Last Time Around
February is the month of love. Romanticism blossoms during this time of the year. You could have seen it in the eyes of the Arsenal fans! Those eyes were gleaming with hope and expectations. By February, Arsenal were not only in a position to end their long trophy drought, they were gunning for all four of them. A team, which was touted as under-dogs at the start of the season, was suddenly bearing hopes of a Quadruple.
Few days later – We were fighting to qualify for the Champions League. Obafemi Martins scored a ‘wonder’ goal in the Carling Cup final to beat Arsenal 2 – 1. Then, Barcelona got the better of Arsenal in the Champions League (Round of 16) with a 4 – 3 (aggregate) scoreline. One must not forget, Van Persie was dismissed in the second leg for a rash challenge on the referee Massimo Busacc. This defeat was followed by FA Cup exit at the hands of Manchester United. Upon Arsenal’s medical team’s advice, they extended this catastrophic run with a string of draws and defeats in the domestic league. Arsenal made sure that there were no further injuries to the players, which might have had been inflicted upon them while lifting such a heavy trophy!
Arsenal ended the season without any silverware. They managed to qualify for the Champions league for the next season by finishing 4th. A season that promised so much midway through it, ended in disappointment and heartbreaks.
Changes that were Required
After the drama of the last season, the ‘untouchable’ air around Arsene Wenger has been stirred. Knives were out and fingers were pointed. Arsenal’s frailties were obvious to everyone.
New Center Backs
Defense has always been Arsenal’s Achilles heel since Toure and Campbell left the club. Wenger has never been able to replace these two effectively. Thomas Vermaelen, the former Ajax star had an excellent first season but missed nearly whole of last season with an njury. Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci were bought in to beef up the defense, while the former’s performances ranged from ‘Good’ to ‘Ordinary’; the Later’s ranged from ‘Ordinary’ to ‘Disaster’. Djourou was the only consistent performer in the center of the defense last season, but even he faded away towards the end of the campaign.
Retain Key Players
As if the Center Back situation wasn’t worrying enough, Arsenal had worries of important players leaving the club too. As soon as the last season ended, speculations about the future of few important players began. Nasri, Clichy and Fabregas were all ‘unsettled’. It was important for Arsenal to resolve the future of these players in first place. While Gael Clichy has left for Manchester City in search of ‘trophies’, Nasri hasn’t signed a contract extension and will most likely leave next year for free. Our captain, meanwhile, has decided to remain quiet over his future and let the world fight over him.
Arsenal vs. Malaysia XI : 4 – 0 to Arsenal
Arsenal vs. Hangzhou Greentown : 1 – 1
Arsenal vs. FC Cologne : 2 – 1 to Arsenal
Emirates Cup –
Arsenal vs. New York Red Bulls : 1 – 1
Arsenal vs. Boca Juniors : 2 – 2
Arsenal’s preseason tour to Asia was followed by the Emirates Cup. It’s hard to judge a team based on its preseason performances, but from the results one thing can be pointed out easily – Conceding Goals. In the Emirates Cup, Arsenal ended up with two draws. In both the matches they were in the lead, but they managed to finish with nothing. Highlighting the obvious in the process – It was the same old Arsenal once again!
Things to Expect in the Upcoming Season
The traditional ‘big four’ has now changed into the ‘big six’. Teams have invested heavily and the upcoming season will seemingly be one of the most closest ever. Most of the Gooners will face nervous breakdown thinking about what’s in store for them this season. Can Arsenal improve from there 4th place finish last season? Can they overcome their frailties and win a silverware? The whole blogosphere is filled up with negativity about Arsenal and Wenger at the moment; let’s not dwell over that in this piece. Lets, for a change, try to be a bit optimistic, after all there is no pressure on Arsenal as seemingly everyone has written them off.
Huge Expectations from these two!
