The feel-good (feel-better?) factor restored

(this post was written by @thesquidboylike. He’s a fantastic follow on twitter and regular contributor to Arsenalvision.com!)

Before I begin, I must admit to feeling like Carlos Tevez when he was owned by two parties. Why, you ask? Because this post is appearing on both Arsenal Vision and Yankee Gunner’s blog.

I feel I must introduce myself to frequent readers of Yankee’s blog. Hi my name is Squid Boy and like the rest of you, I’m addicted to Arsenal. I blog semi-regular on Arsenal Vision, alongside the head honcho Mean Lean, the always humorous Wenger Boy, the realistic Iron Man, and the passionate Omomo. Head on over to http://www.arsenalvision.co.uk when you can, it’s good stuff.

I am temporarily filling in for Mr Yankee himself for a few days as he embarks on a secret scouting mission with Danny Karbassiyoon to unearth the next Freddy Adu. What? It was meant to remain a secret?! Oh.

So the first part of this three-part bonanza I’ll pick up where I left off from my last Arsenal Vision blog – on the verge of the deadline day rollercoaster.

As I sit down to type this, it is 11pm UK time on Thursday, exactly 24 hours after the transfer window slammed shut. I’m still feeling a bit groggy from it all. Like many of you I was sat in front of my computer screen all day, refreshing various news sites and my Twitter feed like a reprobate, with Sky Sports News playing in the background and my ears pricking up every time our name was mentioned. By the end of it all I became no more than your standard Neanderthal, my finger rhythmically hitting the F5 button and dribble running down my chin as we waited with bated breath for Arsenal.com to confirm the Mikel Arteta deal and release us from the pleasure and pain that was deadline day.

And then like manna from heaven, it arrived.

I remarked in my last blog that we were 2-0 down in the transfer market for the majority of the summer. Then came the signings of Park Chu Young, Andre Santos and Per Mertesacker; the equivalent of a consolation and an equaliser. All we needed was to secure the signature of a Cesc “replacement” on the final day to turn the result around. And although Arteta wasn’t quite the big name we had hoped for at the beginning of the day, he was certainly better than nothing. In time I believe he may even turn out to be the best solution. The Spaniard was up for grabs, and Arsene’s twenty-man transfer army charged through the minefield to get him (and the rather unfancied Yossi Benayoun). The final whistle blew and it ended 3-2 to The Arsenal…just. And after a day of high drama too.

D-Day began with none of the excitement of the previous day where we virtually sealed deals for Santos and Mertesacker completely out of the blue. In terms of paperwork etc, I’m sure the Club wanted to get these rubber-stamped before the search for a midfielder or two began in earnest. And so Santos and Mertesacker were announced at 3pm and 4pm respectively, leaving a good seven hours for us to sweat on the final piece of the puzzle.

Having been linked with all and sundry from the French league, these names seemed to dissipate and it came down to two players closer to home – Messrs Benayoun and Arteta. Benayoun’s name had been bandied around the previous evening but it sounded very much a last resort, with a plethora of sexy young things such as Yann M’Vila, Marvin Martin, Eden Hazard and Mario Goetze ahead of him in the pecking order.

And then Arteta appeared on our radar, with reports first stating that we had an offer rejected for him by the notoriously difficult to deal with Everton, and later that we hadn’t matched his wage demands. Either way, it seemed to be a question of money as it tends to be with Arsenal.

Now in the past I have defended our prudence, but with many millions burning a hole in our pocket, I was flummoxed as to why we wouldn’t get the deal done. There are times when you haggle to drive down the price as much as possible, and there are times when you bite the bullet and say: “you know what, we’ve had a shocking summer in the midfield department, it might be time to fork out the extra few million to give ourselves the best hope of success instead of risking our fortunes on a callow youth”. This scenario definitely called for the latter. Why could we not just defer the extra 20k per week that was on the table for Samir Nasri to Arteta?

Then Benayoun’s name re-surfaced as a very viable option, and the edge of the cliff awaited virtually the entire Goonerverse. In isolation, Benayoun is a decent player who had a good spell at Liverpool and was unlucky that injury reduced his playing time for Chelsea. We owe him one too, for helping us qualify for the Champions League way back in 2006 as he scored the winner against a decidedly brown-shorted Spurs outfit. But having sold two of our most creative players and seeing only Benayoun come in would have been galling to say the least. If there were two words I could use to describe the reaction to Benayoun possibly being our only midfield recruit on D-Day, they would be “meh” and “underwhelmed”.

But alas, the Arteta deal still had life in it as the player seemingly had second thoughts and REDUCED his wage demands in an effort to join us and play Champions League football. That sentence alone crystallises the massive important of beating Udinese last week. David Moyes has a habit of driving a hard bargain when selling players (see Joleon Lescott), but this time there was no need to bump up our offer to the player’s supposed £15 million valuation. Everton accepted they could not fulfil Arteta’s Champions League needs, accepted our £10 million gambit and the path was clear to agree personal terms with time ticking away.

Just before the 11pm deadline, Benayoun was announced. Never had the reaction to a signing of one player depended so much on the potential signing of another. Thankfully for Yossi, Arteta’s arrival was confirmed just after the 11pm deadline. So instead of Benayoun being welcomed with sympathetic applause and a shrug of the shoulders, he is now greeted with happiness in the knowledge that he is a very good supplement to the man who emerged as our main target. And had we missed out on said main target following the summer we’ve had to endure, then I honestly feared for the sanity of many fans and the atmosphere at the Emirates for the Swansea game in just over a week.

So this is where we stand after two whirlwind days. Mertesacker to ensure Squillaci never dons the red’n’white again and to allow Djourou to recover his confidence. A positive. Santos to make sure that we don’t have to field a right-footed left-back in the, sadly, inevitable event of a Gibbs injury. A positive. Arteta to bring swashbuckling Spanish good looks and domestic experience to our midfield which means that Ramsey doesn’t need to play every game. A positive. Benayoun to offer versatility and creativity across central and wide midfield positions. A positive. And Park to fill in across the frontline a la the outgoing Nicklas Bendtner. A positive. And that’s forgetting the earlier signings of Gervinho, Carl Jenkinson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. All positives in their own way.

We know it was a bad summer for the Club in the transfer market. In hindsight we know that we should have either sold Cesc and Nasri earlier or at least had their replacements firmly lined up. However, our precarious standing in the Champions League probably dictated that this wasn’t wholly possible, both fiscally and in terms of attracting players.

But I’m tired of looking back and wringing my hands over what happened in the summer. We have all done just that for the past month or so.

Instead I’d like to applaud Arsene and the Board/transfer army for somewhat salvaging our summer.

Firstly Arsene for disbanding the myth that he is stubborn to the point where he would only put faith in ‘his’ youngsters. People – mostly the media – see this as failure, that Project Youth has finally been acknowledged as a pipe dream and that Arsene’s ideals are shot to pieces. I disagree vehemently, for Arsene’s greatest achievement would be to adjust accordingly to the situation and rescue us from the horrible start to the season we’ve had domestically. And in bagging five massively experienced players over the last few days, he has given himself the very best chance.

And also the much maligned Board and transfer army, led by Ivan Gazidis and Richard Law. Gazidis came to us with all the attributes required for a CEO except the experience in dealing with transfers that his predecessor David Dein was so expert at. That is a role that Law has now been entrusted with. Whether or not our perceived inability to seal certain deals is due to Gazidis’ or Law’s relative incompetence compared to Dein, we probably won’t know. But you certainly can’t fault their efforts and results as the window drew to a close. Arsene identified his targets, and these guys went out and secured them. In turn, we have made the very best of what could otherwise have been an apocalyptic summer.

So take a bow, Arsene et al. You have restored the feel-good factor around the Club. The fans finally believe again – even those who had dwindling faith must applaud our actions of the past few days.

The most accurate barometer of the feel-good factor? The fact that we simply can’t wait for the next game.

Squid Boy – http://twitter.com/#!/TheSquidBoyLike

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Summer Transfers: Did We Do Enough?

Incoming players wait patiently to be registered by Arsenal on Wednesday

Well that was exciting.

“How was your transfer deadline day Arsene?”

“Oh, the usual. Woke up, signed five players, went to sleep. Nothing special.”

The problem with evaluating Arsenal’s summer transfer business is that the process is inevitably clouded by ancillary issues. It’s easy to get sidetracked discussing when the moves were made, debating how much money was available or rehashing old sagas over key players. There’s also the tendency to try and appraise the club’s dealings from a business perspective. But I’d prefer to leave that for the excellent Swiss Ramble. Instead, I want to analyze this crazy transfer window based entirely on one factor; how it impacts Arsenal on the pitch.

When the dust settled at 11pm British Summer Time, Wednesday evening, Arsenal had signed so many players that I couldn’t fit all of their names in a single tweet. Some of the players we signed have gone out on loan or aren’t ready for the first team. But there’s no question that Gervinho, Jenkinson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Park, Santos, Mertesacker, Benayoun and Arteta will all play some role for the first team this season, along with Ryo whose work permit was approved this summer. What remains now is to examine whether those players make us a stronger side than we were last season. So let’s give it a try!

Overview

Last season I couldn’t help but feel that our team lacked experience and leadership. No matter how good Cesc was, he was still a young player. With Thomas Vermaelen out the entire season there was little leadership on the pitch. Young players were learning from other young players and there was no one to lend that little calming or motivational influence when it was needed most. We saw evidence of that at Newcastle, in the Carling Cup final, and in our demoralizing late draw with Liverpool to name a few select matches.

In the matter of just a few days, that deficiency has been decisively addressed. Ryo, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jenkinson will be great players for Arsenal. But they’re not going to teach themselves the intangibles of professional football. And it’s ridiculous to expect youngsters like Ramsey, Wilshere, Gibbs or Theo to teach them either. Now they won’t have to.

By adding Park, Santos, Mertesacker, Benayoun and Arteta, we’ve brought Premier League and international experience into the squad. They are 26, 28, 27 (in Spetember), 31, and 29 respectively. Whether you think they’re the finest players around or not, they are seasoned professionals who know the little tricks of the game and understand the commitment required over a long season. They know how to get the calls from a referee or how to react when an opposing player is trying to wind them up. That kind of guile and savoir faire will be a hugely welcome addition to our squad. And it will benefit the younger players immediately.

