With the Interlull upon us and Transfer Deadline Day almost near, I feel like it’s finally the time to talk about Arsenal’s 2016-17 season. It’s not that I didn’t want to speak about them before the Liverpool match that kicked off the season. It’s that it still felt like the Arsenal squad was incomplete at that time and that things would happen between now and then to shift our perspective (even if just slightly) on how Arsenal could be this season.
We will set aside the talk of why the club did or didn’t make all the obvious transfers to a following post. Besides the obvious — to rile the supporters — I think there’s a couple of things that we need to consider. With that said, let’s look at the squad and the questions that will hang over the club until May ends.
Who will be our Central Defensive partnership?
The obvious answer here has to be Laurent Koscielny and Shkrodan Mustafi. The 30-year-old French CB has gone from a “Who is that?” back in 2010 to one of the best defenders in the world. We should not let it slide that, for all the accolades Arsene Wenger gets in building jewels on offense, one of his biggest successes is the purchase and development of Koscielny. The former Ligue 2 man would start for any top club in the world today — and that includes Barcelona and Bayern Munich. That he has been such a solid starter for 6 seasons — a few bumps and bruises along the way — is a mark of his quality.
Likewise, there’s a lot of hope surrounding Mustafi. The 24-hour German international CB has already won a World Cup and has shown his quality in the highly-competitive Spanish Liga. He’s been one of Valencia’s best players both in La Liga and in Europe. At the same time, if the rumored transfer fee of 35 million pounds is anywhere near the actual mark, then it’s inconceivable that he will not be a starter for Arsenal.
That leaves the other four CBs on the squad — Per Mertesacker, Gabriel, Calum Chambers and newcomer Rob Holding — to make up the numbers. In this case, there’s some breathing room as Gabriel is out until October 1st at the earliest due to his ankle injury while Per Mertesacker faces an even longer time away — the middle of December 2016 if things go well. Realistically, we won’t see Gabriel until the 10/15 matchday against Swansea while Mertesacker may more than likely make his return for the FA Cup 3rd Round match on 01/07/17.
Until October, we would have Holding and Chambers as the backup CBs. We’ve already seen Holding establish himself as the defender more trusted by Arsene Wenger, which has led to doubts on Chambers’ future. Many suggest a loan move away is likeliest. And it may be the case. But look back at the roster. 2 starting CBs, 1 immediate backup and 2 who won’t play until October and December. I cannot see Arsene pushing Chambers out when he could very well find himself down another CB due to suspension or injury. Mustafi may take time to adapt. Koscielny might pick up a knock. While Holding could step into the fray if called, who’d back him up?
If Chambers is to go on loan, I think January is more realistic. Gabriel and Mertesacker could be brought back by then. Mustafi and Holding could be given a chance to grow with the team. That seems the smarter plan, right?
The rest of the defense seems to pick itself. Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin are the starting fullbacks with Kieran Gibbs ready to step in on the left when needed. On the right, things are more interesting. Mathieu Debuchy is likely to leave once again on loan — seems no one is able to afford to buy him and take on his current wage packet. Carl Jenkinson is out indefinitely due to a torn knee ligament he picked up back in January. Mustafi is supposed to be able to play right back too. So that might be easiest solution should there be an emergency need.
Will we have a specific central midfield partnership or will it remain fluid all season long?
In the 3 matches played so far, we have seen 3 different midfield pairings: Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin against Liverpool, Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin against Leicester City and finally, Granit Xhaka and Santi Cazorla against Watford. Now some of those choices were mandated by absences everywhere. Pairing Elneny and Coquelin was as much about shielding the young CB partnership of Chambers and Holding as it was introducing Xhaka slowly to the Premier League. However, what I said about Mustafi applies to Xhaka as well: you don’t spend over 30 million pounds for someone to sit on the bench. Particularly when he seems to have a wonderful skill for floating balls above the defense to find attackers streaking towards goal. In his 2 starts, Xhaka has done a good job of being a force in the middle of the pitch. Wait till he gets his sea legs underneath him.
The question becomes though, what of Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny? It appears that Jack Wilshere is going to deputize Mesut Ozil in the middle of the front 3 attacking behind the striker. If so, it’s as much a solution for the logjam of midfielders as it is a neat way to ensure Jack comes back slowly and isn’t lost again to another long injury. But it still doesn’t answer the question of what happens with the midfield two behind Ozil.
