With the 2007/8 season tantalisingly close now, here are some thoughts (that come from careful observation of facts rather than received opinion) on the Arsenal and how we are fixed for the new season.
Firstly, a quick grumble about some shameful reporting/writing in the press and on these blog sites. Most of it, in other words, has been absolute crap. Most annoying of all is the obsession with ‘replacing Thierry Henry’. Arsene Wenger is a team builder – he’s too smart to think that there 11 holes on the pitch that just need filling with the same type of player. With Thierry gone, and past his best for Arsenal, what we needed was someone quite different from Henry. Enough senior players and coaches (Bilic) have testified to how good Eduardo is, and with Arsenal’s main problem last season being finishing, we needed a box finisher. And we have him. I’m sure he’ll be better than Jeffers, anyway. So back to the press, I’ve no doubt that after we thump Fulham on day 2 of the new season, no newspaper/website article on the game will be more than 50 words in before some lame reference to “not actually missing Thierry that much at all” will be made. No shit, Sherlock.
This won’t be the last of our issues with the media this season (many incorrect references abound about this being a ‘bad close season’ for us, which it hasn’t). But one thing in particular will fare us well, which is the propensity of the press to write us off this season. Completely. Whilst me may not have have the concentration (or ability to deal defensively with crosses) to win the Premiership against an improved Manchester United squad, at our best, I think we will be better than anyone. And the extra motivation of being written off, as Swiss Tony has mentioned, will be good for our young minds. I grew up watching Arsenal as underdogs most of the time, and it has always put us at our best.
So, some thoughts and predictions for the season:
1. Eboue will lead the assists chart.
Emmanuel Eboue’s ability at right midfield will be no surprise to anyone that watched any more than Muppets of the Day highlights last year, since he spent more time racing down the right flank than doing any defending. He’s quick, and skilful, and will beat so many players this year by playing a one-two off Fabregas and chasing down the ball. Because he’ll run from deep, this means he’ll get behind defenders without being caught offside, and be in a position to get to the goal line first. Eboue is still raw, and his shots, whilst powerful, are more of a concern to row W spectators than Petr Cech, but once he’s blazed one into the crowd, the rest will be pulled back to Eduardo on the P spot, or RvP sliding in at the far post. Mark my words, we will see a lot of goals like that this year.
2. You won’t recognise Alex Hleb.
Another player that has split opinion amongst supporters. In fact Hleb is a superb player. For some reason his ‘loose pass’ moments seem to be more obvious to the ‘shoooot’ brigade than his assists, and his ability to beat players. What counts with Alex Hleb, I believe, is confidence – pre season games have shown just how effective he can be behind the strikers, and I think this is a product of having more space when receiving the ball in the middle of the pitch (rather than out wide), allowing him to get a few good turns and tricks in, build up the confidence, and be the player he can be. His passing pre-season has been immaculate. Hleb will probably return to the wider position, but I think a step-up in confidence post-pre-season will bring a new Hleb, new danger to the team. There is the added advantage of being routinely underestimated by the opposition. Whilst most teams will look at an opposition team sheet and shape to defend almost entirely against Christiano Ronaldo (and rightly so), opposition are unlikely to do the same against Alex Hleb. Unassuming, low-key, but deadly dribbling towards the box. Ignore at your peril.
3. We’re in trouble against crosses. Effective central defensive partnerships are critical to a team’s confidence and success. We don’t yet have a partnership that can be relied on week in, week out. No doubt Toure and Gallas and Senderos and Djourou are terrific players (Senderos much more so than people think), but that’s not enough. I don’t quite get the sense that they are comfortable and enjoy playing with each other, particularly with Gallas. One on one we’re fine, again, but where the shape and positioning (and height) of our centre backs is tested by a slick opposition move, a good cross or a hopeful boot over the top, we look like coming undone. That doesn’t get solved by being angry and shouting at each other – Victoria Concordia Crescit. What I wouldn’t give for an early Toure goal.
