The Questions That Nag Me As An Arsenal Supporter

With the silence of Arsenal transfers growing to deafening proportions, I find myself being nagged by numerous questions as the Emirates Cup and the Premier League season proper grow nearer with each breath. I long ago ceased being one of those supporters infatuated and enthralled by every summer transfer rumor no matter how ridiculous. What does that leave for a supporter like me to do during the summer, then? Well, this summer, like many I assume, I am mostly just worrying about the following questions:

1. Where’s the defence?

This question is not number one by random. One cannot help but wonder how it is already almost the beginning of August and Vermaelen has no partner in the center. For me, the thing that separated us from United and Chelsea last season, and for the last couple of years, is both are much stronger defensively than we are and concede far less goals than we do. Even considering that we conceded a bunch of goals last season late in games when we were leading by 2, 3, or 4 goals, we continue to allow alarmingly soft goals far too regularly. Even bringing in a new signing will mean time for a true partnership to develop. Koscielny is not the answer. I can’t believe that the Boss has bought him thinking he will play regularly this season. I am willing to wait and see with Koscielny but close your eyes and picture him up against Drogba… What do you see? Scary, innit? Djourou is the in-house option, but, after almost an entire year off the pitch, who knows how he will return or how well he will partner with Vermaelen.

2. Who’s the keeper?

Almunia appears to be on the outs and Fabianski has turned into our very own version of David James. Szczesny has a lot of potential and performed well on-loan last season but is he ready to be the number one at a club challenging for the Premier League? I don’t think so. Arsene obviously realizes the problem as he had made numerous attempts to pry Schwarzer from Fulham, but, at 37, Arsene would only be using him as a stop-gap solution until either Fabianski or Szczesny are ready? We could not win the Premier League with a keeper of Almunia’s quality and neither Fabianski or Szczesny are much better, at this point. This question could almost bundle up with #1. Since Lehmann left, we have not had a real physical presence in goal and the same goes for the central defense. Weaker teams have targeted our weaknesses here and have been successful enough to keep us from winning anything.

3. Even if Cesc stays, will his heart be in it?

I read alot of people saying, “I hope we get at least one more year out of him.” And, don’t get me wrong, I want Cesc to stay as much as anyone. But, there can be no doubt that if he does stay, Barca will only ramp up their player-driven, management-sponsored media campaign next summer. If Cesc comes back knowing he will leave the following summer, how will that affect his performances? It’s especially disappointing as just one year ago, Cesc came back from the summer break rejuvenated in his desire to win something for the club and turned in an almost-heroic season as captain, i.e. winning the crucial Villa match single-handedly as an already injured substitute. Fast-forward 12 months and it appears his attitude and commitment have changed. Now, I know Cesc is never one to just play on auto-pilot, but how will it affect the team as well knowing that their captain, and what Americans call a “franchise player,” is likely to leave at the end of the season?

4. Will Ramsey suffer from “Eduardo Syndrome?”

In the long-run, this question is probably even more worrisome than the previous question. When Cesc leaves, his job would likely fall to Nasri and/or Ramsey. Or should I say “would have fallen?” Will Ramsey come back without the reticence that seemed to plague Eduardo upon his return? Even worse, will he be subject to the same little niggling injuries that are unrelated to the break but inevitable after such a long lay-off? Personally, I believe that Ramsey’s youth will be on his side. I think it is easier for a younger player to return from an injury like that without the mental and physical baggage that accumulated in Eduardo. But, we cannot know for sure yet, and it likely will remain a viable question until a few months into the season.

5. Is Arsene ready to give Wilshere and Vela the minutes they need to develop and contribute?

Arsene’s reluctance to let Wilshere go back to Bolton is a good sign that Wilshere may finally get a run of real league minutes. One can only hope the same is in store for Carlos Vela. Vela played a full season as a regular starter in La Liga and turned in some promising (and some absolutely stunning) performances in his first Carling Cup matches. But his League starts have been few and far between (3 out of 25 appearances). For me, Vela is just as promising a player as Wilhsere but he needs minutes. It is the only way for him to realize his potential. Obviously, his forays with the Mexican National Team have not helped his situation at the club, but I believe underusing him or, even worse, eventually losing him due to underuse, will prove to be highly regrettable a few years on.

