The FourFourTwo Season Preview 2015/16: Arsenal
Arsenal supporters are more used to false dawns than most but there is a different feeling about this season, and even the most jaded Gooner might allow themselves some cautious optimism.
Rejuvenated by their FA Cup win in 2014, Arsène Wenger harnessed that momentum last season to the extent that, by its conclusion, they looked arguably the best-balanced team between defence and attack in the Premier League. A resounding win over Aston Villa retained the cup and added to the impression that, if they can hit the ground running, they are equipped to go even better this time around.
What the fan says
Arseblog's Andrew Mangan reveals the overriding feeling among the Emirates faithful...
Why they'll do well
With only two defeats in the second half of the last Premier League season, Arsenal appeared to have learned a few lessons that it had seemed would never hit home. They proved, particularly in away games, that they knew when to declare and hold onto a lead – and have the firepower to pick anybody off when required. The return to form of Theo Walcott towards the end of the campaign following his long-term injury was a pleasant surprise, while Olivier Giroud will weigh in usefully too and the indefatigable Alexis Sanchez is as good as any forward in the league. He will need managing carefully after his Copa America-winning exploits, but perhaps the biggest individual factor in Arsenal's new-found optimism lies further back. The capture of Petr Cech adds a world-class goalkeeper to the ranks at last but also suggests that, after years of chasing a seemingly impossible dream from the front, Wenger has realised the value of a rock-solid foundation.
Why they'll do badly
Perhaps one word will do: Monaco. The French side visited the Emirates Stadium in February just as Arsenal were starting to motor along very nicely in the league, but came away with a 3-1 win against a home team that continued to barrel forward even when it had given itself a glimmer of hope at 2-1 down. The deficit was nearly overturned in the away leg but it was a scenario that had been seen before.
Quite simply, Arsenal need to show over an entire season that they have kicked the naivety that has blighted much of the past decade before they can be considered the real deal, and doubts persist about some of the personnel involved. Francis Coquelin's form was a revelation in the second half of 2014/15 but is he really the top-class deep-lying midfielder they need? For all that Hector Bellerin, Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal are exciting and competent full-backs in turn, do they boast a player of genuine star quality in those areas? There is still a feeling that, for Arsenal to live up to their new billing, a number of questions will need answering in exactly the right way.
The big questions...
1) Can they find good cover for Sanchez?
While every team needs a star who can pull something out of the fire when things aren't quite working out, there was a feeling that Arsenal relied a little too much on the all-action performances of Sanchez last term. Twenty-five goals in all competitions was a remarkable haul, as was the fact that he strung together 52 appearances between a World Cup and a Copa America. But who can step into the breach consistently if the Chilean looks exhausted this term?
- Petr Cech (Chelsea)
- Ryo Miyaichi (St Pauli)
- Semi Ajayi (Cardiff City)
- Abou Diaby (Released)
- Lukas Podolski (Galatasaray)
- Carl Jenkinson (West Ham)
- Yaya Sanogo (Ajax)
2) Will they decide what to do with Walcott?
Down the right? Through the middle? Off the bench? Nobody has ever quite pinned down Theo Walcott's best position and Wenger's insistence that he can operate alone down the centre has never convinced. But Walcott, playing in exactly that position, scored four times in the final two games of the season and deserves the chance to fire on all cylinders from the off. If it doesn't work out, then Arsenal face a difficult decision over a player who will be out of contract next summer.
3) Can they get the best out of Wilshere?
Like Walcott, Wilshere ended last season encouragingly with a fine strike against West Brom; like Walcott, there remains a question over whether the injury-blighted England international is going to find a long-term position in the Arsenal setup. Nobody has ever doubted Wilshere's talent, even if there remain concerns about his off-field exploits – but is he best deployed in a deep position or further forwards, and do Arsenal currently have room to settle him in for a run of games?
Key player: Petr Cech
Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina hardly made calamitous errors week after week last season, but the role of a goalkeeper is about so much more and Cech's is gold dust for a defence that has struggled for composure and organisation for several years. Cech knows what it takes to win trophies; he also sets a standard with his professionalism on and off the pitch – no post-match cigarettes in the dressing room for him – and has a presence that no Arsenal goalkeeper has possessed since the days of Jens Lehmann. If he stays fit and in form, then the ex-Chelsea man is the bedrock on which Arsenal can build a bid to end their 11-year Premier League title drought.
What we'll be saying come May
"Next year might just be their year, you know" or "They thrilled us, frustrated us, and came closer than they've been in years... but still just miss the vital ingredient that makes champions."
To see where FourFourTwo think Arsenal will finish – along with a bespoke two-page preview – get our special new season issue, out Saturday 1 August.