14 August 2014

Thursday Throwdown: 2014/15 Arsenal EPL Preview

Following on from this week's club-by-club previews (in case you missed them, part 1 is here, part 2 here and part 3 can be found here), regular Thursday Throwdown columnists Andy and Sam took some time this week to discuss Arsenal's prospects for the upcoming season. Unsurprisingly, this was a very long conversation. The first part follows here, the second part will come later today. There may well be a part 3, which will go up tomorrow.

Giroud and the boys celebrate his stunner against City
in the Community Shield.
(Credit: The Score)
Sam: All this week, One Club on Boylston have been looking forward to the new season with club-by-club previews. Today, we focus on the club that gets us all up at ungodly hours to watch; Arsenal. There's a lot of optimism around the Club and its fans after finally ending the trophy drought last season with the FA Cup, beating Manchester City in the Community Shield and the transfer dealings done by Arsène Wenger. Let's focus on that last point first, Andy. For once, Arsenal have done most of their business early in the window, rather than leaving it to deadline day, and there are still two weeks left to bring in some new players, should Wenger feel the need to (now we have only two centre backs, let's hope he does). We discussed the signing of Sanchez a few weeks ago, but let's talk about the other new signings. What are your thoughts on Wenger's transfer business?

Andy: I think it's hard to be upset with the way Arsenal have attacked the transfer market so far this summer, so long as those operative words "so far" are included. The Sanchez signing was important, both from a strategic view and as a statement of intent; Calum Chambers is looking better and better, though the phrase "it's only preseason" should appear in all CAPS after any gushing treatment of him; bringing in Mathieu Debuchy and David Ospina was smart as they were necessary moves to shore up weaknesses left by players transferring out. All very well done and boosts to the squad going forward.
However, the one glaring problem that still remains is depth at center back. The Laurent Koscielny/Per Mertesacker pairing is one of the strongest in the league and Arsenal's best bet at true title contention this season, but they can't play every game and already Kos is down with a nagging Achilles issue. Add in our BFG only recently rejoining the team after his part in Germany's World Cup win and there is a desperate need for other competent players in the middle. Chambers has looked good so far and Nacho Monreal hasn't been too out of depth playing out of position, but true understudies must be brought in to make this team complete.

Is that it, Sam? Is Arsenal only missing some cover on defense or is there more that you would like to see Arsène do before this window closes?

Sam: I completely agree with you about the defense. While we survived last year with only three true center backs, we had Sagna who performed very solidly there when asked, but now he and Thomas Vermaelen have left the Club, there is a serious need for reinforcements. Yes, Chambers has performed well - though being outpaced by Edin Dzeko is a worrying sign - and Monreal has looked decent enough in pre-season, the defense as currently constituted isn't deep enough for a sustained title challenge. Just one injury to Kos or BFG and we're looking at starting a 19-year old with just over 20 Premier League appearances to his name or a left-back who often fails to impress in his natural position. Who that third-choice center back could be (Mats Hummels is unlikely, and we've been heavily linked with Daniel Agger, a more realistic option), I don't know, but I hope that Arsène has something lined up.

Other than that, I'm a big fan of the midfield enforcer type player. Mikel Arteta does a good job as the deep-lying playmaker in a Pirlo-esque role, and Mathieu Flamini guarantees you some feisty challenges (and almost guarantees a booking), but really the two are only effective against lesser teams. I would like to see someone come in to the side who can protect the back four when we travel to the likes of Chelsea and Man City, or face someone like Bayern Munich in the Champions League. This would allow our attacking players to do their thing with the knowledge that there is someone mopping up behind them. The long-running rumors of Sami Khedira are nice, but he doesn't really fit that mold; instead, I'd like to see one of the Benders, Willy Carvalho or Morgan Schneiderlin come in (I'm only mentioning names Arsenal have been linked to here) to take up that role. If Wenger filled those two positions, I'd be a very happy Gooner, and much more confident of our chances this season. Are there any other needs you'd like to see addressed before we move on from transfers, Andy?

