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Arsenal Season Review, Part III: The Players

If you managed to somehow survive past that beast of a Part II, then thank you.  I’ll try to make this one a shorter read.  In this part, we can break down the squad and discuss transfers (both completed and potentially needed).  I think that we can all agree that, while we have a number of talented players available, there’s always a chance to make improvements and hope for a leap in performance.  So let’s start with…

The GoalkeepersAFC - Cech

The arrival of Petr Cech from Chelsea was hailed as the capture of the kind of world-class keeper that Arsenal has lacked since the Mad German, Jens Lehmann, rode into the sunset on the wings of a griffin.  His transfer for 10 million pounds appeared an investment in an area long left to languish.  And while I’m sure many a Gooner can point to a mistake here or there by the Czech keeper – his start at West Ham for one – overall, there can be no complaints about his form.  Compared to his last full season at Chelsea, Cech was somehow even better; recording 102 saves and a league-leading 16 clean sheets.  Put simply, Cech was the keeper this team has needed.

Not surprising, Cech’s arrival had a domino effect on the other keepers that were already at the club.  Wojciech Szczesny ended up leaving on a year-long loan to AS Roma where he started as their #1 keeper and recorded 131 saves in 42 starts between Serie A and the Champions League.  Besides the poor day Roma had against Barcelona (6-1 loss at home), Szczesny seems to have had a good year.  There’s now comments from the young Pole keeper that he may want to stay at Roma for another year versus coming back to Arsenal.  That may depend on what happens with David Ospina.  The Colombian came in when Cech was sidelined and made 12 starts across the various competitions.  And while he had 34 saves and 4 clean sheets, it’s likely he’ll be best be remembered for his error against Dynamo Zagreb.  Let’s also throw a quick mention to young Emiliano Martinez, who spent the season at Wolverhampton.  His first half of the year had him starting for Wolves in both the Championship and the Capital One Cup.  His 15 starts in both competitions 5 wins, 4 draws and 6 losses in which he recorded 62 saves.  Not bad, but he then ceded the goalkeeper position to Carl Ikeme and didn’t get a meaningful match for the rest of the year.

Verdict: An improvement on past years. Cech is our firm #1 keeper.
Summer Planning: It’s unlikely both Ospina AND Szczesny will stay at the club. One will go and one might stay. Right now, you’d favor Ospina as the one seeking a move, but never count out Szczesny pushing for staying in Italy another year. Martinez might get another loan move or he might be kept if both Ospina and Szczesny depart.

The Defense

AFC - BellerinIn years’ past, we have rued the absence of a defense capable of keeping Arsenal on the title chase.  You really cannot have that complaint this past year as Arsenal tied with Leicester City for 2nd best defense; conceding 36 goals in the Premier League. (Only one behind Tottenham’s league-leading 35 goals allowed).  For years, we have bemoaned the defending issues at Arsenal – whether from set-pieces or from naiveté.  The good news is that, barring the odd moment, these issues seemed to have gone.

Much of this success can be laid at the feet of the two starting fullbacks.  Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin played the bulk of our games at left back and right back respectively and did so with great quality.  The young Spaniard was one of our season’s highlights as he shone in both defense and in attack.  His blistering speed and linking with the attack made him a terror for many a poor opponent.  Meanwhile his elder compatriot on the opposite side managed a more staid season but one that shone for his consistency.  Not only was he one of the better defenders, he also linked up consistently with Alexis and other wing players ahead of him.  They were both so good that they relegated their understudies — Kieran Gibbs, Calum Chambers and Mathieu Debuchy — to the bench.  Gibbs had no choice but take his demotion while Chambers shifted across several positions.  Debuchy pushed for a loan move out and then ended up injured.

Things weren’t as rosy in the heart of the defense.  Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny started the year as our center-half pair.  However, injuries and poor form soon began to appear.  A good deal of this lays in the issues that arose in midfield — which forced Per and Kos to have to cover more and do more than they could.  However, the limitations of both starting CBs, particularly Per’s pace, came more and more to the foreground.  These appeared to open the door for Gabriel to step into the fray and make that spot opposite Koscielny into his.  However, the young Brazilian had as many nightmares as he had great moments.  While every Gooner must love him for squaring up to Diego Costa, the fact is his loss of composure on that day led to his dismissal.  Much more worrying was his form against Manchester United and Swansea, when it appeared that Arsene was trying him and Koscielny together.  The hope is that as he matures, he will develop into a defender like Koscielny, who is quality most of the time with only a momentary bout of madness.   Communication will be key.

Verdict: An improvement on years past aside from moments of madness.
Summer Planning: Mathieu Debuchy should be let go as he has no more place in the squad.  Carl Jenkinson returns from two years at West Ham United and, though injured, should be ready for the season’s start. Though there is some call for Kieran Gibbs to be allowed to move, given the needs elsewhere, I’d stick with him another year at least.  If there is going to be an addition, I’d go for another centerback as questions have to linger over the long-term viability of Per Mertesacker.  If Chambers is to eventually end as his replacement, he will need more time to bed in while Gabriel and Koscielny need more game-time to form a partnership.

