Arsenal season preview – Wenger facing a crossroads in pivotal season

It would be an understatement to say that the next few weeks, and indeed the next season, are important to the long-term plans of both Arsenal and Arsene Wenger. Despite the Frenchman’s declarations that he would be “busy” this summer, the big-name, and inevitably big-money, signings that Gunners fans have been craving since their inexperienced capitulation to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final left their season in tatters, have so far failed to materialise.

Added to the inability to bring in tried-and-tested talent, Cesc Fabregas has returned home to Barcelona, Gael Clichy has jumped ship to Manchester City, while Samir Nasri may yet exploit the threat of leaving next summer on a Bosman and force through a move to Eastlands as well. Robin van Persie, Tomas Vermaelen and Jack Wilshere have also all picked up pre-season knocks at a time when Wenger can ill-afford more stars away from the field, particularly with a tricky Champions League qualifying tie against Udinese to negotiate in between matches against Liverpool and Manchester United.

It all seems to make for rather depressing reading for Gunners fans. Champions Manchester United have snapped up £50m worth of talent, City have strengthened with Sergio Aguero, while Chelsea’s new man Andre Villas-Boas looks to try and blend the know-how of old heads with the youthful exuberance of prospects such as Romelu Lukaku. Even Liverpool have splurged, leaving the Gunners faithful wondering if they can mount a serious challenge for a Champions League place, let alone a title challenge.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. In Vermaelen, Arsenal possess one the Premier League’s most talented centre-backs, and if the Belgian can remain fit, then he will surely help to shore up a weak defence. The purchase of Gervinho for £10m already looks like an astute piece of business – the Ivorian striker is quick, lethal in front of goal, and adaptable to numerous forward positions, a necessity for Arsenal’s style.

Aaron Ramsey may have a big part to play this season if Nasri also moves on following Fabregas’ departure, and while he is supremely talented, it wll be intriguing to see how he copes with the demands of the league following his horrific leg break in early 2010. Much rests on the young, gifted shoulder of Jack Wilshere. There is no question of his talent, yet he may need an experienced head or two, such as Scott Parker, next to him in what will be another long season for the 19-year-old. The purchase of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton looks like another deal with the future in mind. While a reported £10m is not cheap, again fans will ask whether Wenger has decided to gamble on a younger player for less expense when, say, the more expensive yet more established Juan Mata has openly talked about his desire to move to Arsenal.

Rumours of a deal for Gary Cahill or Phil Jagielka swirl, yet until another centre-back and at least one central midfielder are signed, it is difficult to see how Arsenal can possibly sustain a serious title challenge. The Gunners remain one of the most gifted squads in the league, and their technique is without doubt. After delivering success and a state-of-the-art stadium, it seems unthinkable that Wenger could face mounting pressure for his position at the club.

It would be the ultimate of ironies if the man who has literally built Arsenal’s future on youth to be forced from his position for his failure to look to more established names. While former chairman David Dein has publically backed Wenger, the fans, and ultimately the Arsenal board, will hope that Arsene stocks up on a few bullish enforcers to complement the tiki-taka teens currently at his disposal.

Manager – Arsene Wenger: The talented Frenchman desperately needs a trophy this year to placate the Arsenal faithful, and give himself some breathing space. Again, if Nasri and Fabregas move on he will have significant funds at his disposal, but it remains to be seen whether he will use them.

Key signing – Gervinho: Wenger has only made three signings so far, and while Carl Jenkinson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have bright futures ahead of them, Gervinho is the only player bought in who will go straight into the first team. He may just offer the penetration Arsenal desperately lacked at times.

Key departure – Cesc Fabregas: The most protracted deal in the history of the Premier League reached its inevitable conclusion as Arsenal’s captain and talisman returned to Barcelona to, apparently, sit on the bench for a season or two. While injuries have hampered the Spaniard over the past two seasons, his loss cannot be underestimated; Gunners fans will expect some sort of replacement in the transfer window at the very least.

Possible XI:

Szczesny

Sagna – Koscielny – Vermaelen – Gibbs

Ramsey – Song – Wilshere

Walcott – Gervinho – van Persie

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