Arsenal - Premier League contenders or pretenders?

Arsenal Emirates 3

Although the new Premier League season is relatively in its infancy, it appears as though the dark clouds hanging over the Emirates Stadium have quickly dissipated.

Instead the erstwhile atmosphere of doom and gloom has started to be replaced by a new wave of optimism amongst the fans.

Most of the summer period consisted of many Gunners fans fiercely criticising and bemoaning the team’s lack of activity in the transfer market.

Indeed, Arsenal’s player transfer committee consisting of (Manager) Arsène Wenger, (Chief Executive) Ivan Gazidis and (Chief Negotiator) Dick Law appeared to strikeout on several ‘marquee’ targets.

Amongst the names linked with Arsenal during the summer transfer window included: Gonzalo Higuaín, Luiz Gustavo, David Villa, Stevan Jovetić, Júlio César, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Williams, Michu, Yohan Cabaye, Bernard, Karim Benzema, Ángel di María; and last but not least - Luis Suárez.

After being linked with such illustrious players and failing to make any headway save for the signing of unknown French striker Yaya Sanogo; the situation became all the more galling for fans when ‘Big Five’ rivals Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham all strengthened their playing squads early and comprehensively in strategically identified areas in need of reinforcement. However, Arsenal’s scattergun approach yielded no such dividends, and rather provoked ridicule and derision from opposing fans, and even their own.

Certainly it appeared from outside the inner sanctum at The Emirates that there was no coherent transfer strategy in place during the summer; an approach to the transfer market which gave the appearance of being more reactive than proactive, in stark contrast to the methodical approach adopted by competitors.

Moreover, the situation seemed to be exacerbated by the reluctance of team’s hierarchy to encourage Wenger to relinquish some of his stipulated managerial responsibilities in Arsenal’s antiquated player acquisition strategy.

Indeed, the last few seasons have frequently brought mutterings of discontent from fans about the Frenchman’s all-encompassing power in the club’s transfer policy.

Perhaps the worst kept secret in European football over the last decade has been Arsène Wenger’s reticence, caution and underlying inability to spend decisively in the transfer market windows. Moreover, his notorious unwillingness to cede responsibility to other club representatives in critical areas such as player transfers and contract renewal negotiations have seemingly left him overburdened, unchallenged and with unfettered power.

At the start of this season the situation seemed to have reached its nadir when the fans saw 17 players depart Ashburton Grove and only 1 replacement arrive.

Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey is 'Rambo' - Exclusive pic

Disastrously Arsenal lost its opening fixture at ‘home’ to Aston Villa; although the team performance conceivably merited more. However, it was obvious to observers that the edgy atmosphere contributed to a rather uncertain performance where the players seemed shorn of confidence. Inevitably, the ‘disastrous’ opening day defeat evoked severe backlashes and demonstrations from fans.

However, rather inexplicably the last few weeks have been nothing short of miraculous. The subsequent fixture ‘away’ from the pressurised atmosphere at home brought about comprehensive victories in a decisive Champions League qualifier ‘away’ at Fenerbahçe, and a tricky London derby at Fulham.

This allowed the team to carry great confidence going into the return leg of the Champions League qualifier where they easily dispatched Fenerbahçe without conceding a goal over both legs. Crucially, the feeling of confidence and momentum returned to the team in time for the barometer match against archrivals Tottenham, and despite being outplayed for periods during that game the team hung on for a morale boosting victory.

With Arsenal fans now becoming cautiously optimistic, the club’s management then pulled out a masterstroke and arguably the signing of the summer transfer window, by breaking their transfer record to sign ‘world-class’ playmaker Mesut Özil from Real Madrid for a reported £42.5 million.

Although the transfer appears to be more fortuitous than anticipated with the Spanish team’s management belatedly looking recoup some of the reported £86 million outlay on Gareth Bale. However, it still generated an incredible buzz amongst the fanbase, and ensured that Arsenal ended the transfer window with a statement ‘marquee’ game-changing signing.

Now the obvious question is: ‘can this be the season where Arsenal finally contend again?’. They entered the summer debatably requiring at least a ‘world-class’ striker; a competent holding midfielder; an experienced central defender; and a reliable reserve goalkeeper.

Despite not signing a ‘world-class’ striker or experienced central defender, which they appeared to urgently require. Arsenal appear to have filled some areas of need by signing seasoned duo Mathieu Flamini (midfielder) and Emiliano Viviano (goalkeeper). Furthermore, although new superstar ‘playmaker’ Mesut Özil is more a creator than a goalscorer; he unquestionably will evolve the team’s style of play.

It should also be noted that apart from the opening day aberration against Aston Villa, Arsenal have conceded only a meagre 2 goals in 5 subsequent fixtures, which suggests a continuation of last spring’s outstanding form that saw them lose only 1 of 13 competitive fixtures.

Put into context and coupled with this season’s results that is undeniably title contending form in 2013. Moreover, it appears that Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have started to develop an exceptional understanding in the centre of defence, while Aaron Ramsey has probably been the outstanding player of the current Premier League season. Indeed, Ramsey is again displaying the sort midfield dynamism many expected of him before his rather horrendous injury in 2010.

The main question marks surrounding Arsenal’s ability to mount a concerted title challenge this season revolve around squad depth. With senior striker Olivier Giroud’s highly influential performances in the team’s excellent early season form, there have to be concerns about whether the team can maintain it's run of form were he to get injured.

Arsenal’s surfeit of midfield technicians means the team’s ability to create goal scoring opportunities during the season will likely be of minimal concern. However, the question of whom would spearhead the attack and convert chances into goals is very pertinent one, especially if one were to take Giroud out of the equation.

The Frenchman may not be the ‘world-class’ striker which fans clamoured for, but with the quality Arsenal have in midfield one can presume that they will create the sort of quality and quantity of opportunities that will allow an international player of his ability to thrive this year.

The crux of the argument is that a full-strength Arsenal team is without doubt capable of beating any team in the Premier League and sustaining a title challenge.

Especially in year in which rivals like Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea are all going through a period of transition under new leadership, and rivals Tottenham are integrating an astounding seven new players into their revamped team.

But unlike their rivals it appears as though one or two injuries to key personnel particularly in defence and attack, reveal a rather mishmash and threadbare squad overloaded with attacking midfielders.

The logical conclusion is that Arsenal’s season will be overwhelmingly influenced by injuries and the level player recruitment in the winter transfer window. While it seems inconceivable and highly implausible for any team to expect to go through an entire season without injuries and suspensions to influential players; one has to applaud the team’s fine form this year despite the limitations in the squad’s depth.

What do you think, can Arsenal sustain their run of good form?

image: © wonker

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