Hard to believe, but it’s almost that time again, gang. Hope you enjoyed some summer weekends without the early morning angst and elation, because that’s all about to end. With less than a week to go until Friday’s season opener against Leicester, here are five key questions facing The Arsenal:
1) Will the club take decisive action on Alexis’ situation?
You can make a surprisingly rational case for letting Arsenal’s best player go into his final contract year without a new deal. The thought process goes something like this: Arsenal needs to be back in the Champions League – not just for competitive purposes, and not just for the media rights revenue that comes with it, but also to gain leverage in upcoming negotiations with the companies that sponsor them. By keeping Alexis, Arsenal can field a strong enough attacking force that it should be able to finish in the top four.
But that’s terrible long-term business. Watching a potential 50 million pound-plus asset walk out the door for free next summer would be inexcusable.
So, here’s what I’d do: Offer Alexis what PSG is paying Neymar — about 26 million pounds a year, according to reports. Make the contract offer only two years because Alexis is 28 years old, and is going to run himself into the ground at some point. That’s the final offer, with a strict deadline attached. If he takes it, great. If not, sell him. And if you have to choose between selling him to a Premier League rival and a big club in another country, take the offer from the other country, even if it’s for less money.
Thomas Lemar and Riyad Mahrez are potential replacements who apparently could be available at the right price. Neither one is the complete player that Alexis is, but they’re players who can contribute.
The bigger-picture worry here is that this isn’t the only contract concern hanging over Arsenal. Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain and several others have to be signed or sold before the end of August. The longer Arsenal waits to sign or sell any of these players, the fewer good options and less leverage they have. This, more than anything else, underlines Arsenal’s need for a strong director of football.
2) How will Arsenal handle good teams who press them?
Without Santi Cazorla’s steadying presence in the deep midfield, opposing teams’ game plan against Arsenal has been relatively simple for the past few years: press them high, wait for Arsenal to give the ball away, and pounce.
Cazorla is 32, and it still isn’t clear when he’ll return from injury, or what he’ll be able to contribute when he does. This is a shortcoming that should have been addressed in the transfer market right away this summer – or last summer, for that matter.
Arsenal has some decent midfielders who can drop deep and pick up the ball, but there isn’t a player on Arsenal’s roster who can match Cazorla’s steady ball possession and passing skill. And when it comes to building from the back under pressure, Cech and his defenders have to be better, too.
As it stands now, Arsenal basically has to play Giroud against good teams who press. If Cech is forced to kick the ball long instead of trying to build from the back against intense pressure, Giroud is the only Arsenal player who can bring a long ball down and hold it up until help arrives. That’s fine, but you give up speed when you play Giroud as a forward, and that limits your ability to counterattack.
3) How much time will the new signings need to settle in and make an impact?
Lacazette was just OK in Sunday’s Community Shield match against Chelsea, and he might need some time to settle in to a new team and a new league. And that’s OK. There are so few elite strikers in the world, they rarely become available and they cost a fortune when they do. (Cough, cough, Neymar, cough, cough.) In that context, the Lacazette signing was a great piece of business by Arsenal.
But how about Sead Kolašinac? Arsenal’s “other” significant signing looked like be belonged right away. He’s fast, he can handle the ball under pressure and he has a ton of upper body strength. Apparently, he can score on set pieces, too, as he showed in the Community Shield match. It’s still not clear how good he is as a one-on-one defender, but I’m excited to find out. Wenger needs to find a way to get him on the field for now.
4) Who’s going elsewhere before the end of the month?
There are obvious candidates like Gibbs and Lucas Perez, but the tough choice is at forward. It has been suggested that Arsenal will receive offers for Danny Welbeck, but it’d be bonkers to sell him. As you saw in the Community Shield match, his combination of pace and ballhandling is elite when he’s fully healthy. And you can’t sell Giroud, because he just does so many things well.
So … sorry, Theo, but it’s about that time. Walcott has speed, gives good effort, and he’s a decent finisher when he’s at his best. But he too often loses the ball in his feet, something you don’t see as much with players like Welbeck and Iwobi. For Arsenal to have the “possession with a purpose” that they need to be successful, you can’t just give the ball away in the box. The same rationale could be made for selling Aaron Ramsey, an incredibly skilled player who just gives the ball away too often by trying to do something spectacular.
5) Are there reasons for optimism?
Heck, yeah. The concern about identifying a deep-lying midfielder who can handle pressure is significant and must be solved. The uncertainty about Alexis has to be resolved, too. But there are a bunch of nice options in defense, and enough attacking talent to be dangerous. If Arsenal consistently beats the teams it should, and can raise its level against better teams, a return to the top four is easily achievable.