Arsenal have secured the future of senior players Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla as they prepared for Sunday's first big test of their maturing team.
The Community Shield against Chelsea will be a good measure of manager Arsène Wenger’s side and whether, after two years of steady improvement and two FA Cup wins, they are ready to push on and finally compete for the Premier League title.
There were brief challenges in 2007-08 and 2010-11 but this is a more experienced Arsenal side, one that was built in reaction to the disappointments at the start of this decade as debt created by a new stadium restricted the growth of the team. Arsenal suffered from the loss of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gaël Clichy in 2011, and of Robin van Persie and Alex Song in 2012, impeding their fragile progress.
They do not lose their best players any more. Walcott, whose old deal had only 12 months left to run, signed a four-year contract worth £140,000 a week late on Thursday night. He is now Arsenal’s highest-paid player. Cazorla, who enjoyed his best Arsenal season last year, from central midfield, signed a two-year deal.
Wenger, speaking before Sunday's curtain-raiser against Chelsea at Wembley, said that keeping the team intact was the biggest cause of new optimism.
“The consistency of your squad is vital if you are successful,” said Wenger before the new contracts were announced.
“I believe success is built on the consistency on one side, and the talent as well. Have we enough talent? I believe yes. The consistency is there because these players have played for a few years together now. But if you look at all the teams when we had big success in the Premier League, we had consistency. As did Man United as well. And at Chelsea now, those players play a long time together.”
This Arsenal team have been improving for a few years and, with the big-money additions of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez in 2013 and 2014 respectively, they finally delivered the FA Cup in each of the last two seasons. This is the year, then, for a title challenge against the better established Chelsea and Manchester City sides.
Wenger accepted that there could be no excuses this season. “The expectations are very high,” he said. “That is understandable because you cannot win the Cup and finish third in the league and then say, ‘Look, next year we want to do nothing’.”
“Why is it positive? Because we finished the second half of the season and played better. And there is big support. People expect a lot from us and it is the first time for a long time we have all had confidence in our environment. Before, we always lost big players and then you would quickly question us. The ingredients are there but I am long enough in the job to know we have to prove that with points.”
Arsenal seasons often start with confidence but there is hope that this one will be different, because of the man in goal. Petr Cech, 33, is already Arsenal’s best goalkeeper for 10 years and is likelier than anyone to close the gap between Wenger’s side and their title rivals.
“His move is a bit like Edwin van der Saar’s at that age,” Wenger said. “When he went from Fulham to Man United he still had five or six years in him. So I don’t see why he [Cech] should not have a few years. He is serious, he trains well, has no big problems. He has an intimidating presence, that is for sure. He makes the goals look small. That’s the kind of charisma he has.”Reuse content