Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Is this Arsenal's strongest squad in a decade?

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 10:  Mikel Arteta of Arsenal holds up the trophy next to Santi Cazorla (L) and Alexis Sanchez after the FA Community Shield match between Manchester City and Arsenal at Wembley Stadium on August 10, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 10: Mikel Arteta of Arsenal holds up the trophy next to Santi Cazorla (L) and Alexis Sanchez after the FA Community Shield match between Manchester City and Arsenal at Wembley Stadium on August 10, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

After a 3-0 win over the Premier League champions, two trophies in three months, and a second consecutive summer chiefly of buying not selling, the question to ask the Arsenal players who stopped to talk in the bowels of Wembley Stadium on Sunday after beating Manchester City to win the Community Shield was obvious enough. Is this Gunners squad the best they have known?

It is an issue on which manager Arsène Wenger has been predictably equivocal, saying merely that it’s “very difficult to compare”, but goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was refreshingly straightforward.

“I think so,” he said. “And, hopefully, it will be the most successful one. Looking at it on paper I think it is the strongest side we have had. Except for, obviously, Thomas [Vermaelen] we have not lost any key players. Even if someone did leave on a free contract we managed to replace them with good players. So we are looking stronger and stronger.”

Arsenal were top of the league at one point or another for 128 days last season – almost half – but in the end could not cope with an unlucky series of injuries that would have damaged any club, no matter their strength in depth.

But if this year they are to mount a serious challenge for anything more important than the FA Cup, it is unquestionable that they will need to be stronger than they have been for the last decade.

Having joined Arsenal in 2009, 24-year-old Szczesny can afford to be forthright in his views on such a matter. But it was a shame that the player best placed to answer – Mathieu Flamini – rushed past without stopping.

Flamini first came to Highbury in the summer of 2004, weeks after Sol Campbell, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and the rest of the Invincibles had won the Premier League without losing a match.

When he made his debut in the first match of the next season, he came on as a substitute in a 4-1 win at Goodison Park and played in the centre of midfield with a 17-year-old listed in the Everton programme as Fabregas Soler, who was making his first Premier League appearance while still being billeted with an Arsenal family and earning less than £200 a week. Their other recent acquisition, 21-year-old Dutch winger Robin van Persie, was not even on the bench.

Arsenal, and everyone else, were demolished that season by Chelsea in their first year under Jose Mourinho.

A decade on, both Chelsea and now Manchester City loom like megaliths, with resources that make them seemingly impossible to beat. The temptation is again idly to write off Arsenal as still not having the strength in depth to compete, but for the first time in years the numbers do not necessarily bear this out.

At present only Theo Walcott is injured and he is on the road to recovery. Even without the England winger, attempting to work out who might be Arsenal’s strongest front six is a near impossible job.

Last season it was an extreme rarity for any of Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil, Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Oliver Giroud not to start in the Premier League if they were fit. If Alexis Sanchez is to be added to that number, that leaves no space for Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski, Joel Campbell – who impressed at the World Cup with Costa Rica – the popular Tomas Rosicky, or Yaya Sanogo, who has certainly turned a few heads in pre-season, if not on Sunday.

The more obvious grey area is in defence, and the now crucial defensive midfield position, with Arsenal fans not enjoying reading Samir Nasri, of all people, describe that as “a weakness” before Sunday’s match. Wenger admits he would like to buy one more centre-half, having lost club captain Vermaelen to Barcelona. “If I can find another centre-back I will do it,” he said. “You make your position with your performances.”

Currently, there are just six defenders in Arsenal’s first-team squad. Liverpool’s Daniel Agger has been suggested, while Chris Smalling was rumoured to be coming the other way if Vermaelen had gone to Manchester United.

Yet 19-year-old Calum Chambers, bought as a full-back amid talk of a future as a defensive midfielder, played his first ever competitive match at centre-half at Wembley on Sunday, and made what his manager called “an outstanding debut”. If a new central defender does not arrive, that should give considerably less cause for panic.

While strength in depth is reassuring, it is not always called upon. Rare is the successful title challenge not backed up by several defenders starting 30 games or more.

The injured Vermaelen made only seven Premier League starts last season, and was one of only seven Arsenal defenders to start a game at all. Bacary Sagna, (who has been sold to City but replaced like for like by Mathieu Debuchy), Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker all started well over 30 league games.

Manchester City may have 11 defenders in their first-team squad this year, but last season only eight made a Premier League start – which was clearly enough. Chelsea, who have let Ashley Cole, David Luiz and Ryan Bertrand all leave and replaced them solely with Filipe Luis from Atletico Madrid, have less defensive resources to rely on than Arsenal. Manchester United, suddenly without Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic, look inexperienced.

Now Arteta is Arsenal captain, it is reasonable to imagine he will regularly start in the deep-lying midfield role in which Flamini will provide cover. City may have signed the defensive-minded Fernando to liberate the more attacking Fernandinho and Yaya Touré in midfield, but to play him will almost certainly require dropping one of the other two.

The attacking options that Arteta and Flamini free up are more flexible than ever, too. Giroud started 36 Premier League matches last year), which may not happen again, but in Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla and Wilshere the abundance of attacking choices in midfield and on the flanks will allow Sanchez to play through the middle at some point, where many argue he is at his most dangerous. It is a mouthwatering prospect.

Of course, it may again be the familiar story that at the business end of the season, when the pressure is on and only the big boys are left in the Champions League, Arsenal vanish again. But if the tide will ever turn, there is every reason to imagine that time is now.

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