Friday, 12 August 2011

A New Season

The off-season, and pre-season, ends tonight. And tonight, of all things, Arsenal have announced that they have signed a player. But several others have yet to be sold.

So, what to make of Arsenal's summer? I choked back bitter laughter when I read (despite my own self-prohibition) a post by Myles Palmer on ANR who called Arsene Wenger a 'serial loser'; I smiled ruefully to myself when I read a comment on a blog that pronounced 'I want my Arsenal back'; and I have gone from hope, to frustration, to hope again.

So, Cesc is nearly a Barca player; Nasri is nearly a Citeh player; Eboue is nearly a Galata player. Luck to all three, I say. Clichy has already been sold, Denilson has returned to Sao Paolo on loan (but is unlikely to return), rumours today suggest that Almunia may go to newly-minted moneybags Malaga, and Nic Bendtner may go to Stoke City, which I wouldn't wish on anyone. All that should net Arsenal something in the region of £70 million. Which is a fair wedge.

I don't know why anyone took any notice of Arsene's presser this morning; he will say anything other than the truth when it comes to transfer activity. But surely he and Ivan Gazidis know that banking the majority of that money just isn't going to cut it, especially if Arsenal live down to the doomers' expectations in the early season. And this is where I would like to begin: with expectations.

It surely needs no re-stating that Arsenal fans expect too much. Why, with a wage bill that is only the 5th highest in the league, do fans expect us to compete financially with Man Utd (the most high-profile English club globally, with a long history of laying out very large fees and paying top wages); Man City (who with petro-dollar backing can afford to sign, and double the wages of, any player they can persuade to join them, such as Nasri); or Chelsea (who may be towards the end of Abramovich's ability to put them ahead of the pack in terms of spending, but who still took a gamble on Fernando Torres to the tune of £50 million last year)? While I hold out no particular hope that the UEFA financial fair play initiative will ultimately bring the super-club spending to order, I do not want to see 'my Arsenal' (a ridiculous thing to assert, by the way) either putting the club at risk through reckless spending (Leeds Utd, Portsmouth) or put into the hands of Usmanov.

If Arsenal, for the next few years, compete with Liverpool for the 4th CL place, and sometimes end up in the Europa League, what of it? The stadium and squad that is already in place puts Arsenal ahead of Spurs or any of the other upper-mid-table teams that might aspire to 4th. To think we might finish 5th this year would indeed be a disappointment, but I can't see it happening, to be honest. For all their spending, I can't really see Liverpool being qualitatively different or better this year. Henderson, Adam, Downing, Carroll? I don't think I'd be that excited if Arsenal had spent £80 million on those four players, worthy though they may be.

I'm happy to scale back my expectations. A 'selling club'? In the Europa League instead of CL? Aiming for Cup rather than Premier League title success? What of it? I also want 'my Arsenal' back, and doing away with the sour, hateful and hate-filled, bilious and self-lacerating discourses of 'disappointment' with the manager, board, players etc that have filled up the blogosphere this summer is the first step. I was a happier Arsenal supporter in the late 80s, when we were on the verge of winning something, than I am now; the bounty of the years 1998-2004 was a great anomaly that I'm glad I saw, but now could do with putting behind us, because it's distorting the way the grand old club is seen by everyone, even its 'supporters'. Even by me.

So, £70 million's worth of talent out the door, and who has come in? Carl Jenkinson, an Anglo-Finn Gooner who looks a very good prospect as a back-up to Sagna; Gervinho, a right-sided wide player, very quick and with a good eye for goal; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a 17-year-old right-sided winger/ striker who tore up League 1 last year; Ryo Miyaichi, a young, fast, very direct Japanese left winger who played exceptionally well for Feyenoord last year and was awarded a 'special talent' work permit; and tonight, Joel Campbell, a young, fast, left-sided striker from Costa Rica who did very well at both Copa America and World u-20 Championships this summer, who should get a work permit.

See a pattern there?

With the departures of Cesc, Nasri, Clichy, Eboue, Bendtner, and Denilson there is a clear shift in terms of priorities. Between 1998 and 2004, the keynote for Arsenal's style of play was pace and power, dominated by the GG back four, Sol, Vieira and Henry; between 2005 and 2011, 'Cesc's Arsenal', the keynote was technique and possession, which achieved its high-point with the 2008 side, where Flamini and Adebayor gave the (physically smaller) side physicality and tempo; now, we are seeing another change, to explosiveness and speed. I, for one, am really happy to see these kinds of player being signed. I, too, would like a good centre-back, a veteran left-back, and (most importantly) an upgrade on the holding midfielder role, where Song is good but (like Gilberto before him) not a player to dominate or set the tempo. But the side that collapsed last season badly needed an injection of pace, needed runners to break down deep-set defences, needed players with the directness and pace to get past their marker and cause problems. Where the recent side often ran into the sand because all their possession did not translate into goals (leaving them vulnerable to counter-attacks), often playing a lot in front of two lines of four (or even 9 players in a 4-5-1) and never really penetrating, this summer's crop of signings will give the Arsenal a lot more directness, energy and pace.

The player being touted as 'Cesc's replacement', the Brazilian Jadson from Shakhtar Donetsk, isn't a like-for-like replacement, if he arrives. From what I've seen on YouTube, he's not a playmaker, a pure passer; he's a small, dynamic attacking midfielder, like a cross between Arshavin and Deco (with a little bit of Rosicky), a dribbler with a terrific shot from distance. We already have passers in Wilshere, Ramsay, even Lansbury - we need a game-changer. Is Jadson it? I don't know. But I can see the thinking.

I think the doomers have it wrong, in any case. I think there will be further signings once Cesc, Nasri and Eboue are gone next week. Scott Dann looks a strong possibility; I wouldn't be at all surprised if we signed Gary Cahill in the last few days of the window either. I do believe Gazidis and Wenger and others have been working hard to sign players this summer; I believe they knew this exodus was probable, if not certain, and planned for it; I don't believe it's 'penny-pinching' or any other media narratives that have prevented Arsenal from signing more than the four players (plus Miyaichi) they've signed already. It takes time. This will be the biggest upheaval for the club for many a summer, and I would have preferred the deals to have been done earlier; but the club can only play the hand they're dealt.

So, at time of writing, the squad for the season is likely to look like this:

GK: Szczesny, Fabianski, Mannone
FB: Sagna, Jenkinson, Gibbs, Traore (+?)
CB: Vermaelen, Koscielny, Djourou, Squillaci (+ Dann, Cahill?)
MF: Song, Ramsay, Wilshere, Diaby, Frimpong, Lansbury, Rosicky (+?)
W: Gervinho, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Miyaichi
F: van Persie, Chamakh, Arshavin, Campbell

That makes 26. A couple of defenders and a midfielder, and I think we'll be fine - in hope rather than in expectation.

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