As we reach the halfway point of the campaign, 'tis the season for evaluating what we have seen thus far. And something called Christmas. But more importantly, thinking about Arsenal's progression over the course of this season. Like all things Arsenal, it has not been smooth, simple or sensical. The buys of Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla, while excellent, were balanced out by the sales of Robin van Persie and Alex Song. They were little stronger than they had been last term, but did not go into the season in the same state of panic and disarray.
The rate of player turnover in the last couple of years at Arsenal has been quite staggering. This team itself has had little experience playing together and it has shown at points - namely the very start of the season when they were struggling for goals and most significantly to re-adjusting after Abou Diaby's injury, which badly affected its oh-so precarious balance. The team as itself has been okay, under the circumstances. Thrown together, adjusting to the loss of the best striker in the world, whose replacements themselves were adjusting a new league and a new team. There have been promising instances but on the whole they have been inconsistent, as is to be expected. Problems have arisen with tiredness of late and while the squad itself is not thin, the number of good players, or more specifically players who the manager trusts, are thin on the ground. Overall, not great, but not particularly bad either. The promise of more is clearly there, and it should come together more and more as the season goes on. But there is great need for further investment.
What Is Going Right?
A few things: the summer signings are all steadily settling in, they are in the next round of the Champions League and are just two points from 3rd place in the league. Realistically, the Manchester clubs were out of sight, but a top three finish never was. Ideally, they would be comfortably in said position - and they really should be - but being 'there or thereabouts' is no bad thing at this stage, and the team's aforementioned growth as a unit is encouraging, and seems to be picking up some pace.
What Is Not?
Also quite a few things: the fact that there are so many players in the squad in whom the manager has no trust has hampered their capability to invest and hence has seen a core of around 15 players overused and look exhausted for it in the spell wherein there were two games to play almost every week. There is a lack of depth in certain areas even without the - for want of a better term - deadwood, clogging up the squad, in the centre forward and defensive midfield positions. In some games the formation looks ill-fitting, and this may have contributed to the team's struggles in some games. The Capital One Cup, with the Manchester clubs, Liverpool and Spurs all out, presented itself as a fine opportunity to end the famous trophy drought and going out of that, to Bradford of all teams - no disrespect intended, despite how disrespectful that is - was a huge blow for the team.
One that has divided many. Personally, I still love Arsène and maintain the belief that he is the right man for the job, but he has not had a fantastic season by his own standards. He has suffered for his tactical rigidity and the lack of bodies in the squad. As to whether that is his doing, very few can be sure, but I am of the opinion that he has not been given the funds to bolster the squad as he would wish. Even with this considered and my near-total faith in him, he has struggled and not helped himself. But now he needs to earn his grain, and I, for one, believe that he will do just that. The importance he placed on the League Cup shows he shares the fans' desire to see trophies again and that he will hopefully do the same with the League Cup. A big January is needed.
A tough choice as there has been no great standout. Per Mertesacker makes a strong case, but it has to be Santi Cazorla. A remarkable steal for just £11m, he has become the centre of all of Arsenal's play. His fantastic dribbling and passing have seen him adopted and adored instantly by the Arsenal fans. An inconsistent, but on the whole strong, start to his Arsenal career.
Who To Sell?
Where to start? As mentioned above, there are plenty of players in the squad who are not wanted there; not by the Arsène Wenger and not by the fans. In an ideal world, Marouane Chamakh, Sébastien Squillaci and André Santos would be sold and replaced (a novel concept around Arsenal). As to who will be? Well, who knows? The club tried very hard to sell the former pair in the summer, to no avail. It seems there is interest in Chamakh (*rubs eyes and rereads sentence over and over again*) and that he may leave and even if just on loan, it creates another squad space and all-but confirms the signing of a striker. It looks also like Andrey Arshavin will be sold, which would be greatly saddening and perhaps a little self-damaging; even if he is on the fringes, he could be useful.
Who do you want to sign?
Again, where to start? Any who follow me on Twitter will know my thoughts on Arsenal's transfer policy. With the squad as it is, the two most pressing concerns are centre forward and defensive midfielder, and if possible a winger, if Santos is sold a left-back is needed, while another goalkeeper to play backup and challenger to Szczęsny would not go amiss. The news will that Klass-Jan Huntelaar is set to sign a new contract with Schalke should be of great relief to Arsenal fans - he is slow, approaching the wrong side of 30, near-incapable of contributing to the team's build-up play and is in possession of an attitude as poisonous than the Borgia family's Christmas dinner. Fernando Llorente, also out of contract in the summer, would be an excellent signing, but there appears to be no smoke, let alone fire, with that one. The rumours of David Villa's availability would be a wonderful thing for the club if it came off, but it is another case of 'who knows'. As for a defensive midfielder, the players rumoured: Kevin Strootman, Étienne Capoue and Luiz Gustavo would all be a good fit, but there are always problems of price and availability. Personnel is the hardest part to call but if they go in and get a striker and a midfielder, they will have completed their minimum requirements.
Biggest (ahem) Individual of Disrepute of the season:
Robin van Persie. There is little more that needs adding on the subject of that greying, bucktoothed tosser.
End of season prediction:
Depending on the buys in January, either a crawl to the fourth, or a push towards third. I am not particularly worried about the retention of Champions League football, due to the calibre of the opposition more than the ability of the squad. Either of those would be about par. With a cup, it could be significantly. Barring a late surge for the League (it could happen), the FA Cup and Champions League are the only options. Last season's winners showed that the Champions League can be won on luck, but realistically the FA Cup is the best chance they have.
The foundation for bigger and better things is there, but they need to be built on they are to happen. There is no reason why they cannot come away from this season with a cup and a good league finish if they invest well.