4. Early fixtures are good for us. The first couple of months of the season are an excellent opportunity to stamp our presence on the Premiership. Fulham, Blackburn, Man City, Portsmouth, Spurs, Derby, West Ham, Sunderland and Bolton as the first 10 games should mean plenty of points by the end of October. In that time, Liverpool and Chelsea play each other, as do Chelsea and Man Utd, and just about everyone plays Spurs. Naturally we’ll drop some points along the way, but it would be great to be in a position where even dropping points to Man U and Liverpool (chances are we won’t do both) would see us still very much in contention at the top. More importantly, some good performances, plenty of goals, and a build up in confidence by the time we play our title rivals would be the perfect preparation for a long winter. We won’t talk about the end of season run-in. April 2008 could be a pretty intense month.
5. We can’t afford injuries. This is the one thing that worries me most. There are a few areas of the pitch where one injured player is a disapointment, two injuries are a disaster. Particularly with strikers. Theo and Bentner show potential, of course, but are clearly not ready to spearhead a terrifying Premiership strikeforce. That leaves us with two world-class and one good striker (before injuries). Adebayor has been struck with a groin strain and we haven’t even started.
6. Quick round up of the main players. LEHMAN – great keeper. ALMUNIA – possibly even better than Lehman. Can kick the ball further. FABIANSKI – possibly even better than Almunia. Can kick the ball further than Almunia. Brilliant. CLICHY – one of the truly exciting players in our squad. Will turn defence into attack like lightning. TRAORE – also loves going forward. Still too early to depend on him. GALLAS – very tidy defender. Concerned about his ability to emotionally destabilise Toure. TOURE – heroic smile, growing as a player, enjoys pushing forward more and more these days. Always around when free kicks are being lined up – he must be brilliant at them in training. Needs to establish good ways of clearing crosses with Gallas. SENDEROS – IS excellent at heading. Would be happy to see him at centre back with Toure. DJOUROU – a solid fourth option. SAGNA – early signs are very promising. A much firmer defender than Hoyte or Eboue, good in the air and solid in the tackle. Slight danger of trying too hard to impress going forward. HOYTE – similar to Traore, really. GILBERTO – we all know. World class. FABREGAS – we all know. Super World Class. DENILSON – about the same as Fabregas three years ago. DIABY – my favourite player at the club. Needs to improve passing ability, but has a long-legged abil ity to beat players, stride forward and make tackles that makes your hair stand on end. SONG – better than people think. HLEB – already discussed. MUCH better than people think. ROSICKY – another truly exciting player. Wants to attack and excite with the ball, rather than just get rid of the ball. WALCOTT – all about the speed and finishing at the moment. Another player who would benefit from a few goals-from-the-bench. EBOUE – already mentioned. Assists and dives a plenty. VAN PERSIE – cultured left foot that must have some titanium in it. Some new tricks, and will score goals, guaranteed. ADEBAYOR – great in patches, although he needs to learn how to score lots of goals, rather than just running running running, which is tremendously admirable, but, you know, we need goals. EDUARDO – yes, yes, yes. Great buy – just the right sort of player for us. BENTNER – OK, big etc. Will probably have an uncanny ability to score goals, but looks to have a bit of moodiness that does not befit his status.
8. Stadium / Support Will be fuller, louder and stronger than last year. Natural attrition will have removed less keen supporters (hopefully), people will be more familiar with those around them and the whole set up. People will know to eat at the fine establishments around the ground, rather than pay £7 for a cold, hard burger inside. Also, the buy-back scheme should mean than the attendances are what they say they are! The Arsenal Invincibles are gone now, and we have a fresh, exciting young team who are desperate to do well, in a stunning stadium. What a place to watch Premiership football.
7. Conclusions. We will be much, much better than people think. We’ll finish 2nd, behind Man Utd. Liverpool 3rd, Chelsea will finish fourth. Of course, though, my money’s on us winning…