As it has tended to be in recent years, it was an interesting if not entirely satisfying season for the Gunners in 2012-13. How you react to the various talking points from the season is a bit of a Rorschach Test for supporters in that it reveals more about the person than the team. I could easily spin a very optimistic picture of how the team and manager performed or a very grim one and I could use the exact same facts to support either point of view. If that isn’t interesting, I don’t know what is. It all comes down to the changing landscape of the game at the highest level of club competition and what it is realistic to expect from Arsenal.
2012-13 Season Review
The glass half-full view of Arsenal’s season is that despite the loss of their best player (again) they managed to increase the number of points they earned in the league, they scored virtually the same number of goals, and the defense actually improved significantly when viewed through the lens of goals allowed. The glass half-empty view is that a) they lost their best player (again) and didn’t adequately replace him; b) Chelsea improved significantly more than Arsenal and dropped the Gunners from 3rd to 4th; c) the Gunners made no progress in moving toward the top of the table; and d) Spurs (and maybe Liverpool) are lurking as significant challengers for a Champions League spot assuming they can keep their best players this summer.
If you look at financial resources available to the various clubs in the Premier League, this is pretty much what a reasonable person would expect. Arsenal finished above the teams that they have more resources than and they finished behind the teams with more resources than them. It is a tribute to Arsene Wenger that people expect him to consistently punch above the club’s financial weight but the research shows that this isn’t a realistic expectation. Moving from 2012-13 to 2013-14 with rumors that Arsenal’s financial situation is improving rapidly, the big question is whether they can take a major step forward armed with more resources or whether Wenger has really lost his touch.
As a club that has focused on bringing up youth, there are no shortage of players that are candidates for this section. The question with each is whether they are ready to “rise” to the level necessary to challenge for the league title, win an FA Cup or drive to the later stages of the Champions League. Here’s an assessment of Arsenal’s youth and their readiness to compete:
- Jack Wilshere – He’s a hard one to figure. Everyone is very bullish on his future but his end-of-the-season performances weren’t exceptional. With a summer to fully recover from his injuries and a training camp with the team to integrate further the big question is whether he can carve out a role in the Arsenal midfield and make it his. The talent seems to be there but he still needs to have that same sort of breakout year that Fabregas had when he went from nice connecting player to scoring goals and creating assists.
- Theo Walcott – What a polarizing player. His results this season, in terms of goals and assists, were extremely good if not quite at the superstar level that everyone keeps hoping for/expecting. The good news/bad news is that there still seems to be plenty of room for Walcott to grow in term of decision-making and efficiency with scoring chances. The question is whether he has peaked as a good complimentary player or whether he can attain that next level and become a real force week in and week out.
- Carl Jenkinson – The young right back was, as most young players are, up and down this season. He is not the sort of physically gifted outside back we’re used to seeing at Arsenal but he is bigger and stronger than is usual at the Emirates as well. The question is whether he can develop his technical skill and game awareness sufficiently to overcome his lack of top end physical skills. If he can, he could be a strong starter, if not, he certainly has a place as a solid squad player.
- Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – The Ox continues to show signs of being exceptional for both Arsenal and England but the question is where and when he’ll get a chance to really make an impact. Ideally suited for one of the outside forward roles – preferably on the right – in Arsenal’s 4-3-3 formation he currently seems to be behind Walcott, Lukas Podolski, and Gervinho when it comes to playing time. You’d like to see him at least eclipse Gervinho heading into next season and be used in a regular 20 to 30 minute/match role.
- Wojciech Sczcesny – No, I don’t have any idea what to make of him either. He shows signs of promise but no more so than other young keepers like Joel Robles of Wigan. Keepers develop later than other positions so it isn’t out of the question that a light will go on and a next level will be attained but it seems hard to believe that his progress won’t be slowed somewhat by the acquisition of a solid veteran for him to learn behind for the 2013-14 season.
Declining or Returning to Form?
Arsenal’s roster is chocked full of talented players who could increase their contribution or be in the process of fading further from the picture.
- Thomas Vermaelen – Perhaps the only Belgian in the Premier League who didn’t have an excellent season. It isn’t clear what has become of Arsenal’s captain but at age 27 it seems unlikely to be an age-related decline. There could be something temporary – an injury or something personal – at the root of the issue or he could just need a change of scenery. Given the unknown origin of his decline, it seems risky to count on a return to form but it shouldn’t shock anyone.
