New Season, Same Old Arsenal

Aug 15, 2016 by Alex Baker

Arsenal fans can be forgiven for feeling that Sunday’s home opener against Liverpool had a sense of groundhog’s day about it. The Gunners lost, as they have in three out of their last four season openers, in this case by a score of 4-3.

The result itself wasn’t necessarily that disheartening. Arsenal were the better team in the first half and took a deserved lead before Liverpool roared back piling on the goals to make it 4-1 at one point. But rather than collapse, Arsenal kept their heads up and fought back to a respectable 4-3. Disappointing yes, but not embarrassing.

But the circumstances surrounding the result – squad depleted by injuries and the failure to address obvious deficiencies in the transfer market – are the factors that make discussing Arsenal sound like a broken record.

It’s just the same old story and it’s as frustrating and mystifying as ever.

The Gunners have a good, potentially great squad, money in the bank, a world-class profile, and the lure of Champions League football. And yet, the North London club continually sets itself up for failure by not conducting its transfer business as it should.

With his three first-choice center-backs injured, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger was forced to start the inexperienced duo of Calum Chambers and Rob Holding against Liverpool. Bother are promising young Premier League talents, but the two have no history of playing together and were clearly no match for a rampant Liverpool attack led by Philippe Coutinho, Firmino, and new signing Sadio Mane.

The North London club’s only major signing this summer, Granit Xhaka, started on the bench. However, he admittedly wasn’t all that great when he did come on.

But while Xhaka can be forgiven for needing some time to develop into the central midfield general Wenger is hoping he can become, and even Wenger can be given a pass for fielding a makeshift defense in light of injuries, the situation at center forward is unforgivable.

It’s now been four seasons since Robin van Persie left Arsenal and in those 48 months the club has failed to bring in the top-class striker it so obviously needs.

Olivier Giroud was unavailable for Sunday after being given an extended break following his exploits with France in Euro 2016. In his stead, Wenger chose to start Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal’s most talented attacking player, but clearly not a central striker. Even the inconsistent Theo Walcott would have seemed a better choice. Indeed, Walcott opened the scoring for the Gunners (after missing a penalty) by drifting into a more central area from his position on the wing.

Arsenal’s deficiencies in the striker position are made all the more glaring by the successes of the players the club has failed to sign. Both last season’s leading La Liga scorer Luis Suarez and last season’s leading Serie A scorer Gonzalo Higuain could be playing in Arsenal red had Wenger been willing to pay market value for them.

This summer, Arsenal has failed in bids to lure Jamie Vardy, Higuain (for the second time), and Mauro Icardi. The club’s inability to successfully navigate has become so pronounced that club legend Thierry Henry has expressed concern that top players may not want to come to the club anymore.

The worrying thing about Sunday’s loss as opposed to past losses on opening day – the 3-1 to Aston Villa in 2013, the 2-0 to West Ham in 2015 – is that those losses could be more easily written off as flukes. Villa finished nowhere near the Gunners that season. West Ham finished six places and nearly 10 points behind Arsenal last season.

But the loss to Liverpool was different. This was Arsenal being soundly beaten by a team that could be seen as one of their direct rivals, certainly for a place in the top four, although probably not for the title.

The hopeful thing for Arsenal fans is that there are still a couple weeks remaining in the transfer market. In the past, Wenger has responded to early-season losses by spending some cash. Lyon striker Alexandre Lacazette is still a reported target, as is Valencia center-back Shkodran Mustafi.

Both deals have reportedly stalled due to Wenger’s unwillingness to meet the asking price of the two players’ current clubs. But if Arsenal are to have any hope of ending their title drought, or even maintaining a top-four finish in the current Premier League climate, Wenger must get his transfer business right in the next couple of weeks.

Otherwise we may finally see a season in which the Gunners fail to finish in the top four.

Arsenal will be back in action next Saturday, August 20 as they take on champions Leicester City. Catch the match at 12:30 pm ET on CNBC with Sling Blue.

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