Defiance is this morning’s watchword. Arsène’s delivery at his press conference yesterday, the talk of the future, of the present and of course, money, all pointed to a man whose professional pride is stung by this season’s failures. Those who expected a franker admission or assessment were as usual, left disappointed. Quite why anyone would expect any detrimental assessments midway through a season is beyond comprehension and this is point not grasped by those who claim the manager is deluded; he cannot offer an honest opinion – he still has a squad that has let him down, to motivate. He cannot state that Bayern have better players otherwise the physical advantage of the two-goal lead is enhanced by the psychological damage cause by that admission.
Talk of finances obscures the points with outright misinformation. Talk of £40m players is cheap; Arsène has long known he could afford such a player, the problem is that the squad deficiencies are such that he needs more than one player. Is it, in these circumstances, good management to spend a high proportion of the transfer budget in one deal when many are needed?
My view is that whilst Arsenal would obviously benefit from a player whose value is genuinely in that category, we need strengthening in other areas as well which leads away from the Galactico instance onto a more rounded policy. For example, retaining van Persie as well as adding the four key signings since last season indicates that a sensible policy in the transfer market. Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud, Monreal; all have enhanced the squad – with last season’s leading scorer retained, it is not far-fetched to suggest that the results would be better. As it is, signing another quartet of starting XI players this Summer is not hard to envisage. In itself that is problematic if not completed before pre-season training commences with acclimatisation interfering with the actual season; the balance between necessity and the obsession with value for money.
Arsène knows full well that the same teams do win the Champions League. Only six teams have appeared in the final of that competition since 2007 with only Internazionale appearing on a single occasion. Money talks whatever country it is in. Understanding fans frustrations through failure to compete despite ticket pricing is one thing but dismissing the domestic cup competitions undermines his own arguments. No longer a tacit admission that these competitions are meaningless to him through a priorities list, an outright discarding of them as targets was a dangerous statement of intent.
Of course it is understandable that he wants the feast at the top table but to not appreciate the benefit in the stands of a good run, the feelgood factor they can bring in lean times is surprising. Challenging for the title or Champions League is what everyone wants but when the squad is clearly not good enough for those tasks, chasing a domestic trinket instils a feelgood factor that has long been missing from Arsenal. Not without good reason is it called the Cup of Good Cheer.
All of this and Aston Villa too. Having sent Alex McLeish to the touchline, Villa would not have expected Paul Lambert’s side to have been caught heavy petting with the bottom three but the youthful exuberance of his charges has been found wanting, a salutory warning on over-reliance on young players. Recent form for the Black Country side has been mixed, the horrors of Christmas with fifteen goals conceded in three games continued into 2013 culminating in rapid-fire cup exits at the hands of Bradford City and Millwall. February has been kinder with two good results to come into this game on the back of.
Even so, this is a fixture that Arsenal will be looking to win, not just from the point of view of confidence but this weekend has to be earmarked as one where the gap to third can be closed. Victory today combined with a Chelsea draw at Eastlands makes the top four a three way fight, not one solely between Tottenham and Arsenal. Indeed a point in the meeting between second and third prevents City pulling away from this battle. The more the merrier as far as that goes. Mancini might like to point himself as being different to Wenger because he is a ‘winner’ (whatever that means) but the unspoken difference is employment. Whilst Arsène’s grip on a job might be slightly looser than before, the Job Centre Plus in Manchester already has the forms ready for the Italian’s signature.
Changes are inevitable today with Monreal returning, most likely Koscielny making way since Vermaelen is undroppable as captain, and Bacary Sagna missing. In midfield, Tomas Rosicky should be accommodated but probably will not be whilst Olivier Giroud is likely to return centrally, particularly as the attack was more effective in midweek with him there. That may be coincidental with the timing of the game and Arsenal’s increasing desperation to claw back the deficit.
The line-up I expect is:
Szczesny; Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal; Cazorla, Arteta, Wilshere; Walcott, Giroud, Podolski
As much as I believe there will be a big performance (whatever that is) from the players, a win is more important and takes precedence. All games now are must-win as we approach the business end of the season.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.