It would be fair to say that Arsène Wenger is enjoying the buildup to this season significantly more than the last. Rewind 12 months and there was little light surrounding the man who had just become the Premier League’s longest-serving manager. On the back of his ninth anniversary without a trophy, Wenger had yet to make a single permanent signing heading into the first match of the campaign. An opening day defeat at home to Aston Villa brought open revolt from a large section of those in the Emirates Stadium, whose frustration boiled over at the perceived lack of ambition from the club to do more than simply ensure the pocketing of Champions League money year after year.
But just days later Mesut Özil arrived in a deal that obliterated the club’s previous transfer record, and optimism for a new era enveloped the Emirates. Both Özil and his team had their ups and downs throughout last season, but the fact that it climaxed with an end to the infamous trophy drought, courtesy of the FA Cup, retained positivity heading into the summer. And the close season has seen the mood of Arsenal fans further improved. The club has signed a marquee player for the second summer running in Alexis Sánchez, while significant money has also been spent elsewhere to improve the squad.
Here’s how Wenger’s options are looking heading into the first match of the Premier League season against Crystal Palace on Saturday.
There may have been initial disappointment that Lukasz Fabianski decided not to renew his contract, but Wenger has improved his goalkeeping options by securing David Ospina for a relative snip at a little over £3 million. Having displayed his qualities in Ligue 1 for Nice and at the World Cup in Colombia, Ospina will not only be a dependable backup, but will provide competition for Wojciech Szczesny, who, despite a strong season last campaign, can still be guilty of impetuous decision-making.
As with Fabianski, Wenger will have been frustrated to see Bacary Sagna walk out. Yet in replacing him with Mathieu Debuchy, Arsenal should not be weakened at right-back. The man who kept Sagna out of the France team at this summer’s World Cup is excellent going forward and has Premier League experience after his time with Newcastle United. The options at left-back are solid, with the hope that Kieran Gibbs can kick on as he puts the injury problems that blighted his early career behind him. After some notably poor performances last season, however, more will be required from Nacho Monreal.
Arsenal did well to get £15 million for Thomas Vermaelen, given that he hasn’t been a regular for some time and was in the final year of his contract. Still, it leaves Arsenal short of options to support the impressive and complimentary first-choice partnership of Laurent Koscienly and Per Mertesacker. Calum Chambers looked good in the Community Shield, but it would be surely be unwise to be just one injury away from depending on a 19-year-old who has made just 22 Premier League appearances, all at right-back.
Going forward, Arsenal’s midfield options look perhaps as strong as any team in the Premier League. After a breakthrough season last term, Aaron Ramsey could take the league by storm if he can stay fit, while there is hope that this will be the campaign in which Jack Wilshere finally asserts himself. Further advanced, Özil should benefit from having a season in the Premier League under his belt, Santi Cazorla appeared to rediscover his best form toward the end of the campaign and Tomas Rosicky is a reliable, wily veteran.
Doubts, though, remain about the strength of Arsenal’s midfield without the ball. At the homes of the other members of the Premier League’s top five last season, a real presence to hold the midfielder together was notably absent. The club’s new captain Mikel Arteta may look good when Arsenal can dominate against lesser opposition, but he lacks the athleticism or positional sense when under pressure. With the more natural holder Mathieu Flamini and the, for the time being, fit again, Abou Diaby, Wenger may believe that he has enough, but it could be a costly mistake not to get in a player who could stand up to the challenge when coming up against the very best.
Olivier Giroud is a very good striker, particularly accomplished at bringing others into play. He does, though, have his limitations, chief among them being his lack of pace. In order to be effective, the France international needs speed around him, which in large part explains why he had his worst spell of last season when the players who most provided that thrust for Arsenal, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey, were out of the side. Wenger has therefore done tremendous business by securing the services of a forward who meets all the requirements in Sánchez.
The Chilean can play as a central striker, as he showed during the World Cup, but for the most part he will likely buzz around Giroud from the right, with his pace, dribbling, intelligence and finishing giving Arsenal a new attacking dimension. As an added bonus, the former Barcelona man is also accustomed to frenetic pressing from the front, an example that many of his teammates would be wise to follow. Given their lack of natural center-forward options, Arsenal will also require Yaya Sanogo, a player with clear potential, but who at times still appears not entirely in control of his limbs, to contribute far more than his first season in England.
This is the strongest squad Arsenal have begun a season with in some time and the increased optimism around the club is understandable. The arrival of a quality midfielder and center-back would bring a serious title challenge well within their reach, if it isn’t already. However, Arsenal’s season may be defined by their ability to keep key players fit and whether Wenger can display the flexibility to get his team to do the less attractive parts of the game when going up against the top teams.