Attack

Players out: Nasri, Bendtner (loan), Sunu

Players in: Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ryo (work permit), Park, Benayoun (loan)

I consider Gervinho a direct replacement for Samir Nasri. He may not be as refined as Nasri right this moment, but he has more pace, a better dribble, and could hardly be worse than what we got from the frenchman during the last half of last season. I have no doubts that he will be a big player for us based on what I’ve seen. As far as I’m concerned, we are no weaker at that position than last season. But Gervinho adds something that Nasri didn’t provide; cover at center-forward. I genuinely believe the Ivorian can play through the middle and will do so at times this season.

Unfortunately, Arshavin and Chamakh have taken major steps backwards. The Russian seems to be suffering from a dip in form and motivation while the Moroccan seems bereft of any footballing ability at the moment. Neither qualifies as first choice, but we’ve already seen that you need quality beyond your first XI to stay competitive in the Premier League. And attacking depth became an even bigger concern when when we sent Nik Bendtner to Sunderland on Wednesday on a season-long loan. I’m thrilled that we loaned him rather than selling him because I remain convinced he has star quality, but his absence this season left a gaping hole at center-forward.

That’s why Park’s signing is potentially so important. If he can give us quality behind Van Persie, and occasionally play on the wing, then we are much stronger. Park is probably not a starter, but he is captain of Korea, was the leading scorer for Monaco and adds depth to our attacking trident.

That also means that we can ease Ryo and Oxlade-Chamberlain into the mix, unlike what the latter had to contend with on Sunday. Both young players give us potentially explosive attacking options on the wing, but we shouldn’t expect consistency from them at this stage in their respective careers. Park’s addition should help prevent Arsene from relying on them too often in pressure situations.

Park’s arrival probably signals Wenger’s tacit acknowledgment that Chamakh’s performance at Arsenal isn’t good enough. Perhaps Marouane will rediscover the form he brought with him last summer, but he simply can’t be anywhere near the first team at the moment. Moreover, even if Chamakh was firing on all cylinders, he’s going to be at the African Cup of Nations throughout January. Park’s signing gives us another option at center-forward during that time, along with the aforementioned Gervinho and possibly Theo Walcott.

The reason I listed Yossi Benayoun as an addition to the attack rather than the midfield is because I wouldn’t be surprised to see him used primarily as a winger for us. He can score the occasional goal, has the ability to get past a defender and won’t struggle to play the final ball like Theo often does. Benayoun has also demonstrated a good work rate throughout his career. With Gervinho unavailable for Swansea in 10 days time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Yossi line up on the left side of our attack in favor of Arshavin who was desperately poor on Sunday. He can be a very useful utility player for us throughout the season, moving between midfield and attack.

I see Benayoun as another utility player. He is essentially as an upgrade from Tomas Rosicky. Last season, and so far this term, we used Rosicky when we had players missing up front or in midfield. He delivered a good half of football in Udine but has been a liability otherwise. Benayoun can do the same things Rosicky has been doing for us, only more effectively and consistently. That extra option also has a ripple effect throughout the squad. Now, when Theo or Gervinho are out, the choice isn’t between Arshavin or Rosicky. When Ramsey or Arteta are missing, Benayoun gives the manager another choice there as well. Again, that also means that Ryo and Oxlade-Chamberlain can be used as a luxury, not a necessity.

Overall I think our attack is stronger than it was last season. We brought in a direct replacement for the big name we lost. We added depth across the front three. And we acquired two massive talents for the future who should make the occasional appearance this season. Once again we will depend heavily on Van Persie’s contribution, but I think we are better positioned to cope without him if necessary.

Midfield

Players out: Cesc *cries*, Denilson (loan), Lansbury (loan)

Players in: Arteta

This is the area of the pitch that became the main concern over the last few weeks. In order to have any chance of evaluating our situation in midfield, you have to accept one thing first. There is no player on the planet like Cesc Fabregas. We were never going to replace him. As we’ve already seen in his brief Barcelona career, he’s good enough to instantly improve even the best team in the world. We lost the world’s best midfielder. He’s a once-in-a-generation type of player and it’s pointless to even consider replacing him with equal quality.

Once you accept that reality, it’s much easier to take stock of our midfield. Loaning Denilson could be a case of addition by subtraction. I’d rather have no one on the pitch than watch him play little 3 yard lateral passes and fail to run back on defense for 90 minutes. Emmanuel Frimpong has already shown he has all the traits to be the perfect backup to Alex Song, and eventually succeed him. So that has made the need for a defensive midfielder somewhat less pressing. Let’s not forget that Diaby will be back in the team eventually. Or at least that’s the idea.

What we really needed this summer was a creative influence in the middle of the park. Again, you can’t think of it as a cesc replacement because that wasn’t possible. The question is whether we could bring someone in who could create scoring chances and finish a few himself. With Song protecting the back four and Jack covering the entire pitch, we needed a support-striker or “trequartista.” Mikel Arteta fits that description. Not only does he provide slick passing and an eye for the occasional goal, but he’s one of the finest free-kick takers in the Premier League. (Sorry Robin, you’re off free-kick duty). Hopefully he will also deliver the corner kicks, freeing up Van Persie to attack them.

It’s hard to know just how good Arteta can be. He was played as more of a holding midfielder before he arrived at Everton. Once David Moyes moved him further up the pitch he thrived. During the 2006-07 season he was rated as the third most productive midfielder in the Premier League behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and…you guessed it…Cesc Fabregas. But unlike Ronaldo and Cesc, Arteta played for an Everton club with significantly less attacking talent in front of him. Now he’ll be playing through-balls for two of the faster players in England and linking up with one of the best passing center-forwards in the game. We have bought ourselves a very talented and experienced player in Mikel Arteta and there’s no reason to think he won’t thrive in our passing game.

For those who can’t control their longing for Cesc, we now have a new Spaniard in our midfield who also idolizes Pep Guardiola and has Barcelona in his DNA. If you squint, perhaps you’ll barely notice the difference. We can only hope that’s the case!

I could discuss Yossi Benayoun’s impact on our midfield at this point but I’ve already addressed his role. My guess is that we’ll see him more as a winger than a midfielder. Wenger will want to give Aaron Ramsey plenty of opportunities this season and with Arteta’s arrival he is no longer a first choice selection for Arsenal (at least once Jack is fit). I can’t see Benayoun being played in favor of Ramsey, although I wouldn’t rule it out. Therefore, the best thing I can say about Benayoun’s contribution in midfield is that he adds depth to an area of the pitch where we’ve already seen players like Coquelin and Lansbury forced into action because of our paucity of options.

My verdict is that we’re probable weaker in midfield. I arrive at that conclusion through a very simple formulation. Lose Cesc, you’re weaker. Period. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t be very good in the middle of the park. And it’s easy to see how Arteta’s signing was the difference between a pretty mediocre deadline day and a spectacular one.

I actually think that Arteta could be a better signing than M’Villa, Hazard or Martin. The former is not a creative midfielder and the latter two could still be classified as untested. Arteta already understands the physical demands of the Premier League, he’s experienced, and his hunger for Champions League football could see him raise his game to a new level. Let’s face it, Everton have had little to compete for over the past few seasons. Hopefully the challenges facing Arteta at Arsenal will bring out the best in him.

If Jack Wilshere gets back on the pitch soon, and shows improvement from last season, then we have reason to be optimistic. Emmanuel Frimpong has already shown that we may actually have another excellent holding midfielder at the club besides Alex Song. And with Mikel Arteta’s arrival, Aaron Ramsey goes from being a questionable starter to an impact substitute. That takes the weight of impossible expectations off the Welshman and gives him the freedom to continue his development at a normal pace. By the end of the season, maybe he’ll even make the starting role his again.

So while losing Cesc probably means that the midfield is weaker, it doesn’t mean that it’s a weakness overall. Depending on Jack’s fitness, the emergence of Frimpong, and the integration of Arteta, we have a chance to be as good or better. At the very least, we now have some much needed depth in the middle of the park.

Defense

Players out: Gael Clichy, Armonde Traore (hooray), Eboue *single tear*

Players in: Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Santos

After last season, it was clear that Arsene Wenger had to address the defense. His response was to sell our most experienced defender and bring in a teenager who was playing non-league football this time last year. Hardly the improvement we were expecting. But in the long run, it all worked out for the best.

I’m of the opinion that Gael Clichy had to go. He was a good servant for Arsenal but he just cost us too many points over the years. Ever since that awful day at St. Andrews when Eduardo’s Arsenal career was destroyed and our title bid began to unravel, Clichy was never the same for us. He showed an unparalleled ability to make crucial mistakes at critical moments. Despite possessing all the attributes of a world-class left back, he rarely contributed anything to our attack and he frequently suffered lapses in concentration or composure that resulted in opposition scoring chances.

The problem with Clichy’s departure is that it left us with two left-backs at the club. Kieran Gibbs could be superior to Clichy when given the chance, but his injury record has prevented him from finishing a match, let alone a season. That means that Armond Traore was always going to play an important role in the side. And that spells trouble because Armonde Traore is an absolute train-wreck waiting to happen.

It’s not that Traore can’t defend, it’s that he doesn’t seem to know enough about defending to even try. Selling him might be the best example of addition through subtraction in the history of football. Andrey Arshavin might be the only player in our entire squad who would be worse than Traore at left-back. Somehow I feel like I’m not making myself clear. Traore is terrible. There. Clear enough?

Jenkinson is a hard worker, a gooner, and obviously a kid with tremendous talent. He gives us a better option than the lovable buffoon, Emmanuel Eboue, but he’s not quite ready for the deep end. He held his own against Udinese and even Liverpool to some extent, but Manchester United at Old Trafford was a bridge too far.

Unfortunately, once Gibbs suffered his inevitable injury, Wenger found himself forced to use Sagna out of position with Jenkinson at right back, rather than play Traore. And when Sagna wasn’t available on Sunday…well…we all know what happened at Old Trafford. For me, that calamity was mostly down to our situation at full-back.

That made Andre Santos’ signing one of the most important of the entire summer. He’s an experienced Brazilian international and he can even score goals. Some might consider him “Dani Alves light.” Since I hate Dani Alves, I’ll prefer not to disparage our new signing that way.

Regardless of what you think of Santos, he’s going to be our starting left-back for most of this season. He will probably move ahead of Gibbs in the pecking order, but even if he didn’t, we know that Gibbs will play only a handful of games because of his injury history. What Santos gives us is peace of mind. Sagna doesn’t have to move from right back to left back. Vermaelen, who has demonstrated his importance to the center of our defense, doesn’t have to move either. And Jenkinson can return to his intended role as Sagna’s backup and eventual successor.

