In one of the more surprising moves of the summer, Jack Wilshere signed for Bournemouth on transfer deadline day on a season-long loan. Predictably, the move has divided Arsenal fans (what doesn’t?), some seeing it as a risk, others noting that the midfielder needs regular playing time. When I heard the news on Tuesday night, I was initially slightly unsure. Every season, we are beset by an injury crisis, and they usually strike one area of the field. Just last year, a midfield crisis left us with only Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey in the centre.

The more I think about it, however, the more the move makes sense, both for Wilshere and for Arsenal. For Arsenal, there are positives. Financially, Bournemouth will pay a £2m loan fee, and his 80k-per-week wages in full. This means we are not paying for someone else’s benefit, as often happens with a loan move. Presumably, should he suffer another injury on the south coast, the loan fee means they cannot send him back to us. He will also be working with a young, talented manager, one who tries to play good football in a similar vein to Arsenal.

There is a slight risk considering his contract runs out at the end of next season. If he shines, there is a chance that another big club, whether in England or abroad, could come in for him. Undoubtedly, he loves Arsenal, where he’s played since the age of nine. However, if his injury troubles cease and a top club offers him a guaranteed starting spot, it could be too tempting to turn down. This is unlikely, and I think he will sign a new contract at Arsenal.

More importantly, the move makes sense for the player. His career has stagnated since he broke into the first team in 2010: he made 35 Premier League appearances that season, and outperformed Xavi and Iniesta in the Champions League. Since then, his best season, in terms of league games played, was 25 in 2012-13. In the past three seasons, he has featured in a mere 19 league matches. By definition, stagnation.

I am not critical of Wilshere here, or Arsenal, necessarily. He evidently has terrible injury issues, his ankles are as brittle as Donald Trump’s feelings. Without knowing much about the internal affairs of the club’s medical affairs, it is hard to criticise Arsenal’s doctors and physiotherapists. I also wouldn’t agree that he should change his playing style. He is clearly a combative, quick-footed midfielder, which invites heavy challenges. Perhaps he sometimes holds onto the ball too long, which he could improve on, but if he lost his competitive edge, he wouldn’t be the same player.

What he does need is game time, in a single position, both of which are not available to him at Arsenal right now. He has featured in two league games so far this season, and for once had a full pre-season. He evidently hasn’t been phased out of Arsenal, and if he hadn’t been dropped from the England squad, he’d probably have stayed. However, the cold hard truth, right now, is that he has too many players ahead of him, and hasn’t made any position his own. I personally feel he is best suited to a deeper role, but I would not start him ahead of Cazorla, Xhaka, Coquelin, Elneny or Ramsey. Wilshere, undeniably, is as talented as his colleagues. Yet I cannot see him, currently, overtaking them in the pecking order. He can also play number ten, but again there are too obstacles in his way. His recent appearances have mostly been limited to cameos on the wing. This does little to aid his development.

Many expressed shock that he moved to Bournemouth, a side that finished 16th in the league last season. Would it have been more ambitious to join a bigger club? Supposedly, 22 clubs wanted Wilshere, among whom were Juventus and Roma, who would have offered European football, and Milan. Yet joining Bournemouth is arguably more admirable than joining a top side. Would he have had more game time at Roma? He’d compete with Strootman, Paredes, De Rossi and Nainggolan, among others; it is hard to see him being more than a luxury player there. Conversely, at Bournemouth he is the biggest name. There is nowhere to hide, and he will be expected to deliver every week. Moreover, not playing in Europe will afford him more rest.

Wilshere’s personal life has often upset observers. Should he be partying and smoking into the early hours when he cannot perform for his club? Ultimately, if a player plays well, he wont be criticised for having a life. Ronaldinho the best player in the world, and still had time to party. With Wilshere, it can appear as though he isn’t taking his career seriously. But I don’t agree that a few nights out is the reason for his footballing struggles.

Wilshere evidently pushed for a move away when dropped from the England squad, a clear signal from Big Sam that the player hasn’t evolved as he should have. In terms of club, it is obviously a huge step backwards. For his career, however, I believe it is a risk worth taking. Wilshere is still only 24. He could have stayed at Arsenal and accepted a supporting role; financially, he doesn’t need to move. Yet he so clearly wants to fulfil his potential, and has probably seen how Theo Walcott has stagnated after a bright spell at Arsenal. This isn’t Wilshere’s last chance, the move to Bournemouth isn’t make or break. But if he wants to overcome his injury problems and prove himself to be the best English midfielder of his generation, time is running out. Dropping down a level, playing every week, and becoming the star man, will hopefully help him overcome his troubles and allow him to become an integral part of Arsenal’s first team over the next few years.

Advertisements

Last week I expressed my consternation at Arsenal’s transfer policy this summer. While unsurprising, the fact that we went into the start of the season with an unprepared squad was irksome to say the least. Poor preparation was down to players coming back late from the Euros, but also to a lack of transfer activity. We entered the season not only with an unfit squad, but an incomplete one to boot. Predictably, we were five points behind the leaders by week two.

The day after my post, several news outlets announced that the move for Shkodran Mustafi was finally going ahead. What’s more, we were also in for a striker. The news helped placate a disgruntled fanbase, one that had audibly rebelled at Leicester. The victory at Watford further helped to improve the mood in North London. Going into the international break, we are in a better position, with the added bonus of not having to scramble for signings on 31 August. If any activity happens between now and 11pm, it will be outgoing rather than incoming.

I understand that transfers are hard to complete, with several complications and negotiations taking place. However I suspect these two transfers could have happened weeks earlier and, quite possibly, helped us gain a win or two in the first two matches.

With Mustafi, it seems as though the sticking point was financial. £35m is a lot to pay for a centre back; Wenger has never spent more on a defender than the £16m he spent on Calum Chambers. Contrary to the popular claim, Wenger is not afraid of spending big money. He is, however, scared of wasting money, and it seems the deal for Mustafi took time for this reason. I suspect that our enquiries over Jonny Evans were a ploy to get Valencia to hurry up.

The signing of Lucas Perez is completely out of left field, but consistent with recent transfer policy. Admittedly, I’d never heard of the Spaniard, and thus cannot comment on his ability. However, I know that there are not many top-quality strikers available at a reasonable price, and that links to the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Alexandre Lacazette, Antoine Griezmann and Robert Lewandowski were fanciful to say the least. I suspect Wenger sees a dearth of attacking talent at the moment, and would rather buy cheaply now and wait until Olivier Giroud leaves before reassessing the situation (assuming Wenger is still here).

