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Arsenal Preview: Q & A With Ted Harwood Of The Short Fuse

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As we get closer to the beginning of the season I wanted to do previews of Fulham's opponents in the English Premier League. Arsenal is a club that always seems to be right at the top of the English Premier League table. Last year, Arsenal finished third in the EPL and again will also be in the Champions League. Arsenal last won the Premier League Title in the 2003 - 2004 season.

The Gunners play their matches at the Emirates Stadium. The capacity is over 60,000 for their home matches. The club's manager is one of the best in the English Premier League. Arsène Wenger has been the boss at Arsenal since 1996. Players to watch this season include Cesc Fabregas, Andrei Arshavin, and Robin van Persie.     

I wanted my previews to be a little different. Instead of me telling you about Arsenal I have someone who knows the club very well to assist me. Ted Harwood is the editor and the writer of The Short Fuse. He has been a fan of the Gunners since the early 2000's. Last season he wrote a few articles on Arsenal Station. This season he has his own Arsenal fan's website. This is an excellent website for fans of Arsenal. If you are a follower of the gunners you need to check it out. 

I asked Ted many questions about Arsenal. I am hoping this Q and A sheds some light on the upcoming season for the Gunners. 

Q: Were you happy with last year's season finish?  

Towards the end of the season, I was not happy with finishing third, only because the opportunity was there to do much better, and Arsenal faltered over the final eight matches.  However, in the grand scheme of things, I think third place was a good finish considering that most people outside of the club had predicted a lower finish and also considering how little money Arsenal have spent on transfers compared to the other top teams.
Q: What are your general feelings on the state of Arsenal as the season is about to begin?

I think the club as a whole is in tremendous shape, especially financially.  The squad is still too thin in defense, although there is time for Arsène Wenger to shore that and the goalkeeping situation up.  In general, I think the experiences of last season will have given the players a renewed hunger to fight until the end, and I think as the squad is still quite young, a marked improvement can be expected by supporters this year as long as the back is strengthened.

Q: What Arsenal players are the keys to your success this season?

Arsenal play so much as a team that it is almost hard to say, but three players stand out: Robin van Persie, Cesc, and Thomas Vermaelen.  The team suffered in very measurable ways after van Persie's injury last year.  His ability to act as a false nine in attack, distributing the ball to other players making runs, was sorely missed, as was his ability to score goals from almost anywhere. 

Cesc is key simply because he is one of the top central midfielders in the game; his passing vision is probably second only to Xavi at this point, and his nose for goal and his fighting spirit are crucial ingredients to Arsenal's success as well. 

Thomas Vermaelen is a key player because he is now the most experienced central defender the club has, and consequently he must be both the anchor and the mentor for whoever ends up partnering him.  His time as captain of Ajax and Belgium is a valuable asset as well. 

I might also say that Alex Song is a key player, as his defensive midfield play along with his technical skills really shone last season.  He will require a little bit more defensive help alongside him if Arsenal are to do well, though; too often the other midfielders left him isolated against counterattacks last year.

Q: What style of play would say Arsenal play?
Arsenal play a flowing, quick-passing style focused on possession in a 4-3-3 formation.  They often build up attacks slowly, as other teams tend to play defensively against them, although they can counter at pace given the opportunity.

Q: What are the strengths of Arsenal?

Arsenal's strengths are players with exceptional technical skills and passing ability.  All of Arsenal's players are comfortable with the ball, passing the ball, dribbling.  Arsenal also have one of the best youth setups in football and one of the most secure financial situations, particularly in English football. 

Q: What are the weaknesses of Arsenal? 

Arsenal's weaknesses are twofold: defense and injuries.  Defense encompasses both pressing by the attacking players and defensive organization, as well as the (perhaps overstated, but well-publicized) goalkeeping issues.  It is not that Arsenal's defense is bad, but compared to the other top teams in the Premier League, they must improve if they are to improve their finishing place this year. At the start of last year, the pressing was good and the defensive organization was decent.  Both of those fell off as the season moved forward, and the club suffered. 

 Arsenal also suffered a spate of injuries: van Persie was injured in a meaningless international friendly against Italy, Nicklas Bendtner has had a groin strain since time immemorial (this meant that Andrei Arshavin, all 5'6" of him, started at center forward for a long stretch), Ryan Shawcross broke Aaron Ramsey's leg in half, Cesc broke his leg against Barcelona, William Gallas had thigh strains, Gaël Clichy's back had problems, Kieran Gibbs broke his foot, and on and on. The only consistent starter at his position all year was Vermaelen, and even he broke down by the end of the year.

Q: What players were key acquisitions and losses for Arsenal?

There have only been two acquisitions for the senior team this year (so far): Laurent Koscielny, formerly of Ligue 1 side Lorient, and Marouane Chamakh, formerly of Bordeaux.  Both are key: Chamakh is a good central forward who can fill in for van Persie and spell the Dutchman in the continuous battle against injuries. Koscielny is a central defender, of which Arsenal currently only have three, due to the loss of William Gallas. 

I have mixed feelings about letting Gallas leave.  He was a bit of a grump and not the most team-friendly player.  He was not a good captain.  He was, however, a tremendously positionally aware and experienced central defender, which, as it happens, is precisely what Arsenal lack at the moment.  He was getting on in age, but not so much that he would have been a liability.  Clearly, however, he was unhappy at the club, and his attitude was poor.

Q: How do you feel Arsene Wenger and Arsenal have handled the Cesc Fabregas situation? 

 Both the club and Wenger have handled the situation about as well as they could.  The club's stance, which is Wenger's stance, is clear: he is not for sale.  Wenger has said so, he has said that there has been too much noise about Cesc, and that Cesc is very much part of Arsenal's plans for this season.

Q: Who are some of the young players of the future for Arsenal?  

When one talks about Arsenal's young players, the first name out of everyones' mouths is Jack Wilshere, who looks to be one of England's best central midfielders going forward. Craig Eastmond, who featured at defensive midfield and right back for the club last year, looks to be a solid young player as well. 

One name in particular who intrigues me is Håvard Nordtveit, who has been on loan with Lillestrom and FC Nürnberg.  He has been playing right back during the preseason, but played a lot of defensive midfield for Nürnberg, and his best position is central defense.  Aaron Ramsey, when he returns, looks set to be a great midfielder, and Carlos Vela is still only 21.
Q: Are you happy with the your manager Arsene Wenger? 

Everyone should be happy with Wenger, in my opinion.  He is one of the best managers in the world.  He has his ways of doing things, particularly in the transfer market, that clash with a lot of people's theories about how those things should go.  Some say the game has passed him by, but I think it is far far far too early to even think about saying something like that.  Nobody knows the club better than he. 

Q: What are your predictions for the upcoming season for Arsenal?

I think as long as Arsenal's core players stay healthy, the team has their best chance of winning the Premier League since 2007-08. They nearly did it last season until the end, and they made it to the quarterfinals of the Champions League before a Cesc-less team lost at the Camp Nou to Barca (a game they led for about...three minutes) and that was without van Persie, Clichy, Bendtner, Gallas, Song, and Walcott for long stretches of the year.  The addition of Chamakh, who has looked quite good, gives the club more depth at striker. 

Wenger needs to sign one, preferably two more central defenders, and probably another goalkeeper (mainly due to loss of confidence on the part of some of the rest of the team, even if they don't say so), and there is no reason why Arsenal could not win major silverware this year.

 I want the thank Ted Harwood once again and assisting me with this preview of Arsenal. Again, if you would like to check out his site please go to The Short Fuse.