Even the most optimistic Arsenal fan will admit that a lot of things will have to go just right for the team to compete for the Premiership this year. Oddsmakers have them a distant fourth favorite to win the title, closer to Manchester City than the rest of the Big Three. This is for good reason; last season, the club’s ambitions had turned to merely securing a fourth place spot by mid-November. It took a healthy collapse by Aston Villa down the stretch and the addition of Andrei Arshavin at the end of the winter transfer window to get that position.
It would be foolish, however, to count out the Gunners completely. There is plenty of youth and potential on the side, particularly on the offensive end; no team in the league can match Arsenal’s depth of attacking players. In the first part of my Arsenal season preview, I examine the five things that must happen for Arsenal to win the Premier League: Arshavin has to be the best player in the Premier League
Arsenal would not be playing Champions League football this year if Arshavin had not joined the club. The team was mired in an offensive slump (the team failed to score a goal in four straight PL games in the month of February) before he arrived. He has the ability to both provide for his teammates and finish himself. At the age of 28, he has waited a long time to get this chance on a big club. Just ask Liverpool fans what they think of him.
This clip shows highlights from his twelve appearances with the club last year (fast forward to 3:40 to see his four-goal performance at Anfield)
Likelihood of happening: 1-1. Book it; this will happen.
Cesc has to be a leader
Last season was unfortunate for Cesc. The captaincy drama with Gallas was just awkward and he was injured before he had the ability to grow into that role. Wenger put a lot on the 21 year-old's shoulders by making him captain but it's a role he can fill. Gallas is the only other regular who has played in as many big games on the national and international stage. He wants to be captain. His teammates seem to like him. The departures of Adebayor and Toure should help team chemistry as both players made it clear last season that they did not want to be on the team.
When Walcott misses a good scoring opportunity or Song misses a tackle, Cesc has got to be the guy who keeps their head up. His interaction with the younger guys in the preseason was promising. Having a great season would certainly help earn his teammates' trust; he's got the talent and teammates to be Iniesta-like.
Likelihood of happening: 3-1. My main reservation here is his physical toughness. Hopefully, his newly-added horrible tats signal a new tough side to Cesc. The (rightful) knock on Arsenal is that they are a team of pretty boys that won't know how to react when punched in the mouth. I'd like to see Cesc dig in a bit more, get scrappy, and commit some hard fouls to show that this squad has some fight.
Walcott has to finish better
Theo clearly has the skills to be a top 10 player in the world. Give me Walcott in a race, you take any other player, and I'm pretty sure I'll win. His speed makes him a matchup nightmare for other squads and opens up the field for his teammates. His role with the team has always been hazy and he didn't exactly click with the rest of the squad in his only pre-season appearance this past Saturday against Valencia. It might take some time to work out where he will play (up front with RVP and Arshavin? right midfield?) but, wherever he plays, he will create chances. He's got to start taking better advantage of the opportunities that he gets.
Likelihood of happening: 6-1. Asking a 20 year-old, regardless of how talented, to be your second- or third-highest scorer in a grueling three-competition campaign is ambitious. I think he will eventually make the leap to a Top 10 world player but don't think this is the year.
Gallas has to be a rock at the back of the defense
With the departures of Toure and (maybe) Senderos late in the pre-season, the team is left with Gallas, Vermaelen, Djourou, and Sylvestre as its central defenders. I would prefer the team hang on to Senderos as the prospect of having to see the back of Mikael Sylvestre’s jersey as he futilely chases strikers far faster than he for another season is depressing. Gallas is the only member of the group who has experience in big games and will need to lead the back line. He handled his demotion from the captaincy better than anyone would have anticipated. I thought the best stretch of the team’s play last season ended with his injury.
Likelihood of happening: 7-1. It’s too much to ask the aging and temperamental Gallas to be the anchor of a defense that will not have much support from the midfield.
Either Alex Song, Denilson, or (insert rumored holding midfielder here) have to step up to provide toughness in the center of the pitch
Song is the likely candidate here as he showed the most promise in this role last year. He’s shown flashes; perhaps with a full season at this position (and not the center-back that he has also been asked to play), he can grow into the role. Denilson had plenty of opportunities to prove himself last season but showed little consistency or improvement through the course of the year.
With some combination of RVP, Walcott, Arshavin, Eduardo, Vela, Bendtner, Cesc, Nasri, Rosicky, Wilshere working ahead of them, the player in this role will not have to worry about scoring. The team needs a bruiser who will take some fouls, stop runs, impose some physicality, and win some balls in the air.
Likelihood of happening: 10-1. Wenger’s stubborn refusal to replace Flamini after last season and again this season when it was a clear weakness will be the team’s downfall.