2016-17 Season Preview - The Great EPL Rock Fight

So, here we are once again, a few days out from the return of proper football. The summer has been long and tortuous (and humid as hell here in New York City). While the exploits of Iceland's conquerors were a pleasant diversion, the Euros were a bit boring in the end. This Premier League season, by contrast, is shaping up to be perhaps the most competitive and exciting season in the PL era.

Before we get into specifics about Arsenal, we need to talk about the league itself for a second. The more articles and comments I read out there, the more I become convinced that the world at large isn't getting how drastically the landscape has changed. The new TV deal that the league signed has made it so that even a newly-promoted team can spend at the levels that upper-percentile German and Spanish clubs have traditionally done.

Put another way, we are living in a world where Middlesbrough can sign players from Valencia, Bournemouth can spend 15M on a Liverpool cast-off, and Southampton can bring in a guy from Bayern Munich.

The obvious inference is that the old cliche about no easy games in football has never been truer. The good news is that our direct competition at the top all have significant flaws, the bad news is that virtually no one other than perhaps Hull City can be looked at as three easy points - even at home. We as supporters are going to have to recalibrate our expectations accordingly.

I said this on Twitter, and I believe it: I predict that this year's champions will have the most losses for a title-winning team in Premier League history.

Still, as mentioned, there is no runaway favorite for the title. Manchester City are my admittedly-shaky favorite before a ball is kicked in anger, but they have a goalkeeper whose head is gone and an ancient, creaky defense. Sergio Aguero is also fairly injury-prone, and it isn't obvious where the goals will come from if he misses significant time again. However, the mere presence of Pep Guardiola has to make them favorites in my mind.

Manchester United are the Guardian's pick to win it, but like their neighbors, their defense is utterly unconvincing. They also have had a bit of a Football Manager window as a ton of offensive talent has come in, but there's only so many minutes to distribute among them. Either they are going to make Wayne Rooney unhappy, or stall the development of Anthony Martial/Marcus Rashford. Further, the Community Shield aside, I'm not sold on Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Premier League. You're not in Ligue 1 anymore, homeboy. Oh, right, and let's not forget that Jose Mourinho presided over one of the worst title defenses in PL history just last season, a true 7-alarm dumpster fire. He has a lot to prove.

Spurs are Spurs, and will always be until they prove otherwise. They're still horribly over-dependent on Harry Kane, and serious questions have to be asked about their depth in both defense and midfield.

Chelsea are an interesting one, with Antonio Conte coming in to try and deal with the wreckage left by Mourinho. They haven't been their usual extravagantly-spending selves, but Michy Batshuayi has come in to give Diego Costa competition. More importantly, they have added steel in their midfield (and weakened a direct rival) by signing away N'golo Kante from the champions, Leicester City. They, like many others, have questions in defense to answer and there's the small matter of getting Eden Hazard's head back on straight. But, ignore these guys at your peril - there are still pieces here and Conte has a proven track record everywhere he's gone.

Finally, anything I have to say about Leicester was already said much better by Jonathan Wilson over at the Guardian. The TL,DR version is "regression to the mean."

Now, enough about the riff-raff,,,what of the Arsenal?

If you ask Twitter - and generally you shouldn't - we are dreadfully short at every position and need to spend the GDP of Brazil on 813 players for us to keep up with these mega-teams noted above (despite the obvious flaws that each has, money spent or not). Coming back into reality, we're the second-placed team from last season, who has an outside chance of winning the title ourselves despite our own obvious deficiencies.

Starting from the back, we have the defending Golden Glove winner in goal in the form of Petr Cech. There were a few shaky moments last season, but no more or less than any other top-level goalkeeper will have over the course of a long season. I always say that what the average person knows about goalkeeping can fit inside a thimble, and I stand by that. People tend to forget that we had one of the meanest defenses in the league last season - 36 goals against in the league, same as the champions, and one fewer than Spurs/United, the joint leaders with 35. Cech was a big reason for that, both with his match-winning saves and with his experience in organizing his defense.

The backup logjam has been solved with Wojciech Szczesny going back out on loan to AS Roma, meaning the deputy role is in David Ospina's capable hands. Real talk, if one bad gaffe against Olympiacos is enough to outweigh a brilliant Copa America and World Cup, as well as steady play when Cech wasn't available, then really just go take that nonsense up the road. We're much better off than a lot of clubs in this respect. Hell, Ospina would walk into quite a few starting XIs around the world.

Defensively, our starting fullback options might be the best in the league. Hector Bellerin has evolved into a devastating weapon down the right, assured on the ball and intelligent with his pacy gallops down the wing. Nacho Monreal, he of the shaky first season, has matured into a real Steady Eddie type. He rarely makes mistakes, though he is still guilty of not closing down his man fast enough at times. Behind them, Kieran Gibbs is a completely fine backup, and Calum Chambers can do OK out on the right if needed until Carl Jenkinson returns from injury. Mathieu Debuchy...well...hopefully he's moved on before the window ends. It would be better for all parties, especially with his frankly horrid preseason.

The middle is more of a worry in the short-term, with Laurent Koscielny not match fit after his extended holiday and Per Mertesacker and Gabriel both out with long-term injuries. That leaves Chambers and newly-signed Rob Holding - unless we move Monreal into the center and play Gibbs out left. Holding in particular looks like a bright prospect, but he's also 20 and coming off a relegation season with Bolton Wanderers. A gentler introduction into the first team would be best, but there may not be a choice.