So, after the purchase of Mustafi and Perez, in my opinion we’ve had a successful window, at least in terms of incoming personnel. We have strengthened the spine of the team, and brought in players, Mustafi, Xhaka and Holding, who could feature for years to come. It should have been completed earlier, and it sort of feels as though our season starts now, but better late than never.

For the first time in a while, we have a complete squad, at least numerically, with at least two players competing for every position. Yesterday, news even emerged of a couple of surprising possible exits, with Jack Wilshere and Serge Gnabry rumoured to be leaving.

The news that Arsenal would sanction a loan for Jack Wilshere came as a shock to me, and my initial reaction was opposed to a move. However, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Jack Wilshere is evidently one of the most talented English players of his generation. He’s a firm favourite with the supporters, who pine for a homegrown hero, and enjoy his passion and love for the club.

The bitter truth is that he is nowhere near the first eleven at the moment, and has lost his place in the England squad as a result. Over the past two seasons, Wilshere has played only seventeen league matches; his development has stalled, he is not a better player now than he was three years ago. In the intervening period, Wenger has converted Santi Cazorla into a central midfielder, rekindled Francis Coquelin’s career, and signed Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka. All of these are now ahead of Wilshere in the pecking order, as is Aaron Ramsey. Further forward, he is behind Mesut Ozil, Cazorla, and Alex Iwobi for the number ten position. Should Wilshere remain this season, he will be limited to substitute appearances in the league, often on the wing, or cup appearances in his preferred position. A loan move would be a fantastic opportunity to get his career back on track. Of course, his injury troubles could follow him out of the club, but he needs an opportunity for game time and the chance to put them behind him.

The counterargument is strong. Arsenal have always struggled with injuries. Just last season, a crisis in central midfield left us with the awkward combination of Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini in the middle. However, there are five central midfielders ahead of Wilshere, which should be enough, and other players in the squad could fill in. Perhaps a six-month loan would be potential starting point? A loan might not be the best option for Arsenal in the short term, in the long term however, it should benefit both player and club.

I expected Serge Gnabry to leave on loan this year. His move to West Brom last season was clearly misguided, Tony Pulis was not the best man to allow the German flourish. However it appears today as though a permanent move to Werder Bremen is on the cards. Losing Gnabry permanently  would be surprising, but I’m not sure he has what it takes to succeed at Arsenal. Right now, I think Wenger sees Iwobi as the more exciting of the two, while Gnabry would have to overtake Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Lucas Perez and eventually Danny Welbeck for a spot on the wing. It probably makes sense to let him go, and we could make a handy sum.

It’s happened again. A phrase all Arsenal fans know and love. It connotes the inevitable end of season celebration of finishing above Spurs. Now, though, the phrase has taken on another meaning. It’s happened again. We have started a new season unprepared, and already lost valuable ground on the leaders.

Frighteningly, City, United and Chelsea have started at a canter, each boasting an 100% record and looking strong. For each side, new players have impressed. Pogba, Bailly and Ibrahimovic have helped bring back an exciting, aggressive style that United have lacked since Fergie left. Of course, Jose Mourinho’s teams tend to start strong, and they will certainly dip in form at some point. But accumulating points at the beginning of the season allows his sides to focus on a more defensive, rigid style after Christmas, usually resulting in a ground-out league title.

At Chelsea, Kante and Batshuayi have helped new manager Antonio Conte earn two wins out of two in the league. Batshuayi, the Belgian forward, has started well, scoring three goals in as many games; his late introduction at Watford last weekend was arguably the catalyst for Chelsea’s victory. He cost Chelsea £33m, but apparently there is no striker out there who is both a) affordable, and b) can improve our squad.

Pep Guardiola has already made his mark at City, signing several players, many of whom brought, admittedly, with the future in mind. Spanish forward Nolito, however, signed for £13m. He’s not world class, in my opinion, but he does bring goals. He’s a similar age to Gonzalo Higuain (not the same position, I know), so his price makes much more sense. Again, the Spaniard is someone who would ave improved our squad, though perhaps his preference for a wide-left role meant that, with Alexis Sanchez usually occupying that position, it would not have made sense to buy him. What it does prove, however, is that there are affordable options out there. Carlos Bacca?

As of 24 August, it’s happened again. Last summer, we craved a defensive midfielder. We knew Ramsey and Wilshere were unreliable; we knew Arteta and Flamini were passed it; we knew that if Santi or Coquelin got injured (they both did), we would struggle. Elneny is not a world-class central midfielder, but we bought him in January and he helped to stabilise the side once included in the first team from March.

Two summers ago, we had two established centre-halves, Koscielny and Mertesacker. We knew if one of them got injured we would struggle; Debuchy and Monreal ended up playing in their position. We signed Gabriel Paulista in January, not a world-class defender, but he helped to stabilise the side.

There’s clearly a pattern emerging here. Wenger, as we know, always drives a hard bargain. Over the years we have made several signings, many of whom have turned out to be superb players, Koscielny and Santi to name but two. It also means we have begun each season underprepared, plugging gaps in the squad only in January, when there is better value in the market, but when we have already blown our chance at winning the league.

Wenger clearly knows we need a centre-back and a striker. Last season, we conceded too many, and didn’t score enough, and the manager is not oblivious to the fact. He has tried to sign strikers and defenders this summer, yet he has been rebuffed, perhaps unexpectedly. Our early purchase of Granit Xhaka, and the ultimately unsuccessful courtship of Jamie Vardy, led me to believe this season would be different. Reports suggest our board is bathing in money; they have not denied this, though they remain frugal in the market, which I still think is, overall, a good policy. I would love to have signed Pogba or Higuain, but I understand that we live within our means. Yet when our means are clearly not being used, it leads to yet another poor and insurmountable start to the season.

