Season Preview 1: The Changes
A quick look at the changes from last season.
Deals made at the transfer deadline will be the least expensive for teams who want the transfer, but don’t need it. Arsenal, through a dogged valuation of players, adds nuance to this tactic by taking the position we don’t want it that much or need it that badly (even if they do). Therefore a season preview comes three games into the season.
The New Signing
Robin van Persie—already out again with a milder injury than the last—qualifies as “like a new signing”. This is heard now and again associated with certain players coming off a long-term injury. The team has coped in this player’s absence. They have made do. Life demands that they move on. The shoulder-shrugging and surrendering statement “That is football” is taken from “That is life” or from the more colloquial “Stuff happens”.
The player has been out for so long it’s like he was never there. To maximize the potential impact of return, the memory of the player’s time before the injury is erased or suppressed, so that it can be perceived as a compressed surprise. All along, the injured player believed he was still part of the team until he sees the distance at which his colleagues have put him. His home looks strangely unfamiliar. While the team trains, travels, and arrives early for games, the injured player occupies a parallel dimension, one far quieter and lonelier, the days unfolding like an unemployed spouse. Players have talked about the difficulty of a sidelined existence.
Fully rehabilitated, between new and old, they become something certified and pre-owned. There is something uncanny about him. At the same time it’s so good to have this player back to his shiny new best that these details can be ignored.
The injured player is conjured into an impact return. This is not a particular type of player, but a particular role assigned to him.
There may be a psychological advantage for a team to turn the returning player into the unknown potential energy of a new signing. Instead of quantifying the return as a move from deficit to zero—a sum, like paying a bill—which hardly feels positive, the return is conceived as a positive quantity, as something new and not associated with loss or deficit. The impact return can be especially exciting and fortuitous if the timing is right, a gift from nowhere. The new signing can return at any time, since the imaginary transfer is determined by healing and not transfer windows.
In the case of van Persie, his return has complicated this, if not indulged the emotions. His anticipated return immediately met with injury, the new signing looked exactly like an injury-prone player Arsenal had in seasons past. If there’s an upside, it’s that the team will be able to get excited all over again. Until then, his lame-legged specter occasionally hobbles around London Colney assuring us he’s still there, while some begin to ask whether or not this is what’s best.
The Long-Awaited Third Central Striker
Marouane Chamakh, from watching him play at Bordeaux on an awful Setanta U.S. stream, confirmed an earlier arrival would have been helpful. He’s physically wiry and strong (many new and current Arsenal players who constitute their “big men” are of this build (Vermaelen, Koscielny, Djourou, van Persie) . He’s good at holding and distributing the ball, even with an opposing player almost freaking him from behind. His temperament is almost alarmingly even, as if keeping focus depended on remaining calm. He is most dangerous with his head. Balls bounce off his skull as hard as they do off a player’s foot. He heads with intention and accuracy. He’s not fast, but when he goes for a header he really flies.
He offers precisely what Arsenal needs, so he’ll be asked to continue doing these things. It’s been said that he wasn’t a prolific goal scorer with Bordeaux, which implies that he may score less in the stronger Premier League, but this doesn’t necessarily equate. Ligue 1 is a consistently lower scoring league. After last season, Arsenal’s need for a player like Chamakh is so great that he could become a fetishized focal point and integrated into the team immediately. Chamakh's sole purpose is to score goals.
The most significant change is the complete overhaul of the defense. What the effect will have is completely unknown. Sol Campbell, William Gallas, Philippe Senderos, and Mikaël Silvestre have permanently left Arsenal; all are central defenders, although Silvestre’s positioning was flexible. Armand Traoré, the third-string left back, has been sent out on-loan to Juventus for the season.
This leaves six remaining defenders—seven if you count Alex Song as an emergency central defender, but he is unlikely to be used as one now having established himself as the first team holding midfielder.
Thomas Vermaelen and Johan Djourou are the remaining central defenders; the former having played only one, yet impressive, season in England, and the latter converted from a defensive midfielder. Due to injury, which kept him out for 16 months, Djourou made one appearance last season. He too can be considered a new signing, but without the impact of stature that van Persie brings. His return is an unknown within the unknown.
At right back there is Bacary Sagna and Emmanuel Eboué. At left back there is Gaël Clichy and the promising Kieran Gibbs.
Arsenal has added Laurent Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci. Koscielny, whom not many knew before coming to Arsenal, is hoping to be a sufficient replacement for Gallas, but a fair comparison will have to wait. Squillaci is the replacement for experience. He has a good reputation, but wasn’t a first choice signing.
Leaving out Senderos, who was on-loan last season, and considering Djourou an addition, leaves a net loss of one defender. Since Djourou has hardly played and is only 23 years old, a first-team central defender could be added without putting into question his future with the team.
The lack of physical and mental toughness, the youth and immaturity, and injuries that appeared contagious are all cited as reason for Arsenal not winning the league last year. Far more measurable is the defense, which after being French, is leaky.
Over the last six seasons, the title was won by the team either conceding the fewest or second fewest goals. During Arsenal’s last title-winning season in 2003-2004, the squad conceded the fewest. In the two previous title-winning seasons, 2001-2002 and 1997-1998, Arsenal conceded the second fewest.
Statistically convincing, but not binding. In Wenger’s first season, Arsenal finished third, but conceded the fewest goals. In 1999-2000, Manchester United won the title, conceding the sixth fewest goals, and Arsenal finished second, conceding the fifth fewest goals. The 1999-2000 season is also notable in that it was the last season that the title was won by a team conceding an average of more than one goal per game.
Last season, Arsenal conceded 41 goals to Manchester United’s 28 and Chelsea’s 32. If Arsenal had conceded 31 goals, regardless of the other issues, which may or not be separated from goals conceded, the season could have had a different outcome.
After last season succumbed to the well-known chronic deficiencies in defense, there was the impression that the problem would be squarely addressed and solved, which may be proven over the course of the season. But the expected infusion turned out to be an untested redesign with more unknowns than before.