Premiership Preview–4. Arsenal
2008 hasn’t been a great year for Arsenal and their fans. In February, they watched their hated North London rivals Tottenham win a major trophy (Carling Cup), something Arsenal hasn’t done since winning the Premiership four seasons ago. They’ve watched Spurs bring in several high-profile players this summer already and significantly strengthen the team, whereas Arsenal has taken a step backwards with what they’ve done. As I detailed in an earlier post, they watch in frustration as their manager refuses to pay the going market rate for established players, either in transfer fees or salary, preferring to bring in youngsters and develop them for cheap. Tottenham, on the other hand, has spent money hand over fist for a solid combination of young players and proven veterans of Europe’s top leagues.
Many Gunners fans keep the faith in Arsène Wenger and believe that he’s the guy; he’s the one to do the job. While Wenger certainly has been successful in the past, however, there don’t seem to be any signs that he can turn the club’s current “funk” around — it’s hard to call perennial top-four finishes, deep cup runs, and a place in the Champions League a funk, but for Arsenal, it is if they don’t win anything. Purists of the game may not want to admit it, but soccer is as driven by money now as any other high-level sport in the world. Wenger refuses to spend it, other teams are, and the gap between the “Big Four” and the rest of the pack is getting smaller every year.
There is no doubt that Wenger is a great manager of the talent he has at his disposal. The problem is, though, that he simply doesn’t have enough of it to make a serious title push, and while neither do Spurs, Aston Villa, and Portsmouth, those three are all capable of challenging Arsenal for a spot in the Champions League.
Wenger allowed arguably (depending on who you ask) the club’s top performer last season, Mathieu Flamini, to go to AC Milan on a free transfer after refusing to increase the young French holding midfielder’s wages. Flamini’s backup and one of the last links to “The Invincibles”, the Arsenal side that went undefeated in the Premiership en route to a title in 2003-2004, Gilberto Silva, left for Panathinaikos. Jens Lehmann, the most experienced, battle-tested keeper on the roster and Arsenal’s number one before losing his job to Manuel Almunia last season, returned to his native Germany, going to VfB Stuttgart on another free transfer. Creative attacking midfielder Aliaksandr Hleb, one of the most technically gifted players in the Premiership, was shipped to Barcelona for a hefty profit.
Wenger has brought in three players up to this point, only one of whom will have a major impact on the team’s fortunes this season. Samir Nasri is a star-in-the-making and has accomplished a lot in his career, both domestically and internationally, for a player of his age (21). He can play behind the striker/s or on the right wing, though Nasri should do more of the latter in North London. Aaron Ramsey becomes just another name in the dearth of young central midfielders already on the roster — Fàbregas, Song, Denílson, Randall, etc. — but appears to have a real future at the Emirates. Amaury Bischoff, who played for France’s U-18 team but Portugal’s U-20 and U-21 teams, never made a Bundesliga appearance for Werder Bremen, and will be hard-pressed to find playing time in Arsenal’s crowded midfield as well.
Midfield is where Arsenal is strongest, though they are also very solid in the back. Fàbregas is a lock in the center, where his superb ball-distribution skills can be used most effectively. Denílson, Abou Diaby, Song, and even Johan Djourou give Wenger complementary defensive-minded options in that postion. With Diaby set to miss a month due to a thigh problem, Denílson should get the nod to partner Fàbregas. The return from knee surgery of Tomáš Rosický in September will give Arsenal a real playmaking threat on the left wing, which will be manned by Walcott to start the year. Nasri has battled a knee injury of his own this preseason, but could be fit to start this weekend on the right flank in Arsenal’s first league game of the new campaign. If he isn’t, Emmanuel Eboue will play there instead. Bischoff, Randall, Ramsey, Nacer Barazite, Henri Lansbury, and Fran Mérida, all youngsters with a lot of potential, may get a chance to prove themselves in the midfield during the Carling Cup and FA Cup.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
RB: Bacary Sagna
CB: William Gallas (captain)
CB: Kolo Touré
LB: Gaël Clichy
ST: Emmanuel Adebayor
ST: Robin van Persie
Arsenal’s season starts tomorrow with the first leg of their Champions League Third Qualifying Round tie against Dutch side FC Twente, managed by Steve McLaren. They’ll come back from Holland and not leave London for the rest of August — they’re home to West Brom this weekend, at West London-based Fulham, home against FC Twente in the return leg, and will welcome Newcastle to the Emirates to close out the month.
Their soft schedule continues through September as they should win each of the three league games they’ll play: @ Blackburn, @ Bolton, and Hull City.
The first truly tough game for Arsenal doesn’t come until October 29, when they host “the scum”, Tottenham, in the first of two North London derbies. The Gunners play Everton 11 days prior to the showdown with Juande Ramos’ side, but it’s not nearly the same Everton team as a year ago.
After a visit to Stoke City on the first day of November, Arsenal has a four-game stretch that is as difficult a run as any that a Premiership team will face this season. Wenger has to prepare his club for back-to-back home games against Manchester United and Aston Villa, who both were unlucky to not win in the corresponding fixtures last season, and then trips to Manchester City and across London to take on Chelsea to finish November. Out of those four games, Arsenal would have to feel fortunate to take six points.
Another tricky run comes at the end of December, when Arsenal will host Liverpool, go to Villa, and host Portsmouth in the span of eight days. The home advantage should be a huge benefit to Arsenal but remember, Portsmouth and Villa are on the rise and Liverpool stacks up favorably, at least on paper, to Arsenal, so none of those matches will be easy.
January, February, and March shouldn’t provide many problems for Arsenal, but they finish the year with four more nightmarish games out of their last six — @ Liverpool, Middlesbrough, @ Portsmouth, Chelsea, @ Manchester United, and Stoke. This stretch could very likely make or break Arsenal’s season, provided they haven’t dropped out of the title race by then.
Bottom Line:Again, I don’t think Arsenal is good enough to win the league this season, and it’s put up-or-shut up time for Wenger. He’s stuck to this policy of using young players and not breaking the bank for veteran, established guys, which is fine, but he needs to provide some return to Arsenal’s fans to justify his approach. I don’t want to hear “one more year, wait ’til next year” kind of talk anymore; this is the year, this is it. Arsenal needs to show something this season, because if they don’t, they’re going to get passed by the field. They have the schedule to do it and the advantage of traveling less because of their geographical location. It all comes down to the players and the manager, and that’s how it should be.