Is it Gunner be their year?
With many of the key members of Manchester United and Chelsea’s title-winning squads entering the twilight years of their careers and Manchester City’s expensively assembled project inevitably taking time to gel (at least if there pre-season form is anything to go by), could this be the year when Arsenal return to their rightful place at the summit of the Premier League?
The Gunners certainly have a squad capable of defying the critics and claiming their first piece of silverware since 2005. However, a lot will depend on how Cesc Fabregas responds to the collapse of his dream move to Barcelona this summer, as well as how quickly new signings Laurent Koncielny and Marouane Chamakh settle into the side. This is also the season in which Theo Walcott must begin to repay the faith Arsene Wenger has shown in him and deliver on a consistent basis.
Throw in the refreshed trio of Andrey Arshavin, Samir Nasri and Thomas Vermaelen, who were all spared the exertions of a mentally-draining World Cup campaign this summer, a fit-again Robin Van Persie and an ever-improving Alex Song, and you have a squad that could take that extra step this season and bring the Premier League trophy back to the Emirates stadium.
Apart from a daunting trip to Anfield on the opening weekend, the fixture list has been pretty kind to the Gunners, with Blackpool, Bolton and West Bromwich Albion all due to visit the Emirates in the first two months of the season, while trips to Blackburn and Sunderland give Arsenal ample opportunity to build up early momentum in their bid for the title.
Arsenal have long been the purists favourite Premiership team, with pundits waxing lyrical about their expansive and dynamic style of play ever since Wenger stamped his authority on the North London club. At their best, the Gunners fluid attacking football is a joy to behold. At their worst, (the limp display at White Hart Lane at the tail end of last season springs to mind), they can be excruciating to watch, making more needless passes than John Terry on Mastermind.
As well as the lack of a plan B when opposing teams manage to stifle their short passing game, doubts remain over the squad’s mental toughness come the business end of the season, especially after last year’s implosion in the title run-in. Another concern is their dismal head-to-head record against their major rivals in recent seasons, with both Chelsea and Manchester United taking six points apiece from the Gunners last season. It’s safe to say that Arsenal will need a better return from these fixtures in the coming season if they are to emulate the title-winning side of 2004.
Some of the club’s personnel hardly inspire confidence either, with big question marks remaining over Manuel Almunia’s suitability in goal and the profligate Niklas Bendtner up front. New signing Chamakh has never scored more than 13 goals in a season, so the Moroccan will have to adapt to English football swiftly and convert his chances more regularly than in the past if Arsenal are to maintain a serious challenge. At least Chamakh offers Arsenal an aerial threat that they have been sorely lacking since Emmanuel Adebayor left the club.
Wenger is still searching for a more reliable goalkeeper to inspire confidence in a talented but youthful backline, of which England starlet Kieran Gibbs could become an important part in the forthcoming campaign. With Jack Wilshere knocking on the first team door and Aaron Ramsey to come back from long-term injury, Arsenal have plenty of creativity in midfield, as well as one of the most promising defensive midfielders in the Premier League in Alex Song.
But in defence the Gunners lack cover, and Wenger must act quickly to replace Sol Campbell, after the veteran centre-back rejected Arsenal’s overtures and moved north to join Chris Hughton at Newcastle.
Of their rivals, Manchester City remains a work in progress, while Chelsea and Manchester United are arguably weaker this season, with modest transfer activity taking place at both clubs. However, the arrival of the Brazilian international Ramires at Stamford Bridge should add some much-needed bite to the Chelsea midfield, while Mexican striker Javier Hernandez will give United an extra dimension in attack.
Chelsea’s backline remains a concern though, with John Terry a shadow of the player he was a few seasons ago, and the experienced Ricardo Carvalho joining Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid. With Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes playing what must surely be their last season in the top-flight, and defenders Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville and Wes Brown in terminal decline, you get the feeling that United’s squad might just be too old to reclaim the title they lost by point last season. Although Nani has improved dramatically after a stuttering start to his Old Trafford career, the likes of Anderson, Gabriel Obertan and Darron Gibson simply don’t have the class to replace the old guard. There has never been a better opportunity for Arsenal’s young side to shed their nearly men tag than in the forthcoming season.
A couple of additions to a squad already brimming with promise and attacking flair could be enough to give the Gunners a real chance of claiming the Premier League title in 2011.