- Mikel Arteta – The central midfielder is a hard one to judge given the extent to which the role he is being asked to play has changed so substantially from his days as “one of the best players outside the Big Four” at Everton. He now plays a more Carrick-like role of deep-lying initiator rather than frequent attacker. He plays the role well but requires support with defensive responsibilities because he is neither fast nor an exceptional tackler. As part of a “double pivot” with a more athletic midfielder – Wilshere or Diaby – Arteta can still be very effective.
- Aaron Ramsey – It has now been more than three years since THAT injury happened at Stoke. Ramsey played a significant part in Arsenal’s season but he has consistently seemed to be just short of success. Whether it is a scuffed shot, a poor pass, or some other form of lapse Ramsey consistently gets himself in positive situations and then conspires to produce nothing from them. He is still only 22 so it isn’t like he’s the finished article but if Arsenal are to improve either he needs to take a big step forward this off-season or he might need a loan move for a year (Cardiff maybe?) to log the minutes necessary to mature outside of the spotlight.
- Tomas Rosicky – The Czech midfielder is still capable of very good things but is ideally suited to being a squad player where his injury-prone nature is less at risk and the team is less dependent on his health.
- Abou Diaby – The Frenchman has talent on the rare occasion that he is healthy and in form. The problem is that his injuries are becoming more frequent and are sidelining him for longer and longer each time they happen. The team would be wise not to count on anything from him for the upcoming season.
- Gervinho – He hasn’t really declined per se but he just doesn’t seem to be up to being more than a squad player for Arsenal and given his transfer fee and wages, Arsenal need more from their financial resources. It is highly likely that his role will continue to diminish if he isn’t sold.
Central Midfield – Arsenal have lots of central midfielders but none of them are naturally defensive-minded. It is unlikely that Arsenal will ever play with a Makelele-like midfield-destroyer but the sort of physical presence that can complement Arteta’s range of passing would certainly add a dimension to Arsenal’s midfield choices.
Goalkeeper – It has been YEARS since Arsenal supporters felt good about the goalkeeper position and this should be the summer where something is done about it. Arsenal have depth but they need an experienced Number 1 who can teach Sczcesny what it means to be “the man” for a top team.
Central Forward – Olivier Giroud had a solid-but-not-spectacular first season in the Premier League and appears to be the sort of second option in the middle that Arsenal were hoping Bendtner or Chamakh would be in years past. Now all they need is a top tier forward to move ahead of Giroud in the pecking order.
Right Back – Assuming Bacary Sagna leaves a replacement should be brought in. Like Giroud, Jenkinson would look great as the back-up but probably isn’t up to the task of being a starter for a title contender.
Center Back – Even if Koscielny, Mertesacker and Vermaelen all stay Arsenal could certainly do with an up-and-coming center back for depth. If one or more of the current front line center backs leaves this moves from low priority to extremely high priority. One player who can play a holding midfield role and deputize at center back could also do the trick.
Marouane Fellaini – Arsenal have apparently put themselves in the mix for the big/big-haired Belgian’s services by triggering his release clause. Other names mentioned here include Victor Wanyama and Etienne Coupe.
Wayne Rooney – This rumor, absurd though it may seem given Arsenal’s recent spending history, just won’t seem to go away. Other names - Gonzalo Higuaín and Stevan Jovetiæ – have also been mentioned as potential target forwards to slot in ahead of Olivier Giroud.
Julio Cesar – There have been two types of goalkeepers associated with Arsenal this summer so far – Julio Cesar is the veteran on the back end of his career who has played at the highest level. An acquisition like this implies that Sczcesny is still the goalkeeper of the future but he isn’t quite ready.
Simon Mignolet – The other type of goalkeeper associated is a younger player like Mignolet who would supplant Sczcesny as the long-term starter. If Arsenal are going to invest, this seems like the more likely path forward.
Matthias Ginter – The 19-year-old German is the sort of center back/holding midfielder combination that Arsenal needs in the pipeline. He isn’t likely to figure as a starter this season but it would be a good idea to acquire someone like this to groom for the near future.