MADRID, Spain (AP) – Winding down FOX Soccer's tour of this year's Barclays Premier League clubs, Jamie Trecker looks at the most uncertain of the circuit's Big Six - Arsenal.
If there was one moment that stood out from Arsenal's 2010-11 (and one memory which will define that season), it was coughing up a four-goal lead to Newcastle on February 5th, drawing 4-4 at St. James' Park. It was one of the great comebacks in the English game and the point where the wheels fell off for a very fragile Arsenal side. They would go on to gift Birmingham City the Carling Cup, meekly bow out of the Premier League race and be humiliated in the FA Cup by bitter rivals Manchester United. Worst of all was that they beat Barcelona in the round of 16 at home then went to Spain and played an uncharacteristically vicious and dirty return leg in the Champions League. In sum, Arsenal managed to go from a team that had dreams of winning a quadruple to a side that must now play-in to this year's Champions League.
What's followed is an off-season of turmoil at the Emirates, with two key midfielders on their way out while few new faces come in. As a result, this season is shaping up to be a brutal one for the once-proud Gunners. Manager Arsene Wenger - once hailed as the club's savior - is under fantastic pressure with few resources to meet it. Depending on your take, Wenger is either fatally stubborn or being undermined by a board willing to "settle" for a Champions League slot every season.
The Gunners seem unwilling - or worse, unable - to attract talent. Arsenal have as yet failed to address glaring off-season needs: a commanding goalkeeper; midfield reinforcements; and world-class defenders. Instead, they picked up a undersized attacker from a French club. The fans are justifiably restless.
Arsenal also has an ugly ownership struggle playing out in the boardroom with American billionaire Stan Kroenke in a shotgun marriage with Alisher Usmanov, the Russian billionaire who is unwilling to cede full control despite being outmaneuvered last year for majority ownership.
The proverbial $64,000 question: If -- and this is a big if -- Samir Nasri remains with the club and slots in for the sure-to-be departed Fabregas, they'll look much the same as they did at the start of last season, with the exact same strengths and weaknesses that have bedeviled the team for six seasons. In back, Lukas Fabianski has proved to be far more solid than the gaffe-prone (and soon-to-be gone) Manuel Almunia - and Wojech Szczeseny is clearly a future talent. Neither man is a commanding presence in the nets.
In front of them, Kieran Gibbs will slot in to replace Gael Clichy (off to Manchester City) and a healthy Thomas Vermaelen can get the job done. That said, Arsenal need at least three more defenders and a commanding midfielder. In the off-season, they have flailed about, attracting exactly none, with young Carl Jenkinson (Charlton) the closest thing to a reinforcement. With Sebastien Squillaci still inexplicably in the mix, expect the Gunners to leak goals.
The midfield is a mess. Andrei Arshavin looked lost much of last year; Tomas Rosicky has never fully recovered from a series of injuries; and Nasri looks to be just going through the motions. Theo Walcott appears to have plateaued and while Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere are promising, both men have a lot of growing to do yet.
Up top, the fragile Robin van Persie gets a new partner in Gervinho (Lille); most fans will be wondering why this club signed another under-sized forward who can be knocked about. Marouane Chamakh tailed off badly last year and the egomaniacal Dane, Nicklas Bendtner will finally be shown the door.
If the Gunners finish above sixth, it will be a triumph. Arsenal doesn't have anything to match the Manchester teams; a resurgent Liverpool side; or even a Chelsea side that is starting to show some age. Expect the Gunners and Tottenham to tussle for fifth and for Wenger to be shown the door after failing to secure Champions League football.