Last summer, Arsenal made five signings totalling a combined fee of £96 million (figures from transfermarket.com) and whilst two of them, Rob Holding and Takuma Asano, are players for Arsenal’s future, the remaining three have been welcome additions that will certainly strengthen the spine of the team. Granit Xhaka has been a clear upgrade on Coquelin, adding greater composer, vision and ball distribution whilst retaining the Frenchman’s aggressive defensive-minded qualities. He has provided a base of improved cover in a midfield three, with the offensive aspects covered by the more creative Cazola and Ozil. Shkodran Mustafi’s arrival has given Koscielny a quality centre half partner to finally replace the sluggish Mertesacker, whilst adding much needed squad depth in a position that Arsenal have often looked threadbare. Finally Lucas Perez, whilst not being the world class star fans were hoping for, has shown his quality in some promising early performances for the Gunners, and can act as a hybrid option between the fast, skilful Sanchez and more physical, battering ram approach of Giroud. These improvements added into a squad that finished 2nd in the league last year, with the longest serving club manager currently in the league in charge, Arsenal look an impressive side, but does this make them title contenders? At the moment, the answer is no.
Arsenal’s additions came in a summer of unprecedented spending by English clubs, with Talk Sport putting the total figure spent at roughly at £1.188 billion. Whilst Arsenal have finally begun to address their weaknesses in lack of quality squad depth, other teams have been addressing there own troubles and subsequently strengthening. Although Arsenal have, over the past 3 years, been adding more world class talent to their ranks, with Ozil, Sanchez and Cech all joining in consecutive summers since 2013, they arguably missed their chance for a title last season. 2015/16 was a season in which almost all the big English clubs underperformed, allowing Leicester to have their fairy-tale story of going from relegation favourites one year to Champions the next. If Arsenal had the squad they currently do last season, then Wenger might finally have silenced the doubters and won Arsenal their 14th Premier League title, their first for 12 years since Wenger’s famous ‘Invincibles’. This year though the Premier League is more competitive than ever. The calibre of managers at the top clubs is astounding, leaving most to disagree over the order of the top six to eight teams at the end of the season, let alone who will be at the top after 38 games.
Yet will it be Arsenal? Although the summer transfers have offered more encouragement for Arsenal fans, injuries to key men like Ozil, Sanchez, Cech and Bellerin could seriously undermine The Gunners’ chances. Injuries at key moments may cost them vital points that may come back to haunt them in the final months of the season and it is only too easy to imagine another year of ‘what if’ questions for Arsenal fans. Whilst the squad depth is now clear, the difference in quality between some of their first choice players and their backups is worrying, especially if these stars pick up injuries. Should Arsenal dodge their yearly injury epidemic, they then might be able to mount a title challenge. Even then, however, other factors could impede them, most notably the busy calendar and competition in European football. With Liverpool and Chelsea not competing in Europe at all this year, they will not need to rotate their squads after midweek games like Arsenal, and so can focus on a strong league campaign. Arsenal’s Champions League hangovers have already taken their tole this season, as shown by their early season stutters such as the 0-0 at home to Middlesbrough and scrappy wins against both Swansea and Burnley, all games you would expect this Arsenal team to win comfortably if a title challenge was really on the cards. For the Reds then, it’s a huge uphill battle this season, and they need a lot of factors to swing in their favour just to give them a shot of winning the league this year.
With stars Sanchez and Ozil still engaged in protracted contract talks and Arsene Wenger in the last year of his own contract, could this be Wenger’s last chance to take the title whilst he still has the team to do it? Or will it finally be curtains for ‘Le Professeur’? At the moment, it looks like it could be another year of waiting for title number 14.
By Jeremy Dunn