In the center of defense, we are now miles better than we were. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited that we didn’t sign someone as I was when we didn’t sign Gary Cahill. It’s not that Cahill isn’t a good player, it’s just that I think Per Mertesacker is a much much better one. I realize he’s not English, but let’s try not to hold that against him. (And I love the idea that Phil Gartside’s sophomoric behavior cost his club 12 million pounds. Enjoy watching Cahill leave for free next summer you idiot.)

Mertesacker is a towering, surprisingly quick, German international. At 26, he already has over 70 caps for his country. Maybe more importantly, he gives us exactly what we’ve been missing at center-back. He’s the perfect alternative to Vermaelen. The two will make a fearsome combination, and immediately eliminate any concern about our weakness on set-pieces. But I’m more interested in what Mertesacker gives us when the Belgian is out of the lineup.

Let’s face it, Vermaelen makes any defender standing next to him look better. Djourou looked relatively solid against Udinese, but when he was paired with Koscielny on Sunday, it was a disaster. Koscielny looks like a world-beater when paired with Vermaelen, but unsure of himself when he plays with Djourou. And none of our defenders can make Squillaci look like anything but a sack of crap with two arms and two legs.

Mertesacker should be the perfect cure for what ails us when Vermaelen is out. He will be a great partner for Koscielny who’s tackling is as good as it gets, but lacks real aerial presence. And his commanding, energetic style should help the more meek Djourou when those two play together. It also means we’re less likely to see the Djourou-Koscielny partnership that has been our most disappointing. And now that we have four other choices at center-back, Squillaci’s days of playing for Arsenal should be essentially finished.

There’s simply no denying that we are vastly better defensively now than we were last season. Clichy’s mistake-ridden performances are gone. Traore’s ineptitude is gone. They’re replaced by the experienced Santos and hugely talented although injury-plagued Gibbs.

Eboue and his side-show antics have been replaced by a young Arsenal fan filled with grit and determination.

Vermaelen is back from injury (mostly) and playing like one of the world’s best center-backs. Now with the arrival of our German giant, we have a central defensive pairing that should rank as one of the best in the Premier League. Koscielny will push for a starting spot and Djourou will have the chance to rediscover his confidence and form far from the white-hot spotlight. It’s a fantastic summer of business at the back and we should be giving Arsene Wenger huge praise for the way he addressed that area of the pitch.

Goal-keeper

Players out: Almunia (Last seen wandering the streets of london with a tiny dog)

Players in: None

We don’t need a goal-keeper. When was the last time you can remember being able to say that with such confidence as an Arsenal fan? Not for a long time. But it’s true. Szczesny is one of the best young ‘keepers around and he’s all ours. Hopefully watching 8 goals fly past him on Sunday didn’t dent his confidence.

The only problem with our summer business at this position is that Almunia is still at Arsenal. It’s no surprise that we can’t find anyone to buy him, but what does it say about our goal-keeping situation over the past few years that not a single club wants our former first choice ‘keeper? Remarkable.

Anyway, there’s no reason to let a lingering Spaniard bring us down. Goal-keeper is no longer a problem at Arsenal. Szczesny should only continue to improve and that will make our defense look even better. The best bit of business Wenger did at this position was giving the gloves to Szczesny last season and ensuring that he would stay at Arsenal for years to come.

Summary

We look a totally different side today than we did yesterday. We are loaded with experience now. We have depth all over the pitch and while it’s debatable whether we added “super quality,” every one of our signings is a clear upgrade from the alternative. In that respect, we are much stronger than we were. Look at it this way; of the five players we signed in the last 48 hours, all five probably would’ve started on Sunday.

It’s easy to complain that we should’ve done these deals sooner. Some might try to argue that point but I won’t. I still think the summer was somewhat mismanaged and that these players could’ve been acquired sooner. But it’s time to lay that argument to rest. The window is closed and the football season is now properly underway. They say you don’t want to see how sausage is made. Well maybe we should take the same approach with this transfer window. It wasn’t pretty getting to this point, but the important thing is that we got here. And it’s certainly not too late for our season to take flight.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t care about the business side of things. The fact that we actually made money in this transfer window doesn’t matter to me. We needed certainly areas of the pitch addressed and they were addressed properly. That’s what matters. Whether Wenger did that with 100 million pounds or 10 pounds is irrelevant to me. He did it, and he deserves credit for it.

Some people have suggested that this late buying frenzy was instigated by our loss on Sunday. But if you look at the facts, that doesn’t really add up. Traore was rumored to be heading for QPR before the United match. That means we must have had Santos already lined up. Park was rumored to be signed on Saturday after fleeing his Lille medical. Mertesacker was linked to Arsenal for most of the summer. As far as Benayoun and Arteta are concerned, Wenger had readily acknowledged our need for midfielders long before Sunday’s rout.

So while it’s a nice idea that Arsene and the board were shocked into action by the manner of our defeat on Sunday, the facts simply don’t support that conclusion. Honestly, that makes me happier. I’d prefer to think that the manager was aware of the weaknesses in the side before that loss, rather than thinking he had no idea we needed the players.

It’s been a long, arduous, dramatic, emotional, stressful, disappointing, and ultimately satisfying summer at Arsenal. It took until the last few minutes of the window for the club to get the last of the players it needed, but in the end, the business got done, just as Gazidis and Wenger promised. I’m not trying to suggest there’s no reason for frustration over the summer we had and I’m not saying that everything is perfect, but we look a very good side today.

As far as I’m concerned, when the pressure was on, Wenger proved once again that he knows what’s best for Arsenal. He put together a very strong team that should make us all proud. After what happened on Sunday, many gooners needed to see some evidence that the great man hadn’t let the game pass him by. Over the past few days, I think he’s shown yet again, there’s not a more shrewd operator in the transfer market than Arsene Wenger.

Thank goodness this summer is over. As exhilarating as deadline day was, I’m glad that it has come and gone. The time for looking behind us has passed. To quote the motto on the new crest: Forward.

Up the Arsenal!

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Last Minute Push To Get Deeper

Not "super quality." Just superior quality.

Early this summer, Arsene Wenger claimed that we would only add players of a certain caliber to the team. He said, “we want to add not quality, but super quality.” That was a nice idea at the time, but it seems the time has finally come to disregard the notion that only “super quality” would improve the squad. Now it’s all about adding depth.

Arsenal have added three players to the side in a span of less than two days. All of the players are experienced, quality footballers who add important attributes to the side. But perhaps the most important quality they bring is competence. They may not be “super quality,” but they are vastly superior quality to the alternatives we’ve seen. Santos and Mertesacker could both be starters for Arsenal, while Park Chu-Young likely will not. It is also possible that all three will find themselves on the bench most days. Regardless, they add the kind of experienced depth that a top club needs.

Even if none of those players were considered first choice starters, all three might have played on Sunday. At the very least, Santos would’ve replaced the diabolical Traore, and Mertesacker could’ve played with Koscielny which might have allowed Djourou to play as our holding midfielder rather than Coquelin. It’s a perfect example of how you can dramatically strengthen a squad without signing a single player who qualifies as a star or “super quality.”

Without over-emphasizing United’s transfer business, or even Liverpool’s, you can see how they improved their squads in similar fashion. Players like Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Phil Jones were good additions to those teams. No one will confuse them with Cesc Fabregas or Wesley Sneijder or David Luiz, but each of them has already made important contributions to their respective clubs. Sometimes a star signing is required for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the squad just needs extra quality along the fringes of the first team.

While Mertesacker will likely be a first choice starter, it really doesn’t matter who starts. What’s important is that players like Miquel and Squillaci are now likely out of the picture for the immediate future. That gives the former time to learn the game, and the latter time to do whatever it is that he does. It also means that a player like Djourou, who seems shorn of his confidence, won’t be our only option should we suffer an injury in the center of defense. Djourou looks competent when paired with the excellent Vermaelen, but lost when paired with Koscielny. Perhaps Mertesacker will prove a better partner for him should those two be needed together.

Andre Santos is a Brazilian international left-back who can score goals. Whether he will replace Kieran Gibbs in the pecking order remains to be seen. But he’s a 28 year old veteran. He doesn’t need time to learn the game. With Gibbs’ injury history we need at least two players for that position and whether you deem Santos a starter or a back-up, the fact remains that he’s a good solution to a major problem. It’s an example of a prudent, if not spectacular signing, providing stability to the team. Sagna can stay at right-back. Jenkinson won’t be thrown to the wolves quite so often. And we won’t have to stomach performances like the one we saw from the aforementioned Traore on Sunday.

Wenger has shown more of an understanding of his team in the last 48 hours than he did all summer. He has seemingly accepted that there are holes in the side that can’t be patched with inexperienced reserves and he’s filled those holes with players who should be able to hit the ground running.

Chu-Young is an international captain. Is he spectacular? Maybe not. But he’s ready to help Arsenal today. Benik Afobe might be spectacular. But he’s not ready to help Arsenal today. Neither is Joel Campbell for a variety of reasons. Chu-Young isn’t being asked to take on responsibilities he’s not ready for. At the same time, the progress of players like Afobe and Campbell isn’t being stunted by burdening them with unreasonable expectations. Can you imagine how Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain must have felt making his Arsenal debut under such despairing circumstances? That’s something Wenger would obviously want to avoid.

I can understand if Wenger struggled to find the star quality he wanted all summer long. Those kind of signings can be tricky. But I reject the idea that he couldn’t find players of the caliber we just bought. I think he had to be disabused of the notion that he could use  his young players to fill the holes in the squad. If Sunday did that, then so be it. But for those who want to endlessly criticize the manager, this should serve as a reminder that he’s not blind or fatally stubborn. It may be late in the game, but he’s made the moves that needed to be made. We are a much stronger team today than we were yesterday with the addition of three steady, if unspectacular players.

It’s possible that we still need a striker. Rumors at this moment still have Bendtner leaving the club and Chamakh possibly being loaned out. Even with the arrival of Chu-Young that seems to put us right back in a desperate situation at striker and undermines Wenger’s efforts to add depth. Depending on the veracity of these rumors, another striker might well be arriving shortly.

Wenger already added “super quality” early in the summer. In my opinion, Gervinho represents the perfect replacement for Samir Nasri and has all the makings of a classic Wenger gem. Now the question is whether he can repeat the feat before the window closes. In my opinion, the team needs one more player of that class. If Gervinho is the replacement for Nasri, then who replaces Cesc? That’s the question that will have huge ramifications for our season.

