The Date with United and O’Neill’s Problem

So, it’s finally here… the run we’ve all been waiting for since the fixture list came out. I still hold the draw at Villa Park was a decent result for us and now it’s United at home. Anything less than a win at home will have the pundits’ knives out again to cut Arsenal’s title chances to pieces.

Circumstances bode well ahead of the match. Arsenal have never lost to United in the league at the Emirates. United, despite their place in the table, are a shell of their former selves. Rooney’s emergence as one of the top 3 players in the Premier League has not offset the loss of Ronaldo. Also, one wonders how long Rooney can carry the entire club on his shoulders.

The fact is that United just do not inspire the same “fear factor” in the opposition as they have previously. We have another fantastic chance to make a statement about this title race, and we MUST take it. You can’t build confidence any better than capping a 10-match unbeaten run in the league with a win over United. And we will need that confidence when we come out onto the pitch at Stamford Bridge next weekend. With the upcoming matches being six-pointers, the two matches in the next 9 days can have the influence of 12 points in the League title race.

Song and Eboue return and are fit to play on Sunday. There is a “good chance” that Vermaelen won’t play and Diaby is definitely out. If Vermaelen is out, I would hope that Arsene would resist the temptation to play Song at CB and go with the same midfield as at Villa. If Song plays a bit deeper, with Sol back there, I think we can compensate. Song will be needed in the middle of the park and, should he get the call, Sol will have a golden opportunity to show that he can still be a Premier League center-half.

But you guys know all this already… I did just want to briefly talk about the hoopla surrounding Arsene’s comments about Villa and O’Neill’s reaction. Here is what Arsene said:

They stopped us from playing when we had the ball and when they had the ball. They played a very long ball game, closed us down and it was very difficult for us.

And here was O’Neill’s response:

If that is what he (Wenger) saw tonight, that is as ridiculous a statement as I’ve heard. He has made a few ridiculous statements in his time here and that is probably as good as any. That is only an annoyance at the end of it all. Anyone who saw the game wouldn’t take that viewpoint. But it is an appalling insult.

An “appalling insult!?!?” Are you serious. Perhaps O’Neill forgot to fill his valium prescription this month. Can anyone really deny that at least half of Villa’s gameplan was to pump long balls up to Heskey to try to take advantage of Arsenal’s weakness in aerial defending. The other half was crosses from wide areas. So I don’t really see how O’Neill can argue with Wenger’s assessment.

In fact, I would think O’Neill a lesser manager had he not gone with that gameplan and tried to expose his opposition’s most glaring weakness. The absurd reaction by the Villa manager is quite revealing of the insecurity attached to a team that is trying to achieve a Champions League place.

Though possibly a bit veiled, I believe Arsene’s comments were a form of praise. Everyone knows that to stifle Arsenal you have to close them down in the midfield and that we are weakest when defending in the air. Those are proper tactics to try to get a result from a match with us. Villa executed both of those tactics well, though Arsenal did end up with better chances and deserved a victory more than Villa.

Villa are a quick young side with some power, but if O’Neill thinks he has an English version of Barcelona on his hands and that Villa are a pure footballing side, then he is the “ridiculous” one. Get over yourself, Martin.

Arsenal Prepare to Run the Gauntlet

Arsenal’s fixture with Bolton later this evening is crucial for many reasons. First, and most obvious, Arsenal can go top of the league with 2-goal margin of victory. But, second, and perhaps more important in the long run, is Arsenal will need all the confidence they can muster as we go into a four-game run of fixtures of the likes no other club will have to deal with all season.

Somehow, the fixture gods up at Premier League offices, have once again thrown a challenge on Arsenal. Last year, it was United, Villa, City, and Chelsea in consecutive league fixtures last November followed by Chelsea and United back-to-back in May. In 2007-08, it was Chelsea, Liverpool, and United in 3 of 4 matches (with the fourth being Bolton) in March-April. Both of those years were complicated by the fact that in 2008-09 we had two more Champions League matches with United in the middle of that stretch and two more with Liverpool in the year before.

If you consider the top 7 to be the big 4 plus City, Spurs, and Villa, only United even had three of those matches scheduled consecutively when they faced us, Spurs, and City early on in the season. Besides them, no other top club will have to face more than 2 top 7 opponents consecutively.

Now, of course, the schedule is electronically-generated, so I am most certainly not proposing that this is due to a league conspiracy against Arsenal. But, it does mean that the club’s “moment of truth” is near on the horizon. Following our FA Cup Fourth Round tie with Stoke on Sunday, Arsenal will effectively be running the gauntlet of the Premier League’s top clubs. Villa away, United at home, Chelsea away, and Liverpool at home… all in a mere 15 days.

We can either emerge on the other side with a strong foothold in the title challenge or be facing a near insurmountable challenge. I would guess that Arsenal need to take an absolute minimum of 7 points from these four games, but, ideally, 10 points. In that same time, United will play us, Portsmouth, and Villa away. Chelsea will play Birmingham, Burnley, and Hull before our meeting on the 10th of February.

This is crunch time, if there ever was one. Of course, the vagaries of the fixture list mean that Arsenal will have a more straightforward run-in to the end of the season than the other two contenders, but that will mean nothing if we cannot get by the next 3 weeks without self-imploding.

Memories of our February collapse in 2007-08 are still vivid in many of the supporters’ minds. I can honestly say that throughout 2007-08, I fully believed we would win the title. I had that same feeling in my gut that I had in 2002 and 2004-that it was our destiny to win the league that season. Then, of course, it all went bad.

We can take comfort from the club’s second-half performance last season, which saw an unbeaten run of games stretch from November 25 to the home defeat to Chelsea on May 10. We will need a similar fortitude this season if we are to win the title. Of course, last season wasn’t an ACN year.

