Arsenal 08/09

Last season certainly had its share of triumphs and disappointments for Arsenal. There was a good bit of despair among fans after Thierry Henry departed for Barcelona without a big-name replacement coming in, and the media fed on this with predictions that Arsenal would drop out of the top 4 (with the cursed Spurs tipped to move up).

flamini.jpgSo when the season started rather brilliantly, there was renewed faith in Arsene Wenger's youth and transfer policies. A particularly pleasant surprise was the emergence of Matthieu Flamini and Manual Almunia as regular first-teamers.

Well, the honeymoon ended. Arsenal were embarrassed in the Carling Cup by hated rivals Tottenham, and embarrassed in the FA Cup by hated rivals Manchester United. Along the way Arsenal was hit by a series of injuries, culminating in the horrific broken leg suffered by newcomer Eduardo. Though the weakened squad rose to defeat AC Milan in the first knockout round of the Champions League, the quarter-final matchup against Liverpool proved to be too much. And it was another draw with Liverpool that signaled the end of Arsenal's fading hopes for a Premiership title, finishing a close third, just two points behind Chelsea and four behind champions Manchester United (some consolation: Spurs a distant 11th place).

The end of the season also saw the beginning of a series of prominent departures from the club. The least surprising departure was that of Jens Lehmann, who had not handled his benching with much professionalism. The free transfer of Mathieu Flamini was disappointing to many, but who can blame the player: with no transfer fee necessary, AC Milan was able to offer him exorbitant wages that Arsenal was never going to try to match. In contrast, I have no hesitation in condemning the behavior of Alexander Hleb, whose £11.9m transfer to Barcelona came as a relief after the ridiculous whining the club had to endure as Hleb and his agent tried to force Arsenal's hand. It makes Gilberto's quiet departure to Greece all the more admirable, and burnishes the luster of his six years of solid service in the Arsenal lineup.

ramsey.jpgAnyone can do the math, and see that Arsenal lost three midfielders in rather quick succession this summer. The club has seen only two and a half players brought in. The half belongs to Carlos Vela, who already belonged to Arsenal but is now returning from a loan in Spain and will compete for a spot up front, all the more important considering Eduardo is to not set to return until September at best, and Emmanuel Adebayor is still trying to weasel his way to Barcelona.

The other purchases both look set for roles in the midfield. The first was teenager Aaron Ramsey, brought in from Cardiff in a £5m move and apparently slotted for a role in central midfield. Whether he can complement Cesc Fabregas the way Flamini excelled at remains to be seen. Out on the wings Arsenal will be featuring its recent £12m signing from Marseille, Samir Nasri. Nasri is acclaimed as an ideal replacement for Hleb, and he fits the bill for a Wenger signing: young, French, relatively affordable. With Abou Diaby, Gael Clichy, and William Gallas, Nasri is another piece in the continuing French contingent at Arsenal (supplanting the losses of Henry and Patrick Vieira).

The Adebayor saga remains to be resolved. He still has several years left on his contract, but the status quo is clearly not going to work. I think he misplayed his hand this off-season, and may be the odd man out after the Ronaldinho and Hleb transfers.

Wenger, on the other hand, still seems to be in the market for another midfielder. Gareth Barry has been prominently rumored after his attempts to leave Aston Villa, though Wenger is typically tight-lipped.

Suffice it to say that there will have to be several new faces in the first team fielded against West Bromwich Albion on August 16, with Eduardo and Tomas Rosicky still out injured. Unlike the start of last season, however, I already have a lot of faith in this squad. The youngsters matured tremendously over the last campaign, and Fabregas and Toure have cemented themselves as team leaders. That William Gallas is the captain in their place is a continuing travesty, but Wenger made that choice and the team is stuck with it for now. I am excited to see Vela, Nasri, and Ramsey in action, and when Eduardo and Rosicky are back in form, this should be a fun team to watch.