Sean's Season Preview: 2011-12

We are right around two weeks out from the season opener, conveniently located at St. James' Park. You know, where last season was put out of its prolonged misery. Worryingly, the composition of the squad is not that different from what it was on that day, and there are still far more questions than answers - this is a club very much in flux. Will this be the season that finally ends our suffering, or will this be the season where the anger and the frustration of the fanbase boils over into something ugly?

Sadly, I have a feeling that the FA and League Cups are our only chance of silverware this season (barring any major developments between now and the end of the transfer window, of course).

Let's look at what we have position-by-position, then I'll sum up at the end.


It's funny - for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that this is one of the areas needed for improvement (Amy Lawrence at the Guardian brings it up during her season preview), I would argue that this is one of the club's strong points. Some say the jury is out on Wojciech Szezcsny, but for me the case is emphatically closed. Yes, he's still young and will make the odd mistake. But, he's a tremendous shot-stopper and is improving on crosses every game. He is composed and confident, and the difference with our back four between him and his predecessors is glaring. In an age where the list of truly world-class goalkeepers probably reads: "Iker Casillas. End text", Szezcsny is in the top 5-6 keepers in the division..which is more than good enough for our purposes.

Behind him, he'll be under tangible pressure from compatriot Lukasz Fabianski, especially with the upcoming European Championships which will partially be held in their native Poland. Fabianski is, as previously discussed in these quarters, markedly improved from his days of sending harmless low crosses into his own net. In a pinch, he can do a job in case Szezcsny is injured or loses form...but I don't know if he's quite the caliber we'd need if a trophy was on the line. Still, not too clubs boast a No. 2 at Fab's level - in case of injury or suspension, the other big clubs would be left with the likes of Anders Lindegaard, Hilario and Stuart Taylor.

Behind them, I suppose it's a battle between Vito Mannone and Manuel Almunia for the No. 3 slot. Personally, it would be best for all involved if Almunia accepted some kind of mutual termination of his contract - he's not wanted here and no one is going to pay him the kinds of wages he's surely on. Perhaps it's still not too late to arrange some kind of loan where we eat his pay packet in exchange for being rid of him. Either way, Mannone at this stage is clearly a better option. He looked solid in the friendly against FC Koln, and also has the benefit of not being irrevocably damaged goods. Almunia seems like a really nice guy and I hate to harp on him too much, but he is for better or worse a living embodiment of the failures of our recent transfer history. and a separation would be best for all involved.

The youngster James Shea is on a season-long loan to Dagenham & Redbridge.


This, right here, is arguably the single most frustrating aspect of the squad so far. Given the obvious frailties of the available personnel, it's maddening that the sum total of our business here is buying a kid from Charlton Athletic. We'll get to the reserves in a bit, though.

The main pairing will likely be Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny. The former is, of course, a bona fide Top Four Club center-half. For all my bitching and moaning about the state of the club, there is a serious argument that could be made where a fit TV5 for the whole season plus going with Szezcsny from the beginning would have put us in with a serious shot for the league title. That's Monday-morning quarterbacking of the worst sort, of course, but it serves to illustrate his importance to the side. If he can overcome his recent injury history, I can envision a fruitful partnership with the young Frenchman. Koscielny had an up-and-down debut season with us, lowlighted by several high-profile mistakes. However, I couldn't help feeling that, even during some of the low points, he was desperately unlucky at times (I recall a few penalties he conceded being absolute bullshit on the part of the officials) and was not indicative of his overall play. He is quite good at intercepting passes and seems to read the game fairly well. With a fit TV5 as his partner and a bit more consistency, he could be part of a solid defensive unit that should go a long way towards addressing some of our issues.