Is the plan for Arsenal to deploy a midfield pairing according to the opponent — say, a Coquelin/Elneny partnership against the likes of Manchester City or Tottenham versus trotting out the Xhaka/Cazorla team-up taking on Hull City or Burnley? Or will Arsene turn to Xhaka and try to find which of the other midfielders best partner with him? Will it be the grit of Coquelin or the tenacity of Elneny or the wizardry of Cazorla? Finding the best balance for the midfield will be key as so much of last year’s woes fell upon the club when the Cazorla/Coquelin midfield tandem was out with injuries.
Who wins out on the right-hand side?
Looking at the Starting XI, some spots seem obvious: Cech in goal, Koscielny, Bellerin and Monreal in defense, Ozil at the #10 spot, Alexis on the left of attack and Giroud or newcomer Lucas Perez at center forward. But the spot on the right-hand side of the attack remains a question. You can’t even narrow down the options there.
The obvious combatants to take that spot are Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain — who was installed last season there — and Theo Walcott — the once-and-former future striker — who has switched back to the right side. Like I said, Ox was given the chance last season to finally stake that spot as his and, between injuries and poor form, he did not. This season is huge for the 23-year-old winger/midfielder. Last season he missed 19 matches and he has never equalled for Arsenal the 9 goals and 8 assists he provided for Southampton in 2010/11 which prompted his purchase. While time remains on his side, he cannot just wait for things to click. Because he’s got major competition.
The immediate competitor is Walcott, who after spending years saying his goal was to become a striker shifted back out to the right this summer once the stories of Arsenal being after a striker arose. Maybe he figured that he had a good thing going out wide right or maybe he became worried that, having failed to make it at CF, he was on the verge of the chopping block. Either way, Theo is back to being a wide attacker. Maybe he can make that his spot for good. At 27 years of age, Theo is in the prime of his career, but he has yet to equal his heights from 2010 through 2013, when he scored 55 goals for Arsenal in 3 seasons.
But that’s only the first two contenders. Though temporarily out, there’s also Alex Iwobi, the returning Serge Gnabry and the promoted Jeff Reine-Adelaide. And sure, you would give Iwobi the advantage as he’s already broken through onto the first team. But 20 year olds tend to run hot and cold. Similarly, Gnabry appeared to have been derailed by both injuries and poor loan spells. Then he turned up to the 2016 Rio Olympics and was one of the best players for a young Germany team. You get the sense that Joel Campbell was shipped out on loan in order to make room in the roster for him. Finally, the player dubbed “The Jeff” is more often penciled as a central midfielder than someone out wide. That said, for someone so young — only 18 years old — the importance is getting playing time. It’s most likely he’ll deputize where needed and make starts in either of the domestic cups or as injuries mandate.
However, there’s also players like Ramsey and Cazorla who, depending on what happens in midfield, might find themselves battling for the right-hand-side starter’s spot. Because this is what that right spot in the front three has become: the dumping ground for talented players who need playing time but cannot stake their claim elsewhere. Ramsey has played there when he couldn’t force his way into the midfield trio. Theo started there, demanded to become a striker and now that he failed at CF is trying to rush back to grab it before Ox or Iwobi or someone else takes it.
There’s always one other alternative: Arsene somehow buys another wide attacker/midfielder and shifts Alexis to the right. Can you say James Rodriguez?
Who makes the step up?
This question would seem redundant at first. After all, we’ve already spoken about players like Alex Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide as well as mention young, but establishing players like Rob Holding and Serge Gnabry. If you were to include Chuba Akpom, that would make five players between 18-21 whom are all either on or circling the first team. Should that not be enough?
Fact is that, as we saw a couple of years ago, injuries happen and they open the door for young players to claim a spot. It’s how Hector Bellerin went from almost going on loan to a starting spot at RB that he has not surrendered. Same thing happened to Iwobi last season due to the spells on the physio room by everyone from Alexis Sanchez to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Opportunities opened up and the young Nigerian took them with both hands.
The move up for Reine-Adelaide is a big one for the young Frenchman. It speaks to how well he’s thought of as well as giving him an opportunity to train alongside Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla. Like I said above, chances are he will play mostly with the League or FA Cup sides or slot in off the bench should a spot become open during the season. In that he won’t be alone. While the transfer of Lucas Perez should mean he won’t get starts, it’s likely that Akpom will get opportunities to come off the bench and play with the first team. Particularly given the absence of Danny Welbeck, there’s an opportunity there for his young compatriot to get his Arsenal career going.