Andy: I think you've touched on the last of the areas for potential improvement, but a bit about Arteta before we move on. I wouldn't expect the Spaniard to be replaced this year as he was just made captain of the club, with Mertesacker acting as his vice. This does not guarantee him a spot on the field (Vermaelen spending most of last season on the bench is proof of that) but I find it hard to believe that he would be relegated to back-up so soon after being picked to lead the team. Let's also not forget that when Aaron Ramsey was playing in front of him, Arteta did a very good job as our deepest lying midfielder, protecting the back four and distributing the ball well as usual. It was only when Arteta himself was exposed by the positioning of those playing in front of him (looking at you, Jack Wilshere) that he truly suffered. You can argue that a more solid defensive player would have fared better in those situations and you may be right, but I think it's important to see Arteta as a valuable player even if his time is coming to an end, rather than a useless relic that needs to be put out to pasture. I'm not saying that you, Samuel Burgess, are saying that, but it's something I've seen pop up on Twitter far more than I'd like.

Because of Arteta's importance to the club, both as captain and as a player, I would expect any replacement to be more of a project rather than someone who will start from day one. It wouldn't surprise me to see Arsenal sign multiple players as center back depth and groom Chambers for the role as Wenger has already said he has the ability to play at DM. Time will tell of course, but my thinking is that we won't see the complete switch that some have predicted.

Enough about who might still come to Arsenal though. Let's talk about the squad that we have in front of us and let's start with the goalkeeper position, then move forward. If I remember correctly, you've been spouting some awfully blasphemous talk about Szczesny not being the keeper for the future. Do you think Ospina will end up being the better choice once the dust settles?

Sam: Hey now, "blasphemous" is taking it a little far! But yes, I am buying in to Ospina early. Don't get me wrong, I like Szczesny and think he's a good keeper - 16 clean sheets (tied most) in the League last season is nothing to be sniffed at - but sometimes I worry about him. I believe that there was a period last season where, had Wenger had more faith in Fabianski or a better option, Sir Chez could have lost his place. Ospina is that better option to me. During his spell at Nice, he was considered one of the best goalkeepers in France, he's got 48 caps for Colombia to his name at the age of 25 and conceded the least amount of goals in South America's World Cup qualifiers. He may not displace Woj, but I can't imagine he's going to be happy sitting on the bench for the majority of the year, and he will push hard in training and take his chances when he gets them.

Andy: I said blasphemous and I stand by it! That admittedly comes from a personal place: I love King Szcz and fully support him as Arsenal keeper now that he's put some of the staggeringly foolish mistakes behind him. He still puts himself a position where it can all go to hell with the quickness, but now he actually executes on those headers outside of the box and things of that nature, so I can say "oh Szczesny, you make everything more entertaining" rather than cursing his name. Of course the minute he pulls a Birmingham while being reckless I know I can count on the cries for Ospina to rain down from the stands.

Putting aside the personal entertainment value, I honestly do believe that Szczesny is the better keeper right now. You mentioned the clean sheets but those numbers don't show how he improved in every area, from shot stopping (which he was already good at) to decisions on crosses (which he had been suspect with before). He seems to benefit from serious competition and Ospina will certainly provide it as he's no slouch whatsoever. If Ospina turns out to be world class and supplants Szcz then I'll eat my words, but that's what we call a good problem to have.

Moving on to defense, I assume we both agree that the best four would be Gibbs on the left, Koscielny and Mertesacker in the middle, and Debuchy on the right, yes? Our starting back line may be set, but do you see any issues there?

Sam: No arguments from me there. The only issues I have are the ones we mentioned earlier (injuries, lack of depth). Debuchy impressed me in the Community Shield; he looked good defensively and didn't go on too many marauding runs forward, a major criticism of his when he was at Newcastle. I wouldn't be too averse to him getting forward, but if he finds the balance Sagna had then the right back slot looks safe for a few years, at least. As an aside, we've mentioned Chambers as a CDM, but as Debuchy is 30, his time in the first-XI might be relatively short, so I'm not sure Calum should be converted just yet; I'm sure this is something we can discuss in the future, though. Gibbs is a reliable choice at left back, and is unlucky (or perhaps he's very lucky?) not to get any recognition from the England set-up. I don't really feel the need to say anything else about the BFG and the Boss, as they've let their performances do the talking for the last 18 months. All in all, I'm very happy with our first choice back 4.

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