Have Arsenal been closer to challenging for the Premier League in the last decade?

Before I begin writing about a topic that is guaranteed to elicit diametrically different answers from each person with a view on the matter, I think it bears stressing that I am fully aware that Premier League seasons are not won in the transfer window, bar extremely rare cases like Manchester United’s acquisition of Eric Cantona from Leeds United in 1992. Given my awareness of this rule of thumb, it may seem strange that I am documenting my thoughts on the potential destination of the 2015-16 Premier League title 3 weeks before the season even begins, and 5 weeks before Premier League sides officially wrap up their transfer business. It would be extremely foolhardy to make predictions I plan to stand by, and since I’m a firm believer in the fact that predictions are pretty much a waste of time, and should only be made in April or early May, if at all, given title challenges usually go down to the wire (unless, of course, you sit pretty at the top of the table from the very first weekend of fixtures, like Chelsea did last season), I will not be engaging in formal predictions in this piece. Instead, all I shall do is look at Arsenal’s activity in the transfer window so far, and assess whether they have gained enough, if any, ground on the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, and United, and whether they can be expected to mount a serious and sustained challenge for the title.

Now, I did say that Premier League seasons are not won in the transfer window, and all I meant by this is that there is simply no point in judging a team’s potential for success by the acquisitions made, especially before a football has even been kicked in a competitive league fixture. However, there is no denying that the quality of players acquired, and the speed with which they settle in, does play an important part in determining the success of any side. While Manchester United will attest to the importance of key players settling down quickly (it can be argued that only one of Louis van Gaal’s six signings in the summer of 2014 truly settled down quickly; Daley Blind was comfortable in the center of midfield from the get-go, and moved seamlessly into the left-back slot once injury woes eased. Luke Shaw was troubled by injury concerns for a large part of the season, with Blind’s form creating a barrier to the first team even when he achieved fitness; Marcos Rojo made all of 22 league appearances, and appeared shaky when given a fight, Herrera only blossomed at the turn of the year, di Maria started superbly but gradually saw his influence on proceedings fade, and Falcao did absolutely nothing to justify his former status as the world’s most feared striker), a look back at Liverpool’s suffering in the 2014-15 season reveals the importance of using the transfer window to fill gaps in a squad by signing the right players; the defense had conceded 50 goals in 38 league games in the 2013-14 campaign, and while Liverpool bought Dejan Lovren to address this issue, the player never settled into the team, perhaps because of Brendan Rodgers’ failure to strengthen the squad sufficiently. The less said about the likes of Lambert and Balotelli attempting to replace the goals, creativity, and aura of Luis Suarez, the better. Clearly, effective use of the transfer window is essential for the pursuit and defense of the Premier League title, and so, without further ado, let’s assess Arsene Wenger’s activity in the transfer market, and whether it bodes well for the coming season.

The struggles of di Maria and Falcao at Old Trafford last season showed that marquee summer signings don't always yield results.
The struggles of di Maria and Falcao at Old Trafford last season showed that marquee summer signings don’t always yield results.

Now, seeing as Wenger’s only purchase of the transfer window so far has been that of goalkeeper Petr Cech from Chelsea for the relatively miserly sum of around 11 million pounds, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking he has been outdone by the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, and Manchester City; even Chelsea have made one more transfer than Arsenal, albeit both for the bench. But once more, a look back at transfers made by big clubs reveals that volume matters very little when compared to the ability of new signings to fit into a team and make immediate contributions by addressing areas of weakness in the squad. Take Manchester United’s activity in the summer of 2005, for instance. Despite not having won the title for two seasons in a row (then amazingly the club’s longest spell without a Premier League title), Sir Alex Ferguson only brought two players in: goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, 34, and Park Ji-Sung, the energetic South Korean midfielder with three lungs. Obviously, United didn’t win the title in the 2005-06 season, finishing eight points behind Chelsea and getting knocked out of the Champions League in the group stages, but their activity in the summer window (or relative lack thereof) proved valuable in hindsight, with both signings making significant contributions to the team’s fortunes over the next five years; Van der Sar dispelled all memories of Sir Alex’s struggles to replace Peter Schmeichel, becoming a model of consistency and reliability throughout his six years at the club, appearing in three Champions League finals and winning four Premier League titles, and Park Ji Sung became a fan favourite, providing the energy in midfield that Giggs, Scholes, and later Carrick could not.

