“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way”.
I’ve written before about how the internet leaves very little room for nuance. Earlier this week, I read a debate on my Twitter timeline about how long a post should be - with the maximum suggested being 1000 words. This all feeds into an environment a bit like the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities, where people end up taking a binary position, and anything longer and more balanced is too long for modern man’s attention span.
The truth is, with Arsenal - and with almost any football team - the situation is not neatly black and white but actually very complicated.
The complaints are much the same as ever: a lack of new signings. And, er, oh well that’s basically it.
To an extent, it’s natural. Change is visible and more exciting. New signings - anybody, regardless of their perceived talent level - is now regarded as a positive move, just because it’s different. So people engage in logical contortions to try and find a way that Ashley Williams might actually have been a good signing for Arsenal.
Continuity is much less exciting. Another season of playing together and knowing which runs to expect from your teammates, and developing a greater understanding both on and off the pitch is great for the team’s success. But it’s intangible - it’s not the sort of thing you can easily point to and say “look, that’s changed from last season”.
And what’s more, that intangibility means it’s very difficult to prove that it would have been negatively affected by more new signings. Nonetheless, settled teams do tend to consistently perform better - the starkest illustration of this is how AVB struggled to integrate six new players into the Spurs team following Gareth Bale’s departure.
So, what we have is a team which has few, if any, players who might be placed on the wrong part of the ageing curve, who were the second best team in the League last season according to the table (and better by many other metrics), and with almost everybody expecting Leicester to go backwards this season.
If you want more stats on how this team was good, Statsbomb’s overview is a good place to start - but the headline point that Arsenal took shots from the closest to goal of any Premier League in the last six years, and also forced opposition to shoot from the furthest away is indicative of a team playing in a way which is likely to bring success.
In addition, even if you don’t believe that Arsenal’s very low conversion rates were simply the work of variance over a small sample size - Tim Stillman makes a fair criticism here about the speed of our attacks - the signing of Granit Xhaka should go a long way to mitigating this problem.
And the reality is that signing more players who are an upgrade on our current squad is really difficult. With the noted exception of David Ospina, there’s nobody who I look at in the current squad and think “they’re a bit rubbish”. I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing us sign another defender, but it’s very hard to find somebody who won’t be offered bigger money by City/Chelsea/United/RM/Barca and is actually an upgrade on what we have. Perhaps John Stones is that man - but where Arsene Wenger used to spend £2m gambling on potential, City have spent £48m on Stones and £49m on Raheem Sterling. It’s very difficult to find value in this market.
That’s what all the blogs which bang on about the diminishing value of Arsenal’s cash reserves miss - there’s such a dearth of supply of quality defenders compared to the demand, that the prices quoted are so high as to render any write-off in the value of the cash reserves still plausibly better business. That’s particularly the case when the market is circular - the money likely goes to a rival who can spend it better, again weakening any advantage gained from a new signing. Still, “get it done” is the mantra of the day.
Similarly, to sign an actual upgrade on Olivier Giroud is very difficult - with the players who might plausibly be an improvement already playing for Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich and likely on huge wages to boot. Still, “get it done” say people with no business experience.
So where does that leave us? With a team which has been upgraded substantially in the one position which was crying out for a new signing and otherwise retaining the components of a team which largely played very well last season, especially until January. Performances in the second half of the season were disappointing but that was largely a function of a lack of a working central midfield which should be helped by the return of Santi Cazorla as well as the signing of Xhaka.
There are other reasons to be positive - this is a team which has historically struggled in the Premier League following Champions League games. Playing Hull, Burnley, Middlesbrough, Spurs, Bournemouth and Stoke (at home), is about as good a result as we could have hoped for to mitigate any post-Champions League fatigue issues. Qualify for the last sixteen and the second leg would be followed by either Leicester or West Brom. The fixtures are kinder than in previous season and while not a massively big deal could well help eke out two or three points more.
And our problems pale in comparison with our rivals. A short-term lack of centre backs while Laurent Koscielny gets back to fitness may cost us for one match. But Chelsea still own only five senior defenders, two of whom seem completely past it, with Kurt Zouma also out with a long-term injury.
Man United lack any squad depth - although they’ve signed Paul Pogba, a couple of injuries would seriously hurt them in midfield and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is now 34. Contrast this with Arsenal who have Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Francis Coquelin as competent central midfield options and the comparison does’t favour United.
Liverpool lack enough top level talent to suggest they’ll kick on significantly (they’ll be better but not to the required extent). Spurs already ran out of steam last season and now have the added difficulty of Champions League games added in, and I’m very unconvinced that signing a striker who was available for 500k last summer is the sort of move which is going to change them into a suddenly superior team.
Even Manchester City, who were the team I expected to finish above Arsenal when I predicted a second-place finish at the beginning of last season (you can’t really have expected to get through this without some self-congratulatory comment) have significant question marks in several positions, and seem overly dependent on Sergio Aguero’s hamstrings not going twang. And it doesn’t require an over-active imagination to suggest that the energy Pep Guardiola demands of his teams is going to be difficult to maintain for 38 games in a more competitive league.
Sure, pointing out the weaknesses of our rivals may just exacerbate anger at a lack of new signings. But, as outlined above, any new signing comes with significant risks too. One of Arsenal’s great successes in recent years has been a lack of mistakes in the transfer market. A few very well-picked signings - Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez most notably - have been well integrated leading to a gradual improvement both in performances and results. Xhaka could well be the final piece of the jigsaw.
I’m not going to go all out and say this year we will win the League. But I do think the odds offered by the bookies are probably a touch big. There’s no reason to believe that a couple of new signings is enough for either Man United or Chelsea to suddenly be miles better than last season, certainly not to the extent that they suddenly dominate the League.
It promises to be close - even the bookies favourites only have an implied probability of winning the League 28% of the time. But I expect Arsenal to challenge well, and given the financial advantage of our rivals, that would be a pretty good outcome.
Keep the faith.