Image: Arsenal Official Website (

Bacary Sagna is back and should once again be one of the best right backs in the division. His pace and passing ability always make him a threat going forward, even if his crossing leaves room for improvement. That said, his defensive qualities are somewhat unsung. Why that is with someone of his caliber I'll never know, but we're lucky to have him. The other side of the field is littered with question marks, though. Will Kieran Gibbs somehow find some steel to go along with his skill on the ball? Should he continue to show the constitution of ancient porcelain, there isn't much in the way of cover at that position.

As for the backups, Johan Djourou is perhaps the single most frustrating player on our squad. His ability and potential are more than evident - every so often, he'll make a jaw-dropping defensive stop or authoritatively head a set piece away. Every time, my only thought is "Why the hell can't he do that more often?". For all of his skills, he is even more wildly inconsistent than Koscielny is. He is error-prone in the most unforgiving outfield position for it. I don't know if it's inexperience, bad luck or just a lack of footballing intelligence, but we are at a point where we cannot depend on him for any length of time if we're truly ambitious about winning things. I mean, if he were in the Sebastian Squillaci slot, that'd be fine - Djourou as a No. 4 would show a great degree of depth at the position. Instead, we have the excerable Squillaci himself. Essentially, he is the outfield Almunia in the sense that he is a black hole of confidence and stability - we are always likely to concede whenever he's out there. I don't even blame the boss for that signing - he was the right age and has extensive experience in big games...I guess Sevilla just knew something that we didn't.

Sadly (in the terrace song sense), there is strong rumor that Emmanuel Eboue will be taking his comedy act to Galatasaray. We'll miss his 10,000 songs, but I for one won't miss his ill-timed dives and acts of petulance. Whether Carl Jenkinson can fill even those modest shoes is up for debate, though. He's very young and only has made the odd appearance in the pre-season. I absolutely won't rush to judgment based off of one hideously unlucky own-goal, but I worry about what will happen if Sagna is unavailable and he has to play. Let's say we're away to United or Chelsea and we have to play with Jenkinson and, say, Armand Traore. Does that fill you with confidence? Traore is actually one that I don't think is good enough for the club, but that is absolutely a plausible scenario. Sorry, but that's the stuff of nightmares for me.


This, friends, is our corridor of uncertainty. The Sword of Damocles still remains over our collective heads with the possible departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Whatever you think about these ongoing sagas, the fact remains that the two comprise much of our creativity and attacking thrust. Losing them without adequately replacing them in the transfer market would, in my estimation, make us favorites to finish outside the top four for the first time since the 1995-96 season. That said, I'll throw it out there that perhaps this is the time to cash in on Fabregas should the odious denizens of the Nou Camp finally come to us with a non-insulting offer. He obviously wants to go, and is increasingly becoming injury-prone on top of it. He's one of the best players in the division when fit, but the combination of how little he actually is fit these days combined with his desire to leave means that selling is probably in the best interests for all sides. As for Nasri, he's obviously had his head turned around by agents and/or been tapped up by other clubs. Fine, it happens. He's another where if he wants to go, I don't see the point of keeping him around when a) We'll lose him on a Bosman after the season and b) There is a 0% chance that he plays to his potential if he's here against his will.

Now if we sell both and the Juan Manuel Mata rumors are true, then great. As with any transfer story these days though, I'll believe it when he's smiling for the official website holding the shirt in his hands (preferably the home one as opposed to that dreadful Wycombe Wanderers away strip they're trying to foist on us this season).

As for what we know that we do have, the engine room of Jack Wilshere and Alex Song both return and will be crucial to our success. It increasingly looks like they'll be the middle two in a 4-2-3-1, and both possess the requisite strength and bite to do so. As long as they remain healthy, we'll make things tough on opponents in the middle of the park. Of course, the key words there are (and this sounds like a broken record by now) "if they remain fit". If either are out, we're looking at the untested Emmanuel Frimpong to step in. I would love to see a signing in the center-mid position, but I doubt it's going to happen. Still, things aren't all negative. We managed to flog the useless Denilson off to Sao Paulo. Do us a favor, Denny, and lose our address.