Van der Sar joined United at 34, and gave the side stability and consistency that had been sorely missed for half a decade.
Van der Sar joined United at 34, and gave the side stability and consistency that had been sorely missed for half a decade.

While the January 2006 acquisitions of Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra obviously played a crucial role in all of United’s subsequent successes, that summer showed that achieving success in the medium- to long-term despite operating on a shoestring budget and making fewer signings than your competitors is eminently achievable, the only condition being that you correctly identify areas of weakness, and select the right players for the job, both from the technical and mental perspectives. One 10 million pound round peg can be far more valuable than three 15 million pound square ones; all that matters is the shape of the hole you’re looking to fill. This might seem rather rudimentary, but maybe Messrs Pellegrini and Begiristain need to be reminded about this rather basic concept, given they’ve spent 49 million pounds on a player who offers very little that the likes of Silva, Nasri, Jovetic, Navas, Dzeko, Bony, and Aguero don’t (except for homegrown status).

This brings me back to the issue of the credibility of my claim that Arsenal are closer to being genuine challengers for the Premier League title than they have been in a decade. When compared to United’s acquisition of a World Cup-winning midfielder in the mould of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, Italy’s best wing-back, one of the Premier League’s best midfield enforcers, and one of the brightest young prospects in the game, Petr Cech’s transfer from West- to North-London may not seem like a lot to shout about, but it is my (totally neutral) opinion that Cech is so far the signing of the transfer window, simply because he will address the single largest issue Arsenal have faced for the last few seasons.

Cech brings a wealth of experience to Arsenal, and has already settled in very quickly.
Cech brings a wealth of experience to Arsenal, and has already settled in very quickly.

Wojciech Szczesny has never been reliable, and I have never been convinced that he is a significant improvement on Lukasz Fabianski. Without wanting to sound overly cynical, it does seem like Szczesny is more interested in reiterating his (totally irrational) hatred for Tottenham and taking pitch-side selfies after North London derby victories than improving on his ability between the sticks. His communication with his defenders is quite poor, and he doesn’t stand out as a particularly excellent shot-stopper or distributor. I can’t say I’ve seen enough of David Ospina to comment on him, although I heard about his heroics against Argentina in the Copa America. However, neither Szczesny nor Ospina cut it at the highest level, and if Arsenal are to truly make the jump from just about securing Champions League qualification every season to actually sustaining a serious title challenge for more than half a season, they will need a reliable keeper who ticks every box, both in the technical aspect — shot-stopping, distribution, catching, one-on-ones — and the mental aspects — positioning, communication, consistency, and experience. I think Petr Cech is the perfect player for an Arsenal team looking to build a spine in the first team to rival the Lehmann-Campbell-Vieira-Pires-Bergkamp-Henry core of the Invincibles; with Koscielny, Ramsey, Cazorla, Ozil, and Sanchez already in the team, Cech’s arrival should give the first team the stability it has been lacking for so long.

People will point to his age being a hindrance, an argument that doesn’t even merit a rebuttal; as I said, van der Sar joined United at age 34, and Buffon played in a Champions League final at age 37. After all, if Cech’s transfer has his former team-mate John Terry concerned that he will save Arsenal 12 to 15 points a season, there can really be no arguments about his ability to make immediate and significant contributions to the team.

