After ending their trophy drought, the question now turns to how the club take that new confidence and builds on it
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 3rd (NB: this is not necessarily Amy Lawrence’s prediction, but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 4th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 13-2
Such is the crazed multimedia world we live in, a photograph taken on Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro one day during the World Cup – a second in time that captured a lean 64-year-old on the sand as he played a game of footvolley – instantly reverberated around Arsenal’s global fanbase to trigger a computerised hullabaloo. The sight of Arsène Wenger gambolling on the seashore with a band of former France internationals, while Chelsea had snapped up major players and Manchester United secured a couple of expensive signings, provoked a flurry of exclamations about Arsenal wafting aimlessly through yet another transfer window.
Not so. Not at all, in fact. The image of Wenger on the sand was reinterpreted a few days later as the deal for Alexis Sánchez, the whizzing Chile forward, was announced. Wily old Arsène, with his red herring relaxation, had been quietly putting the pieces in place to bolster his squad all along. The Arsenal manager’s time in Brazil made him well placed to converse with all the right people, and two other World Cup performers – Mathieu Debuchy and the goalkeeper David Ospina – have been signed up as well as the young Southampton prospect Calum Chambers.
He also saw enough in Joel Campbell, the Costa Rica striker, to welcome him into the fold. There may even be an extra surprise in store, which would only add to the feeling that Arsenal are determined to improve on last season’s combination of a top-four finish and the FA Cup.
Aaron Ramsey’s match-winner at Wembley in May had a liberating effect on the club. Wenger at the time spoke of a kind of elemental relief – the release of winning. This is the first summer since 2006 he will not have to face queries about the number of seasons since Arsenal had a trophy to polish. That’s a relief in itself.
The question now turns to how the club takes that new confidence and builds on it. Will they be more competitive in the Premier League and Champions League, the prizes that mean most to Wenger? Will they break away from the regular routine of a fourth-place contest and a last-16 knockout in Europe to aim higher and further?
An uncharacteristically positive assault on the transfer market is an encouraging sign – with the caveat that no player ever comes with a guarantee. The purchase of Sánchez is most interesting as Arsenal have acquired a footballer who has the qualities to transform their attacking style. While he can operate wide, off a more traditional target in the shape of Olivier Giroud, Wenger is also keen to play him centrally, which will give the team a different shape and focus. The speed with which he integrates is important, and it will be fascinating to see which role becomes his established position.
Mesut Özil is another high-profile performer Arsenal hope can add an extra frisson after a season of adaptation. While he was finding his feet in England, Wenger tipped him to become a contender for player of the year this time. Having speedy runners like Sánchez and Theo Walcott to search for ought to be a bonus for his creative game.
Although the squad looks to be stronger, there is more to the Arsenal refurbishment than transfer activity. One potentially crucial arrival this summer will not kick a ball for the team. He will, though, attempt to address the fitness problems that have made the treatment room frustratingly busy over recent seasons. Shad Forsythe, a fitness expert who worked with the Germany team in recent years, has been headhunted in a bid to put an end to the spate of regular and complex injuries.
With Andries Jonker, formerly Louis van Gaal’s assistant, taking up position as the head of youth development, there is an atmosphere of renewal and freshening up at the London Colney training ground. The new dynamic has come in part from Wenger, in part from Ivan Gazidis, who is emboldened by the increased financial power they have thanks to new kit and sponsorship deals. Arsenal seem to mean business in a more determined way than has been previously possible since the move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium in 2006. After many years of talking the talk they feel more ready to walk the walk.
The major hurdle they will have to overcome to convince anyone (probably including themselves) that they can be more serious contenders will come in the matches against the established frontrunners. The damage inflicted in matches against the top teams was profound last season, particularly away from home. Arsenal’s first test of that nature comes in early October, at Stamford Bridge, where they were crushed 6-0 last season. They also have an early trip to Everton, where they were also upended. Arsenal need to show a huge improvement in those fixtures for a lasting challenge to have substance.
Wenger faced a similar situation in 1997 – at the end of his maiden season in England he reflected on how Arsenal had done well against the majority of teams but fared poorly against the other members of the top four (one win and five defeats in the league against Manchester United, Newcastle and Liverpool). In the summer, he recruited a number of new faces, including two who would have an immediate impact and become game-changers – the speedy Marc Overmars, and Emmanuel Petit to forge a midfield partnership with Patrick Vieira. Arsenal won the double the following season.
The competition is exponentially tougher now, but Arsenal have acted boldly enough to give themselves a chance to have a louder say in the season ahead.
By Amy Lawrence The Guardian