In the past seven seasons, only once have we won the season opener; by September, we are, more often than not, already two wins off the top, which, this season, is a lot of ground to make up considering how many strong teams there are. If we don’t sign a centre-back, we will be left with only Koscielny, Holding and Chambers for the next couple of months. Koscielny and Holding performed superbly at Leicester, don’t get me wrong. But is it reasonable to expect Koscielny, who is already nursing a back problem, to remain fit until Mertesacker and Gabriel return? Probably not. Furthermore, it is likely that Holding will experience a dip in form, all young players do, while Chambers does not appear up to the task at centre-back. Clearly, it is hard to find value these days, particularly with Premier League clubs quoted such bloated transfer fees due to our wealth. There is more value, however, in shoring up a leaky defence than risking Champions League qualification, even if we pay over the odds for the new defender.

Chelsea have proven that it is possible to sign a talented striker who is ready to contribute goals, if not world class. I know that Lacazette is too expensive, and I’ve also heard many who follow French football closely that he is not world class. What he would be, however, is a different option to Olivier Giroud, allowing us to change our style when needed; we have become too predictable in attack. And he scores goals.

So, it’s happened again. We have begun a Premier League season unprepared. Our manager has always expressed his opposition to the transfer window ending after the season starts. Yet too often his transfer window only begins towards the end of August, when we have already fallen behind. With one week left, all we can do is hope that our squad will be complete by the 1st of September. I have my doubts.

The 2016-17 Premier League season promises to be one of the most intriguing yet. After last season’s surprise, with Leicester capitalising on the bigger clubs’ failings, the established elite have sought to strengthen significantly. Several new managers have arrived, and cash has been circulating at unprecedented levels. With so many clubs expecting to improve on last year’s position, the majority will undoubtedly fail. Supporters of Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool will all be hoping to bring home the title; at least two wont make the top four. The mind games, mostly started by Jose Mourinho (who has previously picked fights with almost all the top managers in the league), will provide ample material for the press. Hopefully the football itself will take centre stage.

Further down the pecking order, many sides will expect to challenge for Europe, though a cup win will be a more realistic route considering the strength of the league. Southampton (6th) and West Ham (7th) both qualified for Europe, pushing a much-improved Liverpool into eighth. Everton, who finished eleventh, with the impressive Ronald Koeman joining and with money to spend after the sale of John Stones, will expect at least a top-ten finish, as will Stoke, who continue to improve under Mark Hughes. Finally, it will be interesting to see how Leicester defend their title. It is impossible to predict how the Champions League will affect their campaign. Their squad remains thin, but that shouldn’t matter if they remain as injury-free as last year, unlikely given the added workload of a European journey.

The Premier League will be split between a Europe-chasing top ten or eleven, and a bottom half that will contain several sides fighting relegation. Can any of these challenge the top half of the table? It seems unlikely. Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace are frustratingly unpredictable, capable of beating anyone while susceptible to a long barren run. If they click, and sign Christian Benteke, a top-half finish is not unrealistic. For Swansea, keeping hold of Sigurdsson, who signed a new contract last week, is crucial, especially after losing Andre Ayew to Everton. The signing of Fernando Llorente was somewhat of a coup, but an inexperienced manager in the Premier League, and the sale of Ashley Williams to Everton, which should go through this week, will likely see them struggle.

For most of the bottom half, relegation is more likely than a push to the top. Of the promoted clubs, Hull and Burnley will struggle. Middlesbrough could survive, having recruited well this summer. Bournemouth and Watford impressed last term, both should be comfortable but could flirt with relegation. West Brom, the league’s least entertaining side under Tony Pulis, will not challenge the top ten, but Pulis’ organisational qualities mean they should avoid the drop. Sunderland, however, need to allow new manager David Moyes to spend otherwise relegation seems inevitable.

Predictions:

Champions: It is hard to look beyond Manchester City for the title. They have hired arguably the world’s best manager and given him a blank cheque. He has spent over £100m so far, and recruited well, bringing in both young talents like Leroy Sané and John Stones, and experienced quality in Nolito and Gundogan. This will undoubtedly be Guardiola’s toughest challenge yet. Both at Barcelona and Bayern, he inherited the best squad in relatively weak leagues. This time, he will compete with five or six sides for the title. Nevertheless, should it click, an attack boasting Aguero, Nolito, David Silva, Sterling and De Bruyne, among others, will be too strong for the rest.

Top Four: With City winning the league, the likes of Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, United and Liverpool will expect to join them in qualifying for the following season’s Champions League. Only three can make it, meaning supporters of two of the clubs will be thoroughly disappointed come May 2017. Leicester, West Ham, Everton and Southampton our outside bets for a top four spot. Though unlikely, last season has taught us that nothing can be ruled out. For me, United, Arsenal and Chelsea, in that order, will round out the top four.

Europa League: Assuming fifth to seventh qualify for next season’s Europa League, and Spurs and Liverpool, failing in pursuit of a top-four position, finish fifth and sixth, only one more spot will be available for the chasing pack. West Ham, Southampton, Leicester and Everton will be the likeliest candidates. Though Southampton continue to lose star players, they have hired an astute manager in Claude Puel, and retain a good squad boosted by talented academy prospects. It is essential that Nathan Redmond and Charlie Austin fill the void left by Sadio Mané and Pelle, a tough task. West Ham, under Slaven Bilic, have recruited well, and, crucially, have retained Dimitri Payet. Andrew Ayew should add firepower. they look a decent bet for seventh, though Leicester, if they continue their form, could pip them. Leicester’s league position depends on how well they cope with the rigours of a Champions League campaign. For me, West Ham will clinch seventh, with Leicester in eighth, Everton ninth, and Southampton rounding off the top ten.

Bottom Three: Of the promoted sides, Hull and Burnley will struggle. Steve Bruce quit the Tigers on the eve of the season, citing a lack of money available for signings. They are yet to appoint a successor, not a good start. Burnley have a talented manager in Sean Dyche, yet they will again be undone by a minuscule transfer budget, and have not recruited any established Premier League quality. Though Premier League quality is not essential as proven by the success of Watford and Bournemouth last season, I predict Burnley will finish 19th. The fight to avoid 18th will be lively. Palace, Watford, Bournemouth and Swansea could all struggle. West Brom are perennially on the brink of a relegation scrap, but Pulis will keep them up. Sunderland have flirted with relegation for a long time, not helped by a constant managerial merry-go-round. While David Moyes could steady the ship, the lack of recruits leaves them with huge gaps in an underwhelming squad. If he is not given funds, Sunderland will follow their arch rivals Newcastle into the Championship.

