The mood surrounding Arsenal has changed dramatically since the same time last year when the club were coming off an 8th consecutive season without a trophy and going into their season opener having failed to make a significant summer signing. That opener ended with an embarrassing 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa. An increasingly frustrated Arsenal fan base implored Arsene Wenger to spend the sums of money required to bring in established, world class players. Wenger obliged, shattering the club's previous record signing on Mesut Ozil a day after Arsenal beat Spurs 1-0 for their 4th straight win after that opening day defeat. The Gunners went on a blistering run of form and were top of the league as late as match week 23. Key injuries and a dip in form that saw four heavy defeats to Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton derailed Arsenal's title challenge. The season ended on a high however after their FA Cup triumph over Hull, a win that has certainly had a meaningful impact on the psyche of the club this summer. Rather than the narrative heading into this campaign being focused on a poor second half of last season, another 4th place finish and a 9th trophyless season, a huge weight has been lifted off of the shoulders of Wenger and his players and they'll be approaching this season with a sense of optimism not felt at the Emirates in some time.
Important summer signings will have increased those good vibes. Alexis Sanchez is an immensely talented player that will increase Arsenal's tactical flexibility. He can play on the right of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, as the lone striker in those two formations or even alongside Olivier Giroud in more of a 4-4-2. He can dribble past defenders, provide the final ball and is a gifted finisher. His 21 goals in all competitions last season at Barcelona was second only to Messi. He provided 11 assists- tied with Messi and Pedro behind Cesc Fabregas's 14. Key to Arsenal will be his eagerness to make runs in behind the back four. After Theo Walcott's injury in January, the Gunners lacked a vertical threat in behind the defense. Giroud is a striker that links play well and plays with his back to goal but doesn't offer the pace to dart behind the defense. Sanchez will make those runs and in Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere has three midfielders that ranked in the top 6 in the Premier League in accurate through balls per game.
Sanchez's ability to rotate in as the lone center forward will also be key in providing Wenger with depth at that position. Giroud was Arsenal's only battle-tested center forward last season and was therefore forced to feature in nearly all of Arsenal's games- his 51 appearances was second only to Per Mertesacker. Unsurprisingly, his form tailed off in the back half of the season after a strong start as fatigue set in. Yaya Sanogo's strong preseason should see him feature more this campaign, providing further depth up front.
The gap in squad depth between the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea and Arsenal has shortened considerably over the last couple of years meaning the Gunners should be better able to cope with a congested fixture list with fewer injuries than in past seasons (the acquisition of renowned American fitness coach Shad Forsythe should also help). In Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil, Sanchez, Walcott, Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla, Abou Diaby, Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Campbell, Arsenal have 11 strong options to play in the 5 midfield positions in their usual 4-2-3-1 shape. While Arsenal supporters maybe wouldn't be comfortable with some of those players featuring in the most difficult fixtures, they're all good enough to get results in a domestic cup and provide valuable rest for the 7 or 8 midfielders expected to play the most minutes in the league and Champions League.
The sale of Thomas Vermaelen to Barcelona means Wenger should sign an additional center back before the end of the transfer window. As of now Arsenal's only cover at center back in the senior squad is new signing Calum Chambers. While the former Southampton player has impressed in preseason in the middle of defense and appears to be one for the future, he's still just 19 and his only Premier League experience has come as a right back. It's hard to envision Arsenal challenging for the title without more defensive cover if Koscielny or Mertesacker were to miss any large spell of the season through injury.
Mathieu Debuchy is an experienced and capable replacement for Bacary Sagna at right back and was Didier Deschamps' first choice right back ahead of Sagna at the World Cup. Nacho Monreal will again provide adequate cover for Kieran Gibbs at right back.
For me Arsenal's biggest weakness will be their lack of a true defensive holding midfielder against the league's strongest sides. Mikel Arteta has served the club admirably but doesn't have the athleticism or power to slow opposition counter attacks. As much as Arsenal like to possess the ball in the opposition half, they're inevitably going to leave themselves vulnerable on the break and need a defensive midfielder that can get across the pitch to slow down quick transitions. Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool were too easily able to blow past the Arsenal midfield last season. The Gunners have been linked with Sporting holding midfielder William Carvalho, a signing that I feel would turn them into genuine title contenders.
In Ramsey Arsenal have one of the best box to box midfielders in the Premier League. The Welsh international was a revelation last season before a Boxing Day thigh injury kept him out until early April. He scored the winner in the FA Cup and has impressed this summer. He was the best player in Arsenal's convincing Charity Shield win over Manchester City and could be an outside favorite for PFA Player of the Year if he stays healthy.
In recent seasons picking Arsenal to finish outside the top 4 has been a popular trend among pundits. Significantly fewer are betting on that this time around as new signings coupled with Wenger's long term player development have made this a more talented Arsenal side than we've seen in the last several seasons. I think they're still a couple signings away from being able to challenge Manchester City and Chelsea for the title- they particularly need a defensive midfielder- but are not far off.