As the rest of the football world prepares for FA Cup Third Round day, Arsenal remain part of the overspill sating the desire of the broadcasters. It could have been worse I suppose, the Graveyard Shift on Monday night seems distinctly unattractive. About as enticing as another season without a trophy, I would venture. The manager certainly doesn’t want that. Arsène does not appear to accept that fourth is a trophy, flying once more in the face of received wisdom. Jamie Carragher offered an interesting comparison to Bill Shankly on the subject of the trophy drought. Similar to the Scot, the lack of silverware irks Wenger,
I think it is an important moment of the season for us, to strengthen the confidence of the team. We feel we are on a good run but how far can we go? To win in the FA Cup will strengthen us. It bothers me [not to win trophies], of course it bothers me because I’m not here to watch other people win trophies. For us it’s important to show continuity and consistency and the FA Cup is part of that. To get people to believe more in the team it’s important that we win on Sunday.
Victory at Swansea would bring a certain feelgood factor but it is not going to be the panacea to all ills. Previous years have seen the manager treat the competition with, well, contempt is too strong a phrase, less importance than supporters probably sums it up. Priorities in previous seasons have seen the journey to Wembley truncated at relatively early stages as the second string capitulated – Old Trafford and The Britannia spring immediately to mind.
This time, I wonder if more importance might be placed on the competition if progress past Swansea is made. The Premier League went early, even by recent standards. The League Cup came and went whilst the Champions League is in hiatus. At the moment, Arsenal are in the fight for fourth, two steps forward, one sideways and one back being a fair summation of the progress on that front. No-one has stolen a march and whilst ground may be lost in January, others will have more difficult months ahead. The reality is that the FA Cup offers the best hope of a trophy for what remains of this season. Whether Wenger genuinely thinks that remains to be seen.
Whilst the manager hopes for more belief in the squad with a win, there will be a disproportionate response should defeat occur. The belief in this squad is the lowest I can recall during Wenger’s tenure. At the start of the season – and still on paper – it seems a decent set of players. Not title-winners but certainly in the top four in the country. They may yet end up in that position but they will not finish any higher than third and even that is stretching matters. The truth is that they have disappointed in this campaign, they seem further away from achieving success than any of their predecessors. Even if that is not the reality, it is the perception and more often than not, that wins the day. Pressure is growing for action in the transfer market. There have always been calls for money to be spent, there always will be. I don’t recall such a wide spectrum of the support doing so on such a consistent basis.
It doesn’t help that rivals are being active, even if that means signing deals for the future. Yesterday another reported target was missed, Lewis Holtby joining Spurs in June. How much of a target is a debatable point; we don’t know if the club had a genuine interest in signing him or not and such speculation doesn’t really make a good headline, “Spurs might have signed an Arsenal target“, lacks a bit of punch, the spark that makes the reader want to dive into a thousand word frenzy of transfer propaganda. No doubt Holtby is a good player but was he a priority? You would like to think that were he – and knowing that he was free to sign a pre-contract on January 1st – Arsenal would have acted accordingly. The problem for the club is that others act with a public dynamism, registering interest and signing players in two or three days. For Arsenal it takes weeks and months for the reality to come about. That’s the perception which is never addressed.
It isn’t helped when they brief covertly and overtly that shifting players like Chamakh to West Ham is a necessity to strengthen. That just cannot be allowed to be the case when situations with Chamakh and Squillaci, for example, have dragged on for a year or more. The Moroccan may have stalled this process previously – and I wonder if his omission from the ACN squad focussed his mind wonderfully – but the club can afford to pay these players off and take a one season financial hit, surely an advisable course with the financial strength accumulated. That has not happened and to be honest, probably never will. It’s a policy that backs the manager into a corner, one of his own making with underperforming players and ultimately he is responsible for them. When it doesn’t work, he takes the flak; when it does, well, who cares what manager made the signing?
Elsewhere, David Villa’s agitation may be required if Arsenal are to succeed in signing him on January 31st. The Spaniard divides opinion in the same way Demba Ba did with some believing that age is the biggest barrier to the deal. The injury comparison does not stand scrutiny between the two and to be honest, the price is a little inflated but in my view it is a true reflection of the respective abilities. Andrey Arshavin appears to be staying put, Johan Djourou closer to going and Adrian Lopez getting more back page coverage in the British press than he has ever had.