Premier League 2016-17 preview No1: Arsenal

Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 5th (NB: this is not necessarily David Hytner’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 2nd

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 6-1

In June 2013 Ivan Gazidis invited a group of journalists into the Arsenal boardroom to talk turkey. “We are moving into a new phase where, if we make our decisions well, we can compete with any club in the world,” the club’s chief executive said. “This year we are beginning to see something we have been planning for some time – the escalation in our financial firepower.”

Gazidis is a man who chooses his words carefully and, on this occasion, he was happy to project bullishness; to give the supporters what they wanted to hear. There was a sense of liberation behind the mission statement; Arsenal had, at last, emerged from their post‑Emirates Stadium move austerity period, when they had been compelled to lock into long-term sponsorship deals that had guaranteed money up front.

Arsenal season finishes

The contrast in tone to Gazidis’s comments over the past week or so has been instructive. “We’re making progress in what is a fiercely competitive world, against competitors that have the capability to spend far more money than we do,” he told ESPN. Then there was the soundbite to the New York Times. “The keys to success will be how well you do things and not just about financial firepower,” he said.

It is impossible to kick off an Arsenal season preview without turning the focus on to money. Because what does money mean? New signings. And if there is one obsession of recent years among the Arsenal fanbase, it is new signings. Arsène Wenger, perhaps against his instincts, has overseen three big ones since 2013 – those of Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez and, this summer, Granit Xhaka, the £35m midfielder from Borussia Mönchengladbach, who looked so polished at Euro 2016 for Switzerland.

But, right now, it does not seem to be enough, particularly as Arsenal’s cash reserves are so eye-watering and, even more so, there are areas of Wenger’s starting XI that look ripe for an upgrade.

The most obvious one is at centre-forward, where Olivier Giroud has soldiered on in the face of palpable supporter angst. Giroud is a very good player but the fear is he is not good enough to lead Arsenal to the Premier League title, which Wenger must win to vindicate the second part of his near-20-year tenure. One game at the end of last season rather summed things up. Giroud finished with a hat-trick in the 4-0 home win against Aston Villa, yet his efforts had been jeered for much of the afternoon.

In 2013 Wenger tried, without success, to sign the forward, Luis Suárez, from Liverpool and, at the beginning of this summer, he activated the release clause in Jamie Vardy’s contract only for the striker to stay put at Leicester City. More recently there was the failed £29.5m bid for Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette.

Arsenal results

Wenger is not blind to what seemingly has to be done, which might make things awkward with Giroud, but top-level centre-forwards are not widely available and, when they are, they are hugely expensive. Juventus have just had to pay £75.3m to take Gonzalo Higuaín from Napoli. Wenger looked hard at Higuaín in 2013, before the Argentinian left Real Madrid for Naples in a £34.5m deal.

Gazidis surely had Juventus in mind when he referenced those who could go higher than Arsenal on the transfer market but the uncomfortable reality is that clubs generally get what they pay for at the most rarefied level.

With £159m in the bank at the last disclosure Arsenal appear to be in a position to make the offers that cannot be refused – possibly, still, for Lacazette and the experienced centre-half that is required to cover the stricken Per Mertesacker. The German is out for “some months”, according to Wenger, with the knee injury suffered in the first pre-season friendly against Lens. There is interest in Valencia’s Germany international Shkodran Mustafi.

Were Arsenal to dig deep and make the two signings that even Wenger – through words and deeds – has indicated are needed, the mood would be transformed. But at the time of writing, and as England’s other top clubs make statements of intent on the market, it is easy to sense the fretting from fans. Gazidis’s reversion to measured type has been viewed with alarm, although there remains plenty of time before the summer window closes.

Wenger stands to enter the opening fixture at home to Liverpool on 14 August with conditioning doubts over a clutch of key players. He afforded an extended summer break to Laurent Koscielny and Giroud, after they reached the Euro 2016 final with France and to Aaron Ramsey and Özil, who made it to the semi-finals with Wales and Germany, respectively.

Sánchez, too, was granted additional leave after his second Copa América triumph in two summers with Chile – he damaged an ankle in the final against Argentina – and then, there are the players feeling their way back to match sharpness and form after serious injuries last season; namely Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere. Danny Welbeck will not return until 2017 because of his knee problem. As ever, fitness is a talking point.

So, too, are contracts. With Özil and Sánchez entering the last two years of their deals, there is the possibility that sagas could develop but the more immediate issue, and one that could cast long shadows, relates to Wenger who, once again, is into the final year of his three.

Nobody, surely, wants a repeat of 2013-14 when Wenger was grilled on a weekly basis about his future intentions without ever giving a clear answer; he eventually signed his fresh terms after the FA Cup final victory over Hull City. But it had become a distracting sideshow.

Stan Kroenke, the club’s majority shareholder, would like to retain Wenger beyond the end of this season and why not? The Frenchman always has Arsenal in the Champions League places to keep the tills ticking over, while he champions an attractive playing style. But it would be a surprise if Wenger, again, did not keep everybody guessing. “What will I do after the end of my contract?” he said, a few weeks ago. “Honestly, I don’t know.”

Arsène Wenger: I understand frustration with lack of signings

Wenger’s professional life has come to feel increasingly edgy, with each defeat the trigger for an outpouring of frustration. It is a good thing that he is no Twitter user. The greatest problem with repeatedly falling short, often on the back of familiar failings, is that tolerance runs dry. The Wenger Out brigade is hard to quantify but it is most assuredly a flammable part of the mix.

The man himself will continue to place his faith in what Gazidis calls the club’s “core values” – in other words, stability, incremental improvement, togetherness, the quality of the work on the training pitch and internal solutions. The academy-developed forward Alex Iwobi, for example, was a plus point from last season. The attacking midfielder Jeff Reine-Adelaide could step up this time.

Xhaka looks to be a smart addition. He is a player with steel and the type of passing rhythms that Wenger prizes, and he swells what is an enviable set of options in midfield. Ramsey will be fortified by his excellent Euro 2016 performances while the hope is that Cazorla, in particular, can rediscover his pre-knee ligament injury levels. He was sorely missed over the second half of last season.

The openness of the league can be considered in a positive way and it is not lost on anybody at Arsenal that there are new managers at the Manchester clubs and Chelsea who might need time to implement their ideas. Arsenal blew a big chance to win the title last season having been on top of the table in January and, although they finished as runners-up (leapfrogging Tottenham Hotspur at the last), it felt like underachievement. Many fans do not believe they can go one better with the squad as it is. The financial firepower is there. The club need to use it.

Powered by article was written by David Hytner, for The Guardian on Monday 1st August 2016 08.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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