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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):
GK: Almunia

RB: Bacary Sagna
CB: William Gallas (captain)
CB: Kolo Touré
LB: Gaël Clichy

RMF: Nasri
DMF: Denílson
CMF: Fàbregas
LMF: Walcott

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.

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  1. dobby the gooner

    October 11, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    Dear oh dear…

    You're looking pretty foolish now aren't you?
    How's that Spurs revival working out for you, Michael?

  2. Paul Bestall

    August 15, 2008 at 3:03 am

    I think people underestimate Samir Nasri at their peril.

  3. Reo

    August 14, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    Looks like you’re the idiot considering you don’t even know how to use your own language. Chow . . .

  4. No More Yanks

    August 12, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    Hey Mikey,

    You are proof that if you give a Yank a keyboard he can sh#$t his way through life.

  5. mike

    August 12, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Arsene looks for players that will fit his style and are below market price. Why is that a bad thing? I would say Sagna and Eduardo were pretty smart signings.

    As others have noted, Wenger has never made excuses for not winning. He wants to win the PL and CL every year. The “rebuilding” label was attached by others.

    Also, all of the youngsters that played last year went through a title chase and a Champions League run. Would that qualify as experience?

  6. DanishFFCfan

    August 12, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Well said, ossie’s dream

    This is Michaels opinion.. Others might have other opinions and thats life! I didn’t agree with Michael placing Fulham 16th, but hey.. I respect his opinion.

    There is no need to rip the guy a new asshole, just because he is posting his opinions online!

    If you don’t like it, just don’t read the blog then!

    Keep up the good work Michael (Fulham is finishing 14th;))!

  7. ossie's dream

    August 12, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    Christ on a bike, what a bunch of fookin’ babies.

    “Arsenal are the best, just you wait and see, whaa, whaa…[spits dummy out]…whaa, the media’s out to get us, we’ll show you, whaa [falls out of pram].”

    This is a blog fer crissakes – not a bleedin’ oracle. It’s written by people with opinions, opinions that may – shock, horror – differ from your own.

    Michael, like every man and his dog with an opinion on the upcoming season, wonders how Arsenal are going to challenge for the PL and CL when they have failed, yet again, to make significant investment in the squad (compared to Chelsea and ManU, that is). Man U may not have made any signings yet, but you can be sure they will by the end of the window. Chelsea have bought Bosingwa and Deco (sorry, Simon Burke, but that is more than a “little investment”).

    The comparison with Spurs makes sense when you remember (and this may be breaking news for some of the learning-impaired 12 year olds that are commenting here) that Spurs and Arsenal have been fierce rivals for almost a century, and that Spurs have top 4 pretensions (again).

    My guess: Arsenal will nab 3rd or even 2nd if Man U slip up. Chelsea will win it.

  8. Simon Burke

    August 12, 2008 at 9:47 am

    Not the worst written article by Michael I have ever seen but not good either – replace what Michael wrote with what JM wrote up half way up and you will have what amounts to proper analysis. Truth be told Arsenal could finish anything from 1st to 4th again – last year it was a 4 point margin so clearly we are capable of challenging and in truth we should have done it last year but blew it at the end quite badly. Thats experience though, water under the bridge and I have seen little improvement at Chelsea and especially United this Summer so we shouldnt be too far back of them and may even win it. Tottenham have a great side this year if they can gel them but they wont gel them in time. They can concentrate on their ‘big cup’ they will want to defend in January.

  9. Weston

    August 12, 2008 at 9:09 am

    another thought…who else is already looking forward to the North London derby?

    Given the furor over the Carling Cup comment, the gunners-fans seem to be aware of the possibility of a (for once) quality spurs team posing a very real challenge to them.

  10. Weston

    August 12, 2008 at 9:05 am

    Yes, the new stadium and the financing that goes with is has really strapped the Gooners, but even without bringing in huge-name talent expected to perform (cough-Shevchenko-cough) Wenger has done a hugely succesful job developing young talent and could have easily one the league last year.

    That said, it will be hard to count them out this year, even though L’Pool, Chelski and ManU look to be clearly stronger sides … on paper. The Young-Goons are talented and are in a winning culture, and that can go a long way.

