The season is upon us, the loins are girded, and the hour is nigh; in the words of one of Rome’s immortal generals: "we are mindful of human weakness, reflect upon the might of Fortune, and know that everything we do is exposed to a thousand chances."
It is time, Reds, and so we exchange some pleasantries over coffee and cigarettes with our honored opponents at The Short Fuse, discussing this weekend's game and the season to come.
The Liverpool Offside: Even though y'all pipped Spurs and managed to celebrate everyone's favorite day of schadenfreude, St. Totteringham's Day, it seems like there is a slightly sour taste in the mouth of some Arsenal fans left over from last season given Leicester managed to win the league. How are folks feeling about this season and what would constitute a success?
The Short Fuse: That slightly sour taste you mention? For a non-zero proportion of Arsenal supporters, that's the default. About to celebrate 20 years in charge, Arsene Wenger in the mid-2000's locked into a philosophy about squad building that, to undersell it a bit, can be very frustrating at times. He is not afraid to spend serious money on top players (Xhaka this season, Sanchez in 2014, Özil in 2013, etc), but what he generally does not do, to the consternation of many, is spend money he does not deem worth spending - he's got a background in economics, and he has a very well-defined view of what he feels a player is worth, and if the current market says that a player costs more than that internal estimate of worth, Arsene generally will not pursue that player.
The problems with that strategy are many - first, Arsenal are one of the most cash-heavy teams in the game (aka "they can afford it"), and second, Arsene's worth valuation is very principled and idealistic, and doesn't take into account the fact that soccer money nowadays is, to use an academic term, bananapants. So while other teams are signing those £20-30 million wingers, midfielders, and defenders, Arsene is not. He prefers to buy young players (like Rob Holding this summer) and give them the chance to earn a spot. In a time when the prevalent option for similar sized clubs is to buy not build, this is a problem for a lot of fans, who see nothing but no league championship since 2004 and (not unreasonably) think Arsene's squad building strategy is the problem.
So, long story short: a lot of fans look at this summer and think "good but not good enough", and slightly dread the start of the season. Any stumbles out of the gate and the knives will, once again, be out.
TLO: These are sentiments with which Liverpool fans are familiar; a predictable result of being overtaken in league titles by one’s most hated rival. The signing of Granit Xhaka precipitated a host of excited texts to this writer from Gunner-supporting friends (along with a sense of existential dread). Do you think he was all the reinforcements needed to gird Arsenal's defense, or are the injuries to Mertesacker and Gabriel going to result in one of Jonny Evans (?!) or Shkordan Mustafi coming in before Sunday?
TSF: To your last question first - before Sunday? Probably not. But it is well known now that Arsenal would like to sign Mustafi, and Valencia's amenable to his departure, so I expect that deal to be done before too long. The less said about Jonny Evans the better.
Now, as to your first question. Arsenal fans have been very vocal about the need for Arsenal to have a CDM for years now, largely driven by a misunderstanding of what a CDM should be - people hear "CDM" and think it is a big, bruising guy in the Patrick Vieira mold, but Arsenal have had Mikel Arteta for years and he's basically played that role very, very well. But it is true that Arsenal have lacked, in Wenger-speak, that little bit steel in the midfield, and Xhaka brings that in spades, so he's a pretty exciting addition. I don't think he's all that's needed, but I think his transformative effect on the rest of Arsenal's midfield shouldn't be underestimated.
TLO: Speaking of steel and incisiveness, Arsenal may be The Gunners, but short of Sanchez and Giroud they look somewhat light on the attacking front. Given the veritable certainty with which the first blunt offensive performance will elicit all caps howls of "Wenger has lost it" from the Piers-Morgan-driven hordes, do you think he's playing with fire not signing another striker? Or is this all nonsense given Ozil, Ramsay, Walcott and the Ox all exhibit attacking prowess?
TSF: I think that Olivier Giroud is a fantastic option up front, and I love watching him play. I don't want him gone. However, he is very streaky, and I think Arsenal need at least one more attacker to complement Olivier and to pick up the slack during one of his inevitable four-game scoring droughts. It's not a super-urgent need like a new defender, but I do think it's important.
TLO: I do like a reasonable answer (Giroud looked pretty lively at the Euros). A fellow Frenchman and football aficionado, Albert Camus, once posited that "the evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding." I think you know where this is going: Wenger in or Wenger out? I only ask because the EPL writers appear to have titled this year's script The Year of the Manger?
TSF: I was very, very stridently Wenger In until about a year and a half ago. I was as staunch of a defender of his as you'd find anywhere. I still love the man more than at least one of my own parents, but I have very, very reluctantly come to the "Wenger Out" side of the discussion - I don't think he should be fired, but I thought he should have left after last season and I would not be 100% thrilled if his expiring contract is renewed this season.
What tipped it for me is in part the stuff I mention above: his intransigence and lack of nuance when he's conducting transfer business, and his seeming lack of interest in evolving his own career the way he evolved the English game as a whole in the first 10 years of his time at Arsenal. He is very set in his ways, and while his ways used to set him apart, the rest of the soccer world has caught up and in many cases surpassed him, and yet he remains firm in his belief that his way is the right way. His way is not 100% wrong - I mean, in 20 years, he's never finished below fourth - but it also is showing signs of age and could use some refreshment.
TLO: An unfortunate but understandable position. Bob Marley, a certain manager's favorite music artist, once said that "truth is: everybody is going to hurt you; you just gotta find the ones worth suffering for," which concisely sums up football fandom for me (have you heard it's been quite awhile since we won the league?). Since every season has its highs even if it doesn't end in a championship, what are you most looking forward to this year?
TSF: Granit Xhaka. I mentioned this above, but I think if Xhaka can handle the ballwinning/distribution/disruption job of a "classic" CDM, that unlocks even more awesomeness from Özil, Ramsey, and Alexis - and may even shake more talent out of the frustratingly inconsistent Theo Walcott.
TLO: I’m looking forward to being annoyed with how good he probably is, for what it’s worth. Besides Xhaka, what do you think the preferred 11 will be once everyone is healthy / match-sharp after Euro returns?
TSF: Cech; Bellerin-Chambers-Koscielny-Monreal; Xhaka-Ramsey; Theo-Ozil-Iwobi; and one of Alexis/Giroud (depending on importance of match)
The role of Calum Chambers was going to be Per Mertesacker, but then he messed up his knee; Gabriel, his replacement, did the same to his ankle in the last preseason game, so here we are, injury crisis already in midseason form. That spot will hopefully be filled by Mustafi, but for now it'll probably be Chambers and new signing Rob Holding battling for that position.
TLO: Bonus (feel free not to answer this one): why is Jack Wilshere still on the books?
TSF: I honestly have no idea, particularly since he's English and homegrown; he's always hurt, which probably dents his resale value, but if he's healthy he'd be a decent option for a few clubs I would think.
Thanks again to Paul DeBruler from The Short Fuse, and be sure to head on over to their site to read the other half of our pre-match Q&A.