Friday, August 3, 2007

Premiership Preview--5. Arsenal

Before I get to this preview, and I apologize in advance for its length, let me say that I've gone back and forth between who I think will finish 4th and 5th this season. It's the toughest decision I'll make in this whole Premiership preview, but for me, it came down to one prevailing factor: Youth and the relative inexperience that comes with it. I don't believe a club's manager can overcome that; he can be a brilliant tactician and have a knack for putting the right people in the right places, but I don't think there's any getting around youth, and that's why Arsenal will finish below Tottenham this season.

5. Two more of the "Invincibles" are gone, and now just three of the stars who played on the unbeaten 2003-2004 team remain with Arsenal. Freddie Ljungberg and Thierry Henry bid their respective farewells to the North London club, and a new era in a new stadium is underway. This could also be manager Arsène Wenger's last season with Arsenal as he hasn't yet, and probably won't, sign another contract after his current one runs out in 2008. He may be looking for another challenge with another club or he may even retire from soccer completely, but either way there's a very real possibility that Arsene Wenger won't be on the sideline after this season. Arsenal finished 4th last season, 8 points ahead of Tottenham. There's no question that their future is extremely, extremely bright but as far as the "now" goes, Arsenal have some real question marks to answer.

That first question, and the most important, is how do you replace Thierry Henry's contribution to the club, both off-the-field and on? Say what you will about him having a disappointing season last year, but the fact remains that he was tied for second on the team in league goals scored with Gilberto Silva, a fellow "Invincible" (10 goals each), despite playing 17 games less than Silva and 5 games less than Robin Van Persie, who had 11 to lead the team. In 254 Premiership games since 1999-2000, Henry bagged a whopping 174 goals and chipped in 77 assists. In 84 games in European competitions with Arsenal, Henry scored 42 goals. The point is, you can't replace that in one summer, not with new signing Eduardo da Silva, not with anyone. Per the club's official website, Togolese striker Emmanuel Adebayor will miss the start of the season with a groin injury (which tend to linger for a while), and Robin van Persie really isn't a natural goal scorer; he benefited greatly from playing off Henry. Eduardo da Silva is unproven, having never played in any high-profile league (Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, or even Ligue 1), much less the Premiership. Henry was also Arsenal's captain and leader from 2005 until this summer. He'll pass the armband onto Gilberto Silva, who's certainly capable, but his English isn't great and I can't imagine he speaks French that well either and French is certainly a language that's prevalent on Arsenal.

The second question pertains to Arsenal's back line. Kolo Toure has great speed and strength and is one of the best center backs in the Premiership. William Gallas can play anywhere across the back, though he prefers to play in the center, and is capable of turning in great performances on his day, but his day doesn't come often enough. Left back Gael Clichy is a real up-and-comer at the age of 22 and has play has been good enough to cause Arsenal fans to forget about their former left back and current England left back Ashley Cole. Other than that, it's shaky for Arsenal. Young Swiss center back Philippe Senderos has all the power and strength you could ask for and is a great ball-winner in the air, but a lack of speed and the mental aspects of the game trouble him. Emmanuel Eboué will move from right back to the right side of midfield. When he was fit, Eboué was the starting right back for Arsenal; the problem is he's rarely healthy. A whole host of untested young players will be counted on to step up this season, including new signing Bacary Sagna, Johan Djourou, and Justin Hoyte. Can this back line perform up to the level they'll need to? I'm not sure.

Arsenal haven't been able to go out this summer and buy the big-name, expensive players because of some ownership questions. It's widely rumored that the club will be bought out as soon as sometime this season, possibly by a well-known American, Stan Kroenke. Kroenke is a sports tycoon in the US, co-owner of the St. Louis Rams (NFL) and the Colorado Crush (AFL), and owner of the Colorado Avalanche (NHL), Denver Nuggets (NBA), Colorado Mammoth (NLL), and the Colorado Rapids (MLS). The current board won't spend big money to get players for Arsene Wenger with the possibility of new ownership coming in soon. That has resulted in Arsenal losing a whole lot more this summer than they've been able to bring in, and subtraction isn't the way to contend with Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, and even Tottenham.

A game at Blackburn will be their toughest of the first month of the season, but out of 3 league games, Arsenal should start off with 9 points. September gets a bit shakier as Arsenal host Portsmouth and then go to White Hart Lane to play Tottenham in the first vicious, always hotly-contested North London derby of the season. The first difficult stretch doesn't come until late October-early November, where road games at Liverpool and Reading await, as do home games with Bolton and Manchester United. It's smooth sailing from there until mid-December until the beginning of the new year. Four games in 14 days will be tough, particularly the away matches at Portsmouth and Everton. Arsenal also play host to Chelsea in that time, and they'll welcome Tottenham to the Emirates for the second and final North London derby of the year. That should be a classic match; it takes place on December 22 and what a Christmas present it will be for those of us in the US. The last long run of difficult games comes in late March and stretches through mid-April. It sees Arsenal play 5 games in total, including away dates at Chelsea, Manchester United, and Bolton, as well as home games against Liverpool and Reading. Those 5 games will be the make-or-break stretch of the season for the Gunners. Take 10-12 out of the maximum 15 points, and they can think about a top 4 finish and the Champions League.

Bottom Line: Arsenal's remaining strikers each have great talent, more than enough to finish in the top 5, but I don't think they can get the job done against the defenses that Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and even Tottenham can put on the field. The midfield is great, no qualms there, but the defense has question marks after Kolo Toure and Gael Clichy. Arsene Wenger is a brilliant manager and gets the best out of the lineup he puts on the field, but he's simply going to be outgunned this season. The club is too young and inexperienced to contend for a Premiership title this season and maybe even next season, but come 2009-2010, especially if Stan Kroenke buys Arsenal, look for Arsenal to mount a serious challenge and reclaim their place as champions of England's top flight. As far as 2007-2008, expect 4th at best.


tyduffy said...

I will trust in Wenger. I think that in the 10 years he's been at the club his net spending has been something like 10m GBP and I think that was before this summer. As opposed to Sir Alex who spent three times that much on Rooney alone.

I still maintain that they have lost more symbolically than they have actually lost on the pitch. I don't trust Henry's health at this point.

A lot of the same arguments were made about Man U in 1996.

Anonymous said...

Should there be a Salary Cap in Soccer?
Personally I think there should be! It’s just getting to be stupid money in soccer at the top of the premiership!
It’s always the same teams at the top proving that soccer success is based purely on money which ruins the idea of it being a sport! They’ve done it in rugby, basketball, hockey and American football and it makes the sports more competitive and better to watch!
I do a little Soccer Spread Betting from time to time and most matches don’t hold much surprise who is going to win, its boring! I want to see a team at the bottom pulling off an amazing season beating last seasons winners in a close fought battle!
Make things fair! It shouldn’t be about money!