It’s All About To Kick Off – A red season ahead

When I was a kid, we used to go to Ventnor, for our summer holidays.  I took my youngest there for a day trip earlier in the summer.  With growing excitement we approached the Solent (Red Funnel Steamers, not the Wightlink interlopers) I told her of the joys promised ahead as we docked on the Isle of Wight

The beautiful sweeping beach, a game of bingo in the amusements, a walk along the esplanade, a trip down the pier (although, really, I knew that was long gone.)  We would splash in the giant map of the island which, surrounded by waters, I had splashed on so happily forty five years before.

england football

I’d even tried to book us a night in the Picardie hotel, where we always stayed when I was younger.  It was still going strong, according to its (slightly messy looking) website, although I had received no response to my request for a couple of rooms.  They must be full.

It hit me as I prepared my annual gaze into the crystal ball of the season ahead that Arsenal had become a little like an English coastal resort.  The bits that remained most appealing were magnified by the looking glass of nostalgia, and for years we ignored the flaking, breaking bits.  Then, suddenly, as this season is about to dawn, the rose tinted specs fall away.  The end of Wenger has caused a reassessment in our minds, and our hearts.

A Footballing Re-Assessment

Perhaps, for me, Ventnor is partly responsible.  Yes, the giant map of the island was still there – a little grubby but as remembered, and the beach (smaller than I recalled) still curves around the esplanade.  The steep entry to the sea front is still wonderful to behold, but along the promenade, the buildings are derelict, the amusements just a 1970s shell.  The reason the Picardie did not reply was that it is no longer a hotel, but a shop that appeared to hardly ever open.  Yes, we had a good day, but we both knew we would not be going back again.  At least not for the foreseeable future.

Houses might still set you back a million or more, but you wonder why.  A sense remains that the only buyers are those in love with the past.  Nowadays people go abroad for their holidays and, though I hate to say it, the resorts there are better.

Waking Up Without Wenger

So, for the first time ever, I enter the season without the belief – genuine or self ironically mocking – that the league title will be coming home to the Gunners.  I adored Arsene Wenger; rather like Ventnor, more for his past than his present.  But I also admired the standards of behaviour he set, his class, the stately way he conducted himself.  His wit and, in this age of excess and ‘Love Island’ crassness, his urbanity.

But he is gone, and while I find it hard to be impressed by Mr Emery, I feel that I have to give him a chance.  The news that the club are to become the second home (perhaps fourth home might be a better analogy) of an American Sports Tycoon who has never apparently expressed any direct or meaningful enthusiasm for the institution he now runs alone is worrying.  But, I suppose, it is neither different to how things have been in practice for a dozen years, nor is it vastly out of synch with the organisation of the remainder of top British clubs.

Good News At Arsenal – You’re Not A Fan Unless You Agree With North Bank Norm

And it is amusing to see the violently enthusiastic on social media present the move (along with Emery, and the functional signings – more on this later – of the transfer window) as great news.  That they use their enthusiasm as a weapon to insult and berate those who hold a different opinion is just plain funny.  ‘Don’t criticise, you f******* b******* sh***, because you’re no fan if you f******* do, t*******.  Be like me, open f******** minded.  W*******.’

But, really, a touch of amusement (not a whole park), some good results, perhaps a cup run or two and a challenge for fourth place.  It’s the best we can hope for.  In fact, getting Champions League football and winning a cup, or even reaching a couple of semi-finals, would constitute a great season.  It is, I fear, the best to which we can aspire for the immediate future.  At least until City, like Chelsea, see their owner lose enthusiasm for their plaything. Just because a toy is expensive doesn’t mean it’s bad.   Only when they cast it into the cupboard with their other past passions, owned but no longer of interest, will Arsenal’s recent predominance as a good business rather than a champion club begin to change.  Winning a championship down the line will be because others have swapped Hamleys for Poundland, not because Arsenal are now shopping in Bond Street.  A shame, because in the past we were both a good business and a top team.  It seems that these days the two are mutually exclusive.  At least in this country.

