Premier League Preview: Arsenal

When Arsène Wenger took over at Arsenal, back on October 1, 1996, the world was a much different place. Some notable things that hadn’t happened yet: The Monica Lewinski scandal was a secret, Princess Diana and Mother Theresa were alive, Great Britain controlled Hong Kong, Titanic hadn’t been released, the first Harry Potter book hadn’t been published, and Pokémon had not been released in the US. As the world around him has changed drastically over the last 21 years, Wenger has withstood the test of time in north London with Arsenal Football Club. But for much longer? The #WengerOut faction of Gunners supporters has grown louder and bolder than ever, and with good reason: Arsenal finished below fourth place for the first time in Wenger’s tenure. It wasn’t all bad last year, though; in fact, it was far from it. Arsenal’s 75 points would have been good enough to finish at least fourth any other year, but they fell one shy of Liverpool’s 76 in 2016-17. Once again, Arsenal struggled against the big boys in England and crashed out of the Champions League in the Round of 16, and in spectacular fashion by a 10-2 aggregate scoreline to Bayern Munich.

Wenger kept us all in suspense for months during the spring about whether he’d stay or go. But in the end, was there really any doubt that he’d stay at the Emirates? He has his new, two-year contract, but two of Arsenal’s key players, Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil, are still without contract extensions. The Gunners have brought in Alexandre Lacazette to lead the line, but they must re-sign Alexis to have any hope of competing for the Premier League title. Nearly 15 years ago, Wenger’s Invincibles won the league with an undefeated season. It has been a long, slow descent from there. The old Frenchman believes he is still the guy who can resurrect this club, but their plummet might not have reached its nadir yet.

2016-17 Record & Finish
23-6-9 (W-D-L), 75 points, 5th in the Premier League
+33 GD (77 GF, 44 GA)

Manager
Arsène Wenger – 21st full season with Arsenal

wenger

Ins and Outs
Sead Kolasinac (free from FC Schalke 04)
Alexandre Lacazette (£45.05 million from Olympique Lyonnais)

Emiliano Martínez (on loan to Getafe)
Yaya Sanogo (free to Toulouse)
Wojciech Sczcesny (£10.37 million to Juventus)

X-factor
Granit Xhaka

xhaka

I’m writing about the contract status of Alexis and Mesut Özil elsewhere in this post; ditto for year one of Alexandre Lacazette in London. We know that Petr Cech will have another solid, steady season in goal, and that the back three – if Wenger keeps that formation – looked promising in the spring. Despite the change in formation, Arsenal won’t change the way they play: free flowing, possession, attacking, on the front foot. This perpetually leaves them vulnerable on the counter attack, which is where Xhaka comes in. The last few years have shown us the importance of the defensive midfield role, with no one doing it better than N’Golo Kanté, first at Leicester and now at Chelsea. I’m not saying Xhaka can perform at Kanté’s level – who can? – but the Swiss midfield destroyer can elevate his game as the holding player in front of the three center backs. Arsenal’s big-money signing from Borussia Mönchengladbach in 2016, Xhaka had an up and down first season at the Emirates. His disciplinary problems came with him from Germany to England, but he was better at the end of the season, and so were Arsenal. If Xhaka can keep his wits about him and perform like the player that Wenger wanted last summer, he can snuff out counter attacks before they begin, win possession back, and even contribute the occasional thundering goal himself. If Xhaka can prove he was worth the money spent on him, Arsenal’s midfield will be much improved, and their position in the Premier League should reflect that as well.

Best Case Scenario
Alexis re-signs. Pay the man. Lock him up. Make him the highest paid player in the Premier League if you have to. He’s that important to Arsenal. Imagine him and Lacazette combining up front for years to come. That’s a combination defenses will fear. The alternative is far less appealing for Gunners supporters.

