In a couple weeks Arsenal will start their season in their shiny new Emirates Stadium. I've earmarked a couple hundred greenbacks for travel to London to see a few games in the new stadium. Although a new season and a new stadium will no doubt bring excitement, hope and expectations, I can't help but feel that this season will be as uninspiring as the last one for Arsenal. Their improbable run in the Champions League notwithstanding, Arsenal underachieved domestically. They lack the financial muscle to compete with Chelsea. They haven't defeated Man Utd. in the league in over three years now. Liverpool, under Rafa Benitez, now have a manager with the tactical awareness to get the most out of his players. Tottenham's resurgence, despite the loss of Michael Carrick, will no doubt continue this year. Arsenal, with Thierry Henry, will always be able to score goals to see off weaker foes but against stronger teams their defensive weaknesses will be revealed. Philippe Senderos will likely be out at the start of the season. Sol Cambell, a defensive stallwart, has been released by the club and left back Ashley Cole is almost certainly on his way to Chelsea for a cool 25 million pounds. The phrase "Arsene knows" has been repeated at Highbury many times in the past years. Wenger tends to make some of the most astute moves in the transfer market. He sold Overmars to FC Barcelona for 21 million pounds and Overmars never played up to the level he played at Arsenal. Ditto for the likes of Von Bronckhorst and Anelka. His purchases have been equally shrewd. Thierry Henry was bought from Juventus for 10 million pounds. Drogba, at 24 million pounds, certainly is not 2.5 times as good as Henry although that's what he cost. However, with the departure of Patrick Vieira to Juventus last season, Wenger has chosen to paper over the cracks Vieira left in midfield instead of replacing him with a player with similar qualities. For all his talent, young Spaniard Cesc Fabregas doesn't have the necessary steel to command a premiership midfield and Gilberto Silva isn't so much a tough tackling, lung busting midfielder in the mold of Vieira.
Last year without Vieira Arsenal were overrun in midfield and woefully underperformed whenever they played on the road. This season will find Arsenal without another member of the golden era with Robert Pires' departure to Villareal. One only hopes that much like Overmars and Anelka,
If Rosicky brings his fire to Emirates Stadium all will be well.
Wenger let Pires go when it was clear he had nothing left in the tank because for a good three years, 2002-2005, Pires was probably the best goalscoring midfielder in the Premiership. He could score anywhere from 20 yards in. It's not clear how the team will replace Pires, but the addition of Tomas Rosicky should ease the loss. Rosicky's two goals against the U.S. in the World Cup are an indicator of what he can do, but player's tend to struggle in their first year in England as they get used to the physicality of the league.
Even if Rosicky performs up to the standard many expect, the slow development of Spanish forward Jose Antonio Reyes has been frustrating. A player of his supposed quality should be scoring between 12-15 goals a season in the Premiership, especially with the wide open style of play Arsenal has. His return from starting 22 games last season was 5 goals, that's simply not good enough at this level. Arsenal will need a big season out of Reyes if they are going to make a serious challenge for any domestic honors. There are no assurances that Reyes will even be with the club after he expressed his desire over the weekend to join Real Madrid because of the difficult he has had in adapting to England and the English game.
Jose Reyes, chronic underachiever.
And what of the supposed 17 year old phenom Theo Walcott? No one has seen him play yet Arsenal splashed out 12 million pounds for his services. Walcott has to be the luckiest kid alive. He hasn't played a top level professional game yet he can say he's an England international and was on the 2006 World Cup squad. All I can say about this one is "Arsene knows."
It all can't be doom and gloom for Arsenal, though, as long as Thierry Henry is playing. If he is healthy this season you can pencil him in for 30-35 goals this season. In his second year as captain, Henry is expected to be more influential on the field. I expect him to exert greater influence over his teammates and he started doing that later in the season as he began to grow into the role. Kolo Toure will be commanding the defense and his athleticism and excellence can't be denied. I only wonder if it's not asking too much of a converted midfielder to command a defense that, at the start of the season, will probably look nothing like the one he played with over the past two years. Only time will tell.
My prediction for Arsenal is that they will finish fourth and only because I don't think Tottenham are ready yet to make the leap to be a top four team and they haven't beaten Arsenal in over a decade, I think. A fourth place finish is not good enough for a team of Arsenal's aspirations, especially since they had done no worse than second place prior to Jose Mourinho's arrival in England.