Player of the Year: After Riyad Mahrez’s surprising rise to stardom last season, this category is a tough one to pick. Of last season’s candidates, N’golo Kanté and Dimitri Payet, should they continue their form, are outside bets. If Paul Pogba lives up to his price tag, he could well prove inspirational to a successful season at United. He has long been one of the world’s top talents. Now is his chance to establish himself as the world’s best midfielder. Alexis Sanchez is Arsenal’s most likely contender. Hopefully an injury-free year will allow him to challenge. If City win the league however, one of their players could well take the gong. Sergio Aguero is an obvious choice. He has been the league’s most consistent striker over the past five seasons and, were it not for his injury problems, would have a goal tally to match any forward in the world. I will tip Kevin De Bruyne however. He was superb in spells last season and looked strong at the Euros. With a full season behind him in England, he is on the verge of becoming one of the best players in the world.

Young Player of the Year: Dele Alli, who won the award last season, is the obvious choice. At 20, he is still relatively inexperienced, and young players often go through a lapse in their performances after a breakthrough period. Alli, however, shows no signs of fear or pressure, and will be key to Tottenham’s chances of a title challenge. Two Arsenal players could also push for the gong. It is hard to believe that Hector Bellerin is still 21, having performed at such a high level since becoming Arsenal’s first choice right-back two seasons ago. After earning a place in the 2015-16 PFA Team of the Year and a Spain call-up for the Euros, he is well on track to becoming Europe’s best in his position. The other candidate is Alex Iwobi. As ever, injuries provided an Arsenal youngster with an opportunity, as happened with Bellerin, and Iwobi took his well, starting at Barcelona and contributing both goals and assists in the league. The Nigerian is poised to start Arsenal’s opener against Liverpool on Sunday. Should he perform well, he will be difficult to drop.

Signing of the Season: There are several challengers for signing of the season, many of whom enter the Premier League with huge price tags to live up to. For United, both Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan should have stellar seasons, as of course could Zlatan Ibrahimovic. City’s Ilkay Gundogan is an excellent ball-playing defensive midfielder, but a poor injury record could curtail his campaign. Granit Xhaka will provide much needed steel and technical ability to Arsenal’s midfield, while it is interesting to see how the excellent Kante will perform after stepping up a level at Chelsea (a strange thing to say considering he is leaving the champions for the team that finished tenth). Leicester have added attacking quality in Ahmed Musa. Though Shinji Okazaki performed heroically last season, Musa’s added goal threat could cement his place in the starting lineup. Vincent Wanyama will add depth to Tottenham’s midfield; without Alli, Moussa Dembélé or Eric Dier last season, their form dropped drastically. I am going to back an outside shot however. I have long admired Nathan Redmond, who possesses all the qualities to become a top-level winger. A move to Southampton should allow him to develop and mature, and an England call-up is certainly in sight.

Premier League final table:

  1. Manchester City
  2. Manchester United
  3. Arsenal
  4. Chelsea
  5. Tottenham
  6. Liverpool
  7. West Ham
  8. Leicester
  9. Everton
  10. Southampton
  11. Stoke
  12. Crystal Palace
  13. West Brom
  14. Watford
  15. Bournemouth
  16. Middlesbrough
  17. Swansea
  18. Sunderland
  19. Burnley
  20. Hull

If recent reports are to be believed, Arsenal are looking to bring in last season’s PFA Player of the Year, Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez, who would cost in excess of £40 million. To many, this comes as a surprise considering we have seemingly more pressing concerns at centre back and centre forward. Why would Arsene Wenger, famed for his frugality, spend so much on a position in which we are ostensibly well covered?*

The cliched view of Wenger’s sides since the premature breakup of the ‘Invincibles’ holds that Arsenal have, for too long, had too many short, physically weak, attackers competing for the same attacking positions. Of course, cliches are based on truth, and we have often been hindered by a lack of variety in the attacking third. This, to an extent, exists to this day, with Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil usually starting together although all three would prefer to play in Ozil’s position behind the striker.

So, do we actually need Mahrez? In terms of pure numbers, probably not. Last season, several players were deployed on the right wing: Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joel Campbell, Alex Iwobi and Alexis Sanchez all featured on the right flank, with varying degrees of success. Each possess unique qualities, and I wouldn’t advocate selling any of them right now; they remain useful members of the squad. Yet, in terms of productivity and efficiency, it is evident that Mahrez would be an improvement.

All the aforementioned players are highly talented, and have, at times, performed superbly for us. Doubts remain, however, particularly in terms of consistency. Aaron Ramsey tends to perform fairly well on the right. He is probably the most defensive option, offering more support to Hector Bellerin than any of the others. This is an important counterbalance to Bellerin, who prefers to get forward, offering unparalleled width and pace, though often at the expense of his defensive duties. Ramsey clearly prefers to play more centrally, and proved in the Euros how effective he can be when deployed at number ten. The problem here is that he is behind Ozil in the pecking order. Moreover, he is less assured as part of a two-man defensive midfield, meaning he could be behind the more defensive-minded midfielders in the battle for that position. He remains a superb player without an obvious position in the starting lineup.

Theo Walcott’s problems have been much publicised, and there is little more to add. Preferring to play up front, more suited to the right, he has failed to specialise in either, which has severely stunted his progress. My feeling is that he would be best as the right-sided of a Barcelona-style front three, a formation that would allow him to forego his defensive duties. This formation, however, does not suit a squad featuring Ozil, though one senses that it would benefit Walcott, Alexis and Giroud to play in a front three together.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is perhaps the most suited to playing on the right in our current 4-2-3-1 formation. The 22-year old is quick, is stronger than Walcott, more comfortable in possession, more direct, and offers better defensive protection. Last season was supposed to be his breakthrough after performing excellently in pre-season. After a poor start however, his confidence was shot, and he never recovered, though injuries didn’t help. After a strong showing so far this pre-season, capped by a superb solo goal agains Chivas, big things are expected of him. The Sun have even suggested that Arsenal do not need Mahrez due to Chamberlain’s performances. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure that he will translate his pre-season form into the Premier League, and there is the added ever-present threat of injury.