Obviously there may not be a player like Cesc or of Cesc’s quality available anywhere in the world. But that doesn’t mean you don’t try to find someone to fill the void. We need a dynamic midfielder. We need someone to create the goal-scoring chances. Wenger shouldn’t leave that role to Jack Wilshere. He’s too valuable as a box-to-box player to just push him forward behind the strikers. Cesc’s role has to be given to someone else. Perhaps in time those duties will fall to Aaron Ramsey, but it still seems a step to far for him at this stage in his development. I think this is the one place in the squad where a really big signing of “super-quality” is still desperately needed.

If Wenger can bring in a marquee midfielder between now and the close of the window, then there would be every reason to say we had a successful summer. There’s still plenty of debate as to why we left it so late, but the fact remains that we would enter September with a much stronger team than began the season. That’s what matters most. As I’ve said numerous times, we have a solid first choice XI that’s a least capable of being one of the top four teams in the England. With the addition of a star midfielder, perhaps we could dare to dream a little higher.

Unfortunately the close of the transfer window is just hours away now. It’s unclear whether that star player is coming. I’m sure the team is working on it, but this is the stage where any snag will prevent a deal from getting done in time. Unless our negotiations go perfectly, we won’t get the players we want. I’m thrilled that we might see a star quality midfielder arrive in the next few hours, but I’m equally annoyed at the possibility that we might not see that player arrive merely because we got too late a start on trying to acquire him. I suppose we’ll be able to discuss that further very soon.

It should be a very exciting and maddening day for Arsenal supporters and possibly Arsenal employees. This summer has seen want-away stars leave the club, youngsters get promoted, new faces arrive and plenty of frustration along the way. But when the dust settles tomorrow, at least we’ll know who will be playing for Arsenal Football Club this season. Then we can all get back to doing what we do best, supporting the team we have.

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The Best Thing That Ever Happened

On monday there were a lot of attempts to spin the 8-2 drubbing we took at Old Trafford in a positive light. I understand the effort. It’s easier to accept that we were beaten so comprehensively if there’s either an excuse, or a benefit that arises from it.

The excuse is obvious. We were missing players. Lots of them. But I think the excuse of missing players has become so overused at Arsenal that most supporters derive little solace from it. So that has created the need to justify Sunday’s embarrassment in another manner.

Apparently the historic defeat was the best thing that ever happened to us. That’s become the new conclusion. This line of reasoning suggests that Arsene Wenger and the Arsenal board might not have realized how threadbare the squad had become. But thanks to Manchester United’s willingness to help our cause, they now know we need players and will start a late transfer-window buying frenzy that will ignite our season.

It’s a perfectly understandable mentality. It hurts watching your team capitulate badly at the ground of a hated rival. Explaining away that experience as the turning of the tide is a better way to process what happened. If that loss is the jump-start to transfer dealings that change our season dramatically, then we will look back on the defeat with cockeyed appreciation. In some ways, it makes sense.

In many ways it’s also totally insane. I find it impossible to believe that it took a lopsided loss for anyone to “finally realize” we lacked depth. Every Arsenal blogger on the interweb (and I understand there are about 60,000 of us) had written something about how thin the squad looked to start the season. And I’m 99% certain that Arsene Wenger understands football about 100 times better than all the Arsenal bloggers combined.

I don’t believe for one second that the loss made anyone realize anything. Rather, the loss made the people who run Arsenal panic. It’s one thing to lose a match. It’s another thing to be embarrassed. Especially at a time when fan sentiment is already teetering on mutinous. Sunday was a public relations nightmare and it required swift action. As a result, fans who attended the match at Old Trafford will be given a complementary ticket to a future match.

It’s a nice gesture to mollify the away fans whose support on Sunday was heroic. But the panic induced by Sunday’s result seems to have left the club no choice but to make a splash in the transfer market. I’m certain Arsene Wenger saw the holes in the squad before we were demolished. What I believe is that he wanted to prove he could replace all our lost quality and missing pieces with the existing players he has been developing and the youngsters he recently brought in. I’m not sure that the result on Sunday was a “wake-up call.” I think it basically left Wenger and the board no choice but to change tactics or risk too many unpalatable potential outcomes.

On the bright side, the panic reaction did not impact Arsene’s continued management at Arsenal. The club were sensible enough to express their commitment to the manager. There are some people who believe his time has come and gone. I’m not among them. Perhaps there is more sympathy for that sentiment at this point, but I still don’t think we have reached a point where Wenger can no longer lead the team forward. However, I do believe it’s possible that this season could be dispositive. A title wouldn’t be required for Arsene to keep his job, but I certainly think more humiliating losses and a fall from the Champions League places could make his position untenable. Particularly if we don’t improve the squad adequately in the next 48 hours.

The rationale and timing may be questionable, but it does seem like our transfer business has now been kicked into high gear. Whether it’s too late to get the deals done remains to be seen. But I can’t help feeling like this has been almost hilariously mismanaged. Either we needed players or we didn’t. One result, four days before the transfer window shuts, shouldn’t be the basis for that decision. Had we beaten United on Sunday, would that mean that we didn’t need to sign anyone? Surely that can’t be the case either. Over 38 games the table doesn’t lie. Combine those 38 games with domestic cups and Champions League fixtures and you need a very deep squad to compete. One match doesn’t tell you anything. If it did, then we would’ve been Champions of Europe last season after defeating Barcelona at the Emirates. (Would’ve been nice though!)

No matter how hard I try to see the bright side of Sunday, logic prevents me. We weren’t good enough to win the title last year and barely held our top four membership. We lost key, experienced players at left-back, in midfield, and on the wing. We lost squad players in attack, midfield and defense. Yet we barely replaced the squad players we lost and did nothing to address the loss of our finest midfielder in years. The notion that we could possibly be better than last term, under those circumstances, especially when considering the business done by our rivals, is laughable. Almost as laughable as the idea that an 8-2 whipping was the only way to arrive at that conclusion.

One of the most dangerous oxymorons this time of year is the phrase “Sky Sports News understands.” Unfortunately, Arsenal fans are now going to be teased relentlessly by that phrase over the next few days. Apparently in addition to Park Chu-Young, we have also acquired Brazilian left-back Andre Santos From Fenerbahce. Not exactly names to strike fear in the hearts of our biggest rivals. But they are important additions to the squad in places where we needed depth. In a way, those signings are the biggest evidence of Arsene Wenger’s change in approach. No matter how good they might be, I don’t think they qualify as the “super quality” signings he claimed were the only ones he’d consider.

With Wenger having addressed depth at striker and left-back, what’s needed now is creativity and dynamism in midfield, and a strong center-back who can either partner Vermaelen, or provide some degree of competence when he’s unavailable. Gary Cahill seems to be the obvious choice to fill the latter requirement, but there’s a ton of uncertainty about candidates for the former position. We’ve heard names from the sublime to the ridiculous, with Goetze being the latest titillating player linked with a move to the Emirates.

Now we have two days to improve the team and two weeks to sit around and ruminate about our historic defeat. My hope is that the arrival of new signings will improve morale among players and supporters alike. And hopefully a fortnight spent with a bitter taste in their mouths will have our players properly motivated to destroy Swansea when the international break ends.

Jenkinson, Gervinho and Song miss one more match, but Frimpong returns after the break. We might also welcome back some of our wounded like Gibbs, Diaby, Vermaelen and hopefully Wilshere. When you add those players back into the mix we still look a formidable side and that’s worth remembering. While we clearly lack depth, we have a strong enough first XI to beat any opponent we face. The manner of our defeat on Sunday was humiliating, but it still only counted as one defeat. Our season has a chance to start anew in September. It’s still early and there’s still every chance that we’ll reflect on this period as an important step on our path to a successful season. But please, spare me the justification that Sunday’s loss was the best thing that ever happened to us. I think we’d all rather be sitting around discussing our 8-2 victory instead.

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SHAMED

We were always going to lose at Old Trafford today. That’s the thing to keep in mind about this result. We were always going to lose. We didn’t have the players to expect anything else. And if anyone allowed themselves to actually believe we could have won, Wenger included, then they either don’t understand football or they are willfully ignorant. The team that played yesterday could not have beaten Manchester United. Just remember that for a moment, because the tough question comes next.

Why does Arsenal Football Club have such a threadbare squad that an 8-2 result is even possible? That’s the important question. Would we have lost 8-2 with Gervinho, Jack, Song, Sagna and Vermaelen? Probably not. Would we have won? Maybe. I actually think we may have won with that group available. But they weren’t available. And the players that were available were six goals worse than United.

Forget the two goals we scored and the two more we could have had. They’re irrelevant. Because when you have so little concern for defending or ability to defend, it doesn’t matter how many chances you create. We may have troubled United from time to time, but it was clear early-on, that we were going to concede a mountain of goals on Sunday. They scored eight times and could’ve scored more.

We need to stop pretending we are unlucky or cursed. It’s an excuse making mechanism that needs to be put to rest. United’s team was younger. United’s team was arguably missing more first-teamers. I think Alex Ferguson was almost trying to make a point with his starting XI. I think he was saying, “here’s a team filled with my backups and young talent, just so you can’t make any excuses when we whip you.” They didn’t start Chicharito, Valencia, Park, Carrick, Rafael, Vidic or Ferdinand. They did start Wellbeck, Young, Anderson, Cleverley, Smalling, Evans and Jones. And that group just beat our stand-ins by six goals.

When you lose players to injuries and suspensions, it’s expected that there might be a drop in quality. In season’s past we’ve had a horrific injury record. Yet we still produced results that avoided embarrassment. We’ve had to play without RVP, Cesc, Nasri, Theo, Song, Vermaelen and others in the past. But there were relatively competent professionals prepared to take their places. Maybe no world-beaters, but professional footballers ready for the challenge. After the match Wenger said, “we do not have the squad to compete when we have this many players out.” He picked his words perfectly. It’s not that we don’t have the squad to “win,” we don’t have the squad to “compete.” And that is inexcusable.

I have no problem with Arsenal working towards developing young talent for the future. But the balance is out of whack. And I think it’s time to question whether the talent is as good as we always assume. Let’s not forget that Arsenal’s much vaunted reserve team got beaten 10-1 by Aston Villa’s reserves last season. Two of the starters from that game were on the bench at Old Trafford today. Were they going to come on and rescue us?