A much stronger argument against Arsenal’s ability to challenge for a title would be the lack of inroads made in finding quality players in the center of defense and up front; quite frankly, people will point to the lack of a Vieira or a Gilberto Silva in the middle of the park — a strong ball-winning midfielder in the mould of a Wanyama or William Carvalho — as another weakness in the first team, but I think the Coquelin-Cazorla partnership showed enough promise towards the end of last season to deserve at least another six months in which to grow; Coquelin showed signs of an excellent understanding of the tactical and positional requirements of his role (check out this excellent analysis by Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville of the discipline Coquelin brought to the Arsenal midfield in the 2-0 win against Manchester City at the Etihad last season), and Cazorla has flourished in his deeper creative role, ensuring quick retention and fantastic distribution, and linking midfield and attack with consummate ease and frightening regularity. With Wilshere already kept out of the team by Ramsey, and Mikel Arteta, Tomasz Rosicky, Mathieu Flamini, and even Callum Chambers all capable of playing in a deeper role in the middle of the park, I don’t believe a William Carvalho is absolutely necessary.

In the center of defense, with Mertesacker and Koscielny the two outright starting-XI players, Gabriel Paulista and Chambers are the only other options available to Wenger, in addition to Nacho Monreal capable of being a makeshift center-back, albeit a poor one. I think the arrival of Petr Cech will have immensely positive knock-on effects for the central defenders, and while Mertesacker is prone to being caught out of position despite his excellent reading of the game, the presence of a world class goalkeeper behind them will hopefully allow the back four to turn in more consistent performances. Even so, Arsenal fans would sleep better with the likes of a Sergio Ramos alongside Koscielny.

Moving on to the attacking third of the pitch, Sanchez and Ozil are dead certs to start every game when fit, and should score 30 goals between them this season, with an addition 15-20 assists. However, there is little doubt that Arsenal will need a striker who can score 20-25 goals per season, and all the signs point to Olivier Giroud being incapable of reaching that total. Now, this is not to say I’m not a fan of Giroud; his hold up play is excellent, and he possesses excellent technical abilities for someone his size, which has allowed him to be an effective target man and focal point for so many of Arsenal’s slick passing moves. One would argue that carrying out his duties as a target man has taken a toll on his ability to score goals, but I tend to lean towards the idea that he may just not be a great goalscorer, period. He’s an excellent header, and very good from long range, but seems incapable of delivering the final product. Fans will remember his innumerable missed opportunities in the Champions League last season, and point to the need for a proven goal-scorer. On this front, I am confident there is promise, and that Wenger will complete a big-name acquisition in the near future. He has been linked with Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette (who has reaffirmed his commitment to the Ligue 1 side), among other strikers, and the biggest indicator that he may very well make a big-money move for one of these players is that he allowed Yaya Sanogo to leave for Ajax on loan, and Lukas Podolski to make a permanent move to Galatasaray. This has left him with just four recognized first team forwards — Sanchez, Giroud, Welbeck, and Walcott — three of whom are seemingly incapable of scoring 15 goals in the league. With Chuba Akpom and Serge Gnabry showing signs of promise, but still not ready to make a telling impact in the Premier League, Arsenal will almost certainly enter the transfer market for a forward who is worthy of leading the front line.

We’ve grown sick of rumours connecting Arsenal with the best strikers in the world — yes, Wenger will tell you he almost signed Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo, and yes, they have been linked with Suarez, Falcao, and Benzema in the past — but the difference between failed pursuits of players of their caliber in the past and any potential interest this summer is that Wenger can now tell a world-class striker he’ll be player in front of an in-form Mesut Ozil, an in-form Alexis Sanchez, and an in-form Santi Cazorla. That is not a luxury he has enjoyed in the past, and this has me believing there could be good news on the striker front in the coming weeks.

While the ultimate destination of the 2015-16 Premier League title will depend on the fortunes of as many as five clubs (let’s throw Liverpool in the mix for now; with their summer signings and the sheer unpredictability of the side under Brendan Rodgers, they are dark horses and serious contenders for Champions League qualification), I am surprisingly confident that the arrival of Petr Cech, and the potential implications of one or two more astute signings, should be enough to allow Arsenal to stand up to the task of challenging Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United for the entire nine-month period between August and May. We shall have to see whether I am proven right, or whether Arsenal shall add this season to the growing list of recent disappointments on the domestic front that stretches back to 2005.

As if there weren’t already enough reasons to look forward to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

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