The other three options on the right each have certain doubts attached to them. I like Joel Campbell, who performed well last season after finally being given a chance. He offers considerable defensive cover as well as attacking ability. Wenger seems less keen, appearing reluctant to play him, even over underperforming players. Alex Iwobi burst onto the scene at the end of last season and is clearly a huge prospect for the future. It would be unrealistic however to expect him to play consistently for an entire campaign. Alexis Sanchez is one of the best players in the Premier League, and performed well when switched to the right at the end of last season. Yet he is better suited to the left flank than any of the other options, and will likely be positioned there this season. Danny Welbeck can also play on the right, though he will be sidelined for most of the season.

Thus, while we are well covered on the right, there is always room for improvement. Signing Mahrez would elevate our attack into one of the best in Europe, depending on who (if) we sign up front. In terms of numbers, Mahrez was involved in 28 goals last season, second only to Jamie Vardy in the Premier League. The Algerian is one of the best dribblers in the league, completing 131 last season, more than any other player in the league. His vision is superb. The fact that he is left footed would allow Bellerin to overlap more effectively, as Mahrez is often inclined to cutting in from the left. Most importantly, however, he would add goals. Last season, Arsenal only scored 65 goals, the fourth-most in the league, level with West Ham. Goalscoring is clearly a problem as Arsenal continually struggle to break down deep-lying and well-organised defences. We are too reliant on Olivier Giroud, whose streakiness leads to long barren spells, and Sanchez. For too long, the attacking midfielders haven’t contributed enough goals. Adding Mahrez would introduce another 15-goal-a-season player, crucial if we are to succeed.

There are notable caveats regarding Mahrez. Would he offer enough defensive protection? Would he block the progress of current players? Is he a one-season wonder? Would signing him mean we don’t sign a centre forward? I strongly believe that the answers to all these questions lead to the conclusion that he is worth the risk. If we want to compete with the strongest in what promises to be one of the toughest seasons possibly since the inauguration of the Premier League, Wenger needs to exhibit ruthlessness improve wherever he can; a goalscoring winger would greatly improve our chances of success next season.

* Disclaimer: No reputable newspapers in England have actually confirmed out interest, and Claudio Ranieri has said he is going nowhere. However, when asked about it in America Wenger gave his pre-Ozil signing grin, and confirmed that he’s watching the player.

 

Early on Friday morning Arsenal played their second pre-season friendly against the MLS All-Stars in San Jose, California, producing an assured performance against a team filled with ageing world-class players (the curse of Drogba struck again!) alongside some up-and-coming American talent. Traditionally English teams have had mixed results in the All-Star games, largely because the fixture comes halfway through the American season, with their players in far stronger physical shape than the Premier League stars who have recently returned from their summer breaks. There was to be no repeat this year however as Arsenal performed well, stealing victory at the end when Chuba Akpom converted from close range after a well-worked move involving Nacho Montreal and the youngster Chris Willock.

Primarily, of course, pre-season is about players reaching match fitness before the new season; one shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from their performances. Over the past few years, several players have performed well in July and August only to falter during the season or go out on loan to gain experience. No one will forget Yaya Sanogo’s four goals against Benfica at the 2014 Emirates Cup, just as no one will forget his subsequent failure to establish himself in the first team.

Nevertheless, a number of young players impressed last night, and with the concerning lack of transfer activity, we have to take some comfort whenever we can. In the first half, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looked dangerous down the right, constantly testing the American side’s fullbacks and trying to create opportunities for his teammates. Hopefully this will be his breakthrough season, although this seems a deja vu after his performance against Chelsea in last season’s Community Shield. A long-range effort was inches away from doubling the lead in the middle of the half. On the other flank, Joel Campbell continued to play well, earning a penalty after a clever run and converting strongly. I for one feared a ‘Zaza’ as he trotted slowly up to the spot. Luckily the Costa Rican proved me wrong. Surely Wenger will realise that Campbell is a useful squad member and deserves to play ahead of some of his more remunerated colleagues.

In the second half, Chris Willock and Jeff Reine-Adelaide both impressed me with their pace and confidence to take players on, showing a directness that we often lack. Granit Xhaka meanwhile showed exactly why Arsene Wenger parted with £30m for him. His passing is excellent and varied, and ended with a 94% pass completion rate. Furthermore he did his best Flamini impression (in the best way possible), pointing and shouting as often as possible. Hopefully he’ll blossom into the proper leader this team has lacked for years.

Arguably the most impressive of the lot however was new signing Rob Holding, who joined from Bolton last week for £2m. The 20-year old, who most Arsenal fans hadn’t heard of until this summer, demonstrated many of the qualities that Wenger seeks in a centre back, composure on the ball, defensive awareness, and a bit of pace. Alongside the younger Krystian Bielik in the first half he even took on organisational responsibility of the defence, which I found particularly pleasing. In the second half, Holding and Calum Chambers looked fairly comfortable together despite Sebastian Giovinco’s movement. Wenger expressed his “surprise” at how well the Mancunian played, expressing his belief that Holding will adapt and develop well.

I know it’s important not to draw too many conclusions from one game, particularly a pre-season match against a team that isn’t even a team. Holding is unlikely to feature too extensively this season and will probably be fifth-choice in his position should Wenger bring in an experienced defender to replace Per Mertesacker. Yet on first glance he has superior technical ability to Chambers, is quicker and calmer. This isn’t intended as a criticism of Chambers, who I like and believe can become a top centre back for us in the future. Nevertheless, if I had to put money on it now I’d bet that Holding becomes the more successful of the two. And while we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from a young player after his debut, I couldn’t help thinking of Carl Jenkinson’s peach of an own goal against Cologne during the 2011-12 pre-season.

On Monday at 02:00, Arsenal fans will get another chance to see Holding and the rest of the squad in action against Chivas de Guadalajara on the club website.

In a modern society obsessed with constant news updates, football fans, fuelled by an often over-zealous press, are afforded no respite between the end of May and the beginning of August. Even in an international competition year such as this, transfer news is followed as closely, if not even more so, than the football itself. This is somewhat surprising considering the vast majority of rumours are mere speculation at best and fanciful garbage at worst.

