Moyes tenure, but expectations can’t be set too high. Last season we finished 37 points off the top (32 from the bottom), 12 from the top four, and miles behind Spurs. Progression, even gradual, is all we should ask for.