Ah, Arsenal. At one point, the team were in contention for four trophies at once - and fairly late in the season to boot. They then won none of them. Whoops. Anyway, SB Nation's Arsenal blog the Short Fuse somehow failed to implode as a result of this cavalcade of misery, and so Ted Harwood is still around to preview the season for us. Hurray!
After finishing fourth in the Premier League in 2010-11, a year which also saw the club lose to relegated Birmingham City in the Carling Cup Final, bitter rivals Manchester United in the FA Cup sixth round, and Barcelona in the Champions League round of 16, Arsenal are looking forward to 2011-12 as a chance for redemption and a chance to show the footballing world that the promise of the last few seasons can indeed come good.
All of the top squads in England have looked to strengthen during the summer, and Arsenal are no exception. New forward Gervinho and promising right-back Carl Jenkinson have been the only senior team arrivals so far, but both look ready for the first team, particularly the Ivorian attacker. Veteran left-back Gaël Clichy departed for Manchester City for £7 million, and despite transfer rumors flying in all directions, he is the only departure so far. With the close of the transfer window still some distance away, things could change quickly, but Arsène Wenger is notoriously stubborn about letting his top players leave.
Nonetheless, there are a number of key players that have barely featured, or not played at all, for Arsenal during their preseason fixtures. Whether or not this reflects impending transfers, it may have an impact on the readiness of the team for the start of proceedings. Danish Striker Nicklas Bendtner has not played at all during the summer, nor has captain and playmaker Cesc Fábregas, whom the media have heavily linked with Barcelona.
When the first 15 days of one's season consist of a tricky away match at Newcastle, a two-legged Champions League qualifier against strong Italian Serie A opposition in Udinese sandwiching a visit from newly-strengthened Liverpool, and a trip up north to face title-holders and Champions League finalists Manchester United, ideally, one would like to have a fully healthy, focused squad who have spent the summer working together. Unfortunately for Arsenal, a number of internal and external factors, combined with injuries in the preseason, have made this impossible.
Nevertheless, it is not all gloom in North London. Gervinho appears to be set to burst onto the scene this autumn, and Arsenal's relatively young team has another year of development and improvement under their belts. Thomas Vermaelen, who missed most of last year, looks to be fully ready to go this season again with his aggressive defending. If he and goal-a-game Robin van Persie manage to stay healthy for most of the year, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic.
The biggest obstacle that Arsenal face this year is squad depth. Assuming for a moment that nothing changes between now and the end of August, the ideal starting XI for Arsenal reads: Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Song, Wilshere, Fabregas; Nasri, van Persie, Walcott. Slide in Gervinho for any of the front three in Arsenal's 4-2-3-1, or Aaron Ramsey for Wilshere or Fabregas, add in a little Andrei Arshavin and Johan Djourou off of the bench, and that's a team that is more than capable of competing for top honors in England. However, beyond that first 15 or 16, Arsenal's quality and reliability begin to falter a bit. Players such as Jenkinson, Ryo Miyaichi (who's waiting for news on a work permit at the time of this writing), Abou Diaby, Lukasz Fabianski, and Marouane Chamakh have all the promise in the world, but are either untested, shorn of confidence, or struggle with nagging injuries.
It is difficult to know, though, where The Gunners stand a week before the season begins. The biggest questions facing Arsenal are as yet unresolved: will Fabregas, Samir Nasri, and Bendtner be at the club on September 1st, ready to play, and healthy? Will Wenger bring in more reinforcements at the thin striker, left back, and defensive midfield positions, or will he roll with youth players Benik Afobe, Traore, and Emmanuel Frimpong, respectively? And will injuries, which have already affected half of the squad during the preseason, prove as big a detriment to Arsenal's plans as they did two seasons ago, and to a lesser degree, last season?
The 2011-12 season marks another test for Arsenal's depth and Wenger's ability to unite his players into the flying, unstoppable force that they have proven to be at times for the last two years. It remains to be seen whether they have the depth and staying power to sustain their incisive attacking play all the way to the top, but if healthy and prepared, there is no reason Arsenal cannot join the party of dropping trophies under open-top buses this year.