For supporters of most big clubs the transfer season serves up a standard course of events. The likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea will pursue Europe’s hottest talents, spending hundreds of millions each summer in a bid to improve their squads. This keeps fans mollified during the seemingly endless fallow spell between seasons, particularly those who follow clubs that failed to win the previous season’s title (all the big clubs this year due to Leicester City’s surprise success). A top signing will quell concerns over whether your team can improve its position in the upcoming campaign. Under José Mourinho for example, Manchester United have already splashed the cash, introducing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to bolster an attack that failed to impress last season. Understandably, United fans are feeling suitably optimistic ahead of the new season.

 

Yet for supporters of one club in particular the transfer season is essentially a long, drawn-out form of mental torture. Admittedly, it is a form of torture that is avoidable. Each year I tell myself not to pay attention to the Metro’s latest fabrication; each year I fail. Scrolling through the pages of social media it appears as though, for many of us, summer means succumbing to the constant cock-teasing by not only the British press, but the European and global press as well. Rumours, usually baseless, though sometimes containing grains of truth, are concocted by journalists ostensibly to sell papers and attract hits, although at times it feels like a worldwide conspiracy to spread hope, with its inevitable ending of disappointment, among Arsenal’s large and, let’s face it, sometimes grating online presence.

This year’s moneymaker is obvious: Arsenal need a striker and have done for some time. This allows for countless 2 + 2 = 5 stories. “So-and-so’s agent’s sister spotted at Heathrow” equals international striker heading to Arsenal for a £35 million transfer fee and £125,000 per week. Higuain, Bacca, Lukaku, Morata, Aubemeyang, Lacazette, Vardy (admittedly one that almost did happen). All these names are used, whether realistically or not, as in the case of Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain, with newspapers continually linking him to North London despite Napoli’s astronomical asking price and his advancing years. If current reports are to be believed, Inter’s Mauro Icardi is on the verge of a big-money move to Arsenal, due to his wife’s (also his agent) presence in London. Icardi has constantly spoken of his will to remain in Milan. Any words from his camp are probably just a way of ensuring a better contract with the Nerazzurri. Of course I could be wrong, he may sign for us in the upcoming days, but as an Arsenal fan it is advisable to remain sceptical.

Inevitably, however, we do get drawn in and begin to dream of a superstar joining. Recent years suggest that though Wenger is reluctant to spend astronomical sums on players, he will if the right player becomes available. The real reason we succumb to torturous summers scrolling through Twitter however is that, time and again, Arsenal begin the new season with an unprepared squad. In the summer of 2011, the sales of Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona and Samir Nasri to Manchester City meant we entered the new season with a wholly inadequate squad. Wenger left it to the end of August, after we had lost 8-2 at Old Trafford, to sign replacements, with Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta arriving, among others, to steady the ship. A wafer-thin squad meant we started the season with one point from three matches, inexcusable with such gaping wholes in the squad.

Similarly, the pursuits of Gonzalo Higuain and Luis Suarez, which both ended in disappointment for the Gunners, meant entering a new campaign with only Olivier Giroud as a centre forward option. Over the past two years, we have begun the season either without adequate defensive or midfield cover. In, 2014-15, Gabriel Paulista arrived from Villarreal in January, with damage in the league already done, while last season we entered the new campaign with insufficient numbers in central midfield, a problem that was only addressed in January with Mohamed Elneny joining from Basle. Again, you guessed it, we had already faltered drastically after injuries to several key midfielders.

Ninety-nine percent of football fans are sensible, level-headed people, as indeed are ninety-nine percent of the population. That most Arsenal fans allow themselves to believe during the summer transfer window that their club will adequately reinforce its troops is explained mostly by the obviousness of the need. Granit Xhaka’s early arrival suggested that perhaps things were changing this year. In what could be Arsene Wenger’s final season, many of us hope that he will go all out in attempt to win one final championship. However, the lack of reinforcements in attacking areas with not long to go before the opener against Liverpool is highly disconcerting. Wenger clearly thought Jamie Vardy would join and his refusal clearly threw a spanner in the works. Vardy is by no means the only option out there, yet Wenger has previous in signing nobody after failing to bring in his first choice. After Liverpool held on to Louis Suarez, the only attacking arrival was Yaya Sanogo.

Let’s hope this season a forward is introduced in time for the start of the season. With Giroud likely to return to the club later than usual due to France reaching the final of Euro 2016, failure to do so would leave us with the unconvincing Theo Walcott as the only option to lead the attack against Liverpool. It would be inexcusable, with such obvious gaps in the squad, if Arsenal were already playing catch up at the beginning of September. After all, points in August are as important as points in May, they are all worth as much as each other. Despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, I have allowed myself to get my hopes up once again.

It’s been a frustrating few weeks for Arsenal fans. Form has been poor, admittedly since Santi Cazorla’s injury in late November, whose absence has highlighted how important he is to the side. The last-minute victory against Leicester City was supposed to galvanise the squad; subsequent defeats against United and Swansea quickly soured the mood. We were two points clear of Leicester on the third of January, we are now eight points behind, a spectacular collapse even by Arsenal’s standards.

After a slight improvement against Spurs, albeit one that was undermined by a typical piece of stupidity, Arsenal go to Hull today in urgent need of a win. I was fairly impressed by Arsenal’s performance on the weekend. Firstly, I think the manager, who has rightly taken considerable stick in recent weeks, particularly after substituting Joel Campbell against Swansea, should be praised for his team selection at White Hart Lane. Although Nacho Monreal apparently picked up a slight knock before the game, bringing Kieran Gibbs into the starting lineup was a risk. Monreal’s form has dipped slightly in recent weeks, but he still would have been Wenger’s favoured option. Gibbs had a quietly-effective game at left-back, although he played Dele Alli onside for Tottenham’s second goal, evidence perhaps of a lack of match sharpness.

It was also an excellent decision to return Aaron Ramsey to the right. I am a huge fan of the Welshman, and disagree wholeheartedly with the abuse he has received of late by Arsenal fans. What I do concede however is that he does not work as part of a two-man midfield, particularly if his partner is not comfortable on the ball (Coquelin or Flamini). Ramsey is often at his strongest without the ball, making late runs into the box. His goal record speak for itself. Arguably, the lineup that would most suit him would be in a midfield three alongside Cazorla and Coquelin, each bringing a completely different set of skills to the table. Of course, with Mesut Ozil’s form cementing his position as the number ten, this means Ramsey on the right is our most effective option (especially considering Chamberlain’s injury, Walcott’s lack of form, and Wenger’s clear doubts over Campbell’s quality).