The Midfield

AFC - CazorlaWhere do we start?

I guess we should first start by considering the huge hole that the absence of Santi Cazorla this season left.  Lost on the November 29th match against the Canaries, it’s impossible to express how his loss impacted everything.  Put simply, there was no one else available to do the hard work of linking defense to attack.  Some were not available due to injury — like Arteta and Rosicky — while others were given a chance and really didn’t deliver.  It’s here we must discuss the season of Aaron Ramsey.  With a spot open in the heart of the midfield, Rambo had every chance to make that space alongside Coquelin his.  38 appeareances this season, 6 goals, 5 assists.  Not good enough.  Particularly when Arsene had targeted goals from midfield as a way to overcome the lack of goals from the forwards.

And really, this is what troubles me.  I think Mohamed Elneny is a decent addition to the squad.  But compare how much more balanced Arsenal looked when he and Coquelin started as the two in the middle of the pitch to when other players sat there.  I don’t think it’s a question of talent — Ramsey is clearly much more talented than Elneny.  It’s a question of discipline and mentality.  Ramsey’s instincts are to attack.  He’s not alone in this because that’s what Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain wants to do and what Jack Wilshere wants to do.  Unfortunately, that left the defensive midfielder having to provide a ton of cover and a lot of space opens up for teams to run right at the heart of the defense.  In too many games this season, Arsenal’s midfield was run right through by opponents – not just your Barcas and Bayerns but West Ham, Southampton and others.  Is it a problem that the three slowest players in the team are the ones left minding the shop while the rest are busy rushing to attack?

However if the heart of midfield was an issue, the front of it wasn’t.  Thanks to Mesut Ozil, who was having a monster of a season, there was no shortage of goal-scoring chances for our forwards and others to try and reach.  He was a creative force.  And Jack Wilshere looked lively in his return from his nearly-yearlong absence. I might worry that we have a logjam behind Ozil for the #10 spot with Ramsey, Jack and Ox all really looking like they fit there best.    Until Ozil is gone though, none of them are going to slot there.  This leads me to believe Ramsey will continue to find himself on the right side of the front three for the foreseeable future.  He’s too good to be on the bench but not good enough to take Ozil’s spot from him.

Verdict: The midfield needs to be improved upon and it’s almost guaranteed it will given our departures.
Summer Planning: Granit Xhaka was officially announced today.  With him and Elneny, that’s two new players stepping into the fold.  If we also add the return of Jon Toral, who had a great loan spell at Birmingham City, that’s three new players to replace the three departing ones on the first team. Might a new shape/formation be required, however, to fit all these talented pieces in and avoid another poor year?

The Forwards

AFC - IwobiWhat to make of the forward line this season?  On the one hand, there was a huge hole right as the season started when Danny Welbeck went down injured.  This was compounded by the long season Alexis Sanchez had — a full year with Arsenal followed by a full summer with Chile in Copa America — which required a break. This break meant he started on the bench and took a while to find his form.  Danny’s injury also allowed Joel Campbell to finally show himself off in the first half of the season and then Alex Iwobi, in the second half, was a minor revelation.  Welbeck returned to give us a glimpse of his potential before another knee injury sidelined him for most of next season.

However, the season came down to the form of Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott and, sadly, both had small patches of success and long stretches of disappointment.  Theo had a great September and then injury and poor form seem to lead him towards a spot on the bench.  This would have been okay had Giroud been on some great run of form. Alas, poor Giroud had about as bad a run a center forward can have from January to about late April. Every Gooner had spent last summer crying out for a new and better striker and to see Giroud and Theo both struggle only stoked the fires of resentment this season.

Verdict: They weren’t bad. They just weren’t capable of keeping up with the title contenders.
Summer Planning: Alexis’ new number likely means he’s going nowhere.  Same with Giroud who is a decent striker for the squad to have.  However, between a need for improvement and Welbeck’s long-term absence, a new striker is likely coming this summer.  Iwobi will rotate between forward and midfield.  It’s also likely we’ll see Chuba Akpom and Serge Gnabry at least in the summer squad.  What happens to Joel Campbell and the returning Yaya Sanogo though? I think Campbell will go – he knows where he stands with Arsene now.  Meanwhile Sanogo has not had a good season out on loans at Ajax or Charlton. May be time to cut ties with the French forward too.

AFC - XhakaOK, all that said, what would I do for summer?  Like I said, I’d keep Gibbs at LB, bring Jenkinson to deputize Bellerin at RB and bring in a new CB to help improve that position.  I wouldn’t do anything else at midfield unless some miracle bargain turned up (like Isco or James Rodriguez for 35M pounds).  The big get has to be the super-striker that this team is crying out for.  Therefore, if the team can add a striker and a centerback to go with Xhaka, I’d consider this a successful summer transfer season.

Alright, with that, I’ve only one last piece left to write about this Arsenal season.  The hardest one to write actually.  The one about Arsene Wenger.

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