Abou Diaby is injured until the end of time. I'll give you a second to recover from the shock.

The front three will be populated by some combination of Andrei Arshavin, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky and new signing Gervinho. The latter has already shown some mouth-watering touches on the ball and finishing ability. Whether he can maintain that on the proverbial cold Tuesday in Stoke remains to be seen, but I'm ecstatic about the early signs and think he'll probably come good. Ramsey is very much a case of "so far, so good" after his horrific injury at the hands of vicious psychopath Ryan Shawcross. He's had some good games for Wales in the off-season, and has looked good in the pre-season friendlies. Interestingly, his inclusion here is somewhat of a tactical change from the manager, as he had previously been plying his trade in the center two. I kind of like the change to the forward three though, and think it'll better suit his abilities. As always, we don't know what we're going to get out of Walcott or Arshavin. When they have their A-game, they are as dangerous as anyone in the Premier League. Walcott's pace would be deadly if he could ever marry it to being able to take defenders on, but he's getting to be the age where you almost wonder if he just is what he is at this point. Arshavin, of course, has questions surrounding his work ethic. If any of these guys can give us 10 goals and 12-15 assists, we'd be in fantastic shape. Rosicky will take up space, as has been his wont ever since joining the Gunners.


With the status of want-away Nicklas Bendtner still up in the air, this is absolutely going to be the Robin van Persie show. As he goes, we'll go. There was no better Arsenal player in the second half of last season than the Dutchman, which of course was closely aligned to the fact that it was his most consistent campaign on the fitness front. If he can repeat that in this term, there's no reason why he can't have anywhere between 20-25 goals. The hope is that with Gervinho and either a revitalized Arshavin or a more consistent Walcott behind him, he may even get to 30. That's a lot of ifs though.

NB52 is probably gone, and I can't say I'd blame him. If I were a tall, physical forward asked to ping in crosses to a midget winger, I'd want to leave too. People slag him off for the miss against Barcelona in the Champions' League, but that conveniently forgets the fact that he's scored big goals for us in the past when played in his actual position (remember the thumping header against the Auld Enemy at Shite Hart Lane?).

Marouane Chamakh will wait in the wings for his chance at redemption after his abysmal second half last season. The talent is there - he had some highlight-reel strikes in the early part of last season (dancing around two defenders and rounding Ben Foster to dink it in springs immediately to mind). In the worst-case scenario of RvP suffering some kind of long-term injury, he's going to have to be the one to carry the banner and score important goals. Can he get his head straight and regain his confidence?

Carlos Vela will, like Rosicky, take up space.


Once again, Arsenal are in a position where the first team - on paper - is a match for anyone in the division. In a vacuum and in a one-off scenario, I would take our starting 11 against anyone else's and feel confident that they have a great shot to win. However, we all know by now that the Premier League season is a 38-game war of attrition, with injury and suspension as constant marching companions. Look again at the names we would be depending on in case of calamity - Jenkinson, Traore, Vela, Rosicky, Frimpong. Honestly, there is precious little strength in depth here. In a best-case scenario, this club could just about collapse past the finishing post and scrape winning the league. Should any setbacks occur along the way, though, just about anything is in play. We could finish third. We could finish fourth (fucking AGAIN). We could finish fifth, or even sixth if the Auld Enemy can keep their act together and Liverpool figures out how to play all 438,928 of their new midfielders at once.

Further, the same questions nag at us. Can this team defend set pieces? Can they hold a lead when it counts? Will they fall to pieces mentally the first time something goes against them? Nobody knows, which means that a pall of uncertainty will continue to hang over us until someone finally dusts off the trophy case.

It's all so avoidable, too. Spend the money, buy Mata and Phil Jagielka, and the club and the fans would be energized and would come into the season with anticipation instead of dread. For me, that's all it would take. If this is the squad we're going to battle with though, I fear we may be found wanting (again) when the bullets really start to fly.

See you in two weeks. Gooners.