Arsenal’s Top Four Ambitions Should Not Be Written Off Yet

With the recent exits of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas pundits and fans alike have began questioning whether the club is going in the right direction and whether Arsenal are still capable of finishing in the top four (something Wenger has done every season he has been at Arsenal). Saturdays defeat to Liverpool added to the speculation surrounding Wenger’s ability to lead Arsenal into the top four once more and at half-time in Arsenal’s Champions League qualifier with Udinese last night many pundits were probably ready to write off Arsenal altogether.

Without their captain there is little doubt that Arsenal will be weakened. A player who created more chances than any other player in Europe’s top leagues since the 06/07 season cannot be replaced easily. Neither can Samir Nasri who was arguably Arsenal’s brightest performer last season contributing 10 league goals. However it is more than just the loss of the duo’s goals, assists and influence that will have an adverse effect on Arsenal, it is that it sends the wrong message to both the fans and the players.

Yes, Arsenal have lost influential players before in  Patrick Viera and Thierry Henry, but both players were sold at a time Wenger believed to be right and when the players were coming towards the tail end of their careers. Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas unquestionably have their best years ahead of them.

However, last night proves that it is far too early to write Arsenal off  even considering Liverpool’s early lead over them. Wenger has replaced great stars before such as was the case with Viera. Cesc Fabregas who took on the number 4 shirt filled the vacant centre midfield spot with ease, outclassing the man he replaced in Arsenal’s victory over Juventus in 2006. There is nothing to say that the same thing can’t happen with Wilshire or Ramsay really being allowed the freedom to play their own game now Fabregas has gone, both of whom will thrive at increased game time and increased responsibility within the team. It should be noted that after Fabregas, Wilshire created more chances for Arsenal than any other Arsenal player in the 2010/11 campaign with 60. When Wilshire is fit again it is more than likely than Wenger may look to rebuild the team around the young England star.

As for Nasri he again is a good player, but is not of the same calibre as Cesc Fabregas and will possibly not be as big as loss as many believe if Arsenal bring in a replacement of adequate quality in the next week. Of Nasri’s 18 goals for Arsenal 10 of them came last season which meant in his 55 other appearances for the club he only managed 8 goals which is not the return of a top class attacking midfielder. Arguably he has now settled in and will continue to perform, but his form did began to tail off towards the end of last season as Arsenal as a whole began to struggle.

The exit of Nasri can also allow further playing time for the exciting young Japanese winger Ryo Miyiachi who has finally been granted a visa to play in the UK. Of course he at 18, is too young to be considered a first team option yet but as an impact player could catch the eye this season. Young English midfielder Henri Lansbury will also benefit from more first team football having featured off the bench in Saturdays defeat against Liverpool.

Arsenal’s ability to finish in the top 4 is dependent on a number of factors. First and foremost they will need to rely on their top players staying fit such as Van Persie and Thomas Vermaelen fit, who when absent are sorely missed. It will also depend on young goal keeper Szczesny maintaining his recent good form across the whole season.

Furthermore, it is finally time for Arsenal fans (and England fans) to see Theo Walcott really shine. A player who has in the past often flattered to deceive but finished last season with his best goal scoring tally yet, 9 goals in just 28 appearances, a solid return for a player mostly used out wide. So far the signs look good having netted in both fixtures against Udinese despite looking somewhat ineffective against Liverpool at the weekend.

The Challengers

As for the threat of rivals Liverpool and Tottenham, it remains to be seen how strong they will be this season. Spurs could still lose star player Luka Modric to Chelsea which would be a huge blow to their top four ambitions. As well as this Spurs haven’t really strengthened the side that fell short last term. In need of a more clinical striker, cover at right back and a centre back to cover for the release of Woodgate Spurs don’t appear to have really strengthened at all. Although the club do look set to bring in former Arsenal man Adebayor who could be just what Spurs need, with Defoe and Crouch often not looking good enough. Lassana Diarra too would be a quality addition to the side, although the Madrid stars high wages may make a move difficult with Spurs been hesitant to break their wage structure.

Liverpool on the other hand have been, as stated busy in the transfer market since January. However, Downing, Henderson and Adam all lack Champions League experience and its speculative to suggest that they will really step up and propel Liverpool back to the top.. Further playing all of Suarez, Carroll, Gerrard and Adam at the same time would leave Liverpool incredibly open in the middle of the pitch especially with most sides opting for a three man centre midfield.

We saw last Saturday as Liverpool failed to overcome Sunderland at home that Adam and Lucas were unable to dominate the midfield adequately which ultimately allowed Sunderland to grab a foot hold on the game and come back through Larsson’s wonder goal. Defensively Liverpool are nowhere near as strong as they were under Benitez shipping an average of 3 goals per game in pre season and only keeping one clean sheet in the final game versus Valencia. This was probably why Dalglish opted for a 5 man midfield against Arsenal.

Arsenal still have enough quality to maintain their position as part of the premierleague’s top four. Any team boasting the likes of Van Persie, Vermaelen, Wilshire and Walcott must be seen as a threat especially if Wenger reinvests the influx of transfer money wisely. A possible move for Scott Dann would also add some much needed height and presence to Arsenal’s back four. From viewing their recent league encounters with Newcastle and Liverpool, Arsenal could perhaps benefit from bringing in a more instinctive striker and allowing Van Persie to drop back and get more involved in the play which he is naturally more inclined to do, perhaps filling the the role vacated by Nasri.

Arsenal will need to strengthen if they want to finish in the top four with the current squad looking rather thin especially considering recent injuries. With £60 million from the sales of Fabregas and Nasri plus the £20-30 million Champions League windfall Wenger will surely begin to spend. Already he has been linked with moves for a wide range of players from Kaka to Edin Hazard. The final week of the transfer window will surely be a busy one for Arsenal, who with their Champions League football can, for now attract a higher quality of player than Liverpool or Spurs.

It should also be remembered that Arsenal have seen off threats to their top four status before from Tottenham and Villa in previous seasons with many pundits writing them off back then also. Liverpool, and Spurs now are stronger opposition however but this Arsenal side still boast a wealth of young talent capable of filling in. The victory over Udinese that propels them into the Champions League group stages as well as providing them with £30 million is testament to the sides quality and will serve to be at the very least a confidence booster. Whatever the outcome of the top four race it will be one of the closest in a very long time, and it will not be settled any time soon. For Arsenal to silence some of their critics they will need a big result against Manchester United this weekend.

If Arsenal do miss out on the top four however the ramifications could be long lasting. Despite the clubs sound financial structure the loss of Champions League revenue would hurt any club, and with the changing landscape of British football every club around Arsenal will continue to spend big and look to attract the World’s top talent. Without being able to offer Champions League football or high wages Arsenal would surely find it difficult to assert themselves as a top club in the near future. The gap will continue to widen especially in the context that the FIFA Financial Fair Play Rules look to be easily flouted as City have done with their stadium sponsorship deal, and others will do in the future. They do have a contingency plan in place to finance so long as they finish in the top 4 every 2 out of 3 seasons. However it will be interesting to see how competitive Arsenal will be in the long run if they do fail to finish in the top four this season.

Amit Singh is the editor of Think Football and contributes for a number of other football websites, follow on twitter @Think_Football