Arsenal to challenge for Premier League title?

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It only seems like five minutes ago that Arsenal were lifting the FA Cup at Wembley, but here we are just days away from the start of another new campaign.

Here are five hot topics to discuss ahead of the big kick off.

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How have the Gunners performed in pre-season?

It’s been an unusually short pre-season programme this year so it’s not easy or fair to judge Arsenal’s performances properly.

With the up and coming talents, Hector Bellerin has caught the eye the most following up on some twinkle-toe footwork at Boreham Wood, while the Spanish right sided defender was fabulous against Benfica, racing down the flank to great effect.

What impressed me the most was his choice of final ball - it had real precision and real quality. He’s clearly a player who knows how to pick a pass inside the final third.

The standout display was a fluent 5-1 thrashing of Benfica with the energetic Aaron Ramsey and Yaya Sanogo especially impressing. While three of Sanogo’s four goals seemed relatively simple finishes, a clever flicked effort for his third did give us a glimpse of his goal scoring instincts. Surely the Frenchman’s confidence would have soared from that moment.

With so little football played it’s difficult to criticise, but I would say that the most problematic feature of this pre-season has been Arsenal’s defending of set pieces. Against New York Red Bulls, hesitancy and a lack of communication cost the side a goal and it was a similar story when Benfica scored from a basic, near post flick on form a throw-in at the Emirates Cup.

Monaco’s winner was also messy from an Arsenal perspective with some players pushing up and others dropping off from a wide free kick. There’s work to be done on organising a better defensive line for those kind of situations, however the absence of Per Mertesacker surely made the difference.

Whose breakthrough season could this be?

Joel Campbell has made people sit up and take notice of him all summer and, at 22, there’s no doubt that this campaign is pivotal in the context of his career.

Against Benfica, the Costa Rican was strong, he was well balanced, he was really positive as well as diligent for the sake of the team having convinced the manager he’s worth keeping at the club this season. I really do believe that he is ready to make an impact either on the wing, or the centre forward position.

It’s also a huge season for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Abou Diaby. I am a big fan of the power and the penetration that ‘The Ox’ brings to the side; he does need to nail down a more regular place in the starting line-up this season.

If he gets enough game time, I expect the midfielder to at least double his total of five Premier League goals in the season ahead and he is more than capable.

To fulfil his potential, Abou Diaby has to stay injury free this season. He is more attacking minded than he is defensive but the Frenchman’s biggest problem might be the stiff competition for places that he faces in the engine room.

As talented as he is, I think he will have to be at his very best to be chosen ahead of some of the squad’s other box-to-box midfielders; it’s a challenge Arsenal’s fans will wish him well in.

How good are the new boys?

With 19 goals and 10 assists in 27 La Liga starts, the only player in Spain that bettered Alexis in both departments last season was Lionel Messi. The Chilean is without doubt is one of the most exciting attacking talents on the planet.

Equally comfortable as a striker or out wide, Sanchez will add more pace, more energy, unpredictability and class. It really is a wonderful acquisition.

Although he wasn’t in the spotlight as much, Mathieu Debuchy looks like an astute signing at right back. His Emirates Cup debut showcased how combative and assured he can be, and I expect him to defend and attack really neatly this season.

Statistically, Debuchy was arguably a more effective player in the Premier League last term than Bacary Sagna, who just left for Manchester City on a free.

Debuchy had a better duels won rate with 64 percent compared to Sagna’s 63 percent, as well as aerial duels won with 69 percent compared to 68 percent. Debuchy created two more chances than Sagna with 23 and had one more successful crosses with 16.

Sagna however had a better tackle rate with 78 percent compared to Debuchy’s 75 percent, so it looks as if the manager made a good call by bringing him in.

Calum Chambers is a signing for the future but, based on his displays in the Emirates Cup, the teenager can slot seamlessly into the first team already.

At centre back he reads the game tremendously well and has a nice air of composure about him too. The range of positions he can fill will also be a major asset to the manager.

Last but not least, David Ospina is set to provide real competition for the number 1 spot and at 25 he’s a keeper that’s improving fast. His save percentage of 80.2 with Nice last season was among the best in Europe. Ospina and Szczesny should bring the very best out of one another.

Will the tactics change?

There’s been a tactical tweak in pre-season already with the usual 4-2-3-1 formation replaced by a 4-1-4-1 that sees a holding player flanked by two more orthodox central midfielders.

Whether this is because Mesut Ozil isn’t back from holiday yet remains to be seen but it’s a subtle change the side has definitely been working on. I certainly think that the three man link-up could be solid and effective, especially in matches against Arsenal’s title rivals this year.

The prospect of Arsene Wenger turning to a plan B of 4-4-2 also looks more realistic this term; it worked well I thought in the FA Cup final and anyone of Alexis, Joel Campbell, Theo Walcott or Yaya Sanogo would be a suitable partner of Olivier Giroud up top.

In matches where the Gunners face defensive opposition, I can see it being deployed and it’s a stirring prospect at that. In the more difficult matches this season, the key will be to show greater tactical discipline and concentration.

Learning lessons from last year I do expect the Gunners to start these games a little more cautiously and to take fewer risks. There’s so much pace up front, Arsenal are now nicely equipped to stay tight before picking off opponents with razor sharp breaks.

There are more weapons in their ranks and I believe we’ll see a lot more tactical variety from Arsene Wenger’s men this season.

How optimistic should we feel about the season ahead?

With confidence boosted by the FA Cup final triumph, greater squad depth and noticeably more pace in forward areas, I think there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the season ahead. But to win the title, there are two key areas that the team needs to improve upon.

Firstly, they must score more goals and providing key players stay fit, I really do expect that to happen. The prospect of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey feeding the likes of Alexis and Theo Walcott will striker fear into the hearts of any opposition in the defence.

Arsenal must also be more resilient against heir biggest rivals, again this means adjusting their approach tactically, staying more compact as a side, taking fewer gambles and concentrating better from set pieces. Achieve all this, and the Gunners will be right in the title race.

Final thoughts

With players returning from World Cup duty at different times it hasn’t been easy for Arsenal to find their rhythm in the build up to the new season.

But with the Community Shield experience and the Premier League kick-off fast approaching, the Gunners will have to get up to speed quickly in the coming days.

I think the squad looks healthy and with one or two more signings possibly to come, it could be a season remember. Arsenal fans will certainly be hoping it is.

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Alexis Sanchez
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