I’m not suggesting we don’t have brilliant young talent. I’m not suggesting that these players can’t still come good. But they’re not good enough now and Arsenal is not a youth-development program. Arsenal is supposed to be one of the strongest clubs in European football. We are one of the most profitable sports teams in the world. It is beyond ridiculous to field such a weakened squad in any match, let alone a match against the reigning champions on their ground. Again, it’s not because of injuries and suspensions. It’s because the team isn’t strong enough beyond the first XI.

What’s even more disheartening about Sunday’s match is that our most experienced players were some of our worst. Robin van Persie, despite scoring, was terrible. His touch was poor and his missed penalty was an early omen of things to come. What bothers me about his performance is that his body language seems to suggest he was fed up with his team. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to publicly say that the manager should spend some money on quality players, then you need to carry your weight too. Convert your penalty. When a beautiful ball over the top of the defense puts you in on the ‘keeper with all the time in the world, don’t try a difficult volley with your weaker foot. Top players score from those positions. RVP can say we need to strengthen, and he’s most certainly right, but if he had done his part on Sunday, things might have been different. At least a little bit different.

Theo Walcott is another player that annoyed me on Sunday. He seems to think he’s a star now. He’s got a book out. He has scored a couple of good goals. Life is good for Theo. Now he seems to believe that he can berate his teammates at every opportunity. He loves to throw a fit when they don’t get him the ball in the area. Why do you want it Theo? So you can slam it into the ‘keeper like you did in Italy on Wednesday?

One of my favorite moments of the match was when Theo Walcott had a go at Carl Jenkinson for his defending. Where do you even begin with that? Walcott loves to ignore his defensive responsibilities and the penalty he gave away late in the game was sheer immaturity. Jenkinson runs his heart out. He gives his all. It’s not his fault that he was playing in League One last season and isn’t ready to start against United at Old Trafford. He’s just not ready for this yet. It’s honestly not even fair to him.

Lately Arsene Wenger has shown the disturbing willingness to tolerate players who simply aren’t good enough. He did that with Denilson. He did that with Almunia. Now he’s doing it again. I realize that Armonde Traore is not our first choice left-back. He might not be our second choice left-back. But the fact remains that he should never be on a football pitch in an Arsenal shirt. It’s become taboo to speak honestly lately, but let’s get serious. Before the match even started I asked Arseblog how he felt about Arshavin and Traore on the left. He said he was terrified. I agreed. Well guess what? There was every reason to be terrified. Because Manchester United could’ve scored 20 goals on Sunday just by attacking our left side. Traore’s positioning defies common sense and you have to wonder what Arsene Wenger sees in him other than an excuse not to buy another left-back.

It’s a little bit terrifying how much we missed Thomas Vermaelen and Barcary Sagna. They are the glue that holds our defense together. Without them, everyone else looks terrible. Johan Djourou looked almost competent on Wednesday, but I can’t remember seeing a more shocking performance by a center-back than the one he turned in on Sunday. Laurent Koscielny was decent, but couldn’t compensate for Djourou’s display. Basically, when three of your four defenders aren’t Premier League quality, and you’re playing Manchester United at Old Trafford, you’re going to concede some goals.

You could go on and on and on picking out players who had a bad game or quit on their teammates. At one point I honestly believed that Arshavin was trying to get sent off because he’d had enough of the match. Think about it. He intentionally handled the ball when he was on a yellow card. Then he committed a Cattermole-esque tackle when he was miles from getting to the ball. Webb should have sent him off and we should have been down to 10 men much earlier.

But the vast majority of the blame for this match falls on the manager. I’m sorry, but it does. If he’s going to get the accolades and hear the fans sing “one Arsene Wenger” when things go well, then he must take the blame when things go poorly. He said there’s enough quality and belief in this side. He said there was enough mental strength. He was wrong on all counts.

Forget Arsene’s failure to strengthen the side for a moment. Let’s ignore that. Let’s just look at the tactical decisions instead. He should’ve known we were in for a battering today. It was clear for all the world to see. He could’ve set us up more conservatively in an effort to stifle United. He opted to go for it. And when the match was clearly lost, and a big scoreline was becoming a possibility, he did something I literally cannot explain in any way. He took off our holding midfielder and replaced him with a young attacking midfielder who has never played a game for the club. I realize that in Arsene’s mind there was no difference between losing 3-1 and 8-2. As he said, “we tried desperately to get back but we opened ourselves up and were punished.” That sounds reasonable, but it just shows a stunning lack of common sense. It shows an inability to appreciate reality. Frankly, it smacks of delusion.

Now for the really awful part. Our lack of quality is why we lost on Sunday, but it’s not why we lost 8-2. We were still good enough to keep that game closer. No matter how poor our team was, and no matter how inexperienced some of the players were, there was still enough talent wearing an Arsenal shirt to prevent what happened. You don’t lose 8-2 because you were outclassed. You lose 8-2 because you quit. You lose 8-2 because you have no heart. No guts. No discipline. That’s reality. Think of the awful teams that have been in the Premier League over the past few seasons. How many have United scored 8 against? We’ve seen Wigan concede a similar number, but they’re one of the most destitute sides in England’s top flight and constant relegation fodder.

Do I think that we would’ve gotten a result on Sunday if we played with courage? No. Not by a long shot. Because courage can’t compensate for a lack of quality. But I know for a fact that we could’ve kept it closer. The team wasn’t helped by the manager’s inexplicable decision-making. That kept the snowball rolling down the hill.

What I saw on Sunday was a team that thought it was fun to keep pushing men forward in numbers when they’d already conceded 5 goals. 6 goals. 7 goals. Where’s the discipline? This isn’t a Sunday league match they were playing for fun. Those men are paid huge sums of money to play football and represent Arsenal Football Club. Why are they playing like it’s a testimonial in a Premier League match? Why is Theo giving away penalties out of frustration? Why is the manager putting on more attackers when we are getting taken behind the woodshed? Good questions. No answers.

There will be better times ahead for this team. When players come back from injuries and suspensions we could very well deliver an 8-2 thumping to Swansea. But that’s not the point. The point is that eleven men wearing Arsenal shirts humiliated the club on Sunday. They played without discipline or pride. Arsene Wenger has to ask why. Maybe he’s become too much like the overly permissive parent whose children start to run amok.

If you were a player at Arsenal, how would you behave? You’re surrounded by youngsters with few experienced, older teammates ready to keep you in line. You watch while players who agitate for moves out of the club are indulged by the manager as if they’re heroes or martyrs. You see players like Denilson and Diaby stroll around on defense but continue to get picked. You watch players like Almunia and Squillaci keep their jobs after proving time and again that they’re not good enough.

If I were a player at Arsenal I would believe that I could do what I pleased. Play how I want. Train how I want. Behave how I want. Perform badly. And I would have reason to believe that I could behave that way because I would see evidence of it everywhere I looked. Alex Ferguson isn’t loved by all his players, but he’s feared by all his players. Wenger is loved by all his players and feared by no one.

Unfortunately, the mentality that Wenger has cultivated within the side is all wrong at the moment. There’s little evidence of self-belief. But there’s even less evidence of self-control. We’ve had a red card in every single premier league match we’ve played. Four red cards in three matches if you count Song’s ban for stomping on Barton. And Arshavin really should’ve been sent off early on Sunday as well. It’s not just a coincidence. The discipline within the squad is gone.

There are no repercussions at Arsenal. No consequences. Play badly, you still keep your place in the team. Throw away a lead, you’re told you showed great mental strength. Concede eight goals to the team you’re supposedly challenging for the title, and the manager says it was a good experience. That kind of leadership doesn’t work. Arsenal has become a school without rules, and the students are failing their classes.

Like I said at the beginning, we were always going to lose on Sunday. But the manner in which we lost was preventable. It’s not just down to the dearth of quality in the side. We have to accept that it’s also down to the poor attitude of the players. So much time has been spent by gooners focusing on the players that weren’t available today. But consider who was available for a moment.

There were at least five first-choice players on the pitch today. Arshavin and Rosicky may no longer be first-choice players, but they are two of the more experienced members of the squad. Johan Djourou was a starter for all of last season. So that’s eight of eleven players who started on Sunday that can be considered first-team regulars. Maybe it’s not ideal, but that group shouldn’t be beaten 8-2 unless something is wrong within the squad.

We want new signings. We need new signings. But today, Arsenal didn’t look like a club that many players would be desperate to join. If you played for reigning French champions Lille, and you know that Arsenal don’t pay the best wages, and you see a group of players that don’t look happy to be on the pitch, and you watch those players quit on each other in a big match, how eager would you be to join that club? Not very. Does anyone else think that Juan Mata watched us play on Sunday and felt like he dodged a bullet?

It’s a desperate situation at the moment. There’s a few days left in the transfer window and I still believe that new players will arrive. But now I’m starting to wonder if two or three new players can fix what’s broken. Can we suddenly become a team that’s interested in defending? Will the morale within the side improve? Van Persie doesn’t look happy. Neither does Theo. Cesc was a popular player and now he’s gone. Nasri moved to a side that looks ready to fight for the title and tripled his wages along the way. It has to be depressing for the players left behind. They can’t help but notice these things. Then they talk. They talk to other players at other clubs. And you start to wonder if there’s any reason why someone would choose to come to Arsenal at this point in time. I can only think of one thing.

Here’s the one thing that would make me want to join Arsenal. Here’s the one thing that would make me want to run until my lungs burst for Arsenal. Here’s the one thing that makes me swell with pride at being a gooner. Our supporters. God bless the away supporters. Sitting on my couch, miserable at home, head in my hands, I wanted to reach through the television and hug every Arsenal supporter at Old Trafford. I wanted to be there with them. I wanted to be at that stadium, taking that beating and singing my heart out with them. It’s that kind of support that reminds you what it means to be a gooner. No matter how bad things get, and they’ve gotten really bad, the away support provided an important reminder to us all that

We love you Arsenal,
We do,
We love you Arsenal,
We do,
We love you Arsenal,
We do,
Oh Arsenal we love you!

Over to you Arsene.

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Manchester United Preview: Bring Your Boots

Today we travel to Old Trafford looking for our first win there since 2006. Since that time we’ve had our fair share of chances, but foolish errors and predictably biased refereeing decisions have conspired to undermine us. However, today we go there with the most threadbare squad I can ever remember under Arsene Wenger. If you are traveling to Manchester today, and own a pair of football boots, I’d recommend you bring them because there’s a fair chance that Wenger might pick you. Unless you’re a regular reader of the Young Guns website, you will probably see a few faces on the bench today that you’ve never seen before. It’s possible that one or two of them may even start.

