Is internal “togetherness” enough for Arsenal to win the Premier League?
There is still the feeling in the air surrounding the Emirates Stadium that Arsene Wenger has something up his sleeve. That ‘X-factor’ signing, the one which blows the race for the Premier League title wide open and sends fear into the hearts of Arsenal’s rivals.
Despite this, manager Wenger insists that his side have a remarkable “togetherness” nurtured over the last couple of seasons, in the aftermath of high-profile departures of the past, which has bred a new resilience in what were previously glaring chinks in the Gunners’ armour.
The fear factor that was so prevalent in the days of “The Invincibles” is gradually returning. Reaffirmed by the recruitment of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez over consecutive summers; the message was chillingly clear. Arsenal, having paid for their fortress, were back and were building an army capable of striking at speed and leaving opposition in a mesmerised daze.
Having now taken mature steps to fix one major remaining problem; their last line of defence, the Gunners could just have made themselves impregnable. Capturing Petr Cech from fierce rivals Chelsea this summer could have had a double effect.
While potentially handing Arsenal the Premier League title (9/2 with Coral to win it), it could also cost the Blues in their hunt to retain it. In their pre-season Emirates Cup triumph, Cech was unbeatable. As Wolfsburg waged war on his goal in the second half, the Czech Republic custodian stood firm, springing into action, defending his goal as if his life depended on it.
It is heroics like this, seen all too often while he was at Chelsea, which will serve Arsenal well next season. For those associated with the club, it can hardly be surprising why Wenger has suggested that “togetherness” can deliver success next term.
Even Cech has said: “I’ve found the team spirit quite extraordinary.” Quite a testament, taking into account the attitude of his former club.
The Gunners squad is arguably the most balanced it has been for a decade. Wenger has combined the elite talents of Sanchez and Ozil, with surprise packages Hector Bellerin and Francis Coquelin, plus homegrown gems Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and sealed sublime symbiosis.
As evidenced in the Emirates Cup, Wenger also has an abundance of youth quality ready to make the step up. At just 17, new arrival from Lens this summer for £1.75m, Jeff Reine-Adelaide burst onto the scene and looked like a seasoned pro as he set up the only goal against Wolfsburg. Comfortable playing in either one of the attacking quadrants, he is in every sense an archetypal Wenger signing.
He was also joined by Yassin Fortune, also from Lens for a £3m fee, who have produced established talents Geoffrey Kondogbia and Raphael Varane. The 16-year-old can also operate in the same roles as Reine-Adelaide and has scored five goals in 10 appearances for France Under-16s. Not forgetting 19-year-old Nigerian ace Alex Iwobi, who dispatched in the 6-0 drubbing of Lyon and boasts Jay-Jay Okocha as an uncle, Arsenal’s talent is frightening.
And then there is young striker Chuba Akpom, who also flourished against Wolfsburg and at 19 is a senior citizen compared to the aforementioned crop, having, like them being blooded early in his Gunners career.
However, for all the foundations for success in place, there is still a feeling that Arsenal need to strengthen their spine, which over the last couple of seasons has consolidated their position.
Centre backs Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, plus centre forward Olivier Giroud have served the Gunners well and were certainly an upgrade on what they had previously. Having got where they are without admittedly a galactico-esque defensive midfielder, Coquelin’s surprising emergence last season revealed a serious talent to be reckoned with.
Cech is the foundation of Arsenal’s new spine and it could well be the case eventually that a quality centre back, to step into Mertesacker’s shoes, is required sooner rather than later – it remains to be seen whether last season’s recruits, Gabriel Paulista and Calum Chambers can fulfil this role.
A hunt for that elusive midfield anchorman could continue. However, with Wenger preferring a certain type of player in this position, as shown by the signing of Mikel Arteta some years ago, the search could be coming to a close.
They have been linked with Barcelona’s highly talented and promising player Sergi Samper, who is being hailed as a young Sergio Busquets.
His reported buyout clause of £8.5m is a steal and, although only 20, he has the requisite talent to step straight into Arsenal’s starting line-up and forge a telepathic tandem with Coquelin, who is almost what Nemanja Matic is to Chelsea, despite cutting a less physical figure.
Samper, meanwhile, anticipates the pattern of play and provides metronomic coverage to teams in true Spanish footballing fashion. A perfect complement to Coquelin. Whether Wenger makes a bid for a more robust and established star like Borussia Dortmund’s Sven Bender though, is another option open to him.
An argument over whether they need a top class striker continues. While Walcott demonstrated particular proclivities in that role towards the back end of last season on his return from a long injury lay-off to great effect, there is a feeling that he isn’t quite that all-round world class striker.
Giroud, offers a superb alternative, and is arguably one of the most improved players in the squad over the last three seasons, he too is considered not quite the complete forward, while Danny Welbeck is too inconsistent, despite being a key component in build-up play.
It seems unlikely that Karim Benzema will arrive at the club, despite constant media reports. New Real Madrid coach Rafa Benitez wants him to stay and evidence in pre-season suggests that the player is happy to do so. Wenger revealed last year that he had tried to sign Robert Lewandowski from Dortmund, prior to him joining Bayern Munich, though negotiations were too advanced.
The Polish striker is understood to be unhappy under Pep Guardiola and Bayern don’t seem to be the force they were two seasons ago, so out of all the ‘Galactico’ strikers, it could be Lewandowski who signs, with Wenger having a habit of taking fans and the media completely by surprise.
He has already said that he will not spend a huge amount of money to buy anyone who isn’t an upgrade on what he already has, so it could be the case that he does rely on “togetherness” to deliver yet more silverware next term.