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August 12, 2010
 

2010-11 EPL Previews: Arsenal

It's a cannon!

Official Name: Arsenal Football Club

Nickname: The Gunners. Some would call them Thirdsenal, but that would be mean. The Yids, Lilywhites (YES I’M JOKING)

Home Colors: Red and white. Originally it was a darker red, or redcurrant, and that color was used for the Arsenal kit in Highbury’s final year.

Trophy Case: As Nick Hornby will tell you, Arsenal seems to win trophies in spurts. They’ve won the English top flight 13 times, with three Premiership titles in 1998, 2002 and 2004. They also won titles in 1989 and 1991, the former coming after the now famous 17 year drought that caused Colin Firth to get his boxers in a twist. Arsenal have won the FA Cup 10 times, including 2002, 2003 and 2005. They won the League Cup in 1987 and 1993; the Community Shield 12 times; and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994. Surprisingly, and I mean this, Arsenal have never won the European Cup or Champions League.

2009-10 League Finish: Shockingly, Arsenal finished in third place. They were in the title hunt until late January, when they drew 0-0 to Aston Villa to drop to third place, then lost consecutive matches to Manchester United and Chelsea. Even though they were mathematically in the title hunt for weeks afterward, a run of six matches from the end of March to the beginning of May saw four losses, one draw and just one 1-0 victory over Wolves.

2009-10 Cup Finish: In recent years, Arsenal have treated the domestic cup competitions as youth matches. They lost in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup to Stoke City and in the Fifth Round of the League Cup to Manchester City. In the Champions League, Arsenal overcame a 2-1 deficit to Porto with a 5-0 home victory to advance to the quarterfinal, where they drew 2-2 at home and were thumped 4-1 at the Camp Nou.

Home sterile home.

Stadium: Emirates Stadium. For all of this North London stuff, Arsenal actually moved around a bit before settling in 1913 at Highbury. The club played there until 2006, when the move was made to a 60,000-seat state-of-the-art ground. Highbury, if you didn’t already know, was converted to condos or apartments (or whatever you English people call them). The Emirates has been praised as a great stadium but given some guff because it lacks the dank charm of Highbury, so the club as moving to bring back some of the icons of the past, including a clock (for the “Clock End”) for the new stadium.

History: The club was created in 1886 by workers at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. After some financial troubles and poor results, the club was taken over, moved to North London and the Woolwich was dropped from the name.

The rivalry with Tottenham Hotspur seems to have arisen not only from geography but from controversy. In 1919, Arsenal finished fifth in the Second Division but were elected to move up to the First Division at the expense of Spurs. Apparently, there were shady dealings going on, and the hate grew from there.

The team dominated English football in the 1930s, then had a down spell, followed by a great run, a downturn, a run, then the 1970s and ’80s. During this time, Arsenal were known for playing dour, boring football that would make Stoke City look like Barcelona. Sure, that reputation might be overblown, but it’s fun to talk about, right? Heck, it might even be worth writing a book or something.

This is his happy face.

Gaffer: Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman is a genius and has an eye for talent better than 95 percent of managers. He brought free-flowing football to Highbury along with an influx of players from Europe that led to a great run of success in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The fact that it’s been five years since the club’s last silverware has caused some to question Wenger’s policies, but as an outsider, I must say that he’s been doing things the same way when they won and when they haven’t. I trust the guy more than anyone except for Fergie when it comes to running a team.

The interesting thing about Wenger’s time at Arsenal is his transfer policy. He brings them in young and cheap (or at least cheap) and sells as a profit. This worries supporters sometimes because they see other clubs buying big names.

And yet, despite all this, Arsenal are always near the top. They never falter. Despite all the injuries they suffer, all the bad luck, all the problems that come up, Arsenal are perpetually in the Champions League and have at least ashot at the title every year. He has my respect.

Transfers In:
Marouane Chamakh, ST, Bordeaux, free
Laurent Koscielny, D, Lorient, £8.5m

Transfers Out:
Fran Merida, MF, Atletico Madrid, free
Phillippe Senderos, CB, Fulham, free (how’d that one work out?)
William Gallas, CB, released
Mikael Silvestre, CB, released
Sol Campbell, CB, Newcastle United, free
Eduardo, ST, Shakhtar Donetsk, undisclosed

Key Players:
Cesc Fabregas, CM: Talk about this era of Arsenal starts and ends with Cesc. He is a stellar talent whose ability and creativity on the pitch embody everything that Wenger believes is great about football. The questions with Cesc are almost always his frail body. He missed 11 of the 38 EPL matches last season, but he still led the team in scoring with 15 league goals. There also is the lingering question about his desire to return home to Barcelona at some point. I don’t expect him to tank, but this question isn’t going away, even with a long-term contract.