However, if the injury situation resolves itself in our favor, we can actually piece together a decent team. Ideal circumstances would allow Wenger to name the following starting XI:

Arshavin, RVP, Walcott

Ramsey, Rosicky

Djourou

Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Jenkinson

Szczesny

It’s far from the lineup we’d like to see against United, but it’s vastly superior to the one we could see if any of those players are unavailable. There are doubts surrounding Vermaelen and Koscielny. There are rumors that Sagna is ill. Rosicky was barely fit for the midweek match, so we shouldn’t assume he can start. If we were to lose all of those players, or even some combination of that group, it would be virtually impossible to name a starting XI using only first team players.

Francis Coquelin is back from the U20 World Cup and there are already indications that he might start today. That could be scary to some fans, but is it really any worse than the alternative? Last season, it would’ve been Denilson playing for the suspended Song and injured Diaby. He might be more experienced than Coquelin, but I’d venture a guess that we’ll see more determination from the young frenchman.

Today might be the day we see Oxlade-Chamberlain make his debut for Arsenal. It sounds strange to suggest that he would see his first action at Old Trafford, but necessity is the mother of invention as they say. Szczesny made his first appearance there, and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas made his one and only appearance in the Premier League last season against Chelsea for some reason. So it’s not beyond Wenger to throw the youngsters in at the deep end.

It’s hard to know who will start for United. In the recent past, Ferguson has played a conservative game-plan against us. He’s packed the midfield, tried to break up our passing game, and attempted to hit us on the counter. To be fair, it’s worked pretty well. But I think he might change his approach today. I’m sure he smells blood in the water and he might be inclined to have a go at us. I’m guessing he’d prefer to send out his most attacking side and this might be the match where he feels he can get away with it. To some extent that could play into our hands. We haven’t been firing on all cylinders offensively this season, but our counter attack still has punch. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be a very open, higher scoring match than anyone expected.

We have two things going for us today: momentum and diminished expectations. Wednesday’s win will have lifted everyone’s spirit and removed some of the tension that has been hanging over Arsenal since the last day of last season when we knew we’d face a Champions League playoff. But maybe more importantly, we face Manchester United today with absolutely no expectation that we can get a result. Almost every match preview that I’ve read has focused on how badly we’ll get beaten. There hasn’t even been a suggestion that we could draw the match, let alone win it. I’m sure the players know that’s the case, and they should be able to play without anxiety.

Last season we beat United at home, but only after our title bid had already fallen short. It was a match that essentially meant nothing to Arsenal and everything to United. We looked relaxed and confident on that day and deserved our victory. Perhaps there will be a similar approach to today’s match. I’m not suggesting that we have nothing riding on the game. Obviously it’s still too early in the season to write off our title chances. But considering the state of the squad, I think we’d be forgiven for coming home having suffered a heavy defeat. Knowing that’s the case, there’s no reason for the player to be fearful.

I think there’s every reason to believe we will lose today. We are missing too many key players. We’re still out of sync offensively. And United looked very impressive last weekend when they destroyed Sp*rs at Old Trafford.

But there are reasons for optimism as well. The defense looks better than we’ve seen in a long time. If Vermaelen and Koscienly start, combined with the growing legend that is Szczesny, I have some confidence that we can keep them out. Our young ‘keeper is proving that he was well worth the hype. United’s new young ‘keeper, on the other hand, has looked far from assured. And that’s another reason for optimism.

If I were Arsene Wenger, I’d be imploring my players to shoot on sight today. We may not be able to get our slick passing game going, but that’s not the only way to score goals. When a ‘keeper is playing without confidence, the best thing to do is test him early and often. We’ve seen it done many times against us in recent seasons. Crowd him on set-pieces. Get the ball out wide and send in plenty of crosses. Shoot every chance you get. If we can rattle De Gea early, maybe he’ll be the one to make the killer mistake that costs his team the points.

I think I’ll actually enjoy today’s game. Since no one expects us to win, we can only be pleasantly surprised. United won’t get any great praise from beating us under the circumstances. But if we manage to get a result against them, combined with the result in midweek, it would be a massive kickstart to our season. Any time you head into a match with nothing to lose and everything to gain it’s usually enjoyable. United might ruin that theory today, but we’ll just wait and see.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll get a refereeing decision to go our way at Old Trafford. Maybe not.

Here’s to 3 unexpected points.

Come On You Gunners!

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Reinforcements

Arsene Wenger's Transfer Window Gas Station

Quick blog for today in advance of the big match on Sunday. I’m limbering up just in case Arsene calls on me to play in midfield. Is that the sound of you laughing at me? Well at least I’m willing to help. It’s not as if he has many better options?

The big story for today is transfers. But in this case, finally, I think there’s an actual story. Arsene might be sick of talking about potential signings, but it must be better than talking about Cesc and Nasri leaving the club. I’m sure he’d prefer to be talking about football in his pre-match press conferences, but given our current squad situation, I’m afraid he’s got five more days of being harassed about new arrivals.

Several interesting things came out of his press conference yesterday. First, Wenger acknowledged that a bid had been made for Gary Cahill. He didn’t exactly bring it up himself of course. But once he was asked about the supposed £6 million figure being quoted, he was quick to point out that was not the actual figure. One reporter asked, “was it lower?” After everyone had a good laugh over that, Arsene responded, “you know me well.”

All very funny for the manager and the press but Bolton had a hard time seeing the lighter side. Their manager and their chairman took turns berating our club and Arsene Wenger for the “derisory” offer. It seems that Manchester City’s behavior has lead other clubs to believe that their players are worth whatever they want for them regardless of contract status.

Bolton would do well to remember that after Wednesday, the proper figure for acquiring Gary Cahill is precisely zero pounds. Wenger is correct that a club has no reason to be insulted by the amount of an offer. If they don’t like it, they are free to reject it. But going public with your outrage is a fantastic way to kill a deal. Especially with Arsenal.

Arsene reiterated that we are short in midfield. Naturally, he wouldn’t name players he’s going after, but rumors surrounding Eden Hazard persist. There’s so much to like about the Belgian, but it sounds like we would need to nearly double our record transfer fee to acquire him. However, unlike other marquee signings, wages wouldn’t be a problem as we can offer him more than he’s currently paid. The strong words from Lille suggesting that we’d have to double Nasri’s price to get Hazard leave me understandably skeptical about his arrival at the Emirates. But he’s just the sort of talent we need.

What surprised me the most about Arsene’s press conference is that he acknowledged, for the first time I can remember, that we definitely need a striker. He pointed out that we will lose Chamakh and Gervinho to the ACN in January and claimed that Bendtner is still likely on his way out of the club. When asked about Joel Campbell he didn’t seem convinced that a work permit would be forthcoming.

It’s unlikely that Wenger would admit we are short at a position unless he genuinely believes that a new player is on the way. Even when we all knew he was trying to get a ‘keeper last summer, he never came out and said that it was a priority or a problem position. By acknowledging that we need a striker he opens himself up to major criticism if he doesn’t sign one. So the fact that he willingly identified striker as a position where we need to strengthen could mean that a deal is close.

Earlier in the summer Arsene rather cleverly observed that there are two types of clubs in the world today. There are clubs that travel on sweat and clubs that travel on petrol. But much like the marauders in the Mad Max movies, we’ve hoarded a little petrol of our own this summer. Now it’s time to use that petrol to get our vehicle moving. (If you’ll pardon the awful continuation of the analogy.)

With the transfer window set to close next week, the only way deals will get done is if most of the ground-work has been laid already. We can’t afford more near-misses like we experienced with Xavi Alonso and Arshavin in past summers. This time, the deals have to get done.

Arsene was asked if it felt like Arsenal’s season actually started now. Considering the anxiety that hung over the team about Champions League qualification and the distraction of the Cesc and Nasri transfer sagas, Arsenal could be forgiven for being less than fully focused for the first few weeks. The manager responded that in many ways, the season did feel like it was finally starting this weekend.

Personally, I’m not so sure. We still have too many injuries, suspensions and holes in the squad to expect much at Old Trafford. I’m prepared to write off one more Premier League fixture and see what happens before the window closes next week. Then, when the players return from the international break, we face Swansea at home. A big win there and a debut for a few new faces could signal the real start of Arsenal’s Premier League campaign.

In local news, it’s been reported that American television network Fox Soccer will air 17 hours of Sky Sports News on transfer deadline day. No longer will Americans be deprived of reporters standing beside Harry Redknapp’s car window all day. There goes the one good thing about being a football fan in America.

Until tomorrow fellow transfer speculators…

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F Is For Forgot … to Bribe UEFA

Lately everyone with a column-inch in a newspaper has been busy predicting the end of Arsenal as a “big club.” Now they’re going to have to wait a little while longer. Thursday we sat back and waited to hear Arsenal’s name called at the UEFA Champions League group stage draw for the 14th straight season. While our ball was sitting in “pot 1,” Manchester City’s was sitting in “pot 3”, Liverpool were playing Exeter in the Carling Cup and Sp*rs were playing Hearts in something called “the Europa League” (whatever that is). So remind me who the “big club” is again? … That’s what I thought.

After failing to properly bribe UEFA officials, Arsenal were drawn into Group F on Thursday, along with Marseille, Olympiakos and Borussia Dortmund. It’s a difficult group, primarily because the team we drew from “pot 4” are the reigning champions of Germany. Compare that with Manchester United’s “pot 4” “opponents,” Otelul Galati (God-bless you).

Our group is certainly more challenging than some of our draws in recent seasons. But we proved last season that it’s possible to make a mess of an easy draw even when it seems the group is won. This season we will need to show more consistency if we want to progress. We can’t afford efforts like the ones we saw at Shakhtar and Braga in particular.

I think there are a few advantages to our draw. First, it’s a wonderful draw for the supporters as it offers three excellent away trips. It should be a pleasure for Arsenal fans to attend any of these fixtures. And the locales also benefit the team. There aren’t any long journeys to far flung lands. We don’t visit any teams that play in freezing temperatures or on plastic pitches. That doesn’t mean we should expect easy wins. But it should mean that the players are sharper. It’s a little easier to be ready for a tuesday match, following a saturday match, if you don’t have a 12-hour flight, a 4-hour time difference and -20 degree temperatures.

The proximity of our opponents isn’t the only thing that gives cause for optimism. While Arsenal will be expected to top the group, the relative parity among the teams could be advantageous. Last season, we had a group with two very weak teams. We mostly beat up on the lesser opposition, but so did Shakhtar Donetsk. As a result, our one poor result at Braga, cost us the chance to finish top.