  11. Aussiegunner

    August 12, 2008 at 4:31 am

    average age vs was sevilla was less than 20 i think

    im excited for the season, would really like a central midfielder signed, because apart from that position the team is looking so strong, expecially when eduardo and rosicky come back from injuries aswell, if RVPs leg donsnt break, this season is going to be amazing

  12. n0.1 goon

    August 12, 2008 at 3:51 am

    dont listen to the crap that is put out about arsenal,they have no clue as to what is about to take place at arsenal,as a gooner i can honestly say i have never been as excited as i am this year.
    this young team are so bad that at just a average age of 20 i think just drawed to sevilla.
    how come’s arsenal have not been commended for setting up one of the most exciting acdemys?
    so let all the media right us off,let them try this crap like they do every year but for me this is the start of something great.
    and when this young team pick up there first trophy watch them go,so keep writing us off because it rallys us even more.
    trust me at the end of the season i would like sites like this to be taken of the internet.

  13. Gooner-Panther

    August 12, 2008 at 2:39 am

    One comment on “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”:
    When did the Carling Cup supercede the FA Cup (Arsenal 2005) as a “major trophy?
    This is the same Tottenham who had “spent money hand over fist” last season that were supposed to knock Arsenal (who only brought in youngters) out of the top four but only finished 11th?
    Whatever last seasons was to the Gunners and Gooners, it had little or nothing to do with Spurs. That we were only one win away from the title and harsh penalty decisions knocked us out of Europe (the Champions League, not the UEFA Cup, just so the Spurs fans don’t get confused) is probably what is responsible for the aftertaste of last season.

  14. Rock of Gilberto(formerly alex hleb)

    August 12, 2008 at 2:08 am

    michael, im just not going to say anything about this post because i think its an advantage to be written off by mooches like you.

    i read this site’s posts and theyve really become beyond commenting on. theres a sense of snobbery growing ever clear from this site and the sites only been around for a few years. its become nothing different from the british media. this same kind of article appeared in british papers about a month ago.

    lets just wait and who’s in first through christmas and then we’ll get articles about how wenger is a genius once again. this happens almost every year, and while michael you might be relatively knew to all this, trust me i know. for the past 20 years its always been writing the team off and mid way through season calling the manager a genius, and then towards the end of the season saying “i told you they werent good enough”.
    bottom line, we have 11 solid startering players and we’re beginning without any injuries. plus, we’ve got a good young bench and a proven manager.

    i just wish we could wait till the season is actually played to analyze the teams. doing it before is like analyzing the results of an expirement before its actually carried out. its like saying something is true without any evidence or valid observation. its like youre saying adam and eve were the first people on earth and we are their descendents. its just something we have to wait and see. you dont have to reply to this because everyone knows you will have the mugsmashers 3rd, chelski 2nd, and manUre 1st. thats too easy.

  15. Burt Reynolds

    August 12, 2008 at 1:41 am

    Arsenal, even though they sell away great youngsters before they can break through there all the time, are still the best at turning their youngsters into something special. Nasri I thought was worth more than what they paid, and will be a huge star some day. Still, I don’t think they have the edge of Chelsea or Man U to take them to the top of the league. I agree with them as the fourth of big four, but would not be suprised to see them as number three, or win one of the two domestic cups.

  16. Michael

    August 12, 2008 at 12:45 am

    jm, send your E-mail address to, and I’ll provide a complete response to your great comment. I’ll get back to you within the next day, and then post the exact wording here that way everything is on the record.

  17. jm

    August 12, 2008 at 12:10 am

    I’m having a hard time following the bit in this argument, in two places in particular. The first concerns the whole premise, the second is more confined to your conclusions.

    First, it isn’t totally clear to me why you think Arsenal will be closer to the rest of the pack than to the leaders. After all, they were only four points off the pace set by United last season. I don’t buy the claim that it was “lack of experience” that doomed Arsenal last season. Rather, it was a combination of two central factors – a dip in form for a few key players (particularly Adebayor and Hleb) and injuries plaguing a side that lacked depth (and thus not only were lesser players placed into the lineup, but the starters were worn down). The first happens to every team, the second is a problem that one could argue could hurt this team again.

    So let us presume that the young side has not advanced enough to fix this weakness “from the inside.” Still, that’s a problem that existed for a side that finished 4 points off first, and 18 points ahead of 5th. For your argument, one can go about it in two ways. The first is to argue that the top two teams have gotten much better than Arsenal. The second is to argue that Arsenal has declined since last season. The first does not receive any mention, and you tend to adopt the second strategy.

    Alright, but it is not really established. The players in and out are listed, but beyond that, we need reason to believe that the players lost are going to make such a substantive difference. Let’s take a look at the players out:

    Gilberto – role player last season, did not perform well in his limited time.
    Lehmann – Reserve keeper.
    Flamini – one of the better players on the squad.
    Hleb – very talented player, who when on his form was excellent but had an astonishingly low number of both assists and goals.

