Arsenal begin the 2015-2016 season with plenty of hope that they can put their past troubles behind them and win their first league title since their undefeated season in 2003-2004. Arsene Wenger’s side finished in third place and a lengthy 12 points behind champions Chelsea and four points behind second-place Manchester City last season.
This season, Arsenal brings back mainly the same collection of notable players from 2014-2015, but with long-time Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech essentially replacing Wojciech Szczensy, who was loaned to AS Roma.
Arsenal will have plenty of competition with Chelsea expected to finish at the top of the table, and with Manchester City still a major threat. Manchester United are eager to overcome chemistry problems and have added some new names to bolster their hopes of a title.
Wenger may have to deal with opponents knowing Arsenal’s playbook by heart given the lack of changes to the roster, and will likely need to experiment with the personnel of the 4-2-3-1 to catch opponents off guard.
Key Matches: vs. Liverpool, Aug. 24; at Chelsea, Sept. 19; vs. Manchester United, Oct. 4; vs. Chelsea, Jan. 23; at Manchester City, May 7. The complete schedule can be found here.
Who’s In? Cech (Chelsea)
Who’s Out? Szczesny (Roma), Semi Ajayi (Cardiff), Abou Diaby (Marseille), Carl Jenkinson (West Ham United), Ainsley Maitland-Niles (Ipswich), Ryo Miyaichi (St Pauli), Lukas Podolski (Galatasaray), Dan Crowley (Barnsley), George Dobson (West Ham)
2 Mathieu Debuchy, D, France
3 Kieran Gibbs, D, England
4 Per Mertesacker (vice-captain), D, Germany
5 Gabriel, D, Brazil
6 Laurent Koscielny, D, France
7 Tomáš Rosický, M, Czech Republic
8 Mikel Arteta (captain), M, Spain
10 Jack Wilshere, M, England
11 Mesut Özil, M, Germany
12 Olivier Giroud, F, France
13 David Ospina, G, Spain
14 Theo Walcott, F, England
15 Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, M, England
16 Aaron Ramsey, M, Wales
17 Alexis Sánchez, F, Chile
18 Nacho Monreal, D, Spain
19 Santi Cazorla (3rd captain), M, Spain
20 Mathieu Flamini, M, France
21 Calum Chambers, D, England
23 Danny Welbeck, F, England
24 Héctor Bellerín, D, Spain
26 Emiliano Martínez, G, Argentina
27 Serge Gnabry, F, Germany
28 Joel Campbell, F, Costa Rica
33 Petr Čech, G, Czech Republic
34 Francis Coquelin, M, France
Goalkeepers: A former rival has become the new No. 1, as Cech arrives to provide Arsenal with not only a stellar and experienced man between the sticks, but also a much-needed leader. Cech should provide Arsenal with another manager on the pitch, and will likely get the most out of young defenders like Hector Bellerin, Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs. David Ospina performed well when given the opportunity and should have another strong season as Arsenal’s clear No. 2.
Defenders: Arsenal have a deep and efficient backline, and it begins in the middle. While Per Mertesacker had some ups and downs in his first season, and is capable of being beat in one-on-one situations, he is a smart reader of the game with an imposing presence in the air, and has combined to form an excellent partnership with Laurent Koscielny. Mertesacker, 30, and Koscielny, 29, have played alongside each together since 2011, and there is no reason to assume that they will have chemistry and communication problems. Meanwhile, Chambers and Gabriel provide Arsenal with suitable reserves. The full-backs are also very strong, and there is no clear starter on either side. On the left, consistent Nacho Monreal has the edge on Gibbs, but both have provided positive results. On the right, 20-year-old Bellerin did an excellent job of filling in for Mathieu Debuchy. It’s unclear if Debuchy reclaims the starting role, but he probably has the advantage due to his experience. While neither are superstar players, they fit Wenger’s system quite well. If there is a criticism of this group, it’s their ability to be physical, lockdown defenders. Arsenal defenders at times show too much interest moving forward, leaving some vulnerability to a counter attack.