Things are Not So ‘Rosy’ Everywhere Else
Looking from the outside, it would be easier to conceive that Arsenal will be pushed down in the league since others around them have improved a lot. The truth is far from that though! The ‘big’ teams might have invested a lot, but they, like Arsenal, still have problems of their own. Manchester United is still in search for a midfield maestro and, adding to that, their away form last season was pretty awful. United will be without the services of Paul Scholes and Van Der Sar this season, two of their best players in the past decade. Manchester City, meanwhile, is trying to accumulate all the strikers around the world. Their captain and Go-To man Carlos Tevez is unsettled and Mario Balotelli is looking for a move back to Italy. Liverpool is building an all England XI in the meantime. The players brought in by Dalglish are being questioned by many, especially at the price at which they are being bought. Steven Gerrard’s fitness is a concern and their defense is suspect as well. Chelsea has an ageing squad and reinforcement haven’t come as of yet. Spurs is having difficulty in holding on to their most prized asset, Luka Modric.
All is Not Lost
Things are not as gloomy for Arsenal as it seems. Gervinho, the new recruit, is already looking like a classic bargain by Wenger. He can take the league by storm next season! Jack Wilshere will now be a season older and hence more mature. Expect Aaron Ramsey to have his best season next year, the Welsh Captain is back to business. Wenger will also be hoping that Van Persie will give the treatment table a miss this year, the Dutchman was lethal last year, when he was fit that is. Thomas Vermaelen is finally fit and will breathe new life into the defense this season. Szczesny was good last year and has suppressed the cry for a new goalkeeper as of now. He will only improve this year.
Arsenal fans have every reason to believe that they are just two signing away from a title next season. If Wenger manages to land either of Cahill, Samba or Jagielka and buys an experienced holding midfielder, this ‘young’ and ‘talented’ team will transform into a championship winning team.
Bird’s Eye View
Looking at the fixtures, the month of August is of paramount importance. Arsenal over the years, have been quick off the block. Come August, this trait will be put to test.
The Gunners will start off against Newcastle at Saint James’ Park. Nightmares of last season’s result against the Toon side still haunt the fans. The epic disintegration of the team after being 4 – 0 up and then ending up with 10 men and a draw is something that will not be forgotten in haste.
Three days later they will play the first leg of their Champions League qualifier match.The first home game of the season will see Arsenal clash with Liverpool. In April this year, the tie between this two English giants finished in a 1 – 1 draw. Arsenal blew the chance to close the gap with Manchester United as Dirk Kuyt scored from the penalty spot with almost the last kick of the game.
The Second leg of the Champions League Play-off will follow soon after. On 27th August, Arsenal will play in, perhaps, their toughest tie of the season. They will be at the Old Trafford facing the present English Champions, Manchester United. The last time Wenger met his best friend Alex Ferguson at Manchester, Arsenal lost 0 – 1. The three matches in August can have a bearing on how and where Arsenal finish come May. Arsenal couldn’t have had a trickier start. Adding to the woes, they have to play two legs of a qualifying match for Europe. This was something they could have easily avoided, either by finishing 3rd last season or by dropping further down to 5th in the league. If by the end of August, Arsenal has 5 points and has had qualified for the Champions League, it would be deemed as a great start. Anything more, would prove that the Gunners are title serious contenders for the title.
The fixtures of September are literally ‘calm’ after the August storm. Two home matches against Swansea City and Bolton and in between those two there is an away game against Blackburn Rovers. The Group stages of Champions League will start in this month. The most important fixture for September though, will be the 3rd round match in the Carling Cup.
The fixture list for Arsenal follows a very interesting pattern thereafter. Nearly all the tough matches are clubbed together. Experts have opinionated that Arsenal performs very poorly during Christmas period. The Gunners will play nearly fifteen matches in between December and January (Given they will be competing in FA Cup and League Cup till then). The depth of the squad will be tested in this period and with the injury crisis that Arsenal possesses, it is not a surprise that they usually suffer during this time of the year.
If Arsenal will be able to maintain there title challenge till April, then there will be some interesting fixtures in store for that month. They will face off against Manchester City at home and will also welcome Chelsea to the Emirates two weeks later. These could well be title deciding fixtures. Arsenal will finish their season like they started it with an away match, this time at the Hawthorns.
EPL – 3rd
Champions League – Quarter Final
Carling Cup – Winners
FA Cup – Semi- Final
For the fans, this promises to be season where they might lose more hair and move towards permanent baldness. The last prediction is simply based on the current squad of Arsenal. If Wenger manages to strengthen his defense and add a midfield enforcer then the results are expected to change. Off to the new season!
Article written by Guest Author – Amlan Majumdar, Follow him on Twitter @Amlan_Majumdar.