This season, it’s unlikely that any team will dominate the group. Marseille, Olympiakos and Dortmund will probably take points off each other. That will give us more breathing room to overcome a few disappointments. Even if we were to lose two of our three away fixtures, we could still reasonably expect to top the group by winning at home.

For example, consider a scenario where the other three teams each take 3 points off one another. Then if we were to win our home matches, a lone away-point would win us the group. That’s just one example of how increased competitiveness within the group could be advantageous.

Obviously there are too many possible permutations to discuss them all, but I think that our opponents will do enough damage to one another to clear a path for us. The key to winning this group will be taking maximum points at home and we’ve been excellent at doing that in European competition lately. Last season we dominated our group stage opponents at home and beat mighty Barcelona. (Just in case your forgot.)

Winning our home matches is certainly achievable, but if we want to progress from the group we might have to improve on our poor away form from last season’s Champions League campaign. Thankfully, the fixture computer has been kind to us this term. Our trip to Dortmund is wedged between a home match against newly promoted Swansea and a visit to Ewood Park to face a very weak-looking Blackburn. We travel to the Stade Velodrome in Marseille between home matches with Sunderland and Stoke. And we wrap-up the group stage on December 6 in Greece after playing at Wigan, before Everton come to the Emirates. All things considered, we should be able to set-up our squad in those Premier League matches with one eye on our Champions League responsibilities.

There’s something to be said for tasting success when it’s been earned with sweat. Last season we went straight into the group stages and strolled through our early season fixtures. By the time we faced any hardship, the team looked unprepared. But this season we’ve been under siege from the start. We only reached the Champions League group stage thanks to a heroic effort in our playoff against Udinese. I think the hardship we’ve already experienced could mean that we will see a more focused and hungry side when the group stage begins next month. Since we face our toughest opponent, Dortmund, at their ground in our first match, there will be no opportunity for complacency to take hold. Regardless of the result, that could work to our benefit in the long-run. I don’t expect we’ll see this team take any opposition lightly this time around.

Finally, there’s one more variable to the equation that could result in Arsenal comfortably reaching the knockout rounds for the 12th consecutive year: new signings. Right now we are contemplating our chances of progression based on the team we currently have. That’s all we can do. But in reality, there will surely be reinforcements arriving before the Champions League gets underway. I think we’re strong enough to get through this group as we’re currently constituted. But we’re going to be an even bigger favorite to top the group after Hazard, Sneijder, Kaka, M’Villa, Martin, Cahill, Baines and Robot-Striker-3000 arrive. That should be just enough to put us over the edge.

One last thing. Yesterday’s blog was on AshburtonGrove.co.uk. It’s about falling in love with Arsenal all over again. If you like that sort of thing, and didn’t see it here, it’s now up on this site. Just click the link below this post and it will take you there.

Enjoy your friday Gooners. With any luck, Cesc won’t win his third trophy with Barca tonight.

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Falling In Love All Over Again

Legend

Today’s blog also appeared on Ashburton Grove.

As a married man I can tell you that marriage is not exactly what I expected. It’s not always a state of bliss. It’s not constant euphoria knowing that you’ve found your soulmate and get to spend the rest of your life with them. Sometimes it’s hard work. Sometimes you’re wildly in love with your spouse. Sometimes you’re less in love with them. Sometimes you leave the toilet seat up. Those are bad days.

Supporting Arsenal is a lot like a marriage. I know I will support the club for the rest of my life, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to love them. Let’s face it, it’s hard to love a team that consistently demonstrates a lack of character. I think we can all identify with the youtube video of Dan Compton losing the plot during last season’s draw at Newcastle. That’s because the video is emblematic of the problem with this team. Often it feels like the games mean more to the supporters than they do to the players. It’s hard to devote yourself to a team that seems unwilling or unable to commit themselves to the cause. As a result, I’ve spent much of the last few seasons rooting for Arsenal, without completely loving the team on the pitch.

If there’s one thing that has really frustrated me about Arsenal in recent seasons, it’s their incredible capacity to choke under pressure. They’ve thrown away leads that seemed insurmountable and found unique ways to push the self-destruct button. Meanwhile, without a hint of irony in his voice, the manager has been telling anyone who will listen that his team possesses tremendous mental-strength, while his players have seemed determined to prove him wrong. And all the while, what rankled most of all, was the seeming lack of passion and commitment within the side. Yes the players were all very nice and chummy with one another. But with few exceptions, it seemed that they were more concerned with calling themselves winners than playing like ones.

Last night against Udinese, that seemed to change. This wasn’t the team I’d watched casually stroll the pitch in previous matches. This wasn’t a group of xbox-playing friends killing time on a Wednesday night. And this wasn’t a team of cowards or chokers. The Arsenal team that qualified for the Champions League last night was a collection of proud warriors who fought for the badge on their chest more than the name on their back.

Under the circumstances, you could almost have forgiven Arsenal for capitulating to their Italian opposition. Yet another big name player had left the club just before kick-off. There were injuries aplenty. And the starting XI was littered with teenagers short on experience. Considering the immense pressure and the general sense of doom surrounding the club, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Arsenal were eliminated. But when this group of players had their backs to the wall, they showed the courage and solidarity that’s so often been missing in seasons past.

You can see the difference in this team all over the pitch. But nowhere is it more evident than in goal. Even this summer, pundits questioned when we would add experience at ‘keeper. But now we have a young Pole who looked more relaxed in Arsenal’s goal than I was in front of my television. His penalty save was the stuff of legends. If this game had happened last season, the story of the match would’ve been about how an unjust penalty decision sent us crashing out of the Champions League. But today we won’t even have to debate that awful decision, because Szczesny mooted it with his brilliance. Last season at this time, we were treated to the comedy stylings of Manuel Almunia. He made us a laughing stock. But with Szczesny in goal, no one is laughing anymore. I think you’ll also find that he cost a little less than United’s wunderkind De Gea.

Last season, Gael Clichy and Emmanuel Eboue were busy playing people onside and giving away stupid penalties. Regardless of the fact that they cost us matches, their “exodus” was supposed to be evidence of our decline. On Wednesday night, we handed a start to a 19-year-old right-back who was playing non-league football six months ago. That should’ve been a sign of our weakness. But this 19-year-old boy is a gooner. He was raised to love the Arsenal. He was prepared to run until his legs gave out if that’s what it took to win this match. And that’s exactly what he did.

Carl Jenkinson was one of only five players in the entire match to cover over 10 kilometers during the 90 minutes. He never switched off. He never lost focus. He was even calm with the ball at his feet, deep in his own half. Gael Clichy could’ve learned a thing or two from watching him last night.

Arsene Wenger often gets criticized for comments he makes in press conferences. There may be no Wengerism more ridiculed than his infamous “like a new signing.” But maybe he’s got a point. Watching Thomas Vermaelen last night was like watching a new signing. It was as though Wenger had splashed the cash on the center-back we’ve been crying out for him to sign.

Vermaelen was confident, self-assured, and never quit. He dominated on set-pieces, turning Arsenal’s achilles heel into our strength. After the match, Wenger admitted that Vermaelen wanted to come off in the second half. But he didn’t come off. He didn’t force the manager to put Miquel in the match with no margin for error. He stayed on the pitch and battled for his teammates. I can think of more than a few former Arsenal players who wouldn’t have shown such determination.

Midfield was supposed to be a problem area for Arsenal last night. An out-of-form Aaron Ramsey partnered Alex Song and a callow teenager with a mohawk. But Aaron Ramsey did something special. He lifted his game for the big occasion. He covered more ground than any other Arsenal player and completed the highest percentage of his passes. He didn’t make the glamorous plays, but he worked hard at both ends of the pitch and kept possession well. This was the area where we were supposed to rue the losses of Nasri and Fabregas. But neither erstwhile gunner was missed. Ramsey did what was needed, and he didn’t back-heel the ball to the opponent on the edge of his own area either.

Emmanuel Frimpong only played the first half, but he threw himself around the pitch. He made important tackles and drove the ball forward well. He and Alex Song showed that Arsenal can no longer be painted as the delicate side that “doesn’t like it up ‘em.” They’re not afraid to make a challenge. Sometimes they’re not afraid to make a reckless challenge. They’re powerful players that can destroy the opposition midfield. In season’s past we watched light-weight players like Denilson and Diaby take their shot at playing the holding role. We watched them amble back on defense. But not last night. Last night we had warriors in the middle of the pitch. And, in Frimpong, we had another young man with Arsenal in his blood. His twitter profile reads, “I love Arsenal FC more than the person that founded it.”

Then there’s the trio of attackers that got us the goals we desperately needed. Captain Robin van Persie opened his account with the goal that sent us through. Is there a better way to lead your team than getting a crucial goal when it matters most? That’s what Robin did for us in Udine.

Theo Walcott got us the goal that killed off the tie. He’s a player that has grown up with Arsenal and taken more abuse from the media than he can possibly deserve. Walcott is the quintessential “nice guy” who stereotypically finishes last. When he missed a gilt-edge chance early in the match, there was a possibility that he would be painted as the goat. But he didn’t go missing. He didn’t hide from responsibility. Samir Nasri played half of last season as an invisible man on the flank. Theo Walcott kept working and was rewarded with a wonderful solo goal.

Finally, there’s Gervinho. He cost half of what Liverpool paid for Stuart Downing. He cost a fraction of what City paid for Nasri. But he gets past defenders every time he touches the ball. He can dribble every bit as well as Nasri but has the unselfishness to keep looking for his teammates. And his engine is fantastic. The Ivorian never looked tired despite running the Udinese back line ragged. He should’ve had a couple of assists last night, but it was his solo run and cut-back for Van Persie that put us into today’s group stage draw. The last few seasons we’ve watch the Arsenal attack slow to a pace would make a snail impatient. With Gervinho in the side, we have our dynamism back.

Maybe the most impressive performance of all came from our beleaguered, battered, brilliant manager. Arsene Wenger picked the right players last night. He didn’t show favoritism or emotion. He didn’t play Traore just because he was fit. He stuck with Jenkinson. He didn’t start Arshavin for his experience over the harder-working, more dynamic Gervinho. He left Vermaelen on the pitch to battle through injury. He wasn’t afraid to play two holding midfielders when we needed to protect an advantage. But then, when the change needed to be made, he didn’t hesitate. In the past, we’ve seen Arsene Wenger wait until it was too late to make his changes. On Wednesday, he needed only 45 minutes. And the decision to bring on Tomas Rosicky won us the match.

