Groan’s Arsenal Season Preview and Predictions – 2018/19

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Aug 102018
 

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, Fulham

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.

Relegated

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

Mesut Ozil

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.

Other Competitions

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Wenger coverage is just plain weird

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Feb 182017
 

I am baffled.

The BBC 10 o’clock news has a slot towards the end for a sports bulletin, roughly three minutes long. That isn’t a lot of time, and coverage is usually the verbal version of bullet points – short, snappy, blink and you miss it.

Not tonight. Instead of a series of twenty second headlines, the timeslot was entirely given over to the Arsene Wenger obituary. Or at least that was how it seemed. Reflections on his career, from the ‘Arsene who?‘ introductions, through Bergkamp, Henry, the Invincibles and the recent FA Cup triumphs before ending with the Bayern thrashing. Three minutes to cover twenty years isn’t much, so it was still a speedy retrospective, but anyone missing the opening few seconds could be forgiven for thinking the man had died. Or at the very least abruptly walked away from football.

What brought all this on? One single quote, from the morning press conference:

“No matter what happens I will manage for another season. Whether it’s here or somewhere else, that is for sure”

We all know that the press like to take a single sentence soundbite and create a story out of it (and in fairness, they would have no chance of filling a 24 hour ‘news’ cycle if they didn’t) but this is ridiculous. This is Wenger simply saying ‘I’m not retiring‘ and was in direct response to a question asking him whether he ever got tired of it all and considered packing it in. Essentially, he just said ‘no‘.

Yet all day, this single sentence has been taken as a hint that he will move on at the end of the season. Don’t get me wrong, I think that is very possible, but I cannot for the life of me see how this sentence is supposed to be the ultimate signal. Just prior to this question, he had said that he was yet to make a decision on his Arsenal future, and would do so in the spring. That is no different to previous contracts – he always leaves it late to decide and he always bats away such lines of questioning in the meantime.

So, to sum up, he hasn’t made a decision on his Arsenal future yet, he will do so in the same timeframe as he always has, and he isn’t so fed up of management that he wants to retire yet.

So where is the news story from all this?

I don’t understand why anyone expected any different. Arsene Wenger, for all his flaws, is a considered man. He isn’t going to make a decision on his future based on the emotional fallout from any single football match. The picture is much bigger for him than that, more so than it could be for any of us. The straw that breaks our back is never the same one that will break his.

So anyone expecting him to resign (and the enlarged press presence seemed to suggest some considered this a possibility) or indicate that he was going to was, frankly, deluded. And if his mind is going the other way, he is smart enough to know that now would be a very bad time to say he plans to stay. That left one option – the politician’s approach – calmly answer questions, saying much without saying much at all. He is well practised at handling the press, and giving them nothing is something he can do whenever he wishes.

He gave them nothing, and yet they still created a story that simply doesn’t exist. The sharks are circling (which was evident by every one of the questions put to him this morning), and we can all understand why that is the case. Wenger does too, and despite multiple attempts to get him to say that the coverage of him has been unfair, he refused. He knew that biting would add to the ‘senile old man‘ angle that many are leaning towards right now, unfairly in my view. I don’t think it is unreasonable to be seriously questioning his future, and I can see all the arguments for this summer being one of change. But that has limits, and when some try to paint him as an old crackpot, and get away with it because he won’t be goaded, I think a line is crossed.

Ultimately, the decision will be made based on a number of factors, and fan unrest will certainly play into that. But we are not any wiser on his future than we were yesterday, no matter how many career obituaries are hastily thrown together.