Arsenal 2008/09 Season Preview

I left writing my season preview for Arsenal until as late in the day as possible. The season kicks off on Saturday with a home tie against West Brom, and the trepidation I felt mid-July still hasn’t disappeared.

Wednesday night’s result in Holland in the Champions League third qualifying round was a good early test for the Gunners, which they passed, though hardly emphatically. The 2-0 scoreline was somewhat undeserved as FC Twente had plenty of opportunities to score and should be going into the second leg at least level.

There is no doubting that Arsenal will need to improve significantly upon this performance when the real stuff starts this weekend, and they will. I am perhaps reading a little too much into a match in which numerous key first team players were missing, and plenty of young inexperienced players were blooded. It was an acceptable performance overall.

However, Arsenal’s squad depth was an issue last season, and will be their undoing again this season. I am not questioning the quality of Arsenal players; every player in the squad is more than capable of playing fluid, easy-on-the-eye football that we Arsenal fans have come to take for granted over recent years.

Arsenal brand of football seems to improve its level of technique season-on-season, but in recent seasons it has lacked the end product that was bestowed on it in the title winning seasons. Maybe Arsenal have to become a little more direct, a little more ‘ugly.’

There were signs early last season that Arsenal had adapted their game to become more efficient in front of goal, they were beginning to shoot more and from distance, and weren’t scared of the long ball, but as wins became harder to come by, and confidence ebbed, Arsenal retreated into their comfort zone somewhat by rekindling their ‘passing across the 18-yard line’ game that has been a large factor in the club’s failure to win any trophies during the last three seasons.

I don’t see Arsenal’s trophy cabinet having to make room for another addition this season either, unless the Carling Cup team can win the competition as their performances in recent seasons has deserved.

Before last season, supporters were justifiably worried about how the sale of Henry would affect the team; initially it galvanised the squad and Arsenal played as well, if not better than ‘The Invincibles’ of 2003/04. The preseason expectations were justified though, and Arsenal’s inexperience told as the finish line appeared upon the horizon. Whilst expected, it was a little undeserved. This inexperience can’t resurface this season if Arsenal want to win the league.

Finishing four points behind the eventual Champions was a fantastic effort and much more than I had imagined at the start of the season, but if I’m honest, Arsenal football club and its fans should never be settling for anything less than winning every competition we enter. There have been too many ‘transition’ seasons of late.

This preseason has, yet again, been a typical Arsenal summer, with top players leaving for ‘bigger’ teams, and other star performers flirting with potential suitors every time Wenger’s back was turned. It’s a perennial problem for Arsenal, but one the fans have grown to accept. If players don’t want to play for us then they can leave.

The club’s stubbornness to its wage structure, whilst frustrating and also being a contributing factor to our lack of success in recent years and inability to create sustained success over consecutive seasons, is perfectly reasonable and should be highly commended. The long-term future needs to be stable, but we now have to start coupling it again with short-term success.

My worries about Arsenal’s title, no Champions League qualification credentials, are greater this season than last. The impact of losing Hleb and Flamini will have a major effect on Arsenal’s chances of success this season, even more so than the predicted decline following Henry’s move to Catalonia. Hleb and Flamini formed half of Arsenal’s formidable, dynamic midfield last season, and for Arsenal to build upon the foundations laid last season they need to be replaced by players as good, if not better, immediately.

Ramsey and Nasri look like they have tremendous potential but I don’t think they are ready to plug the gaps departed players have created in the midfield.

Nasri should provide more goals than Hleb, but Hleb was perhaps Arsenal’s second best player last season and so his boots are going to be extremely difficult for Nasri to fill. The return of Rosicky, and the transformation of Walcott into a player who performs the high levels he is well capable of, but on a consistent basis, is required.

Filling the gap left by Flamini’s lucrative move to the San Siro could be even more crucial. Last season, if rather unexpectedly, he visibly grew in confidence, and into the role of the midfield’s engine, providing an excellent foil for Fabregas, allowing the young Spaniard to weave his magic so devastatingly. However, he was by no means perfect, and there are plenty of players out there who would perhaps be better suited to the role, though Arsene has only seventeen days to find him. The type of player Arsenal’s failings necessitate finding in order to improve upon last season is a powerful box to box midfielder, of a similar ilk to Vieira – someone to take the hits, so to speak, for Cesc.

It looks like yet another season of ‘transition’ for Arsenal. The level of inexperience has increased. Too much is going to be required of players like Fabregas, Adebayor, Van Persie and the younger prospects. Arsenal need to learn from last season’s errors, the experienced players need to come to the fore (especially Gallas) and guide the young players, and every player needs to improve that extra notch for Arsenal to go the distance this time around.

Realistically, this is too much to ask for this season. The hits the squad has taken over the summer are going to be felt deeply, and we Arsenal fans will have to settle for third or fourth place again, and memorable, yet ultimately unsuccessful, FA Cup and Champions League campaigns this season.

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