Do they really need a striker?
When Arsenal shareholder Alisher Usmanov claimed his team were just one player short of challenging for the title this forthcoming season, it didn’t take too much examination to work out which position the Russian business magnate was referring to. Lyon’s Alexander Lacazette and Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain have both been linked with a move to the Emirates this summer but the most constant link has been with Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, who has been priced at £45 million, as the Gunners’ striker search rumbles on.
In typical Arsene Wenger fashion however, the manager has so far remained reticent on the prospect of a new big-money striker coming through the door, saying the 6-0 demolition of Lyon in the pre-season Emirates Cup is indication that he doesn’t need to take up the offer of club director Lord Harris who said Wenger had the money available to buy anybody bar Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Olivier Giroud, who struck 19 goals last season, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both notched goals in the win over Lyon before the latter proved the difference in the Community Shield win over Chelsea. Mesut Ozil was restored to a central position against Lyon and also got on the scoresheet and, with the benefit of spending a pre-season with him for the first-time, Wenger is tipping the German to be a contender for Player of the Year.
Alexis Sanchez enjoyed an extended rest after taking part in the Copa America with Chile and has returned to training with the aim of beating the 25 goals he scored in a brilliant first season in the Premier League.
Theo Walcott, together with Santi Cazorla, has signed a new contract to put him in Arsenal’s highest wage bracket and, after missing nearly a whole year of action in 2014, will be targeting a sustained run of games and a run of form to vindicate Wenger’s decision not to entertain the demand for a new striker.
It is a big season for……
Walcott concluded last season with a hat-trick in the final game against West Brom and a goal in the FA Cup final rout over Aston Villa but that must be the first shoots of an upturn in fortunes for the 26 year old who has so often been unconvincing in an Arsenal shirt.
Now Arsenal’s longest-serving player and in the company of Ozil and Sanchez as the club’s highest earners, Walcott must seize the opportunity the new season brings to him with Euro 2016 also looming on the horizon.
Having lost his regular England place following his long-term injury absence, Walcott faces a fight to win it back but score the 20 goals target team-mate Aaron Ramsey has set him, and Roy Hodgson will find him hard to ignore as he picks his squad to take to France in June.
Having scored just 76 times in 302 appearances since joining the Gunners as a 16 year old and only managing to score more than 10 in a Premier League season just once, it presents a big question for Walcott to overcome.
Wenger also has fellow England man Danny Welbeck available but with his goal-rate sparse and his work-rate favoured on the left-flank, it will hand Walcott the central-role, like he was given in the Community Shield, he has long since coveted in support of Giroud.
Having been given the chance he has constantly craved and been instilled Wenger’s faith, he must now prove his manager’s judgement correct.
Reasons to be positive
The 0-2 win at Manchester City in January marked Arsenal’s first win at a top-four rival in just under four years and the performance provided the blueprint for the new gritty Arsenal that can soak up pressure before counter-attacking quickly and fluidly.
It was the same formula that earned a vital point at Old Trafford in May to secure third place and did for Chelsea in the Community Shield, the first time Wenger had triumphed over Jose Mourinho in 14 meetings.
Central to that shift in approach has been the emergence of Francis Coquelin, the 24 year old who was on loan at Charlton Athletic as recently as last December.
Coquelin goes about his business patrolling the area in-front of his defence with a measured calmness and his form has convinced Wenger again not to go into the market for the holding-midfielder that has been demanded by supporters for as long as the mind can recall.
How has the squad improved?
Wenger has avoided the headlines of the last two markets when he pulled off big-money deals for Ozil and Sanchez and, despite another month of this year’s transfer window to go, looks set to settle on Chelsea’s Petr Cech as the club’s sole incomer this time around.
The 33 year old will help make a defence that shipped just 36 goals last term, only Chelsea and Southampton conceded less, become even more sterner and will finally give Wenger the dominant number one he has required for years.
Is the defence in decent shape?
Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have developed into one of the Premier League’s most reliable centre-half pairings and in Callum Chambers and Gabriel Paulista, Wenger has able back-up to select from.
The manager will be hoping to avoid an injury crisis of the extent that saw Nacho Monreal fill-in as a makeshift centre-half last winter while full-back presents him with a selection headache.
Mathieu Debuchy returns from long-standing injury but faces a tough battle to dislodge Hector Bellerin after the young Spaniard enjoyed an excellent first season in the team, whilst at left-back Kieran Gibbs will be tasked with keeping up his consistent form as he chases a place in England’s Euro 2016 side.
Reasons to be negative
Injuries. With Arsenal what else? After seeing his squad suffer 86 different injuries in 2013/14, Wenger turned to strength and conditioning expert Shad Forsythe, who won the World Cup with Germany in 2014, to alleviate the problem.
The number of injuries came down but the likes of Ozil, Giroud, Welbeck and Debuchy all found themselves out of action for sustained periods of the previous campaign.
This pre-season has already done for Jack Wilshere who will miss the first two months of the season with an ankle fracture and the Gunners will be hoping for damage to be kept to a minimum, an international tournament-less year should help, as Wenger aims to keep his squad fit enough to sustain a title challenge.
Keep an eye out for….
Jeff Reine-Adelaide, the 17 year old French midfielder, who broke onto the scene with his promising performance vs Wolfsburg in the Emirates Cup.
Wenger may be reluctant to risk the young winger in the hustle and bustle of the Premier League, but may find room for him in the domestic cups and in the Champions League.
Although they will be relying heavily on Walcott to prove himself an able goal-scorer in support of Giroud and Sanchez, Arsenal have gradually forged themselves a squad capable of pushing Chelsea and Manchester City right to the wire at the top of the table.
Blessed with a perfectly balanced blend of youthful vim and experience, and now they have proven they can beat the top level of opposition, the Gunners are now equipped to mount a serious challenge for the title they have not won in over a decade.
However a lack of conviction may undermine them when attempting to squeeze out a result when they are not playing well, if Wenger fails to address that they may fall short once again.
3rd place, narrowly behind a top two of Chelsea and Manchester City having pushed them both all the way.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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