Reasonable is a difficult word so I’ve decided to try to look at current elements from an Arsenal perspective related to how we think we can compete next season in the top 4, which is actually the short and easy part of this for me. If you don’t want a really long read, go to the end for that. I’ve also added a historical perspective because we are the Arsenal and hence have historically based expectations. So here it is:
15 Years ago (Boy were we spoiled !!)
Goalkeeper and Defence : Solid, commanding keeper with physical, fast defenders that were well organized, tactically savvy, good in the air and hard as nails. Also a consistent scoring threat at set pieces.
Midfield : Box to box midfielders, strong, physical skillful and hard working, good defensively complimented by fast skillful wide players who could beat a man. All of them were creative and could score for fun.
Forwards : Fast, devastating finishers, confident, creative and hungry.
The last 10 years (steady decline with odd flashes of brilliance)
Goalkeeper and Defence : No real commanding presence or leadership of the back line. Football playing defenders, physically unimposing and generally poor in the air, didn’t tackle very well and unable to hold a cohesive defensive line. Tendency to give away stupid free kicks which we were ill equipped to defend. Let crosses come in far too easily. (Sagna is exempt from all of this except the crossing thing).
Midfield : Defensive Midfielders were generally a bust (including Alex Song) and went missing at the vital moments. The rest were generally small tricky and very creative, held possession extremely effectively due to being technically sound, very good at short passing triangles and give and goes. Some good free kick technicians and ball strikers and generally a threat to score. Lightweight and unable to defend. (Santi – you’re exempt from criticism – what a tragedy. A complete genius).
Forwards : Apart from a very injury prone RVP who left after his only outstanding season, only Alexis managed more than 20 goals in 2017 until Auba got 22 last year (Ade got 24 in 2008). Other than that, a string of inconsistent finishers often with pace but (other than Giroud) unable to score in the air. Most of these players looked a lot better than they were because of outstanding creativity in the midfield and a team built to attack. (Alexis was the real deal).
Today (Oh dear!!)
Goalkeeper : I think Leno can be the new Jens. Not because he’s German but he will command his defence if he has some support. Just what we need.
Defence : Bellerin, Sokratis and Holding are good enough to do what we need to compete in the top 4 race. We need 2 more to step up and a combination of Monreal and Koscielny to play bit part roles. AMN and Mavro look like good prospects.
Defensive Midfield : Torreira is good enough and will get better. He has all the tools but needs to stop falling over to try and win free kicks. Refs are wising up. Guendouzi is a good prospect. I don’t think Xhaka can do it unless he undergoes a major transformation (mostly in mentality but also agility). If anyone can do this, Dick can !! Need a couple of step ups. Unlikely to be Elneny so maybe Bielik or Chambers. The latter is also too slow at the top 4 level I think. Could maybe play a bit part in defence.
Attacking Midfield : I know this will be unpopular but Ozil is a liability, as is Mkhitaryan. But as sick as it is, without these two we have ZERO creativity. As a group,(including these two and Iwobi) we have ZERO midfield goal scoring threat at the top 4 level. “ZERO” encompasses scoring the odd goal here and there but really means compared to the rest of the top 4 and how our opposition sees us.
Forwards : We have two of the better forwards in European football right now. Such a shame we have such little ability to create chances for them especially against good teams. They will need a little help throughout the season. Hopefully Eddie or Reiss might help a little but they’ll find it hard to compete against almost all of the Premier League.
What we need
Assuming not too many injuries – unlikely but you can’t plan for what you don’t know about – here’s hoping for some divine intervention !!
1) Some Balls !!! Let Leno, Sok and Holding scream at the slackers. We need a strong captain. I think Sokratis fits the bill, Holding as a back up.
A solid centre back that can head the ball would be great as long as he can defend. Ditto for a left back.
2) Learn to defend properly without the ball !!! Team effort, tactics and desire along with improved fitness levels. Torreira will be good and hopefully inspire everyone else and lead by example.
A solid DM would be great.
3) Meaningful possession when level or behind !!! City had a difficult time last season breaking down a stubborn Leicester defence until Kompany scored “that goal”. For us it’s the norm and we seldom score that goal. It’s hard to see where the creativity will come from but we do have the goal scorers. We need to improve technically with the ball to avoid being beaten by the high press.
A fast, skillful winger and a #10 that’s willing to defend would be great.
4) To kill off games when we’re ahead and playing well !!! A major weakness of Arsenal since the mid 2000’s has been our inability to kill off vulnerable opposition. We haven’t been able to soak up pressure which is an essential element of counter attacking, which takes speed, desire and finishing. Laca and Auba need to be clinical especially against better sides. We need to transition quicker to defence in the event we don’t score.
A good finisher who can also score in the air would be great.
How can we achieve this?
A) Follow a plan designed by Unai.
I’ve read a lot about us not having a “style of play” or “certain way of playing”. Those observations are valid – to a point. I just don’t think we have a good enough squad of players to dictate games and be one thing, which might be the entire point of this extended article. Nor do I believe we have the resources or the reputation in Europe right now to bring in outstanding players. To compete in the top 4 this coming season, we need to deconstruct our opposition and make a fairly rigid plan for each game. That might be to increase possession or play on the counter. It might be different for every game, depending on who or where we play. Hopefully Unai is up to the task. And most of all, that the players, staff and fans respond to his methods.
… or … B) Change the structure of the club.
Buy everyone we need (see “would be great” above) and start winning immediately. 5 or 6 key 80m signings (and a new manager for some people reading this – but not me!!) would do the trick !! It’s that easy. It’s also never going to happen.
So my answer to the question of what we can reasonably expect next season is, at best we can expect a tough season with a somewhat rugged team playing efficient if not always attractive football. But if we can become hard to beat and score a few goals, it opens our opposition up and often, that’s how you can win games comfortably. I think tactics, game planning and strategy are our only hope of competing effectively this season. But it will be a building block for next season and beyond if we can do it. One thing’s for sure, it won’t be easy.