Over the course of the next three weeks, both the players and the supporters need to show just how bad we want to win the league. In a post-match interview on Sunday, Cesc said that other teams think they can win the league, but no one WANTS to win the league as much as us.

The returns of Clichy, Denilson, and Walcott offer some relief from our injury woes (though the return of Bendtner is sorely needed), but the fact is that Arsenal will have to do this more short-handed than any of the other sides in contention. Should we emerge at the end of the gauntlet not only alive and breathing but stronger than when we went in, the league will be ours for the taking.

Why Arsene Is A Better Manager Than Ferguson

The blame game continues at Old Trafford, though, admittedly, it’s not much of a game. Here’s how you play: Show you are a true xenophobic Red by blaming the Glazers for everything wrong with your club and the world in general. And, while a far smaller percentage of Arsenal supporters play the same game with Wenger, it is quite ironic when United supporters make fun of “Arsene Knows” and “In Arsene We Trust” signs considering the way they have they turned the other cheek and given Sir Alex a free ride regarding the tenuous future of their club.

Yes, it was horrible that the Glazers loaded £509.5m debt incurred through loans taken out to buy the club back onto the club’s books. It means that the supporters will eventually have to pay for the Glazers purchase of the club. But, it seems all too easy for United supporters to ignore Ferguson’s role in the fiscal uncertainty surrounding the future of their club.

At the time their club was taken over by the Americans, Ferguson faced a similar fiscal situation to Arsene. Both clubs had just incurred significant amounts of debt-United in the takeover and Arsenal in financing the stadium. Of course, these are two completely different types of debt-Arsenal’s debt was an investment that pays for itself, while United’s debt was not. But for my argument, the type of debt does not matter.

One of the things I love most about Arsene Wenger is his concern for the future of the club, echoed by Ivan Gazidis in his interviews with the BBC and Sky Sports (see video below for full 20-minute interview). It surely seems that Sir Alex does not have quite the same concern for the future of United, beyond his own retirement.

When faced with a mountain of debt, some estimates say close to £1bn, Sir Alex continued to spend £40+m every summer, with a seeming disregard for the future of the club. It seems that Ferguson is willing to do whatever it takes to win now, while he is in charge, and will leave the mess that, though he did not create it, he has helped perpetuate to his successors and succeeding generations of United supporters.

Surely, Sir Alex could’ve gone down the road that Arsene and Arsenal chose when faced with a similar financial situation. Arsene began a youth project designed to ensure competitiveness and long-term potential to avoid worsening the club’s finances. Arsene knew the club would be unlikely to win many trophies during this period, though we did reach Champions League and Carling Cup Finals. He was willing to sacrifice his own personal reputation in order to secure the future of the club beyond his own reign as Arsenal manager.

It’s this foresight and this concern for Arsenal as a club that is one of the things that makes Wenger a great manager. In his interview with Sky Sports, Ivan Gazidis said that it was important to the club to make sure that we are able to compete for top honours at home and in Europe for 10, 15, or 20 years. He said that the club wanted fathers who take their sons to see the club to be able to feel assured that their club will still be at the top-level of the Premier League and the Champions League when their sons have grown up. As a father of two, including a three-year old that wears Arsenal kits 3-4 days a week, sleeps in Arsenal pyjamas near every night, and can name most of the starting XI, I understand exactly what Ivan is talking about.

By contrast with Wenger, Ferguson appears to be someone who could care less what happens to United after he’s gone because that won’t have any effect on his own personal reputation. He continued to spend ridiculous sums of money on transfers, for players that proved disappointments, despite knowing his club’s financial situation. When Sir Alex said on Friday, “I don’t have any concerns about the financial situation,” he meant it.

And now, with United’s inability to spend as before, they are almost certainly looking at another post-Busby period following Ferguson’s retirement and it will be partly his own fault. But, I guarantee United fans won’t see it that way. In that way, they are even blinder followers of Ferguson than many Arsenal fans are of Wenger.

Having released some financial numbers today, United posted a £48m profit this year,but only due to the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo. But, you can’t sell a Ronaldo every year. That means that United are operating on a level that would have seen them lose over £30m this year, while their annual payments to merely service the interest on their debt is £41.9m. They are now being faced with the prospect of a £500m bond-scheme of the type Arsenal refused to issue last year. Surely, this is not a recipe for fiscal stability or long-term security. But, once again, the long-term cracks have been papered over in the short-term.

Managers who are at clubs long enough to change the culture inside of the club can also be judged by the state they leave their club in and what the club does in the years immediately following their departure. Arsene understands this and has spoken about it many times, and to his own detriment. Managers come and go, but supporters remain with the club and they are the ones that will be left behind to deal with the financial mess left by the Glazers and Ferguson.

Meanwhile, whether Arsene signs a new contract or not next year, he has re-signed 15 first-team players to new, longer contracts in the past 8 months. It’s all part of Arsene’s long-term vision for the club that this team be kept together for at least another 3-4 years, and I am just as confident as he is that, in that time, Arsenal will win both the league and the Champions League.

His going with youth and avoiding unsustainable debt will also reap its full rewards as United, Chelsea, and Liverpool struggle under the burden of their increasing debt. These clubs cannot spend money anymore like they have in the past and their financial situations can only improve with further frugality-especially considering the financial regulations UEFA expect to have in place by 2013 which would restrict European participation for clubs in serious debt.

Mark my words, and I have been saying this for a few years now, the financial chickens WILL come home to roost at all the other big 4 clubs. It is inevitable. And, when that happens, Arsenal will reap the benefits that Arsene’s foresight and youth project have sown for many years to come.