What a difference a year makes.
Arsenal supporters were sweating profusely with the Premier League season swiftly approaching, as Yaya Sanogo and Mathieu Flamini were the only players brought into the club on free transfers.
In search of a trophy and a world-class player, Gunners supporters were forced to watch their league rivals bolster their squad, while they quickly refreshed their twitter page, with hopes of a transfer announcement on the official Arsenal feed.
However, the boos that echoed throughout the Emirates Stadium following Arsenal’s opening day loss to Aston Villa last season were quickly forgotten.
There’s a new vibe around the Emirates this time around, as they secured Champions League football for another season and ended their lengthy trophy drought by claiming the FA Cup in May.
The animosity’s transitioned into glee, and the fact that Wenger completed four signings before August signals a change in direction.
The swagger in his step along with the smile that warmed many hearts during his first decade in England has returned.
The positivity floating around the Emirates derives from winning trophies, but now Arsenal faces another stern task.
How will they build on last season’s success?
It’s been awhile since the incessant banter surrounding a trophy drought, the urgency to acquire a world-class player, or the chances of remaining in the top four haven’t dominated Arsenal’s preseason discussion, which serves as a victory in itself.
Arsenal has kept the core of their squad at the Emirates, and Wenger expertly utilized his time in Brazil to poach some of the World Cup’s key performers.
David Ospina and Mathieu Debuchy are straight replacements for the departed Lukasz Fabianski and Bacary Sagna, Joel Campbell’s successful World Cup has rewarded him with a return to the Emirates — opposed to another loan move — while Callum Chambers is a versatile defender for the future.
Wenger, however, won over the fans with the addition of another world-class signing in Alexis Sanchez. There was doubt surfacing around North London regarding Wenger’s ability to attract world-class talent, but following the signings of Ozil and Sanchez, the Frenchman has put those claims to rest. Equally, he’s learned from his mistake with Ozil’s transfer last year, and appears to have a concrete plan on how to utilize the vibrant Chilean attacker.
Sanchez is an exceptional talent that has undergone several positional changes over recent years, and his versatility provides Wenger with variety in attack. Last season, Arsenal solely relied on Olivier Giroud, as Yaya Sanogo wasn’t — and still isn’t — ready to lead the line on a consistent basis, and Sanchez’s arrival provides Wenger with substantial flexibility upfront.
Giroud lacks mobility and pace, but he prefers to play with his back to goal and link play with on rushing runners. Sanchez, on the other hand, offers a contrasting element of attack as he’s a diminutive pacy attacker that charges towards goal.
The Chilean’s physique is misleading, though, as he’s capable of shrugging off defenders to link play and his admirable work-rate sees him successfully challenge and win aerial duels. The one odd feat about Sanchez is that he tends to miss the easy chances, but is capable of providing moments of sheer brilliance.
Sanchez and Giroud would form the perfect strike partnership with their contrasting styles, but it’s likely that Giroud will start the season as the main striker, with Sanchez playing on the right until Theo Walcott returns from injury.
Arsenal’s attack improves with the signing of Sanchez, but Aaron Ramsey’s fitness is also a key factor this season.
Ramsey was indubitably the best midfielder in the country prior to his injury last winter, and his form towards the end of last season — that included a cracking volley against Norwich and the game-winning goal in the FA Cup final — has been carried into preseason. Although Arsenal’s preseason results varied — two one-goal defeats and a convincing win over Benfica — Ramsey offered the creativity, tackling and running that has seen him transition into an exceptional all-rounder.
Wenger, however, must get the best out of Ramsey’s teammates, who have stagnated since their arrival at the club. Jack Wilshere has been considerably mediocre over the past few seasons, Santi Cazorla has failed to replicate his form from his first season at the Emirates, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott need to remain fit.
This could explain the arrival of fitness expert Shad Forsythe, as Wenger hopes to decrease the injuries that occur throughout his squad, but the English trio must also incorporate a level of consistency to their game.
Likewise, Ozil’s second season in England should see him reach the levels that many expected to see with runners in Sanchez, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain available.
The main concern, though, lies within their options at the defensive midfield position with Flamini and Mikel Arteta protecting the back-line. The former displayed his inability to provide adequate cover over the course of the season, while Arteta — who in fairness isn’t a natural holding midfielder — is exposed on a weekly basis on the counter-attack and against top-class play-makers.
The defence is equally questionable as they capitulated in the second half of last season. Although there’s adequate cover in the fullback positions, Kieran Gibbs has yet to improve, while the verdict will be out on whether Debuchy can eclipse the quality that Sagna offered on both ends of the field.
Similarly, Thomas Vermaelen’s move to Barcelona ensures that the arrival of an experienced centre-back is now a priority. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker formed one of the sturdiest centre-back partnerships last season, but it would be inane to solely rely on the duo and Chambers.
Stylistically, Arsenal is likely to add a hint of directness with their possession-based system, despite their counter-attacking approach in preseason. Arsenal possess the quality to steamroll past inferior opposition in the Premier League, but their record away from home against the top-sides must improve. Away from the Emirates, Wenger’s side was battered against the teams that finished in the top five, along with falling short against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Of the teams that finished in the top-eight, Arsenal only enjoyed victories over Spurs, and Liverpool at the Emirates, which illustrates required improvement against the top-sides in the Premier League.
Nevertheless, Arsenal is a better side this year, and while European supremacy is still beyond them, they’re inching closer towards legitimately challenging for the title. Domestic cup competitions appear to be the likely source of more silverware this season, but they possess a squad capable of pushing Chelsea and Manchester City to the finish line.
More so, if Wenger intends on lifting his first Premier League title in over a decade, he will need improved performances throughout his squad and the arrival of a top-class defensive midfielder and centre-back.
Arsenal is arguably two moves away from an unforgettable season, but even if they fail to bolster those areas, anything less than a third place finish should be classified as a disappointment.
It’s time for the Gunners to push forward.