A title challenge is probably out of the question. It’s tempting to fall into the perennial trap of projecting Arsenal’s late-spring form into the following season. While it’s true that the Gunners were much better when Wenger switched to a back three at Middlesbrough in mid-April – they only lost once during the run in, and that was a 2-0 defeat at Spurs in the final North London Derby at White Hart Lane – that was still a small sample size. Ideally, the back three continues to reap rewards for Arsenal, and Laurent Koscielny will stay healthy and on the field to anchor that defense. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got better the more he played as a wing back in the spring, and he could finally have that breakout season in 2017-18. Can Arsenal break back into the top four? Sure. Technically, they only have to surpass one of the four teams that finished ahead of them last year, and they’re good enough to leap over Liverpool. They could probably finish as high as third, while winning some cup silverware along the way. An early departure from the Europa League would be a blessing in disguise, allowing Wenger to focus all of his attention on domestic competitions. Lacazette and Alexis could both score between 15 and 20 goals for a very dynamic Arsenal attack.

Arsenal FA Cup

Worst Case Scenario
Get the airplanes and banners ready. You’re going to see a whole lot more #WengerOut signs flying overhead. Alexis and Özil don’t re-sign, and Arsenal end up losing them both next summer for nothing. Furthermore, the back three experiment backfires in a big way, through performance, injury, or both. Lacazette struggles in his inaugural season in England. Danny Welbeck can’t stay healthy, and Granit Xhaka gets sent off multiple times again this season. It could be a really long season for the red part of North London, with Chelsea and Tottenham pulling away as the top two clubs – by leaps and bounds – in the English capital. Arsenal could drop as far as sixth, or worse, if Everton reach their full potential this season. No matter what happens, one thing will stay the same: Wenger will hang on to his job. That might be the biggest problem of all.

Wenger out

If I were in charge for a day…
I would lock myself in Stan Kroenke’s office and not leave until Alexis is re-signed. That has to be the number one priority; Wenger’s comments about Alexis’s contract being an “ideal situation” are comically absurd. It’s also time to trim some of the fat around Alexis and Lacazette up front. Sell Olivier Giroud. Is it really worthwhile to keep him around for another year as a super sub who scores the occasional, brilliant goal off the bench? He’ll have his one hot stretch where he looks like one of the best in the game, then go dormant for months. There’s plenty of clubs, in England and abroad, who would take a shot on Giroud; Arsenal could make some serious money by selling him. Also, Lucas Pérez should go. He scored just one Premier League goal for the Gunners last year, and his best moment was scoring the opener at Gander Green Lane in Arsenal’s fifth-round FA Cup win over fifth-division side Sutton United. That tells you all you need to know about Pérez’s failure to fit in last year. Theo Walcott would also benefit from a move elsewhere. The money from those sales could offset hefty raises for Alexis and, ideally, Özil. Arsenal also need to settle on a defensive midfield pairing. Xhaka? Mohamed Elneny? Francis Coquelin? Aaron Ramsey? I might sell one of them as well and get some more consistent minutes for the midfield.

There are a lot of flaws in this team, but that would be a good start to addressing the biggest ones. As the squad stands, here’s my starting 11 to face the Foxes next Friday:

Cech; Bellerín, Mustafi, Koscielny, Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain; Xhaka, Ramsey; Özil, Alexis; Lacazette

Arsenal kick off the Premier League season a week from today, under the Emirates’ floodlights against the champions of two seasons ago. Wenger’s men have some difficult road tests early on: Stoke is never an easy place to win, and Arsenal lost by matching 3-1 scorelines at Liverpool and Chelsea last season. Here’s their first seven games of 2017:

Aug. 11 – vs. Leicester
Aug. 19 – at Stoke
Aug. 27 – at Liverpool
Sept. 9 – vs. Bournemouth
Sept. 17 – at Chelsea
Sept. 25 – vs. West Brom
Oct. 1 – vs. Brighton & Hove Albion

Tomorrow, it’s back to the northwest and the red side of Liverpool. Jürgen Klopp seems to have Liverpool heading in the right direction, but are they deep enough – and good enough – to compete on multiple fronts this season?

As always, thanks for reading. Come on you Reds!

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