Everyone knows that you can't win the league by September's end, but I believe you can go a long way toward losing it. With Liverpool, Leicester City, Southampton, and Chelsea among their first six opponents, Arsenal can ill afford to start the season in a sluggish manner if they want to avoid the all too familiar burden of playing catch-up. For me, 10 points is an absolute minimum in these first six matches and given that Arsenal play Liverpool and Chelsea at home, meaning trips to Anfield and Stamford Bridge loom in the second half of the season, banking points now against their title rivals is even more paramount. Unfortunately, inaction in the transfer market and ill-timed injuries have left Arsene Wenger with several key dilemmas heading into Matchday 1.
On the field, the preseason has been quite fruitful. While the club searches high and low in the transfer market for a new striker, the team has come through five friendly matches with a unbeaten record and 17 goals scored. Fringe first-team attackers Chuba Akpom and Joel Campbell caught the eye in the offensive third and are pretty much assured of being involved in at least Arsenal's three August fixtures as Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud have yet to start training after their exploits at the European Championships. For two players most assumed would leave on loan, or even permanently in the case of Campbell, it's been a statement preseason to this point.
At the back, two defenders new to the first team also had impressive preseasons. Krystian Bielik did very well as an 18-year old thrown in alongside and against much more experienced players. The young Pole had a few nervy moments, but mostly showed a much more advanced game than his age would suggest. Rob Holding, a new signing from Bolton Wanderers, also played well and seemed to improve with each successive game. Based on their preseason performances, either player could argue that at this point they should be well ahead of Calum Chambers on the depth chart.
Last year's stalwarts Hector Bellerin, Nacho Monreal, and Alex Iwobi picked up right where they left off and all three should find themselves in the starting XI against Liverpool. New signing Granit Xhaka also caught the eye as he seamlessly integrated into the team. His wide range of passing ability immediately had the midfield functioning better than it had at any point in the final two months of last season. Mohamed Elneny was very assured in preseason and while I don't think he'll be first-choice to start the season, he's going to be a very important player for Arsenal. After missing large chunks of last season through injury, Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla both looked fit and ready to get back to their best. Santi, playing in the #10 role, completely bossed the 8-0 win over Viking FK and The Coq was as energetic and tenacious as we've seen him in 2016.
Based solely on preseason performance and fitness, I would pick the following team to play Liverpool:
Bench: Opsina, Gibbs, Elneny, Ramsey, Alexis, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain
Conversely, there are nearly as many less positive aspects to Arsenal's preparation for the season that have left the squad criminally lacking in central defense and as limited on options up front as when last season ended nearly three months ago. Frankly, I think the lack of a striker signing has more to do with a lack of viable options rather than a lack of trying. Jamie Vardy was content to stay on a Leicester. Higuain was way overpriced for his age and appears to have gotten over Argentina's Copa American Final defeat by shame-eating bread pudding for the last two months. Arsene Wenger would never go for a player with Ibrahimovic's attitude. Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo have joined the Premier League, but neither would be an upgrade over Olivier Giroud. Arguably no player who has already moved would've fit the bill for Arsenal so I have a hard time raking Wenger over the coals for a lack of action here.
Lacazette seems to be available only if Arsenal are willing to overpay. Mauro Icardi has been mentioned, but it felt so out of the left field that it's more likely an agent is fishing for a new contract. Unless Arsenal is waiting for a big domino to fall and free up an angle to move for Lewandowski or Lukaku, I can't see what move folks will be pointing to on September 1st saying see, see, that was the one that Wenger missed out on. I think a last-minute move for one of Mahrez, Lacazette, or Draxler is the most likely scenario at this point unless something dramatic happens and a true impact player becomes available. As reactive to perception and fan sentiment as Ivan Gazidis has been in recent years, I also believe early season results will have an impact on Arsenal's deadline day dealings. If things go awry against Liverpool and Leicester, there will be immense pressure on Wenger to make something happen no matter what. It's not an ideal scenario, but a very possible one.
On the defensive end, the ankle injury suffered by Gabriel Paulista on Sunday leaves Calum Chambers as the only fit senior central defender in the squad less than a week before the season starts. An established central defender had to have been on the club's shopping list at the start of the summer as Per Mertesacker enters the final season of his contract, Laurent Koscielny turns 31 years old in a month's time, and the other existing internal options, Gabriel and Chambers, having failed to impress. When Mertesacker was ruled out until 2017 with an injury in the club's first preseason game the need for a defender become more urgent. Inexplicably though, more time passed with no movement on the transfer front before Gabriel's injury left the club in a serious lurch and without enough time to do much about it.
Surely Wenger already knew that getting in a central defender before the window closed was no longer an "if the right deal comes along" scenario where if it didn't happen then at least he still had the same options he finished with last season. With Mertesacker gone as a fallback option, the situation the club finds itself without any of the three available in is akin to fiduciary irresponsibility. Some people would say Wenger simply "took a risk" that the players on hand could bridge the gap until the end of the transfer window when players supposedly become available. I find this line of thinking ludicrous; a risk coincides with a potential reward and I just can't find any upside to this approach aside from possibly saving a few dollars on a transfer fee or maybe getting a slightly better player at the last moment were they to become available instead. When circumstances change and necessity emerges, those in charge need to make the tough decisions that guarantee needs are met at the expense of wants. Frustratingly, club management has failed miserably in this area yet again.
As it stands, I think Arsene Wenger will have little choice but to field a makeshift defense in the opening match against Liverpool. I really can't believe that he would take the added risk of bringing Koscielny back from the beach and straight into the side against a team as good as Liverpool. Not only is there a risk that Koscielny plays poorly because of a severe lack of match sharpness, but I have to believe that straining to keep up would increase the risk of injury and thus worsen an already dire situation. It seems absurd to take such a gamble with a player that Wenger has routinely said needs careful management because of a chronic achilles problem as well as a recurring hip injury. Look no further for a glaring example of bringing a player back too soon out of necessity than the poor performance of Alexis Sanchez in the first half of last season.
The "best" option is probably to play Nacho Monreal in the middle alongside one of Chambers or Holding. That he paired Holding with Gabriel from the start against Manchester City would hint to me that Wenger, like anyone who watched the preseason, feels that Holding is simply a better option at his point. Kieran Gibbs was solid in preseason and will be eager to stake a claim to playing time early on in the season. The only other option, aside from moving Francis Coquelin from midfield to center back, would be to play Holding and Chambers together, but playing two inexperienced central defenders against the pressing of Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool side seems like a recipe for disaster. Remember in December of 2014 when Wenger deployed a very green Chambers alongside an unfit Per Mertesacker and then-unproven Hector Bellerin at the Britannia Stadium? Stoke led 3-0 at halftime and Calum Chambers was later sent off.
Looking at all aspects of the situation, I think Arsene Wenger will pick the following team on Sunday.
Bench: Opsina, Chambers, Koscielny, Elneny, Campbell, Walcott, Akpom
From the midfield forward, it's actually not a weak team at all. Ramsey probably isn't fit enough to do 90 minutes, but neither is Cazorla so they could split that position something like 55/45. Alexis probably won't last 90 minutes either, so Walcott or Akpom will likely get a run out in the second half depending on if Arsenal need a goal. Campbell can bring an injection of creativity as well as defensive solidity to the right hand side, so it seems almost guaranteed that he gets on the field at some point. Bielik probably earned more consideration than many would have thought, however, I can't see Wenger relying on an 18-year old assuming Koscielny can at least suit up. Any way you slice it, Sunday will be an engrossing Opening Day for Arsenal fans, for better or for worse.