Premier League 2015-16 preview No 1: Arsenal

Arsenal are the reigning FA Cup champions. (All pictures Reuters)

Arsenal are the reigning FA Cup champions. (All pictures Reuters)

Predicted position: Third

Last season’s position: Third             

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 9-2                   

Premier League football is hardly a fertile habitat anymore for developmental managers. The fact that Eddie Howe, newly arrived in the top flight and with two and three-quarter years at Bournemouth, shoots into third place for length of service of current Premier League bosses underlines how difficult it is for any manager to dare to think long-term. 

Why would you diligently build yourself a cohesive team when the chances are someone bigger or richer will pick it apart? Why invest time nurturing a young talent when there is an inevitability that their representatives will listen to the highest bidders? 

Despite all the evidence that suggests modern management depends on ruthlessness and quick fixes, Arsène Wenger still clings to this mad ideal of developing something with considerable patience and care. It wasn’t so long ago that this seemed utterly impossible.
The Arsenal manager has seldom been as dejected as when he was forced to acknowledge that project youth – his mission to grow a winning team infused with loyalty on the training pitches at London Colney – floundered with the high-profile departures of players such as Cesc Fàbregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie in their pomp.         

This summer at Arsenal has seen Wenger revert to his belief – the hope that he could never quite bring himself to let go of – that sporting values rather than financial ones can make the difference. He saw something special in his group last season and feels no great urge to mess with it too much.                   

“We live in a society where people just want new,” he explained recently. Connections, understanding, and a sense of common cause don’t necessarily come packaged in a shiny parcel, however. Such attributes require far more than a click of the fingers. 

New hunger
Wenger thinks this squad have an unusually strong sense of togetherness that has gained depth over time. He is impressed by how the players have improved, both individually and collectively. He likes the way their hunger has been tweaked winning the FA Cup two years in a row – giving them confidence in themselves and the taste for more. He enjoys the blend that brings together the mix of luxury buys such as Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil, total surprises such as Héctor Bellerín and Francis Coquelin, added to the British core such as Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey. 

Stability has been the name of the game over this close season. Even the big addition of Petr Cech is one that underscores that. The Czech keeper has been recruited from Chelsea to bring an extra layer of stability – that mature sureness and solidity at the team’s base. Interestingly, backing up Wenger’s instincts, Cech has been particularly struck by the bond in the team he has just joined. “I’ve found the team spirit quite extraordinary,” he said, which is quite the compliment given the renowned never-say-die character at his former club.                   

But whether Wenger’s unshakeable faith in stability, and how that might bring the best out of his group, is enough to mount a title challenge with substance remains to be seen. Arsenal have quality and competition for places in most departments but there is still room for improvement.  

New blood vs young blood
If Wenger can find the pieces of the jigsaw to make another upgrade or two (and he will buy only if he can strike a deal for someone better than what he already has) he will. If not, he will hope that fortune favours his squad in terms of fitness and form, and rely on “internal solutions” if difficulties arise. That didn’t serve him too badly last time with the emergence of Bellerín and Coquelin.                   

There are two positions that still have a question mark over them as the season fast approaches – at the point of attack and anchoring midfield. The feelgood factor may lurch if the centre-forward stable of Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck fall short in the sternest tests, or if Coquelin gets an injury or suspension at an inconvenient moment, with Mikel Arteta, who has been a long-term injury victim, the main alternative. Having said that, finding world-class centre-forwards these days is easier said than done.  

Arsenal will have to deal with a different kind of expectation this season. Arguably for the first time since they left Highbury they have the billing of genuine Premier League contenders. Fighting with an equally settled and stable Chelsea side who won the league by eight points last term, an emboldened, strengthened Manchester United, and a Manchester City team hoping for extra zest is still a huge challenge. But for the first time in many years, Arsenal’s players appear honestly to believe they can do it. There were a few cynical heads in the past. Not anymore. The air of general confidence is quite striking.                   

This group has effectively been developing since 2012, when Van Persie left for Manchester United and a title medal. From that summer to this, the calibre of major player coming in, as epitomised by Cazorla, Özil, Sánchez and now Cech, has given incremental boosters.                       

Wenger will pay big when the opportunity arises. Those developed closer to home, such as Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott, fitness permitting, look desperate to express themselves.                   

With the exception of Sánchez, who will be reintroduced to the team late after a post-Copa América holiday, there has been a sharpness to pre-season training that Wenger rates as critical. A good start has been drummed into the players, particularly as they began sluggishly last time, with a load of draws that had them playing catch-up.           

Wenger, approaching his 19th year as Arsenal manager, remains as committed as ever to the joy of honing a team, sending them over the white line, with all that elusive possibility ahead. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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