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The case for Arsenal as a Premier League contender

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Expectations are low for the Gunners this season. Can they exceed them?

Chelsea v Arsenal - The FA Community Shield Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Arsenal were bad last season. Not Hull City bad or anything, but if we’re comparing the clubs in the New Big Six™, they were comfortably the worst of the bunch. This, despite their positive end to the season capped off by an FA Cup win with victories over Manchester City and Chelsea, had led to a lot of negativity about their title hopes this season.

Many people are picking Arsenal sixth this season. The football writers for The Guardian and The Double Pivot Podcast, among others. Hey, Phil McNulty picked us to finish 5th! That’s a slight improvement! Basically, it’s the same all around. Neutrals, by and large, think that the Gunners will once again miss the Champions League spots this season. So, are there any reasons for Arsenal fans to be optimistic about their title contention hopes?

They probably aren’t as bad as they were last season.

Yes, Arsenal should have finished sixth last season. They also should have won the Premier League two seasons ago. The only important player Arsenal have lost since the 15/16 is Santi Cazorla, may he and his Achilles rest in peace. Since that time they have added really good players in Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi, Sead Kolasinac, and Alexandre Lacazette. Somehow, and it’s really hard to pinpoint how, despite adding the first two prior to last season, the Gunners were much worse in 16/17.

Even if you don’t think Santi Cazorla is a magical, club-savior level midfielder, clearly the club suffered from his absence. Arsene Wenger put in the worst managerial performance of his tenure at the club and could never really figure out what to do to patch the massive hole left by Santi. That is, until he stumbled into the back three.

Now, I know, I know, the underlying numbers seem to indicate that perhaps the back three wasn’t the magical pixie dust it seemed to be to Arsenal fans. That said, since that time they have both defeated and outplayed Manchester City and Chelsea (the latter twice, if you count the Community Shield) and overall were not the massive tire fire that they were immediately prior to the introduction of the back three.

Xhaka makes more sense with the additional centerback for cover and passing options. Aaron Ramsey looked reinvigorated with more license to attack. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil are still Alexis and Mesut. The backline will feature players who are progressive passers, lessening the attacking hit suffered by removing an attacker from the pitch. Petr Čech, never the greatest stylistic fit for the swashbuckling, high-line Arsenal sides of old, looked far more comfortable in the new formation. More than anything, this formation makes sense for the personnel that Arsenal have. That is something that was severely lacking for most of the season last year.

The squad is really, really talented.

Assuming Alexis and Özil stay, which seems fairly safe to assume at this point, Arsenal arguably have the best squad outside of Manchester City’s behemoth. Alexis is arguably the best player in the Premier League and certainly in the top 5. There was a time where bashing Özil was fashionable, but most would agree he’s a top 10 talent in the league. Laurent Koscielny is a top 5 centerback in the league. Despite the banter of the Wojciech Szczesny ultras on Arsenal Twitter, Čech was among the best goalkeepers in the league last season. Mustafi, Nacho Monreal, Ramsey, Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck, Mohamed Elneny, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are all established senior international players. Héctor Bellerín, despite his down year for much of last season, is one of the top young players in the world and renewed competition for his spot seems to have reinvigorated him. Lacazette and Kolasinac will need some time to integrate to the squad, but they are players with long histories of success in other top European leagues.

The Gunners have a side with top end talent and depth. The health of their top end talent is what is needed to see them sustain a title challenge though. In the past, that’s been a major concern for the Gunners. There is, however, reason to think that could improve this season.

It looks like Arsenal are going to punt the Europa League.

According to the manager’s recent comments, Arsenal will likely not be treating the Europa League as a top priority. If the goal is Premier League contention, this is the right move. The last two Premier League champions, as well as 13/14 Liverpool who surprisingly made a title challenge only to finish second, did not have to deal with any European Cup competition. These squads relied on a relatively stable and healthy top XI which was aided by the lack of consistent midweek matches. If Arsenal treat the Europa League like they treat the EFL Cup and play squad players and youngsters, they could receive the same benefit.

While hoping for an improved injury situation this year when it’s already starting off on the wrong foot seems pie in the sky, there should be some hope that a reduced workload for star players and the addition of Darren Burgess will lead to an improved fitness record.

Other top teams have flaws too!

Manchester City are, and should be, prohibitive favorites to start the season, but they’re also relying on Ilkay Gundogan, Fernandinho, or Yaya Toure to be their sole, somewhat defensively minded midfielder. Their centerback pairing is still Vincent Kompany and John Stones. Their new goalkeeper, Ederson, is talented, but young, talented goalkeepers coming in from other European leagues haven’t always initially bedded into the oddness of the Premier League.

Last year’s champions Chelsea did not finish the season particularly well, and have not added the depth one would consider requisite with their return to Champions League football. Alvaro Morata is an exciting young talent, but he has never consistently started for any team he’s played for. It remains to be seen if he can replicate the production of Diego Costa which led the Blues to the title last season.

Tottenham have lost a starter in Kyle Walker and have not added anyone this summer. They will also be playing at Wembley this season, since White Hart Lane was torn down to make way for White Hart Lane 2: Electric Boogaloo. Even if you’re skeptical of the pitch size difference leading to a difference in performance, Spurs apparently weren’t. The unknown, unmeasurable, and very possibly bunk “atmosphere” downgrade could be an issue as well, considering Spurs were undefeated at home last season.

Liverpool appeared to be set to improve on their campaign last season, but they appear to have not done the business required when reintroducing the club into the world of European football. Their lack of depth, considering Jurgen Klopp’s injury record, should be a big concern. Another concern has to be their inability, as of yet, to land a centerback. The excellent addition of Mohamed Salah seems less of an improvement if it is followed by the sale of Phillipe Coutinho, a transfer saga that will likely go on until the end of August.

Manchester United have had a good summer, but it remains to be seen how Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof will integrate into the squad. So much of their attack last season was “let’s just get it to Zlatan,” it is unclear how they will adjust to the new setup. That said, the addition of Nemanja Matic should free up Paul Pogba even more. Before his recent struggles, people would be proclaiming this Jose Year Two and naming United as favorites for the Premier League. While I am fairly bullish on United’s chances this season, there should be some concern that Jose’s ultra-conservative tactics versus top teams work against him now that there are ten matches against top teams.

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Arsenal mounting a serious Premier League challenge this season. If that’s your opinion, I don’t blame you! That said, the situation is not hopeless. The top of the table is tighter than ever, but Arsenal have as good a shot as anyone outside Manchester City at the moment to win the league.

That said, a lot can happen between now and the end of the transfer window. All of these clubs, including Arsenal, could shore up their issues through a move or two. In a race this tight, one move could be the difference. But as things stand, there’s plenty of good reasons to think the Gunners could mount a competent title challenge.