6. Is this team really capable of winning the league?

No. The team we have RIGHT NOW, with only 3 CBs and no real keeper, likely cannot win the league. If Arsene adds the CB and keeper we desperately need, then a re-assessment would be in order. With even just a solid keeper and CB added, I believe we will once-again be in the mix come March. Just as big a factor in our potential title chances, will be injuries. I firmly believe that if van Persie had not been injured on international duty last season we could have carried our challenge even further and perhaps to a different conclusion. But, the injuries have plagued us for years now and I don’t see any reason to believe that things will be different this year. However, should it all come together and we actually get through a campaign without any long-term injuries to key players, this could also put us in a position to make a push for the title. In other words, at the moment, it appears that the stars will need to align just right, if we are to carry a title challenge to fruition this season.

There is also a sense that we are playing on borrowed time before another £250m buys City a League title and more profligate billionaires invade the game. I have always been a staunch supporter of Wenger and his youth and transfer policies. However, the dynamic of the league and football in general have changed significantly in the four or five years of Wenger’s youth project. I don’t see how, with other sides continuing to spend, we will be able to continue to compete as we have without making some changes to our approach. I firmly believe that if Arsene and the Board would only loosen their grip on the purse-strings a little bit, we could make the push that we need. When you take the amount Arsenal have spent on transfers in the last 5 years and subtract their sales of players, we are over £30m in the black. Surely, a real title challenge is worth spending £30-40m in a summer when your club has two glaring deficiencies. For once, I would love to see a little aggression (but not Barca-style aggression) in the transfer market. We should recognize that Chelsea and City have created a dynamic in the last five years which means spending is no longer just important but necessary to maintain and improve our chances. Why not spend he £25-30m it would take to bring in, say, Mertesacker and Akinfeev, two proven players in positions which need filling?

Overall, I am hopeful but cautious about the upcoming season.

There Is An Air About This Side Now

Arsenal did the business yesterday, 3-1 at the Emirates. Though it could very easily have 6 or 7-1. Needing to win by four goals to go clear at the top of the table, Arsenal created more than enough chances to accomplish that feat. The only problem was that most of those chances fell to Nicklas Bendtner, who had one of the most shocking matches in terms of finishing I’ve seen in a long, long time.

It’s a bit harsh to criticize Bendtner as he took it in stride and consistently got himself into great scoring positions all afternoon. Perhaps more importantly, the crowd stayed behind him even when he came off with a thin 2-1 lead. It was a stark contrast to the reception Emmanuel Eboue received last year after a similarly tough match. It seems that this season the supporters have far more belief in the side and are more predisposed to support the team no matter what as we are only two points off the top.

The star of the afternoon was Theo Walcott. Before the match, I wrote that Theo needed to brush off the criticism he’d received midweek and not try as hard as he did against Egypt to have a “big game.” Well, he did that. He could’ve easily had four assists to add to his goal. He used his pace intelligently (take that, Waddle!) throughout the entire match and more importantly the midfield was looking for and finding him.

Theo consistently got in behind the defense and, even more encouraging, consistently delivered quality final balls into the box from wide positions. I don’t remember a better all-around performance from Theo. It was a sharp rebuke to the harsh criticisms he endured following a disappointing match in mid-week for England.

People seem to forget that he is not even 21 and his action has been limited all season due to being overworked during the summer when he played for the U-21s. As he said in his post-match interview, physically, he feels as if his season is just starting. A dangerous, pacy Theo Walcott flying down the right gives Arsenal back a dimension which they had been missing with Theo out injured for most of the season.

I’d also like to point out the performance of Samir Nasri. Having been similarly affected by injuries this season, Nasri is also beginning to hit his stride. His assist on the first goal was sublime and, after Fabregas came off, he played well down the middle. There were some tense moments when Burnley equalized, but the side grabbed the match by the scruff of the neck and Theo broke the deadlock with a smartly-taken left-footed shot just inside the box.

