Saturday, May 28, 2016

Boom Xhaka Laka

The 2015-2016 Premier League season had the makings of something special for the Gunners in North London. The summer signing of Petr Cech from Chelsea added a top-tier keeper to Arsene Wenger's dynamic squad. While Cech's signing from Chelsea was truly the only major action taken by the club in the offseason, expectations -- as always -- were still high for the perennial contender. With their last Premier League hardware coming in the undefeated season of 2003-2004, the Ozil/Alexis duo orchestrating the offensive end of the pitch, and the relative health of the fragile midfield, Arsenal was due for a championship run. 

Courtesy of The Sun
Then the season started.
An opening home loss to West Ham in early August left the Arsenal faithful scratching our heads. The team quickly rebounded, winning three of their next four matches with a scoreless draw at home with Liverpool in the middle. The first few months of the season developed as expected - defeating low level EPL teams, drawing against the crosstown rival Spurs, and balancing results against top flight squads. The season was shaping up nicely, especially as typical powerhouses Liverpool and Chelsea wallowed in the bottom half of the table.

Courtesy of the Daily Express
Then came Christmas. Two victories over bottom-feeding Bournemouth and destined-for-relegation Newcastle were sandwiched between a 4-0 loss at Southampton on Boxing Day and a four game slide that included draws at Liverpool and Stoke City, a home loss to struggling Chelsea, and a home draw to that same Southampton team. Quickly, Arsenal's place in next season's Champion's League was in question. After back-to-back defeats at Manchester United and home to Swansea, the remainder of the season alternated between 3 point victories and 1 point draws. Thanks to a Tottenham implosion against a Newcastle team that was enjoying their last game in the Premier League for at least a year, Arsenal finished in second place and a full ten points behind surprising Leicester (5000 to 1 odds!!). Normally a second place finish would be applauded, but Arsenal missed a golden opportunity to collect hardware while the normal list of championship-caliber teams struggled through a tough season. 

Despite the perceived negatives of that second place finish, the 2015-2016 season displayed glimpses of what could be a fantastic campaign in 2016-2017. 
  • Mesut Ozil continues to be one of the best players in the world. A maestro with the ball at his feet, Ozil's 19 assists handily bested all other players. The German's vision is unparalleled on the pitch, understanding where the ball, his teammates, and the defenders are at all times.
  • After a slow start, Alexis Sanchez hit his stride late in the season. When he is playing at his full potential, Alexis is hard to knock off the ball, is deceptively quick in the attacking end, and consistently finds himself with the ball in front of the net. I do not know if Alexis was fighting through injuries in the early half of the season, but if he can maintain his late season form he will be an offensive force. 
  • Alex Iwobi and Joel Campbell played their way onto the first team; each starting several contests. Both players showed flashes of the talent that they possess. Iwobi, specifically, looks like a special talent that has quickly risen through the developmental ranks. 
  • Petr Cech performed as-advertised. He led the league in clean sheets, netting 16. A disproportionately large number of goals that Cech conceded could be blamed on defensive mistakes in front of him (specifically Gabriel, who was a disappointment in his increased role). 
  • Hector Bellerin is the fastest player on the squad and his pace repeatedly created scoring opportunities as defenses were on their heels. His position as the starting right-back was never in question. At the age of 21, there is plenty more to be seen from this speedster. 
  • The mid-season addition of Mohamed Elneny boosted the weak holding midfielder position. As his familiarity with his teammates grew, Elneny displayed a solid ability to retake possession and push the play toward the opposition's net. He also showed his ability to contribute offensively with powerful shots from outside the 18 meter box. 
  • Danny Welbeck, when healthy, provided quality pressure and scoring on the front end. While Olivier Giroud finished the season with more goals, Welbeck's presence on the offensive front showed more promise than the Frenchman as he was able to generate scoring chances and produce high numbers of shots on goal. 
  • I love Aaron Ramsey. 
Courtesy of

Courtesy of
In addition, Arsenal started the summer with a bang - signing Granit Xhaka from Borussia Monchegladbach (do not ask me how to pronounce that). The coupling of the Swiss national with Elneny/Coquelin/Cazorla adds depth to the defensive midfield - the weakest group of the Arsenal lineup. An aggressive tackler with a skill set conducive to retaining possession, Xhaka provides a defensive complement to the strong and deep offensive midfield that Arsenal has fielded for years. 

Prior to the 2015-2016 campaign, Arsenal had finished the season with an FA cup victory in two straight seasons. Hopefully the changes and improvements to the squad in 2016-2017 results in more silver for the Arsenal trophy case. 

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