Ramsey had an excellent game on Saturday, and this was partly because the defensive duties were shifted to Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny, who impressed me in his first Premier League start. While it seems as though Elneny is predominantly a defensive midfielder, he is far more comfortable on the ball than Francis Coquelin. He was always available for the pass and was often the most effective midfielder in relieving pressure against Tottenham’s high pressing game. Our best form over the past year has come with two defensive midfielders and Ramsey on the right. It’s not always been a joy to watch, but it has more often than not been functional, which is what we need right now. Hopefully Wenger will realise this and keep Ramsey ostensibly on the right (he tends to drift in to create a three-man midfield). With Danny Welbeck up front, this doesn’t necessarily leave a gap on the right, as both Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez were often covering on both wings to protect their full-backs. Welbeck was another who performed well in a changed starting lineup.

This evening is a crucial game for Arsenal. Whilst we are not out of the title race, an eight-point overhaul is possible, and Leicester’s final five games are tricky; in all likelihood the FA Cup is our best chance for silverware this season. Should we win tonight, a winnable quarter-final against Watford could see us in the semi-finals for a third consecutive season. With United playing West Ham and Chelsea playing Everton, two of the strongest remaining teams will bow out. Thus, while we must rotate tonight in order to maintain squad freshness, we should still name a strong lineup. I fully expect Giroud to return up front, Alexis to play on the left, and Campbell, who has impressed in the cup this season, to play on the right, while  Alex Iwobi should be given another chance in the number ten role.

Tonight’s game is important for another reason. Our woeful Premier League form has seen us pick up ten points from the last 27 available; if we win tonight, then we will not play in the league again until the 19th March at Everton. This would mean three consecutive fixtures in other competitions, allowing us to take our minds off the league, rotate the squad, and hopefully refocus come the fixture at Goodison Park. Though we are likely to lose in Barcelona next week, wins against Hull and Watford could reinstate some much-need confidence.

Ultimately, Arsenal fans should remain positive. After deflating defeats against United and Swansea, there were signs of improvement against Tottenham. Though we started poorly, in my opinion we controlled the game after going one-nil up and Tottenham tired towards the end of the game. That we failed to win, to me, is almost wholly down to Coquelin’s idiotic decision to take out Harry Kane, and the ten-minute period of chaos that inevitably ensued. Again, Arsenal’s propensity to shoot themselves in the foot was in evidence. Our comeback, however, was impressive and we certainly ended the game as the most likely team to win. Hopefully, a successful couple of weeks can reestablish some sort of confidence and form for what promises to be a exhilarating end to the season.

Over the past few weeks I have been struck by the apparently indifferent attitude of many Premier League clubs to ticket pricing, something that is of such extreme importance to match-going fans. Today, Sunderland announced a slight reduction of their season tickets prices, to a reasonable £350. Sunderland join West Ham as the only two clubs to reduce season ticket prices in light of the gargantuan increase in television revenue. Of course, cynics would suggest that relegation and the task of filling a vast new stadium are the causes respectively. I prefer a positive approach. These two clubs have shown compassion with supporters who are struggling to cope with the costs of supporting their teams.

Recently, Liverpool announced that their season tickets would increase considerably next season. For example, fans in the Main Stand would pay £160 more, bringing the cost up to £1,029, roughly the cost of Arsenal’s cheapest season ticket. Understandably, and commendably, their fans took the initiative and refused to accept it without a fight, staging a 77th-minute walkout against Sunderland; the minute chosen corresponded to the new price for a single match-day ticket. The protest swayed the owners’ decision, a small victory for fans not only of Liverpool but across the country.

Premier League clubs voted last week against a £30 price cap on away tickets, already a 50% increase on what the ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ group is campaigning for. If reports are to be believed, only Everton spoke out in favour. Arsenal, somewhat dishearteningly, did not stand up for its loyal supporters, who already pay more than any other fans.

I understand that a football club has to be run as a business and that, essentially, the wealthiest business has the most chance of success. But it is important to remember that a football club is more than just a business, though it currently does not feel that way. A football club, ultimately and fundamentally, is a club, with players, staff, executives, a board, shareholders and, crucially, supporters. Yet time and time again it appears as though the last group, loyal followers who spend considerable chunks of their income to support the team, are neglected.

When Arsenal announced that season ticket holders would have to pay a small surcharge for the home tie against Barcelona, it was not the nominal fee that was so upsetting. Rather, it was the realisation that the leadership would risk a rift between itself and the fanbase in order to gain a few hundred thousand pounds. That the club prevented journalists from asking Arsene Wenger about the surcharge at last week’s press conference risked further alienation. The club renounced its decision on the back of supporter unrest, however the initial announcement was insensitive, to the say the least, at a time when supporters are already routinely disregarded by TV companies who change dates and times with minimal warning (moving the date of the home game against Leicester with just three weeks’ notice exemplified Sky’s complete indifference towards match-going fans).

It is time that Arsenal took the lead in fighting for supporter welfare. For too long our fans have been burdened with unreasonably high ticket prices. European clubs do not charge their fans extortionate amounts, rightly noting that the bulk of their income comes from television revenue and sponsorship. This encourages goodwill between supporters and the club’s leadership, which evidently results in a better match-day atmosphere. Crucially here, the majority of tickets are still relatively expensive, with upper tier prices often similar to the Premier League. Yet a large section of the stadium is reserved for those on low incomes. Arsenal do provide a number of cheap tickets. ‘Category C’ games cost a reasonable £26.50 for a seat on the North Bank. These games, however, are a minority, and do not make up for the extortionate prices of a ‘Category A’ match. It is evident to me that the fractured and at times frankly toxic atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium has its roots not in the team’s performances but in the total discord between club leadership and supporters stemming from ticket prices.

Ultimately, the question is pivotal for the future of our great football club. Of course, the stadium is always sold out (though never full); there are enough people (not necessarily supporters) in the world willing to pay such large sums to watch Arsenal. Yet are the right type of people coming? To a certain extent, no. Are the local, the young, and the working class priced out, exactly those who are likely to generate atmosphere and become loyal supporters for years to come? Resoundingly, yes. The manager has stated that the increase in TV money must be spent on the team, in order to compete with the Chinese market for example. Yet the more pressing issue relates to the future of our club, rather than the present. Investing in the team now may bring instant success; investing in the fans will guarantee the future of Arsenal Football Club.

