This firm foundation has led reasonable observers to suggest that the team could challenge for the Premier League title in 2015-2016. We've explored that potential from several angles this summer, most recently in "Arsenal Can Win the League - Even Without More Signings" and earlier in "Arsenal's Title Ambitions."
Another way to analyze the club's direction, position, and prospects is to dig into the factors I've identified in my past two annual assessments, "The Arsenal: Forward, Upward, or on Some Generally Positive Trajectory" from summer 2014 and 2013's "Arsenal's Platform for Success or Plateau of Mediocrity?."
Aspects of progress
Arsenal's enhanced competitiveness has rested on several supports. Here's where those stand entering in the 2015-16 season.
- The club's own financial strength. Undeniable. The financial statements continue to show a healthy sporting enterprise, with revenues rising to an all-time high and investment in football talent increasing proportionally. Available cash sits at approximately £60 million, according to the estimates of the Arsenal Supporters Trust. All that's even before the gargantuan Premier League UK television rights deal kicks in and a new overseas deal gets finalized. Where this financial muscle carries force is in transfer expenditures, which have amounted to £127.4 million net since the acquisition of playmaker Mesut Özil in September 2013.
- The different level of transfer target. Continued success. After the 2014 acquisitions of Alexi Sanchez and English international forward Danny Welbeck, Arsenal bought the title-winning Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech from Chelsea earlier this summer. Although other stories of world-class targets may be less credible, few deem it preposterous that Arsenal would be in the mix for the services of Real Madrid's Karim Benzema, for example. That shows the club's return to the top echelon.
- Unrest elsewhere. Not as significant. Chelsea's José Mourinho and Manchester City's Manuel Pellegrini have completed their second years in charge. Any adjustment period for them is over. Manchester United under Louis Van Gaal have spent astronomically and succeeded in returning to a Champions League spot, but it's not clear how well Van Gaal can integrate the high-priced players to mount a viable title challenge.
- Continuity in Arsenal's management and playing squad. Hugely important and a stated priority. Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger stressed the camaraderie in the squad as last season came to a close and as this pre-season began. When assessing needs based on the 2014-15 performance, he said, "We need another player who gets 10 or 15 goals, but we have a good mentality and good cohesion in the team." In other words, chemistry is as important as a new, productive player.
- The winning mentality of this squad. Proven. Two FA Cups in a row, including a rout of Aston Villa in May, and two wins in Manchester show Arsenal can master the big occasion.
- The exits of unwanted players. More addition by subtraction. In essence, the departure of forward Lukas Podolski made Cech's salary a wash. There are some other candidates to leave permanently, such as forward Joel Campbell and midfielder Mathieu Flamini, but the club's acquisition activity won't depend on their exits.
- The impact of Financial Fair Play (FFP). Still questionable. UEFA recently relaxed its already loose enforcement of financial requirements. As long as clubs present a detailed, plausible plan showing a break-even horizon in four years' time and/or enter into a voluntary agreement involving guaranteed investment funds, they may spend more than their current cash balances and flows on transfers and wages. These changes and the past year's financial results have lifted the sanctions on Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. (See "UEFA Says Financial Fair Play Has Changed to Attract New Investors."
The forces keeping Arsenal in place have also been subject to changes since I first explored them in 2013. Here's how they look currently:
- The existing distance between Arsenal and the top of the table. Mixed signals. The team achieved a lower points total in 2014-15 (75) than it had the previous season (79) and finished 12 points behind champions Chelsea, compared with a 7-point gap to Manchester City in 2013-14. However, Arsenal moved up a spot to third in the final league table and performed slightly better against top-four competitors, winning once, drawing three times, and losing twice; that's two more points than it had gained against the same level of competition the year before. The real problem was the performance against teams that finished in the fifth through the ninth spots, to which Arsenal dropped 19 points.
- The risk-averse transfer approach. Laid to rest. The priority of mitigating risk in acquiring players is a thing of the past, both at the top level (Özil, Sanchez) and among prospects (Chambers). Chemistry and fit now seem much more important considerations than financial outlay.
- Lack of experience in transfers at the high level. Reduced further. The Cech acquisition continues the trend of successfully closing deals with the world's top clubs. Since bringing Özil from Real Madrid, Arsenal has dealt with Barcelona for Sanchez, Manchester United for Welbeck, and Chelsea for Cech. It's a player in that elite market again.
- Uncertain enforcement of FFP. Continues. As I noted earlier, UEFA has relaxed its requirements and penalties. The advantage, instead, may lie in the Premier League's home-grown rules. To reach the maximum squad size of 25 players, clubs must employ eight players older than 21 who have trained in England. (See the admirably clear examination "The Premier League's Home Grown Player Rule, Explained.") Arsenal is well stocked in this regard, while Chelsea and Manchester City are not. Its first-team features eight home-grown players and 15 non-home-grown; this means Arsenal can fill out its squad with two players of any provenance.
- The composition of the Arsenal board. Unchanged and still problematic. The board remains small, white, and male and doesn't represent diverse points of view well.
This review suggests continued progress for the club. More strong performances than poor ones, and some truly memorable moments, were features of the season gone by. Barring an incredible change of strategy that includes a financial infusion, it's the most we can reasonably expect. If certain developments fall kindly, we might witness something even more enjoyable.