For the past few months Arsene has been reminding us that he has signed good new players. At one point during a press conference this summer he said,

“What you forget is we have bought players. We have bought Gervinho, Chamberlain, Jenkinson, Miyaichi and you will see during the season they are top-quality players.”

Many supporters dismissed these comments as paying lip-service to the need for more signings. And while there is still work to be done, last night Gervinho and Jenkinson showed that Wenger was right to believe in their quality. But what will please Arsene most of all, is that his team finally showed the “mental strength” he’s been talking about. They didn’t make him look like a fool. And now that Arsenal are back in the group stages of the Champions League for the 14th consecutive year, the media will be forced to concede that we are still an ambitious club.

It’s easy to say that these feelings are only based on one win. Maybe that’s fair. But even as I watched a woefully understrength, 10-man Arsenal side lose at home to Liverpool on Saturday, I found myself applauding their effort. It was hard to find fault with them on that day. Compare that with embarrassing efforts in last season’s losses at home to Newcastle and WBA. The difference is obvious. This group seems prepared for the battle. That doesn’t mean they’re always going to win, but it undoubtedly makes it more enjoyable to cheer them on.

I don’t know if this Arsenal team is going to win trophies. We are still very young and still need to add players to the squad. But what I do know, is that I like this Arsenal team a lot. I like their fight and their spirit. I like their passion and love for the club. Just reading Jack Wilshere’s tweets today made me swell with Arsenal pride.

Yesterday, in my preview of the match, I wrote this:

“I’m choosing to believe in the players that still wear the Arsenal shirt. They’re the ones that really want to be here. In the past, we have sometimes questioned our team’s commitment. But now we have a team of players with a real love for Arsenal. Some of them were raised as Arsenal supporters themselves. They will give us everything they have. They will bleed for Arsenal tonight. And in the end, I believe they’ll emerge victorious.”

That’s exactly what I saw on Wednesday night. Gone was the laughable goal-keeping, the frailty on set-pieces, the ill-timed loss of concentration, and the excuse-making. Gone were the bottlers, the chokers, the passengers and the fools. Gone was the awful feeling in my stomach that I resented the very team I support. Instead I saw a team under immense pressure stand up and be counted. I saw a team of courageous, proud and committed young men fight for their football club and emerge victorious. And as I watched those men give everything they had for Arsenal, I could feel a wonderful sensation rushing over me. It was like falling in love all over again.

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Udinese Preview: Only The Committed Remain

Tonight is all about the Champions League for Arsenal. But first, we must celebrate the beginning of another journey.

Samir Nasri’s quest for the Ballon D’Or can finally begin. He has completed his move to Manchester City and should be photographed holding his gold-spun shirt this morning. City will pay Arsenal a bazillion pounds, Nasri will earn half-a-bazillion pounds per week, and Nasri’s agent will have his name etched into the moon with a giant laser.

I don’t have the statistics on previous Ballon D’Or winners, but I’d imagine that plenty of them spent half the season on the bench for their respective teams. It’s a real win-win-win-win situation for everyone involved. Next season, when Nasri realizes he prefers to be a regular starter, perhaps City will be kind enough to loan him back to Arsenal and subsidize his wages, like they’re doing for a number of other disgruntled millionaires.

Nasri’s departure means the Arsenal “crisis” stories once are once again making headlines. Those broken-cannon printing presses are working overtime this month. This time, however, it’s Wenger’s own words that are being used as the rod for his back. Predictably, the media have trotted out his line from earlier this summer when the manager said “Imagine the worst situation – we lose Fabregas and Nasri – you cannot convince people you are ambitious after that.” Now that the self-proclaimed “worst situation” has come to fruition, the press are all-too-happy to rub our noses in it.

But it’s pointless dwelling on a sound bite now that the season is underway. Ultimately our results will be the measure of our success. Can we be considered ambitious having lost Nasri and Cesc? Of course we can. One way we can do that is by spending our mountain of cash on some really top quality players and proving to the world that we’re more than a glorified feeder-club. We have seen exceptional players leave the club before and we will see them leave again. All that matters is that we replace them with equal or superior talent.

For me, however, the best reaction to Nasri’s transfer came courtesy of twitter. New Arsenal legend Emmanuel Frimpong took the opportunity to slate City’s latest acquisition by tweeting that “money is the root of all evil.” He then admonished Jack Wilshere for wishing Samir well. Very deeench Mr. Frimpong. (See @EmmanuelF4 on twitter for more details.)

As for Arsene Wenger, he had a more pragmatic view of things when he was interviewed for Arsenal.com in what looked like a doctor’s office waiting room. Speaking in advance of our match today, he discussed Nasri’s departure.

“I am a realist so I have no illusions. It’s part of the modern life of a professional football player. It’s not that by coincidence that everybody suddenly lands at Man City.”

Most supporters seemed ready for Nasri to go, but now that it has actually happened, there’s a predictable degree of ambivalence. On the one hand, it’s nice to see an avaricious mercenary leave the club for an inflated fee. On the other hand, there’s very realistic concern about whether the squad has been weakened beyond the breaking point. That possibility hasn’t completely eluded the manager who acknowledged the need to strengthen the midfield. I’m sure we will all hold our collective breath until the new signings arrive.

Now all the attention turns to our Champions League playoff second leg tonight. Italy has been a happy hunting ground for recent Arsenal teams. AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus have all suffered defeat at our hands under Arsene Wenger. However, it would be fair to point out that we had more settled squads on those occasions.

Fortunately, Arsene Wenger will be allowed on the touchline, in advance of UEFA hearing his appeal on Thursday. The squad looks threadbare but there’s no cause for concern. When asked whether tonight’s match was critical or not, he responded that it was “not critical.” Arsene will have to forgive me if I don’t to agree. Perhaps this was a case of his english betraying him. I believe what he meant to say is that this match “is terrifyingly important to an extent that makes me incontinent.” At least that’s how I feel about it.

The team news for the match is mixed. Nicklas Bendtner has been left out of the side. That means we can probably expect yet another player to leave the club before the window shuts. While we might miss his Champions League experience tonight, I’m sure we all remember his failure to eliminate Barcelona last season when he had the chance. He’s another player that wants out of Arsenal, and at this point, I’m happy to open the door and let any like-minded player leave.

There’s good news in defense, where it appears Johan Djourou will be fit enough to start. That means Alex Song can keep his preferred midfield role and the manager won’t be tempted to hand Ignasi Miquel another baptism by fire. (Until the 3rd minute when Djourou goes off with a spleen explosion and Miquel is called on for the remaining 87 minutes.) Armonde Traore has recovered from his knock, but he looked terrible when he played in preseason, and his only recent appearance was for the reserves. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wenger stick with Jenkinson who played well in each of the last two matches.

The really bad news is that Jack Wilshere did not recover in time for this match, and has instead suffered a set-back. He will now miss an additional two to three weeks according to the manager. Frankly, I’d find that pleasantly surprising. He’s still wearing a protective boot and there’s a vague similarity between this injury and the one that cost Thomas Vermaelen an entire season. We can only hope that this doesn’t become another typical Arsenal quagmire. It’s one thing to lose players to long-term injuries, but we have a habit of losing the ones we need the most.

So now there’s not much guesswork about who will start in midfield. Tomas Rosicky is fit enough to play, but it sounds like he will start the match on the bench. Since Arsenal only have four midfielders in the 18-man squad, we can determine which three will start by simple process of elimination. Emmanuel Frimpong will join Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey in a midfield that may lack a little creativity, but should certainly offer plenty of power and determination. However, both Song and Frimpong have shown a propensity to commit silly fouls and with UEFA looking for any opportunity to ruin our Champions League dreams tonight, those two will have to be very careful.

Udinese have to attack us tonight. That should give us the chance to play them on the counter, much like they did at the Emirates. Gervinho, van Persie and Theo give us the potential for a lethal counter attack if the midfield doesn’t disappoint. But counter attacking alone may not be enough. We have to keep possession if possible because I certainly don’t trust this Arsenal side to sit back and defend for 90 minutes. More importantly, I don’t trust my heart to survive that.

What we really need tonight is to score the first goal. If we can manage that, it forces the home side to score 3 to eliminate us. That would calm the nerves and potentially take some of the belief out of the crowd. But if Udinese manage to score first, then it could be a case of experience carrying the day. And that doesn’t favor Arsenal.

At the moment, we are a callow side. Jenkinson and Frimpong, and to some extent Ramsey and Gervinho, will not have experienced this kind of pressure before. But that’s not entirely problematic. You learn a lot about players by how they perform when the stakes are highest. In the recent past, we learned some unflattering things about our players when the pressure was on them. Maybe the new faces will prove to be the difference-makers tonight.

Elimination is nearly unthinkable. While the club could survive the financial ramifications of a season without Champions League football, I’m not sure how the team would respond to such a devastating blow. Couple that with a trip to Old Trafford on Sunday and the season could begin to look like a disaster before it’s really even started. The fans are already a tinder box of frustration waiting to explode. Losing tonight could be the flashpoint for an epic conflagration. So we simply must not lose.

This is the match that none of us wanted. But if the result goes our way, it could be just what the team needs. Let’s face it, there’s not a lot going right for Arsenal at the moment. Morale is low and the Club’s image has taken a beating over the past few months. But a win tonight would send us into the Champions League group stages and remind the footballing world that Arsenal are still a club to be reckoned with. It’s a chance for the players to hear some words of encouragement for the first time this season and start to build belief.

Winning on the road against a strong Italian side would be a feather in their cap, and answer critics that have often accused this team of being bottlers. That could come back to help us the next time the pressure is on. Not to mention that Champions League participation could also help us secure any potential transfer targets that Wenger might be considering. (No, really). But maybe most importantly, it’s an opportunity for this group of players to show that they can win without Cesc and Nasri despite the naysayers. It’s a chance for them to begin to forge a winning identity of their own.

It may only be our fourth match of this campaign, but Arsenal’s season stands very much at a cross-roads. The outcome of tonight’s tie may determine which direction we take for the next ten months. I’m choosing to believe in the players that still wear the Arsenal shirt. They’re the ones that really want to be here. In the past, we have sometimes questioned our team’s commitment. But now we have a team of players with a real love for Arsenal. Some of them were raised as Arsenal supporters themselves. They will give us everything they have. They will bleed for Arsenal tonight. And in the end, I believe they’ll emerge victorious.

Come On You Gunners!

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