That said, it's strongly reported that Germany international Shkrodan Mustafi is about to join for 35M from Valencia. That would be a hell of a signing if it ends up happening, but until he's at a press conference holding up a shirt, we should assume nothing.

 The midfield has been a problem area over the last few seasons, but we come into this one with an embarrassment of riches in both the deeper two slots as well as further up the pitch. Whereas we had no defensive specialists in recent times, we now have added 35M buy Granit Xhaka to complement Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny. Sure, only Coquelin is an actual ball-winning midfielder in the traditional sense, but all three are fighters and provide energy and bite. Xhaka and Elneny are both comfortable on the ball as well, and should complement our usual tactics nicely. It's hard to say what the Swiss man's offensive output will be, though. He has as many goals for Switzerland (6) as he scored for Borussia Monchengladbach, and in 60-something less games, too.

Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere can both play back there too, but you'd expect to see them higher up the field. Wilshere is unfortunately nothing more than a wild card at present - a fabulous player on his day but the jury is still out on whether he can ever be durable enough to last a full season. Ramsey, on the other hand, runs spectacularly hot and cold. If we can get a Wales-level performance out of him more often than not, he could be the difference between a great season and a mediocre one.

Besides them, we still have two unquestionably world-class players in Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. Ozil in particular has made an absolute mug of anyone who ever questioned him, while Alexis will hopefully benefit from a longer break than he's had in eons. Ozil is crucial to everything we do, as he's one of the few who can unlock the kind of Praetorian Guard massed defenses that we see so often. Alexis may be our more instinctive and predatory finisher, and perhaps may end up playing at the striker position more than he has in the past. It bears watching, at any rate.

Of course, there's a lot that Santi Cazorla has left to give, too. Like Ozil, he can eviscerate a phalanx of defenders with a through-ball or mazy dribble. But, at 31, it's getting to the point where Arsene is going to have to be judicious with his minutes. He still should play more often than not when fit, but in bigger games especially he may end up being more useful as an impact sub.

Out wide, I am beyond excited to see what Alex Iwobi can do.

He couldn't stop scoring this pre-season, to complement his excellent play for us last term once he broke into the first team. I admit my skepticism when he first came in, but he's quick, direct and shown he can finish if he gets half a chance. My only worry is that he won't sneak up on anyone this time around - defenses will know he's a threat and adjust accordingly. It's up to the young winger to rise to that challenge, but I suspect that he will. He looks a player, that one.

The opposite end of the spectrum can be found in the persons of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, both of whom feel like they're in the Last Chance Saloon this season. They're strikingly similar in basically every aspect - pace, can play on either flank, have scored important goals in the past, both frustratingly inconsistent...I can't say that I know what to think about either one. It's a long season, both will absolutely get their chances, but I'm sanguine on whether they'll be able to do so. I hope that they can - we may need it.

As for Joel Campbell, who knows? He's shown that he can play at this level in flashes, but he can't seem to marry that to the times where Arsene trusts him. There are also no shortage of guys who can play out wide, so you have to wonder about whether he'll get an extended run in the team.

Up top - now that's an interesting one. Danny Welbeck is injured until the end of time, and we know nothing about new man Takuma Asano other than that he's having a half-decent Olympics (speaking of, Serge Gnabry now has about 14,927 goals for Germany over there, but how on earth is he going to get into the team?). Olivier Giroud is a human case study in how ridiculous and fickle people can be out of sheer groupthink alone - yes, he misses his share of chances, but he's consistently scored goals in the PL for years now. He scored big goals for France at the Euros. Of course, it sucks that his dip in form coincided with the run of games where we couldn't afford for it to happen, but the guy is class and deserves so much better than his club and country supporters have given him.  

I do wish that we could bring in one more to give Giroud a rest, competition, or both. But, who would have it been? Gonzalo Higuain, who turned up to Juventus looking like he did his off-season training at a buffet? Karim Benzema, the sex-tape blackmail guy? Alexander Lacazette, who would cost a metric ton of money for a disturbingly average player in a bad league? Some of these dudes are being given mythic qualities simply because they'd be new, though I'm not sure any of them would be a good fit/ As stated. maybe Alexis goes up top at times. Maybe this Asano kid will actually be something. It's a flaw, but as mentioned above, everybody's got 'em.

That is precisely why I think we could win the title. Note that the key word is "could", My suspicion is that we'll probably finish third behind City and Chelsea, with Man United and the Nearest and Dearest not too far behind us. But, with the league being stronger top-to-bottom than it's ever been, I'd put our range somewhere around Champions at the top end to 6th or 7th at worst. A lot will depend on where the goals are coming from, and if we bring in someone like Mustafi to shore up the back line. 

2016-17 Predicted Table:

1. Manchester City
2. Chelsea
3. Arsenal
4. Manchester United
5. That Other North London Lot
6. West Ham
7, Liverpool
8. Leicester City
9. Everton
10. Stoke City
11. Middlesbrough
12. Southampton
13. Sunderland
14. Crystal Palace
15. Bournemouth
16. West Bromwich Albion
17. Swansea City
18. Watford
19. Burnley
20. Hull City