If there’s anyone else that we could potentially see on the first team side, it would be guys like Krystian Bielik or Gedion Zelalem. Again, look for them on the cup sides, but they featured heavily during the preseason tour of America and it’s likely that they’re the closest Academy players to the first team of any who have not gone out on loan. If they see any game time, it will be as substitutes off the bench.
Will we see any other additions/substractions to the squad?
I’m going to say that, barring some sort of major-rate cut deal or something too good to pass up — on the level equal to the Mesut Ozil deal of 2011 — that Arsenal are done adding to the squad. There’s an infinitesimally-minor chance that happens. Say Real Madrid slash the cost of James Rodriguez or Wolfsburg relent and agree to let Julian Draxler go. Neither of which is likely to happen, but it would be that kind of deal to make Arsene Wenger willing to part at this point with any more and add another body to the squad he has. Let’s just take a quick look at what we have:
Goalkeepers: Petr Cech/David Ospina/Emiliano Martinez. We’ve already seen Wojciech Szczesny sent out on loan again to AS Roma for the year — a clear sign that his time at Arsenal is coming to an end. Cech is the undisputed first-choice keeper with Ospina backing him up and Martinez available on an emergency situation. No additions needed.
Defense: Hector Bellerin/Laurent Koscielny/Shkodran Mustafi/Nacho Monreal/Per Mertesacker/Gabriel/Rob Holding/Calum Chambers/Kieran Gibbs/Carl Jenkinson. Barring an immediate need for a backup at RB, it’s unlikely that we will add any more defenders. It’s more than likely that, if there’s to be any changes in defense, they won’t come until sometime next summer, when a big decision looms over at LB — there’s a reason we keep getting linked with them.
Midfield: Mesut Ozil/Santi Cazorla/Granit Xhaka/Aaron Ramsey/Jack Wilshere/Mohamed Elneny/Francis Coquelin/Jeff Reine-Adelaide. Again, the question here is not who do we add but where do they go. Ozil is a guaranteed starter. Xhaka is apparently going to establish himself as one. That leaves a lot of scrambling for one last spot. But there’s fluidity, dynamism and experience here. I don’t see any additions here coming.
Forwards: Alexis Sanchez/Olivier Giroud/Lucas Perez/Theo Walcott/Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain/Alex Iwobi/Serge Gnabry/Danny Welbeck/Yaya Sanogo. The addition of Perez should make things simpler. While the desire remains for the “super striker” to arrive,most of them did not move this summer. Morata went back to Real Madrid and Higuain took to Juventus for 79 million euros. All the others linked to Arsenal this summer remained at their spots — Lukaku, Lacazette, Aubameyang, Reus, Lewandowski, Draxler, etc. — are still at their clubs. This was a result of the vast demands of their parent clubs and those demands have not relented. Instead we’ll have Perez and Giroud battle to be the #1 striker with Alexis and whoever runs out wide right in attack.
That said, it’s likely we might see another name or two join Szczesny, Asano and Campbell out on loan at least. If Debuchy’s jersey number is being given to Mustafi, then that’s a clear-cut sign that he’s gone and unlikely to return. Maybe once Danny Welbeck starts working his way back — or if another forward is added — then Akpom may go on loan again. And has anyone actually seen Yaya Sanogo at all? His loan spells have not gone well and he’s not been seen on the pitch for Arsenal. At what point is his position untenable?
Back in May, I wrote that “if the team can add a striker and a centerback to go with Xhaka, I’d consider this a successful summer transfer season.” We have added more: 2 defenders in Holding and Mustafi, 2 midfielders in Xhaka and youngster Kelechi Nwakali and 2 forwards in Perez and Asano. I still have questions about timing, but overall, that’s a good transfer window to have had. Added experience, talent, youth and potential. The harder work now begins. To see which of these pieces fit well in whatever the shape of Arsenal’s 2016-17 team will take. The key will fall on Xhaka, Perez and Mustafi. If they integrate well, there’s no reason to think Arsenal cannot challenge for honors this season.
There’s one more question that remains…but I will save that for a separate post tomorrow. It’s the biggest one this season holds.