Will the New-Look Arsenal Find Their Way Back Into the Champions League?
Man City have been installed as the odds-on favourites to seize Premiership glory in 2018/19 after winning the league in record-breaking fashion last season. The odds on Liverpool have been slashed after the Champions League finalists spent a fortune on bolstering weaknesses in their starting 11. The bookies are refusing to rule out Man Utd and Chelsea, who could still splash plenty of cash, while Tottenham are viewed as an intriguing dark horse. Meanwhile, Arsenal are nowhere near contention, priced between 20/1 and 25/1, the longest pre-season odds since Arsene Wenger took over as manager in 1996.
After consecutive finishes outside the top four Arsenal’s status as an elite club somewhat diminished so the long odds are not altogether surprising. When Wenger took over all those years ago, he inherited a rock solid goalkeeper, arguably the best defence in Europe, an elite forward in Dennis Bergkamp, and, crucially, a side with spirit and a firm identity. Unai Emery took over a club with an ageing goalie, a wobbly defence, youngsters yet to live up to their promise, and veterans that have been drifting. Arsenal’s identity has become one of brittleness, a lack of leadership, and a soft centre that can be exposed on the road as “they don’t like it up ’em”.
Emery has a massive challenge on his hands, and it is unrealistic to expect him to deliver the Premiership title in his first season in charge. Yet early signs are promising, as reports coming out of the squad suggest he is a hard taskmaster who will not stand for the lacklustre attitude that defined late Wengerdom. He is by no means a dictatorial presence when it comes to transfers, and he has worked in tandem with the likes of Sven Mislintat, Ivan Gazidis and Raul Sanllehi to secure some intriguing signings to bolster the squad.
Under Wenger Arsenal would spend all summer displaying agonising indecisiveness, wait until the deadline approached and splash out on attacking midfielders. But Arsenal already have a talented forward line, and the club have sensibly set about plugging gaping holes in the side, holes that fans have been exasperatedly pointing out for years. A tigerish holding midfielder, a new goalkeeper and defensive reinforcements have arrived in a £75 million splurge. Emery was ruthless in showing Jack Wilshere the door. He was a fan favourite, but also an archetypal player of late Wengerdom: lightweight, inconsistent and injury prone. Emery wants to play a modern, hard pressing game and he was right to say that Wilshere could not be guaranteed a starting berth.
In a way, Emery is lucky. He has not inherited a terrible squad and expectations are not exceptionally high. Two years ago, they finished second in the league and it would have been tough to take over then and not deliver Champions League football. But the bar has been lowered by fifth and sixth placed finished for the last two seasons. It is highly unlikely that the Gunners will finish below sixth this season, as they are vastly superior to the likes of Everton, West Ham and Leicester, so at the very least they should stand still, while any improvement will be a bonus.
Fans will want to see a step in the right direction. Securing a top four finish – once derided and scorned by Arsenal fans after Wenger likened it to winning a trophy – would actually represent a great achievement for next season. Secure Champions League football, bolster the finances and then Arsenal can start spending the sort of money Liverpool are throwing around this summer, and attracting that level of quality.
Can they pull it off? It will be hard to usurp Man City and Liverpool this season, but the other three are there for the taking. Check out a Bookmaker review and you will see that Arsenal are 2/1 outsiders for a top four finish, while Spurs are 4/5, Chelsea are 4/6 and Man Utd are 4/11. Yet strange reports are coming out of Old Trafford, suggesting that Jose Mourinho is alienating his squad, and we all know that Utd draw far too many games. Chelsea have rolled the dice once again and appointed a new manager, while they look to be winning the battle to keep hold of Eden Hazard, but they are a bit of a mess right now. Spurs did well to keep hold of Mauricio Pochettino and Harry Kane, but they are yet to spend a penny this summer and they could stagnate. Losing Toby Alderweireld would be a blow, and Kane may be tired after the World Cup. The red half of North London could well be celebrating by the end of the campaign, and 2/1 looks like a decent price.
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