|Gooners will be hoping to see a full season|
from the Welsh Jesus
Sam: A cursory glance over the fixture list doesn't show too many clumps of big fixtures together, which is a nice change from last year. Last season, the Gunners faced runs like Liverpool-Man U-Liverpool-Bayern in the space of 11 days in February, then Everton-Bayern-Spurs-Chelsea-
Swansea-City-Everton in the space of a calendar month. That is a hellacious stretch of fixtures, even if you have a full-strength squad, which Arsenal certainly did not have at the time. For title considerations this time round, though, the run-in looks harder than in recent seasons; Arsenal are due to face Chelsea at home and Man Utd away in the last 5 games of the season. Liverpool also visit the Emirates in early April, and those fixtures could have a large part to play in the final destination of the league trophy. Depending on what happens in the Champions League, and fixture changes, we could end up with a few more Saturday midday kick-offs after European travel. But we won't know what will happen there for a few weeks. Is there anything that stands out for you on the fixture list?
Andy: For me, the first stretch that pops is actually the opening six matches in the league. There was much talk about Arsenal's inability to get results against the other big teams last season, and for good reason, so to see four of last year's top six finishers in the first two months is a bit rough. That stretch is an even mix between home and away with games at Everton and Chelsea, the Gunners hosting Manchester City and Spurs, and a couple of Champions League qualifiers against Besiktas thrown in for good measure. It won't be a damning indictment of the club if they are mid-table after that run of difficult matches, but it would be a huge boost to the players and the fans if they can come out of it with a good percentage of points, setting them up for a pre-Christmas stretch that only includes "big" games against Manchester United and Liverpool.
Champions League, league cup, and FA Cup scheduling will determine which parts of the 2015 portion will be most deadly but you're not wrong about the run-in. Strangely enough, that West Brom match to end the season is the one that scares me the most as I think they are prime candidates for relegation this year. Facing a desperate team with their backs to the wall in the last game is incredibly unappealing regardless of talent level, but that is all speculation and for all we know, they'll be well relegated or sitting safe by then.
As we wind down to our actual predictions for Arsenal this season, let's take a quick look at our main competitors for the title, other trophies, and Champions League spots. The early buzz is about Chelsea with all of their additions and while I normally push back against groupthink, this is the majority opinion for a reason. Are the loathsome Blues your biggest worry heading into opening weekend?
Sam: Right now, I do have Chelsea as favorites to win the league. They've added to an already formidable squad, and it will be interesting to see how Fabregas and Diego Costa combine for the Blues; both have looked good in pre-season, but one of my friends from home who is a Chelsea fan is not convinced by either. I'm actually one of those rare Mourinho defenders: yes, he's a complete tool, but every now and then he says something that makes sense, and he recognizes that the season lasts 38 games, so identifies games that he will accept 1 point from instead of 3, and then parks the bus. It's not pretty, but it's effective, and at the end of the day, I'd rather win the title than win a single game at, say, Old Trafford. Probably a controversial opinion, but the trophies are what the game is played for.
Of course, Manchester City are obviously a threat as reigning champions, and while they haven't made any big-name signings, they hardly need to. You have to expect that they will be up there at the end of the season, and they're the side I'd want to win if Arsenal don't do it. Pellegrini seems like a nice enough chap, and the only player to really hate is Na$ri, though part of me just doesn't care about him anymore. Do you think there are any other teams to keep our eyes on this year, Andy?
Andy: We unfortunately agree on Chelsea being the favorites though I do not agree with you on Mourinho in the least. Ignoring the issues I have with his personality and philosophy (which is really tough to do), he plays such a negative style of football when he doesn't need to. If he was only parking the bus away against Arsenal, United, and City then I would understand a little more and give him some strategic credit. But he plays that way against sides that Chelsea hold a huge talent imbalance over and there is nothing in his pragmatism that makes claim to anything beyond results. As someone who watches sport in general for much more than a plodding 1-0 home win over West Brom, he bothers me immensely. Say what you want about City and how they skew the market with their spending; at least they understand how to put together an entertaining squad when they have the money to do anything. If you can buy whatever you want, why on earth would you purchase and mold a negative, boring team?
Ugh. Need to clear away the hate and move on.
City is of course a danger as the defending champions, though I believe they'll be displaced one way or another as they haven't improved a squad that got a lot of help last year from other teams' results and injuries. It bothers me to say this but I think the biggest challenge other than those two will probably be Manchester United. They always had talent, especially once Juan Mata was brought in to be a midfield force, but now they actually have a manager who seems to have an idea of what he's doing. Even more important, the lack of European matches will allow Van Gaal to focus his efforts on the league and domestic cups, which certainly gives United an advantage as last year's top teams start to drag and rely on rotating lineups. It's for this reason that I think Liverpool will fall out of the top four and Everton won't be able to build on last year's strong showing. I don't necessarily wish that to be the case, but it's what I am predicting.
Ok, let's get to it, the real thing: where do Arsenal finish this year Sam?
Sam: My heart says 3rd, and my head says 3rd. Good to see they both agree sometimes. I just can't see the Gunners overtaking Man City or Chelsea, and, on paper, the Arsenal squad is better than that of Liverpool, Man Utd, Tottenham or Everton. Last season we only finished 7 points off the top spot; I expect that gap to be smaller this season, and depending on injuries and performances against other challengers, Arsenal could very well win the title. As I said before, though, I think third place is a realistic expectation, and hopefully a minimum target within the Club. I won't come out and say we'll win a cup, as they are too random, but we should be progressing very deep in to the domestic competitions, too. What are your expectations for the upcoming season?
Andy: I'm going to do one better than you and say 2nd, though I wouldn't be surprised if they fell as far as 4th. Or, if health actually holds for once, I could see the Gunners winning the league. On paper though, that Chelsea team is so damn deep and so damn good. The defense is solid, the midfield can roll out many different tactical looks, and Costa is tailor-made to succeed in the EPL. The Blues are certainly the favorites and are whom I believe will be at the top at the end. I like Arsenal's squad better that City, United, and Liverpool though. A lot of pace, creativity, and guile in midfield depending on who the Gunners put out, a top defense including the keeper, and interesting options up top aside from the striker that still had them top of the league going into 2014. Keep in mind that everything could change in the next two and a half weeks depending on any transfers that come through, but I think that another top four finish with a legitimate push at the title at the end of the season, plus deep cup runs, should be the expectation for Arsenal this year.
I'll ask one last question of you, Sam, and give you the last word in the process: what are you looking forward to the most this season? For me it's relatively simple, but so important: a full year of Aaron Ramsey and a full year from Mesut Ozil now that he's used to the speed and physicality of the Premier League. They are two of my favorite players to watch and I sincerely hope injuries don't get in the way and ruin what should be some beautiful football. What about yourself?
Sam: Hmm, interesting question, as I hadn't really thought in specifics on that. I guess I'm just looking forward to the return of the football season, and having matches to watch every weekend. In Arsenal specific terms, I'm interested to see how Sanogo develops, and whether Jack Wilshere can take a Ramsey-like step up this season and live up to the hype that got (perhaps unfairly) built up after he made his debut at the age of 16. I'm also looking forward to, for the first time in years, watching an Arsenal season in which I feel confident that we can make a sustained title challenge, as well as not having to hear about something called a "trophy drought". Seriously, what does that mean? I only know what winning feels like after this summer.
Alright, I think that pretty much sums it all up. Thanks, readers, for sticking with us through all of that, but as you can probably tell, we're excited to be Gooners right now and we just got a bit carried away. Here's to a great season, hope to see you all at Lir, and, as ever: COYG!