Midfielders: This is among the steadiest groups in the Premier League. With Alexi Sanchez and Santi Cazorla, Wenger has a pair of devastating attackers on the wings. Sanchez is one of the most talented players in the Premier League, and forces defenses to change their approach whenever he has the ball. After a successful stint with Chile in Copa America, the 26-year-old will once again be called upon again to lead the attack, while Cazorla offers consistency, versatility and precise passing. Central midfielder Mesut Ozil has produced some mixed results for club and country, but remains an elite playmaker. He will need to assert himself more in the upcoming season by dominating possession and finding more openings for Giroud and Sanchez. If Ozil needs inspiration, he may want to watch clips from Aaron Ramsey’s breakout season in 2013-2014. After struggles in 2012-2013, Ramsey has matured into an impressive passer and penetrator. He is joined by Jack Wilshere, who may sit out until September with an ankle injury. It’s unclear what Wilshere’s role will be when he is at full fitness, but he should provide Arsenal with a lift if he can show glimpses of his burgeoning form in 2010-2011. A player to watch for from this unit is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The exciting 21-year-old may be ready to assume more first-team duties after intermittent appearances since his debut in 2011, and could take time away from Theo Walcott on the right side if the veteran isn’t at his best. Stalwart Tomas Rosicky will likely maintain his intelligent passing and dribbling skills to bring order to the attack as a catalyst off the bench. Defensive midfield is arguably the most curious position for Arsenal. Francis Coquelin has earned the starting job after years as a reserve, while veterans Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini are likely to play limited roles. Coquelin is an often quiet player, but will almost certainly do a steady job of containing opposing central midfielders.
Forwards: The need for a world-class striker should not deter this unit from thriving in 2015-2016. Olivier Giroud (41 goals in 97 appearances) has provided Arsenal with an effective goal scorer, and Danny Welbeck is a solid reserve. Walcott, who has played along the right wing, could also step in a play the No. 9, if needed. Walcott will be under the microscope after signing a new contract, and the 26-year-old may finally be ready to elevate his game after injury setbacks. Wenger could use a superstar forward to limit the reliance on Giroud, but the 28-year-old looks determined to silence his critics. This group doesn’t have the likes of Sergio Aguero or Diego Costa, but is capable of surprising opposing defenses.
Coaching: Wenger enters the season without as much scrutiny as previous seasons after winning back-to-back FA Cups. However, he can be back on the hot seat should Arsenal falter during stretches. The consensus opinion of Wenger is that he does an excellent job of keeping the club together and effectively gets players to fit into his attack-minded philosophy, but fails to maintain players’ fitness as the club is constantly battling injuries. But the overriding criticism is his stubbornness to not shift his match plans, which has cost the club much-needed points. Overall, he is a studious and calming presence, who has kept Arsenal consistently near the top of the table every season he’s been in charge, and this year should be no different.
Betting Odds (via OddsChecker): Arsenal have the third best odds of winning the Premier League title (4/1), trailing Chelsea (7/4) and Manchester City (3/1).
Outlook: There is justified optimism at the Emirates. The components are there for Arsenal to make a serious run at the title, but they still lack the star power of Chelsea. The Blues are not as loaded as many people think, yet they should squeak out ugly wins, as they typically do under Jose Mourinho. Arsenal need the attack to stay healthy, in particular Sanchez, Cazorla, and the central defense. But the key to the season is Ozil. If he can limit his turnovers and create more opportunities for Giroud, Welbeck and Sanchez, Arsenal may be poised for a memorable season. The defense is as steady and deep as it has been in years, and Cech only makes it better.
Prediction: Arsenal have enough to challenge for the Premier League title, but probably lack the resolve to overcome Chelsea. A winter transfer may be necessary to keep Arsenal ahead of the Manchester clubs and secure a No. 2 finish. Expect a wild ride in the final weeks of the season with three or four teams competing for first place.
Predicted Finish: Second place (79 points)