Arsenal go into the derby against Chelsea on Sunday first in the table, a point ahead of Manchester City and ahead of this season’s surprise package Leicester on goal difference. Moreover, Chelsea go into the match only four points above the relegation zone. Particularly pleasing for Arsenal fans is that Petr Cech has been a key reason for our rise to the top. His man-of-the-match performance against Stoke City last weekend confirmed how vital he will be to the run-in; almost certainly, we would have lost at the Britannia without him.

Any Arsenal fan at the start of the season would have taken first place on the 21st of January, even if only on goal difference. Yet it does feel as though the team should be a few points clear. Whilst the defeat against West Brom in November was somewhat of a fluke – West Brom had one shot, Arsenal didn’t play too badly and missed a penalty towards the end – subsequent dropped points at Norwich and Southampton were galling. The 4-0 defeat at Southampton was especially annoying considering how well we played against City the week before, not to mention the poor refereeing. Although the draw at Anfield was a fair result, conceding in the last few minutes, again, denied us breathing space at the top of the table.

Despite being top, we could come to rue a few disjointed performances in the first half of the season, especially considering the tough games we still have to play. In the upcoming months, we have to visit Manchester United, Spurs, Everton, West Ham and City, basically the top four challengers and a talented but inconsistent Everton side. City, on the other hand, will play most of the top teams at home, although they still must visit Liverpool and Chelsea. On the plus side, starting against Chelsea on Sunday, nine of our sixteen remaining games are at home, where we have been much stronger this season.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons to be positive going into the business end of our campaign. We all want to see Arsenal lift their first league title in twelve years in May, and due to the following factors, among others, it may well happen.

Players Returning From Injury

Arsene Wenger revealed some promising news in his press conference today: Alexis Sanchez should be back after eight weeks out against Chelsea. The squad have coped admirably in his absence, and Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey have shared the goalscoring burden. Yet his explosiveness has been sorely missed and his return is most welcome. Mesut Ozil will also return after missing the match at Stoke.

Francis Coquelin and Tomas Rosicky have returned to full training. Rosicky will play in the under-21s this week and Coquelin’s return is almost a month earlier than Wenger first feared. Again, our midfield have performed well of late. At Stoke, however, it was evident that Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini are not a natural midfield partnership. Both played well individually, particularly Flamini. Yet often they occupied the same spaces or weren’t performing in tandem. Flamini’s tendency to drift from the holding role, combined with Ramsey’s proclivity to attack, can leave us open, as was frequently the case at Stoke. Coquelin’s imminent return, probably sometime in February, will solidify our defence and midfield.

Danny Welbeck will return to training next week, meaning we could see him before March, which is fantastic news considering Olivier Giroud has played non-stop for weeks and Theo Walcott is lacking form. Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla remain out however.

Giroud A Big Game Player

Towards the end of last season, Thierry Henry spoke of his belief that Arsenal could never win the league with Olivier Giroud up front. I for one thought it was a very strange statement to make, considering Giroud’s strong run of form at the time. Evidently, Giroud has his faults. He is slow, can be wasteful and has the odd game where he looks completely out of sorts. The recent home game against Newcastle was an example of Giroud’s laziness.

Recently, however, Giroud’s poor games are less frequent than in his first three seasons at Arsenal. The turning point came last February against Monaco, when Giroud missed a hatful of chances, many of which were fairly easy, before being substituted after 60 minutes. Arsenal went on to lose 3-1 in what was certainly the nadir of our season. After that point, the team and Giroud improved (Giroud won Premier League Player of the Month for March).

The striker has faced considerable criticism throughout his Arsenal career, most consistently regarding his tendency to go missing in the biggest matches. Though he scored at Manchester City last season, a significant game for Arsenal in that we finally overcame a top team, it is this season that Giroud has finally, somewhat belatedly perhaps, come to dominate big games. His best three performances this season have come in vital games. We wouldn’t still be in the Champions League without his goals against Bayern at home and Olympiakos away. The 2-1 victory at home to City just before Christmas however was the best I’ve seen him play. His hold-up play was immaculate, he constantly pressed from the front, and even used a bit of pace to score a highly un-Giroudesque goal to clinch the game.

With huge games towards the end of the season, culminating in a potential title decider at City in the penultimate game of the season, Giroud will play a big part in whether we win the league or not.

Team can win in any way now

One of football’s most common clichés is that a title-winning side has to win when playing badly. Last season proved this point, with Chelsea’s frontline failing to convince in the second half of their campaign. Fortunately for them, they defended well and found ways to win.

The 1-0 home victory against Newcastle saw pundits reignite the debate on winning ugly. No team will play at 100% of its ability throughout a season. Players will get injured, have bad days, go through spells of decreased motivation, as well as suffering from personal issues that may affect their performances. This is normal. Good teams, however, learn how to cope with dips in form and minimise any damage.

Since late November, Arsenal have been without their first-choice midfield, a midfield that seemingly has the perfect balance. Furthermore, Sanchez’s absence robs the squad of their most explosive and dynamic player. He may float in and out of matches, but the Chilean keeps defences, who know he can pounce at any time, on the back foot. Joel Campbell particularly has stepped up in his absence, yet he doesn’t arouse the same fear as Sanchez.

Arsenal’s last ten games have provided seven wins, two draws and a solitary defeat, illustrating how the team has evolved into one capable of seeing out an injury crisis. The 0-0 draw at Stoke was a case in point. In previous years, we have crumbled under Stoke’s aggressive and direct approach. Last season, for example, we were 3-0 at the interval. At times, teams only needed to throw a ball into the area to create panic. The signing of Petr Cech has largely rectified this; at Stoke, it is safe to say that Arsenal would have lost without his calmness and timely interventions. The team now is more suited to grinding out results than any time in the past few seasons. Admittedly, without Coquelin we are conceding too many chances, yet Cech’s presence between the posts has ensured that Coquelin’s absence has not been too costly.

Any Arsenal fan would have taken top spot, albeit level on points, after witnessing the injuries to Sanchez, Cazorla and Coquelin. With several squad members returning to action over the next few weeks, Arsenal are well prepared for a title challenge that could see the Premier League return to North London for the first time since 2004.