Enough reflection.  Let’s spend a little while offering some analysis.

Arsenal’s Squad

At the Back

Defensively, we are little changed.  Cech will be first choice, a year older but still a good keeper, despite a middling season last time out.  Mustafi is a much better centre half than he is often given credit for.  Sending Chambers out on loan is strange, since he looked good when he came in last season.  Koscielny might struggle to get back to full fitness, and is looking to move on anyway, but he is a quality player.  Who knows, we may get another season out of him.

Sokratis will, I believe, struggle with the pace of the Premiership, but Mavropanos looks promising.  Full backs are a problem at the highest level.  Hector Bellerin hasn’t really learned that blistering pace can’t cover up every positional error, and his final ball is erratic.  At left back, Kolasinac and Monreal are decent enough players (when fit) but no more.

In The Middle

The midfield looks better this season.  Lucas Torreira might provide the defensive security that lets the other players glow.  But then again, he might not.  Elneny and Xhaka are like our full backs.  Good players, certainly enough for a top six side.  But more than that?  Probably not.  Young Guendouzi looks promising, as does Ainsley Maitland Niles; there could be good news from these two.  Mkhitaryan is a very good player.  He is due an outstanding season.

Will Ramsey stay or go?  We’ve got him til January at least.  Will he turn into the player he seemed once about to become or will consistency and tactical uncertainty continue to plague him?  Like many fans, I would be sad to see him go.  Sad, but not heart broken.

And then we come to Mesut Ozil.  The man who is anathema to everything that is wrong with traditional British football.  He doesn’t hoof the ball aimlessly fifty yards, he doesn’t lunge stupidly into tackles he cannot win, he covers back well, but conservatively and does a lot of running but always with purpose rather than manic mindlessness.  On a bad day, he is still a better passer – both vision and execution – that just about any other player in the world.  On a good day, he is magical.  We need to enjoy having one of the greatest players in the world gracing the Emirates turf.

Up Top

Our forward line is our strength.  Lacazette seems to be finding his feet and Aubameyang is clearly an outstanding player.  There are a few very promising youngsters in the wings (and on them) as well.

In fact, I feel cheered up just running through that squad.  But do we have the quality in depth of Manchester City, the ability to grind out results that is Mourinho’s speciality, or the joie de vivre of Jurgen Klopp’s sides?  No, not yet.  Perhaps not ever (at least while Kroenke makes his financial commitments based on economic returns rather than a desire to win).  But, on tour at least, there seemed to be a joy and oneness about the side that was lacking last year, especially up to Alexis Sanchez’s departure.

A Season that Promises to be…Not Too Bad

And for that reason, my prediction (and I am rarely right) is for Arsenal to come in third.  To do well in the Europa Cup, but not quite win it, and to make the semis of at least one of the domestic cup competitions.

Whether, of course, Emery will see these last two as a chance to blood the youngsters as per Wenger, a chance to rest his best players as per most of the rest of the remaining 91 professional clubs or will go all out to win a debut season trophy remains to be learned.  Whether we land either of those cups might be decided on how he perceives them.  And also, to be honest, how the other members of the Big Six think.

Will The Whistlers Celebrate the Departure of Wenger?

But the season is not just about Arsenal.  Mostly, it is, but not completely.  VAR dominated the World Cup, something not perfect but an improvement on before.  The Premier League have rejected it, too far removed from flat caps and Northern grit that, they clearly believe, should dominate officialdom in England.  (Last season, only about 8% of Premier league matches were reffed by those from the South, not that this should especially matter. It is both a cliché and a sign of a chip on the shoulder to offer the view that stereotypical northern values are the apotheosis of all Arsene Wenger stood for.  After all, no Arsenal fan would ever claim the team is on the receiving end of more poor decisions than anybody else.)