    How do the new additions stack up? I think Nasri is likely a wash with Hleb, he will not be as polished but should give Arsenal more of an edge in front of goal. Ramsey has looked excellent in pre-season, but who knows really. In first team terms, he will mostly be aboard for depth, fulfilling part of Gilberto’s role (though, unlike Gilberto, he will not be able to fill in at center back, Djourou and Song will have increased responsibilities there). Bischoff cannot be counted on for anything. One also must consider Vela, who should play a role as a spark off the bench.

    Ultimately I think that there is a bit of a drop off from Lehman to Fabianski at reserve keeper, a wash in attacking midfield, and a wash in midfield depth. There is then a large hole in the holding midfield role. Right now it looks like Denilson will play that role, but I’m not sure he is the right type of player to complement Fabregas, given some similarities in their styles.

    This then must be weighed against the expected improvement from a side of players at their age. There are very few players who can be expected to decline this season (Gallas, perhaps Rosicky coming off injury). I certainly understand the restriction that one can only evaluate the team as it is now, and not with any presumption that they will sign someone to bolster the DM role. That’s a fair restriction. Yet, what needs to be shown is that the difference between Flamini and Denilson, minus the improvement of the squad players, will move a team that was only 4 points off the pace to one closer to the UEFA cup than the title.

    Perhaps that case can be made, I’m not ruling it out. But it is a lot more complicated than at first glance.

    The second point I wish to raise (and I shall be brief, as I know I am rather verbose as it is) is in regards to your “bottom line.” What in the world does it mean that it is “put up or shut up” time? For your personal evaluation of Wenger’s approach? For Wenger himself? Clearly not the second, as there has been no indication that his position is in trouble. The financial necessity of his strategy is unclear, but many sources indicate that his approach is required (though perhaps not to the extent he pursues it) by debts associated with the building of the Emirates Stadium. That’s a critical wild-card for any discussion of the merits of Wenger’s approach.

    The truth is that Wenger is not “playing for the future” and saying “wait til next year” all the time. He has built a side on a particular philosophy, and it was a title-contending side this past season. He is attempting to develop such a side within the financial constraints of the club, and through his clear commitment to the skills of youth. Given his policy of contracts for older players, one must conclude that the reason he targets is youthful players is not merely that they are cheap, but that he thinks they can contend at the highest level. Since his team finished only 4 points off the pace, perhaps he is right.

    I’m just not really clear what you mean by those claims. Are you criticizing that strategy? Fair enough, what part? And in what way? What evidence can you marshal for the criticism? How should he change his strategy? Can it fit within the restrictions of Arsenal’s budget (if any of us really know what it is)? Are you making a factual assertion about Wenger’s status? To whom? You (uninteresting)? Arsenal FC (false)?

    Again, this paragraph does follow a general trend in terms of controversial, baiting paragraphs given without adequate discussion. Perhaps I ought not be so critical of it. Nevertheless, the paragraph offers a common criticism, and one that deserves thoughtful consideration – and not simple proclamations without even enough discussion to explain what said proclamations mean.

  18. Michael

    August 11, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    You’re right, Dobby, it’s not one happy team and 19 depressed losers, it’s teams that win one of the major competitions on offer (UEFA Cup, CL, Premiership, FA Cup, Carling Cup) and the rest as depressed losers. That’s the bottom line — winning. If you don’t win, you can’t be completely happy or satisfied, I’m sorry.

    If you’re outside of the “Big Four” and don’t win one of the last four trophies, fine, that’s ok, you can still have a solid season by qualifying for Europe or making a deep cup run. But if you’re a club like Arsenal, one of the top four, and you don’t win one of these trophies, the year has been a failure. Simple as that. It’s unacceptable.

    As for your points regarding Spurs, here’s the deal. Losing Hleb isn’t a great loss. Losing Flamini is a huge blow. Losing Gilberto is tough because it leaves no proven commodity in defensive midfield. Spurs now have a better midfield and front line than Arsenal. They’ve signaled their intention to make a run by spending money, and I like that they’re going for it. They won a trophy last season (and by the way, Arsenal did not play their kids in both legs against Spurs in the semifinal), and are looking to build off that.

    Jem, actually, I didn’t shut my mouth. Even when Arsenal was leading, I knew, and posted here and on my site as such, that they’d eventually crumble and that the best team, Manchester United, would win out.

  19. Jem

    August 11, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Another piece of crap article…. when arsenal was leading the EPL last yr…. these ppl shut thier mouth…. before that, there were tipping arsenal to finish behind spurs… now they do that again….

