Arsene Wenger is nothing if not strategic. To those who follow the professor closely, today’s announcement that Nicklas Bendtner is still three weeks away was no surprise. In the next day or two, I would expect an announcement that Cesc Fabregas will need another couple of weeks to fully recover. Also, if Wenger is going to make a move during the January transfer, it will almost certainly be next week. Wenger is looking at the fixture list and realizes that for Arsenal to compete for the Championship this year, he will need all his horses fit and rested on January 27. Starting that day with Arsenal’s visit to Villa Park, Arsenal will begin the fortnight that will determine their season.
One month from now, Arsenal will be in the middle of a stretch of four games against the top teams in the EPL:
January 27 – Away to Aston Villa
January 31 – Home to Manchester United
February 7 – Away to Chelsea
February 10 – Home to Liverpool
For a team that plays regularly plays deep into the Champions League, Wenger carries a relatively small squad, made smaller by the long-term injuries to Robin van Persie and Gael Clichy and the absence of Alex Song at the African Nations Cup . The Arsenal second XI is far behind the second XI that ManU and Chelsea employ. Part of the reason Wenger always plays a developmental team in the Carling Cup is because he has to – he simply does not have the manpower from his first team to risk in this minor tournament. Over the course of a nine month season, Wenger has to husband his resources very carefully.
Before this late January to early February stretch, Arsenal does not have a game against any team in the top half of the table. Arsenal fans can expect to see a lot of Carlos Vela, Aaron Ramsey, Mikael Silvestre and perhaps even Fran Merida during this run. After the mid February game against Liverpool, Arsenal has five weeks before they play a team that is not battling against relegation, so if any members of the starting XI need to get over a pain or knock, they will have a chance over the following month.
As 2009 ends, Arsenal is in as good a position as they could possibly expected. They are within striking distance of both Chelsea and ManU, who both seem to be stuttering a bit. Chelsea will be losing some very influential players to the African tournament and Manchester United has some critical injuries that have kept them shaky throughout much of the fall. If he can emerge from that run of games against his biggest rivals still in the mix for the championship, Wenger will be positioned to return the big trophy to North London and vindicate the rebuilding strategy that has driven all of his decisions since his invincible season.