I have spent the entire week listening to various Premier League preview podcasts. I listen not to hear where pundits and fans I admire will place Arsenal in their rankings. Rather, I listen primarily to see how they perceive the Gunners’ rivals and their strengths and weaknesses. After a summer where Arsenal changed little but introduced possibly even more chaos into an already chaotic set-up, I do not expect many pundits to place Arsenal in the top four, much less pick them as the title winners.
As the Arsenal Optimist, I am going a different direction. I expect Arsenal to win the title this year, and here’s why:
Arsenal Have the No Champions League Boost: It has become a tradition that one of the Big Five (and Spurs) that does not have Champions League matches in their season schedule make a run at the title. Last season it was of course Chelsea but in the recent past Liverpool, Spurs, and other big clubs benefited from avoiding playing the best teams in the world outside England. For the first time in 20+ years, Arsenal can breathe a sigh of relief on not having to face Bayern Munich, Barcelona, or the like in the middle of the Premier League season. Granted, if they actually play well in the Europa League, there will be schedule congestion, but the type of teams and play is radically different.
Mesut Ozil is Rested and Motivated: It’s easy to forget how much football our German maestro played in calendar year 2016. In addition to two halves of the club season, he featured prominently for Germany in the Euros which meant many months of high-level football. With Germany taking a C team to the Confederations Cup, Ozil got much of the summer off to recharge. In addition, he’s a year away from being out of contract and coming off a down year. He certainly wants to show potential suitors and even Arsenal that he is still world class, but he also needs to show Jogi Lowe and Germany that he can feature for a loaded Germany in the 2018 World Cup.
It’s Year Two for Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi: The Premier League is not the best league in the world in terms of talent (the Bundesliga and La Liga arguably fight for that title) but the style of play and overall competitiveness of the league means new players to England take time to adjust. Rarely does a top player from a different league come in and dominate immediately; it takes at least a year to adjust their game before really excelling. This is the reason so many people are high on Paul Pogba this season. Two key Gunners are entering that sweet spot. Xhaka was overall disappointing last season but showed flashes of being the skilled deep-lying midfielder Arsene loves so much. He will never be a Patrick Viera, but his set piece ability and skilful passing makes him an absolute weapon. A year past will allow him to adjust his physical play to the league and referees, and reduce the dumb red cards. For Mustafi, he also needs to impress the Germany coaches as well as fight off Rob Holding for playing time. Another year in England will undoubtedly help him adjust.
Arsenal are Offensively Deep: Arsene has a number of toys and skills to play with this season. If Giroud is in a funk, he can rotate in Lacazete or play both of them together. If he stays, Alexis will dominate in an attempt to justify a massive new contract elsewhere. We tend to forget about them because they are not new, but Alex Iwobi and The Ox are growing into world class players before our eyes. In a similar vein, Aaron Ramsey when on is a deadly weapon. Arsenal can find goals from any number of places if a few players are injured or in a funk.
You Can Teach an Old Wenger New Tricks: What’s the one thing that drove us craziest about Arsene Wenger the past ten years? He was too stubborn. Everyone around him could see Arsenal’s flaws on the pitch, but he never addressed or adjusted them, he simply lashed out at critics. Moving to a back three at the end of last season was throwing up a white flag that he needed to change, and finishing fifth was a reality check that status quo was not acceptable. He has kept most of his squad intact, but everyone knows that even with a two-year contract this would be the final year of Arsene if the Gunners again finish outside a Champions League spot. Arsenal want to be a big club, and the Professor is still smart enough to make it happen.