  20. Dobby the gunner

    August 11, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    I noticed that you picked arsenal to go ahead of Spurs.
    Am I supposed to be amazed by that? Or placated into not regarding this as another piece of poorly researched, re-hashed conventional wisdom pieces?
    Yes, of course Arsenal will finished above Spurs. We were 37 points clear of them last season. Just how destructive do you suppose the sale of Hleb is going to be?

    By the way, what does this mean?
    “the advantage of traveling less because of their geographical location”?
    You think Arsenal might win it because they can get to M1 faster?
    Just how big do you think England is? And, if being centrally located is the key, why aren’t Aston Villa the Champions every year?

    This is all nonsense. It’s not “put-up or shut-up” time for Wenger. At the end of the season, it’s not one happy team and 19 depressed losers. Arsenal are a beautiful football team who compete every year at the absolute highest level. We were brilliant but unlucky last year, that squad will be as talented again next year.

  21. Michael

    August 11, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    “On that note last season was Arsenals season to lose, up by 12 points wasnt it? And yes, they choked, lack of experience, injuries, whatever the reasons are they fell so close to the line to win it.”

    You just made my point for me, thanks.

    Dobby, I picked Arsenal to finish ahead of Spurs, if you noticed, but Spurs will be closer to Arsenal than Arsenal will be to teams 1-3.

  22. Aussiegunner

    August 11, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    What a peice of you know what article, i should just avoid trying to read these every year about arsenal going downhill.

    I cant beleive you just spent the first part of the article comparing us to spurs, thats the biggest joke of all. They can spend all the money in the world, fact of the matter is two years ago Arsenal finished 21 points off the pace. Lost one of the, if not the best striker in the world at the time, barring injuries, and last seasons managed 4 points off the pace. Where have sp*rs been.

    On that note last season was Arsenals season to lose, up by 12 points wasnt it? And yes, they choked, lack of experience, injuries, whatever the reasons are they fell so close to the line to win it.

    And another year starts, and another article about Wenger buying young players, hence Arsenal won’t win anything.

    The only worry for Arsenal at this moment is the holding midfield role and we will see what happens with that.

  23. Dobby the gunner

    August 11, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    Oh God, not another lazy piece of Arsenal doom-mongering.
    Another re-hashing of the “Arsenal in crisis” article which is clogging up the internet at the moment.
    Pardon me if I don’t get too upset over the departure of a 31 year old midfielder, a 39 (39!) year old goalkeeper or an attacking midfielder who could only score two goals a season.
    And Spurs? With respect, Spurs fans would LOVE to have our problems.
    We came third last season; they came eleventh.
    We came achingly close to the Champions League Semi-final; they won a cup we’ve been sending our reserves out to play since the last millennium.
    And we haven’t just sold our Captain!
    We’ve been reading about this Spurs renaissance every August for a decade.
    And we’ve been reading this same dull, Arsenal-won’t-buy-experience, why won’t Wenger splash the cash piece on every website in the world all summer.
    For all the talk of football being a rich game, most clubs don’t have £20 million just lying around.
    Arsenal buy the best they can afford and then train them to play a high-tempo, high skill game that most teams can’t live with. We were a bounce of the ball and a broken leg off the title last year. we’ll be there or thereabouts again this year.

  24. ryangunner

    August 11, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    last year we lost henry so we were written off but managed to play the best football in the world and fell just short of trophies (because injurys and bad decisions mostly but i wont make excuses) now this year we have lost 2 inferior players to henry and again we are predicted 4th. of course we will struggle again but a trophie looks almost inevatable this season.

  25. Michael

    August 11, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    Austin, the thing is, United is coming off two league titles in a row and a Champions League, and Chelsea reached the CL final last year and won the Premiership twice in a row before United..what has Arsenal done since then?

    I understand spending money on players doesn’t always equal improvement, but how many years can Arsenal continue to say they’re rebuilding before they actually contend again? They can spend more than they do, so why don’t they go after a top player or two? I don’t want to hear they’re “blooding their young players”. When are they fully “blooded”? When will that experience translate into success??

  26. Austingunner

    August 11, 2008 at 9:04 pm

    It’s been proven time and time again that buying spending on players doesn’t necessarily equal improvement. Arsenal finished how many points off first, Sp*rs finished how many points off first??? The Carling Cup is NOT a major trophy and Arsenal uses the cup to blood its young players. I can’t wait for the day that Man U or Chelsea reach a financial crisis (a la Leeds), it’s going to be amusing.

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