Marouane Chamakh, ST: This was the signing of the summer, in my opinion. I didn’t know about him until he moved to Arsenal — before the World Cup. With Robin Van Persie always hurt and The Magic Pixie alternating between magic and injury, Chamakh is needed to take pressure off the strikeforce. He could have a breakout year in his first in England. Then again, he could rip a hamstring in the opener (I really hope he does well in every game except two).

Ouch.

Thomas Vermaelen, CB: Just like Chamakh is the signing of the summer this year, Vermaelen was the best signing last season. He was a horse, appearing in all but five EPL games (which is a good rate for Arsenal), and with the rest of the back line decimated by injuries for much of the year — they had to bring in Sol Campbell for god’s sake — Vermaelen was a rock. Will his second season be an improvement or a step back?

Manuel Almunia (or some other guy), GK: Arsenal’s goalkeeper had some of the worst howlers of the season, and the Gooners around these parts want him out. Will he be around? Can he be a top-line keeper? I’m not too sure about that. And besides, just look at what Arsenal’s backup, Lukasz Fabianski, can do…

Rising Stars:
Theo Walcott, RW: It’s amazing to me that he’s still only 21, and he really doesn’t qualify as a rising star anymore but screw it. Will he ever be what everyone expects him to be, or will he continue to rip apart his leg muscles until he has to use a motorized cart at age 27?

Jack Wilshere, CM: This is where I get confused. He’s only 18, and it’s obvious he has talent, but the love that the Gooner faithful have placed on “Jesus With a Football” is a little more than I can understand. He could be a superstar for England for the next 15 years — but to my mind, it’s still too early to tell. This season, playing with Arsenal and not SF Bolton, will be a real litmus test.

Drama:
The drama with Arsenal, as you might have noticed, usually has to do with injuries. This year is no different. Nicky Pink Boots is out for four weeks, Aaron Ramsey will be back from his Stoke City horror tackle in November, Alex Song might miss the opener with a calf problem, Denilson has an abdominal problem… anyway, you get the idea.

Tactics!:
One of the things I love about Wenger is his ability to use multiple formations. Often what starts as a 4-4-2-ish formation becomes a 4-3-2-1 or a 4-2-3-1. Arshavin, in particular, moves around a lot, playing wing, striker, etc. Wenger has been quoted in the past as saying the 4-4-2 is the most efficient and logical formation in football, but in this day and age, when top teams are playing the 4-2-3-1 or a 4-5-1, the 4-4-2 loses some space and players. Luckily for Arsenal, Wenger’s philosophy allows for flexibility depending on the players used that game.

The keys of Arsenal Tactics! remain no matter the formation: quick, fluid passing, with pressing attack on the wing and incisive passes to the center (not in the air, though, as Arsenal are not that kind of team).

The knock on Arsenal is that when they fail, it often is because they become victims of their own Tactics!, preferring to pass in the box rather than take the speculative shot from 20 yards out. But when Arsenal is on (and that usually coincides with when Cesc is on the field), they are a wonder to watch, even when I’m rooting so hard against them.

Question Marks:
How will the team’s health hold up?

How far can Arsenal go in the Champions League?

One thing I haven’t mentioned is the club’s ownership situation. The club is publicly traded (sort of), but there seems to be a coup brewing. Last season, Lady Bracewell-Smith announced she was willing to sell her 16% stake in the club. With American Stan Kroenke (who owns the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and possibly the St. Louis Rams) only 10 shares away from a full takeover bid, there is a lot of question about whether he can or will attempt to take over the full club. He is seen by most as a better option than Uzbek Alisher Usmanov, who is also near the takeover threshold. Will this ownership question become a distraction? Likely not as much as it has been as Manchester United or Liverpool, but it could spice things up a bit.

Important Fixtures:
With Arsenal, it’s all about playing the other big clubs. With all due respect to my Scouse friends, Arsenal need results against Chelsea and United. The losses to these foes last season effectively tanked the Arsenal title run, so they are the matches that matter most.

Prediction:
I think Arsenal have the team to push for the title this season. They lost the old, slow guys, and the young guns are another year older. The question in goal is a real one, and Arsenal’s chances are always dependent on health. I think they finish in second place and make the Champions League semifinals.

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