In Arsene We Trust?

Gunning for Glory – A Gooner’s View

SO HERE we are again, the Christmas programme is over, the effects of the food and drink excesses still apparent (as the five-aside fitness levels have shown), and we’ve a new calendar year with the top of the Premier League table looking remarkably like the sports section of a 1998 newspaper (aside from the fact Man City found their level in Division 3 back then). The title run-in is upon us as I’ve no doubt we’ll be reminded from the gadget-happy Richard ‘hairy hands syndrome’ Keys and Andy Gray (if they are allowed back, that is). So how well placed are the ‘Gooners’ to end the trophy drought that we’re so reminded about? Those TV cameras really do like spanning around the Emirates for the gap years post 2005!

Well first things first. Wenger’s philosophy of trusting in youth, living within the financial means of the club, and developing a team with a shared understanding on the way the ‘game should be played’ from youth team to first team has been the cornerstone of the Arsenal philosophy since the post-trophy period. The move to the Emirates Stadium and change in footballing style are interlinked. False dawns have come and gone since then (most notably the 07-08 and 09-10 seasons) and the primary criticism shoved back at Le Prof is his failure to recognise the glaring weaknesses of the team including the need to spend big on a world class goalkeeper, a tower of strength centre-half and a back up defensive midfielder. Arsene’s answers to such line of questioning are always amusing and usually come from the fact that he prefers to solve the questions from within the club first via the youth development structure before looking outside.

The one thing I really notice this season is the Arsenal supporters’ growing belief in this system, which, when clicking, delivers the most exciting and attractive football in the league. Whilst belief is the key word in all of this, it is not, on its own, enough. Trophies are, and will always be, the measure of the success of any club. That is why the Carling Cup is such an important trophy this year and the willingness of Arsene to play the first team in order to break the trophyless streak is fully understandable. Winning is a habit and the belief such an achievement (League Cup or not) would bring could just be the catalyst onto which major achievements in 2011 can be realised. It is also important as a signal for current stars (Febregas, Van Persie, Nasri) that the club’s ambitions match their own, which no doubt are for the top honours in the European game (sadly the Cup Winner’s Cup is no more).

Arsenal’s main strengths are in midfield and upfront with the line-up of Song, Fabregas and Wilshere anchoring the now first choice Nasri, Van Persie and Walcott forward trio which is proving a potent threat. The fact that Man City came to the Emirates and parked the bus inside their own penalty box is evidential proof of such respect major teams are giving this Arsenal side. This equals any club in the Premier League and draws potential comparisons to the team of this era in Barcelona. The key player to emerge is unquestionably Samir Nasri who is on course for player of the season awards if current form continues (it’s amazing what these snoods can do and a catchy fan chant!).
Big players step forward in title run-ins and with games coming thick and fast in January and February, ‘tis no time for momentum to be chanced by fielding weakened teams in such games. The FA Cup 4th round exit to Stoke last season is testament to that. The importance of strength in-depth is also a key ingredient of success, and alas, we hit upon a major weakness in years gone-by where the Arsenal treatment room saw more activity than a Fianna Fáil ministerial resignation contest. In fairness though, the bench has looked strong in recent weeks and additional cotton wool has been ordered for Van Persie’s glass ankles, metatarsals, etc.

One cannot, however, ignore the lingering doubts which have occurred this season via three home defeats (West Brom, Newcastle, Sp*rs,) and two away (Chelski & Man Utd) and lessons (hopefully) have been learned by such inept performances. The three home defeats coincided with lacklustre displays with a lack of urgency and pressing of the opposition off the ball (Barca can teach lessons in this regard). The away days have been generally a strength this season, particularly with the emphasis on the opposition to attack more than would be the case than the reverse Emirates fixture, which opens the game up more for the likes of Fabregas, Wilshire (and Song to a degree) to control the pace of the game through midfield.

The Ipswich first-leg game, however, is a reminder that midfields can be by-passed by Route One tactics and the lack of leadership in the back-four remains a constant worry. It is something which should be addressed before the January transfer window closes. It would be foolish to be reliant on the return of Vermaelen as he seems to have caught an outbreak of ‘Rosickyitus’.

So hopes remain high looking into the remaining 15 fixtures of the season, four trophies are still to play for, and realistic chances remain that the cabinet room at the Emirates Stadium can be dusted off for a trophy which the airline themselves didn’t make up. We also have the mouth-watering possibility of Zinedine Kilbane showcasing his talents against Gael Clichy again with Huddersfield Town due to arrive at the Emirates on FA Cup 4th Round Weekend. Where did it all go wrong? Till next time folks!

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