After months of rumours, whispers and speculation, the 2016 summer transfer window is now closed. Premier League clubs can no longer do business and must make do with the players at their disposal until January at the earliest. For Arsenal, any talk of finally landing that world class striker will have to wait for a few months at least, and attention now turns to how much Arsene Wenger can get out of the squad he now has at his disposal.
For some time it was looking like it was going to be another quiet summer for the club, but a flurry of activity during the last week of the window means that the state of the Arsenal squad now looks noticeably different from how it did back in May. It’s certainly been a case of evolution rather than revolution in terms of transfer dealings but fans would not be amiss to suggest that there have been considerable improvements made to the team. After finishing 4th in 2013/14, 3rd in 2014/15 and (somewhat incredibly) 2nd in 2015/16, the aim for this season is of course for Arsenal to win the league again, something they will not have done for 13 years come May 2017. Is this the season that Arsenal finally put together nine consistent months of form and bring the Premier League back to north London?
The answer, unfortunately, is probably not. Despite spending around £90m on new players this summer, Arsenal have nonetheless seen their spending dwarfed yet again by the likes of Manchester City and Manchester United, who themselves spent around £170m and £150m respectively. Arsenal have undoubtedly found themselves to be far more flexible with regards to their spending in recent summers, but they remain a step below in terms of their financial prowess when compared to some of their wealthier domestic rivals. That is not to say that spending the most money is the be all and end all – as Leicester City’s incredible title win last season proved emphatically – but with superstar managers such as Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte taking up top jobs in England, along with the fact that Arsenal are already 5 points behind the early pace-setters, it is looking like as hard a season as any to finally bring home the league championship.
That said, with 35 games left to play and a great number of twists and turns to come, there is still plenty for Arsenal fans to feel positive about for now. At the end of the 2015/16 season most fans would probably have agreed that the club was in most need of a central defender, a central midfielder and a striker, and whilst they might not have hand-picked the three names that ended up signing for the Gunners, it is promising that the most worrying issues with the squad have been addressed. Shkodran Mustafi arrives in north London with a stellar reputation and he looks like he will become a capable partner for Laurent Koscielny in the centre of the Arsenal defence, whilst Granit Xhaka’s early displays suggest that his tenacity, vision and passing ability in the middle of the park will make him an integral part of the Arsenal midfield for this season and beyond. Lucas Perez, signed from Deportivo la Coruna, is much more of a wildcard but he should at least be able to offer an alternative to Olivier Giroud in the striker position.
It’s easy to forget sometimes but Arsenal’s squad was already very strong prior to the aforementioned additions, and it was telling that the likes of Calum Chambers, Joel Campbell and Jack Wilshere were all granted loan moves away from the club in the final days of the window, such was the limited amount of game time they all would likely have been offered this season. The arrivals of Mustafi, Xhaka and Perez have bolstered Arsenal’s spine, and now they can boast great strength from the goalkeepers through to the attack. Petr Cech and David Ospina can both claim to be the best goalkeepers Arsenal have seen at the club since Jens Lehmann was between the sticks, whilst both Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal are rightly considered to be two of the better full-backs in the division. Throw in great depth and variety in the midfield along with two bonafide world class talents such as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in the attack, and suddenly this Arsenal squad is shaping up to look pretty healthy.
Merely having a strong squad won’t win you the title, however, and very few would even argue that Arsenal’s is the strongest in the league right now. For all of the criticisms Arsene Wenger has faced for his conduct in the transfer market in recent windows, one of the most disappointing things about the team’s failings last season was how few of the players could say their performances were consistently at the levels expected of them. Mesut Ozil was incredible, Cech’s debut campaign went pretty well and both full-backs could claim to have had solid seasons, but beyond them the majority of the squad never really hit their stride. The truth of the matter is that whilst this Arsenal squad might boast lots of depth and quality, if the manager cannot get the best out of most of them then it’s difficult to see how the club can compete with the likes of City, United and Chelsea. The onus is on the players too, of course, but the manager is ultimately the one responsible for organising and training them, and how well Wenger can get this side playing is likely to decide whether Arsenal are contenders or not come May. When it gets it right Wenger can get his Arsenal team playing lethal attacking football, but after a poor season in front of goal last time around he needs to get his side firing once more if they are to compete.
There is also the small question of how many injuries the team picks up, which is a problem that has dogged the club for longer than any of us care to think about. Already this season there has been a mini injury crisis in the defence which has seen both Gabriel and Per Mertesacker ruled out for long periods, although there the arrival of Mustafi and surprising emergence of Rob Holding has gone some way to offset that problem. It is worth noting though that with Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky both departing this summer, and with Wilshere going out on loan, three of the most injury-plagued players at the club have now left, and all at the club will praying that the current crop manage to stay fitter and healthier than their recent predecessors. As much as fans might gripe about the lack of signings at times, there’s few things more frustrating as a fan than actually have a great player at your club that can’t be used because he’s injured, and if the fitness and physiotherapy teams at London Colney can finally crack this problem then that might be a bigger influence on Arsenal’s potential title challenge than any other factor.
The answer to the question posed in this article’s title is unavoidably vague, unfortunately, and that answer is a predictable “maybe”. Leicester’s win last season proved that the league is far more competitive than some had assumed, although at this point it seems ominously likely that the two Manchester clubs will be the ones duking it out for the top two positions come May. That said, Arsenal have put themselves in a better position to compete than some might believe, and the lack of expectations could benefit them a great deal. The points dropped in August has seen many write the club off already, but with 105 points still on offer it’s not inconceivable that the recent additions to the squad, coupled with the quality players already settled at Arsenal, could see this side challenge in a manner very few think they can. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible, and that’s something that I couldn’t have said a fortnight ago.