Excitement builds as Arsenal start season as title contenders
Arsene Wenger believes that Arsenal can win the league. Not only that, but he's so excited by the possibilities of this squad that he's admitted he wasn't actually convinced a lot of those previous times when he said he thought Arsenal could win the league. It's remarkable what the signing of a 33-year-old goalkeeper can do.
The excitement that has surrounded the arrival of Petr Cech -- dozens of Arsenal fans were wearing Cech helmets at Wembley on Sunday -- isn't just about bringing in an experienced high-class player, though. There were always concerns about David Ospina's height, but he did perfectly well last season and it's certainly not the case that he was the reason Arsenal didn't win the league.
Rather Cech, as well as probably being an upgrade in goal, has symbolic value. After a decade of losing major players to their rivals, Arsenal now has gained one. It's true, of course, that Cech only became available because of the excellence of Thibaut Courtois. But it's also true that Jose Mourinho, Chelsea's manager, has indicated that he wasn't overly keen on allowing a goalkeeper who has won four Premier League titles to join another club in England.
Not only that, but Mourinho seems to believe that Arsenal might be challengers this season. The greatest slight Sir Alex Ferguson ever directed at Wenger was to stop sniping at him, as clear a sign as any that he had written Arsenal off as a realistic force.
Mourinho, of course, is prone to picking fights with anybody at any time, but still. It seemed significant after Chelsea's Community Shield 1-0 defeat to Arsenal that Mourinho could have simply written off the importance of the game. Instead, the Portuguese manager opted to criticize Arsenal's style of play, claiming they had betrayed their principles. The inference was clear: Mourinho sees Arsenal as a threat.
And perhaps most significantly of all, what he sees as making Arsenal a threat is their new-found ability to defend. There had been hints of that even two seasons ago, when there were a number of games Arsenal killed in the final minutes.
At the time, it seemed slightly freakish; particularly given they were surrounded by collapses such as the 6-0 at Chelsea, the 6-3 at Manchester City and the 5-1 at Liverpool. It was only at Manchester City last season -- when Arsenal, against normal policy, sat back, played on the break and won 2-0 -- that it became apparent that this might actually be a new development.
"We know what we are capable of doing, have a great squad, and are just as excited as well about what this season might hold for us," Aaron Ramsey told reporters this week. "There is always pressure on Arsenal to go out and win games, to win trophies, so it is nothing new to us as players. I am not a betting man, but we all feel confident we can go on and achieve something this year."
There is an irony in that. No club has been as tightly planned as Arsenal over the past decade. Their move to a new stadium and their exploitation of the new revenue streams that have opened up has been a case study in how a club can expand their horizons.
It's just been unfortunate that they did it at just the same time oligarchs, princes and hedge funds changed the financial landscape of English football. Yet the dawning of the club's new age of being taken seriously came when Wenger, scrabbling around desperately for a holding midfielder, stumbled upon Francis Coquelin at the back of a cupboard.
The City game was only the fourth league game Coquelin had started last season, only the 13th he'd ever started for the club he'd joined from Laval in 2008. He'd spent November and December on loan at Charlton Athletic, his third loan club in four years. Nobody had thought he was the solution, but it turns out he was. The 24 year old's energy and aggression have made Arsenal a much harder side to beat -- so much so that by the end of the season they were regretting a start that had seen them win just two of their opening eight games.
The squad still looks unbalanced, with a fleet of creative midfielders and a paucity of defensive cover. If Arsenal's injuries come in the right areas, there are two factors between them and a genuine title thrust. The first is the center-forward. If Theo Walcott can stay fit there are at least two options this season -- Walcott's pace or Olivier Giroud's power, plus the leggy stylings of Danny Welbeck. Yet neither has entirely convinced as yet (that said, there's a general dearth of high-class strikers at the moment).
The second is harder to quantify. There's an on-going sense that Arsenal lack a certain edge, as Roy Keane noted this week with his comment that Arsenal players are obsessed by "selfies and six-packs" instead of winning. Their good form last season came with the title already lost, and the home capitulation against Monaco in the UEFA Champions League only magnified those doubts.
When asked about Keane's comments, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain said: "It is a new era, isn't it? Some people do it, some don't. We are serious about winning trophies.
"Personally, and I can speak for the rest of the squad, we have been serious every single year I have been at the club about winning trophies. You can see that on the pitch when we are playing, through the season."
He added: "A lot of people don't see when we lose and go through tough times how upset and disappointed we are. We have always wanted to win trophies and in the last years we have won a few. This season we want to go that one better."
Still, in a season in which all the contenders are flawed, this looks Arsenal's best chance of the title in a long time.
FOXSoccer.com's wire services contributed to this article.