O’Neil Looks Very Very Foolish
Not many Arsenal supporters would have expected to close the gap on Villa this weekend. After the scoreless draw with Fulham, we probably expected to finish the weekend eight points adrift and one leg in the grave. With 84 minutes gone in the Villa game, our fears seemed confirmed. Then Stoke pulled of the miracle of their season so far and grabbed two goals in six minutes at Villa Park to finish with a share of the spoils. The weekend ends with no change in the race for fourth, and rather than viewing it as an opportunity lost, I’ll choose to see it as a huge turn of good fortune.
Now the attention turns to West Brom in mid-week and it seems clear that if we are ever going to break our goalless run in the league this is the opportunity. West Brom are propping up the table and look frail at the back. Fulham put two past them last week, (it could have been eight) so surely we can find a way through. There might be some divine intervention on our side because this match couldn’t come at a better time for a confidence-short strike force.
But the part I’m really looking forward to discussing at the moment, is how foolish Martin O’Neil looks after his midweek tactical decision. O’Neil made a choice that most people praised. He rested his starters for the trip to Moscow in order to focus on the run at a Champions League spot next season. (As I’ve mentioned previously, Wenger has been villified for a similar approach to the League Cup, arguably a much smaller competition than the UEFA Cup.) The idea was simple: rest the stars in midweek and they’ll be ready to go for the 90 minutes against a physical Stoke side at Villa Park. Seems logical. Unfortunately for O’Neil, Villa spectacularly lost their two goal lead in the last six minutes of the match and his midweek decision now means they are out of Europe and far less favored to reach the Champions League. What a blow it would be if Arsenal catch them at the wire.
A quick word about Arsene Wenger while it’s tearing at me. There are two blogs that read every day as my favorite source of Arsenal information and opinion. One is Gunnerblog, and the other is Arseblog. They are wonderful blogs and I feel that they are well positioned and thoughtful. Some fans are blind supporters and some jump from the bandwagon at the first sign of trouble. These venerable bloggers keep an even keel. But Arseblog seems to be losing some faith in Wenger. Arseblog, along with many other, suggests that Wenger didn’t sufficiently strengthen the midfield in the transfer market and he’s been blind in his devotion to unsatisfactory talent. I have a take on that (amazingly).
Wenger doesn’t have the transfer money that United, Chelsea, or Liverpool have. Arsenal are dealing with the new stadium and a bit of a problem with the Highbury development. Wenger has been an excellent manager and eye for talent while being a reliable custodian for Arsenal’s financial future. But more importantly, he has built the team the right way. The answer to every need is not to simply buy players. Last year is the perfect example.
Last season we started with low expectations. We had some established talent. We had some talent transferred in. But with Gilberto Silva fading, Henry leaving and a host of other reliably midfielder’s gone, Wenger had to find a solution. The solution came in the shape of some younger player’s ready to take their position in the first team. No one knew a thing about Flamini before last season. Adebayor didn’t inspire much confidence before last season began. We were trying out a former right back at right midfield after Rosicky went down injured. Clichy and Sagna were still unproven quantities. If you think carefully, Wenger found some hidden gems like Hleb and Eduardo, but he also relied on the natural progression of some key players. Flamini blossomed, Adebayor flourished, Eboue was solid on the right and the duo of Clichy and Sagna were fantastic. Wenger’s approach was more successful than many supporters expected. One bad injury and penalty call short of a title.
This season had much in common with last. In the transfer market Wenger found Nasri to replace Hleb. The expectation was that Adebayor would partner Van Persie. Fabregas would anchor the midfield. The back four looked solid. Like last season, it was up to a few young players to step up. Walcott would have to show flashes of the talent he has always been promoted as possessing and Denilson, Song and Diaby would have to work to partner Fabregas and replace Flamini. Why is that such an unthinkable expectation? Why is that so different than what we attempted last season? Injuries to Walcott and Fabregas and the extended absence of Rosicky were harsh reality but not down to Wenger’s preparation. Why is it unreasonable for Wenger to expect development from players like Denilson or Diaby. He expected it from Flamini and got it. And don’t suggest for one moment that we would be better with Gilberto because his days at the top were over and he certainly was not a creative threat. Ultimately Wenger showed confidence in the talent he had at the club. It worked last season. Due to injuries and disappointing returns from Adebayor, Denilson and Song, this season has been unfortunate.
All in all, given our financial realities, I’m much happier with Wenger’s approach than the alternatives. Chelsea and Liverpool have virtually no academies and laughable transfer policies with far greater financial resources. Manchester United is one of the most powerful clubs in the world and can afford to splash the cash when they want someone. What Wenger has done with our squad is laudable and it continues to be the best approach long term.
That is my opinion. Of course, that’s why I write this blog in the first place. Outside of this forum, who would listen to me?