I just wonder whether, without the sophistication of Arsene Wenger in the dugout, we might get a fairer hearing on the pitch.  Wishful thinking perhaps.

And there are nineteen other teams to consider (as briefly as possible).  It’s fun to predict the final league positions, and doing so before the season starts offers a decent excuse when it all goes pear shaped by Christmas.

The League Table – 2018-19

Champions:  Liverpool.

Arsenal addressed their weaknesses in defence and central midfield partially, with players who might, or might not, improve the side.  They failed to resolve their full back problems.  Liverpool have been forensic in sorting their defence (Van Dyck) and goalkeeping position (Alisson).  They have the edge over City in everything except consistency, and now could be in the position to find that too.

Runners Up: Manchester City

These two will be a fair way ahead of the rest.  But not to the extent of achieving 100 points.  City, I think, will want the Champions League, and will probably get it.

Third:  Arsenal

Well, it’s the least I can predict.

Fourth:  Manchester United.

Good enough to grind out some results, but there is nothing to challenge the belief that it will be another third season blues for Mourinho’s reds.

Europa League – Fifth to Seventh:  Chelsea, Spurs, Leicester

Chelsea are in a steady decline.  That will continue.  Spurs have peaked.  They are reluctant to spend money, their squad has a great first eleven, although I hate to admit it, but after that it falls away quickly.  They cannot have the good luck of another low injury season, and moving into their new ground will be unsettling.

It is pretty much impossible to imagine any other team breaking into the top six.  Leicester are probably best placed to challenge.

Safe and Sure – Eighth to Twelfth:  Wolves, West Ham, Burnley, Everton, Bournemouth

Wolves are the best bet for a good season from the newly promoted teams.  West Ham and Everton have spent plenty.  Burnley have become a solid team, and Bournemouth had a bit of a shock last time out.  Expect any complacency to be wiped clean.

Bubbling Under, but not Drowning – Thirteenth to Fifteenth:  Crystal Palace, Brighton, Southampton

Three steady teams, three steady managers, three steady seasons.

At Risk – Sixteenth and Seventeenth: Huddersfield, Fulham

While it will go to the wire, Fulham will squeeze into safety.  I hope Huddersfield will survive, but that might be heart over head.

Hello Championship – Relegated:  Cardiff, Watford, Newcastle

Cardiff are everybody’s favourites to go down.  I don’t expect Rafa to last the season at Newcastle – if he does, they will stay up, but a bigger and better offer is bound to come in.  Watford simply lack fire power.  Troy Deaney is a fine leader, but no longer Premier League standard.  Losing Richarlison will take away any last vestiges of creative wonder from the side.

Charlie George With The Cup On His Head; Geordie Armstrong Down the Wing; ‘It’s Up For Grabs Now…Thomas!’, Double Winners, Invincibles.  Dream Time

And so, with my red member ticket for the opener against Man City clutched in my little hand, I set off on Sunday on the long journey to North London.  Perhaps the lack of World Cup competition will set the Gunners off to the sort of start they have forgotten about.  Surely, there cannot be a better time to play City at home?

Maybe one of the youngsters will burst into the side and set the league alight.  Perhaps Ozil or Mkhitaryan will have the kind of season about which every fan dreams.  Could we keep Ramsey and he produce the sort of goal scoring season reminiscent of Frank Lampard in his prime?  Will Lacazette and Aubameyang form the kind of partnership that Bergkamp and Henry enjoyed?  A solid defence is more about understanding that individual ability.  Will it finally click?

Perhaps it will.  Perhaps, actually, I will be as wrong about the champions as I have been since 2004.  Perhaps this is the season.  Unheralded, unfancied…but not as much as Leicester three seasons ago.  That is the joy of the start of the campaign.  The promise, the hope.  The misguided anticipation.

Need to go now, I’m off to book next summer’s family holiday.  I think we’ll go to Ventnor.

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