The return of Arshavin was equally encouraging. Today, we saw what we have been missing with Arshavin and Walcott out. If we are to make a serious challenge, we need Arshavin and Theo back to full-fitness and firing on all cylinders.

Fabregas came off with a bit of a hamstring problem, though he was already getting ready to come off when he scored the opener. Wenger says he will undergo a late fitness test before the match on Tuesday. Obviously, we will need Cesc to have our best chance at going through to the next round of the Champions League. He didn’t look particularly hurt and it appears that the substitution was more precautionary than anything. I would expect to see Cesc starting on Tuesday night.

After having most of the side away for the entire week and playing against a Burnley side that was not similarly affected by the international fixtures, we once again showed mental strength after the equalizer. The win sets us up well for the visit of Porto on Tuesday night. We have built some momentum here and need to keep it going. Getting through to the quarterfinals of the Champions League would only add to this side’s growing confidence.

The sense of confidence and belief growing within the side is almost palpable. There is an air about them when they are on the pitch in difficult circumstances during a match. You feel that they will find a way to get the job done. Now we must overcome the slight deficit against Porto and keep our march towards the League and Champions League trophies.



The Run-In Starts Here

Arsenal prepare for a visit from Burnley this afternoon and so begins the infamous “easy” run-in. While it is true that we don’t have nearly as many games against top ten sides as either Chelsea or United, the characterization by some of the run-in as being “easy” tends to make me a little uneasy.

A visit to Spurs and a home fixture with City appear to be Arsenal’s toughest matches of the ten remaining. Meanwhile, the other two’s run-ins look like this:

Chelsea: West Ham (H), Blackburn (A), Pompey (A), Aston Villa (H), ManUtd (A), Bolton (H), Spurs (A), Stoke (H), Liverpool (A), Wigan (H)

United: Wolves (A), Fulham (H), Liverpool (H), Bolton (A), Chelsea (H), Blackburn (A), Man City (A), Spurs (H), Sunderland (A), Stoke (H)

So, ours does look relatively easy compared to them, but, if we’ve learned one thing in the last two years, it’s that no result in this league is a given. Not even home to Burnley, who is easily the worst Premier League side away from home since Derby County.

What we are all hoping is that last weekend will prove to be a turning point in our season. And it very well could be. It had all the hallmarks of a “turning point.” I felt it on the day as I’m sure most of you did. But potential turning points don’t change a season, they merely point the way, and it remains for Arsenal to follow its direction right to a make-shift stage in the middle of the Emirates pitch where the trophy and winners’ medals await.

This year, we have not had nearly as much trouble against so-called lesser opposition as we have in previous seasons. And that is exactly why we are still in the title race in March despite likely finishing last in the Big Four “mini-league.” I have said it time and time again that the league is not won in matches against United and Chelsea but against Bolton, Blackburn, Burnley, Birmingham, etc…. As painful as those defeats were to us, a loss at this stage of the season to Burnley would be far more painful in the long-run.

Of course, if we had gotten even a few decent results against the other big clubs, we could be top right now, but “what-if’s” and “could’ve-been’s” will do us no good now, and, in fact, would only serve to hurt us more. The players have shown that they can pick themselves up following soul-crushing defeats like the ones against Chelsea and United this season. But it’s not about that anymore.

Now, it all comes down to consistency. Can Arsenal deliver the goods consistently over these next 10 games, because if they were to win all 10, they would likely be champions. Chelsea look likely to drop at least 5-7 points over those ten games, on their current form, and United, who have looked less than impressive away from Old Trafford, still have four tough away fixtures including the Manchester derby. They also look ripe to drop 5-8 points over the run-in.

Despite all the injuries, despite all the big-match losses, despite being written off three times this season, despite never being given a chance at all by many… despite it all, Arsenal still find themselves with a real chance at winning the title and all we have to do is win ONE match… ten times.