By Shane Thomas
So, 2011/12 ended as a season in which Arsenal got away with it, and scraped into the Champions League for the 13th successive campaign. Their star man, Robin Van Persie has departed, and Alex Song is likely to join him. However, the club approach the 2012/13 season with a degree of understated optimism.
Unlike the rollercoaster, and at times, rancourous fortunes of last season, Arsenal look to be approaching this one with a much clearer plan of how they want the squad to function. This is based around the three main signings made by Arsene Wenger; the "jam tomorrow" policy has - for the moment - been put to one side, and the established names of Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Carzola will be donning the famous red and white. So what can us Gooners expect from the trio over the next 10 months?
Sometimes when a player spends an entire season linked with a move away from his current team, Arsenal are the buying club rather than the selling. Podolski's move to Arsenal was one of football's worse kept secrets, and he comes with an impressive pedigree; ever since he burst onto the scene as a young tyro as part of the Germany team that thrilled their country in the 2006 World Cup, Podolski has been a sought-after name in European football. And his record of 44 goals in 101 international games demands respect.
However, while Podolski's ability is not in doubt, there are a few question marks over his temperament. After impressing in the 2006 World Cup, he made the move that seems to be made by every big-name German player, joining Bayern Munich. Things didn't work out at "FC Hollywood", as Podolski, plagued by homesickness, struggled to adapt, and spent three miserable years in Munich.
Podolski returned to his hometown club, FC Koln in 2009, and revived his career. It showed that class is permanent, but also left himself open to accusations of being unable to swim with the game's big fish.
How he is used at Arsenal will be interesting to see. Many expect him to start on the left of a three, just behind the centre-forward. This is the role he plays for Germany, but his recent strong displays for FC Koln came with him playing as a central striker. You wonder if Wenger signed Podolski to experiment with a potential change in formation to 4-4-2. It may be a coincidence, but Arsenal's trophy drought has correlated with the club's move to a 4-3-3.
Podolski has wisely asked Arsenal fans to be patient, saying it may take him a few weeks to operate at full-tilt. This has been the case with many players moving to the Premier League. Arsenal fans will remember the early travails of Marc Overmars, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry - and they didn't do too badly in the end.
For me, the key is Podolski's positioning on the pitch. He can be effective playing on the left, but if he plays as a winger, he will be wasted. Euro 2012 was tangible evidence of how "Poldi" can be ineffectual if he's getting 'chalk on his boots'. Like Theo Walcott on the opposite flank, Podolski can hurt opposition teams if he plays in the channel between the right-back and right sided centre-half. He has a fine ability to make late runs into the box, and his explosive style of play can be difficult to defend against.
Taking all this into account, I would expect Podolski to be brilliant on occasion, and maddening on others. Don't be surprised to see him catch fire in patches, before struggling to perform on other occasions. But if he can pick the highest profile games to show his best, the transfer will be considered a success.
Many successful managers are said to have a player who represents their character on the pitch. An obvious example of this is Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane. Well, the persona of Wenger as the urbane, cerebral, "Le Professeur", could have his footballing mirror image in Olivier Giroud.
Giroud was a relatively late starter to the game, only signing his first professional contract at 19. And he also has *gasp* a university degree.
But this is incidental. The purchase of Giroud is a sensible one due to his performances for Montpellier last season. He finished top scorer of Le Championnat, as Montpellier shocked the more gilded clubs in France, especially Paris St Germain. Wenger has spoken of his admiration for Giroud's strength and aerial ability, and there's little doubt that, at 6ft 4in tall, he gives Arsenal a genuine threat in the air, not seen since (whisper it) Emmanuel Adebayor.
While Giroud had no problem finding the net for Montpellier, and has the stature to withstand the physical nature of the Premier League, it would do to temper expectations. He may be a direct replacement for Van Persie, but it would be fanciful to expect him to replicate the 30 league goals provided by the departed Dutchman.
However, if Arsenal are to make a successful transition post-Van Persie, Giroud will be key. If used right, he can play the role of pivot at the head of the attack, linking play, and allowing the three players behind him to cause mayhem when Arsenal have the ball. He could be very productive if asked to plow a furrow for his teammates, especially Podolski. So while he may not be prolific in front of goal, Giroud could be the key to how Arsenal attack this season.
The final of the three could be the jewel in Arsenal's crown. A member of the Spain squads that won the European Championships in 2008, and 2012 (only missing out on the 2010 World Cup due to injury). While not often in the staring XI, I think Cazorla can be forgiven that when he has the likes of Cesc Fabregas, David Silva and Andres Iniesta ahead of him.
He proved his quality as a member of the Villarreal side that made a trademark of punching above their weight in La Liga, before becoming the key man in the big-spending Malaga side that finished 4th in Spain's top division last campaign.
Where Wenger uses Cazorla will be interesting, as the Spaniard can play in any attacking position behind a striker. It may seem lazy to say so, but his strong points are very... well, typically Spanish. Technically sound, good at operating between the lines, capable of devil in the final third, and useful with a dead ball. I wouldn't be surprised to see him nominally start as a wide man, with plenty of licence to roam infield, in similar fashion to the way Silva plays at Manchester City.
While Cazorla is probably the best of Arsenal's pre-season signings, the pressure on him is also the most onerous. While the Gunners have one of the Premier League's best progenitors in Mikel Arteta, with Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky on the treatment table, they lack sufficient menace in the business area of the pitch. But this can be offset by Cazorla. If he can settle in England, and quickly, he'll become a fan favourite. His impressive pre-season display against FC Koln suggests that Gooners better start thinking of a suitable song about Santi to chant at The Emirates.
While many Arsenal fans are rightly positive about these three signings, how the club fare will depend on a lot more on the entire squad. For the first time in Wenger's stewardship, it would be fair to say that Arsenal have no genuine world-class talent. Don't believe me? Just work your way back from 2011/12; Van Persie, Fabregas, Henry, Bergkamp - not to mention the likes of Vieira, Campbell, Pires et al.
That doesn't mean that the team is full of duds, far from it. But would any of the squad come close to featuring in a current World XI - you could maybe make a case for Bacary Sagna.
Assuming you're still reading, and haven't punched your screen in fury, this doesn't have to be something to worry over. There may not be many players who are 9 (or 10) out of 10, but there are plenty of 7's and 8's. They key is for them to stop relying on one or two men to do all the heavy lifting, and take individual responsibility to do their bit to help Arsenal win matches. In essence, Arsenal need to have a politically socialist approach on the pitch, with everyone pulling together for the benefit of the club.
This may not be the most stellar personnel of the Wenger era, but it could turn out to be his best team since the side that won the 2005 FA Cup.
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