It all ended on my birthday, a solitary goal at St James Park preserved Arsenal’s top four status. It rewarded the squad for phenomenal run of results, the roots of which were in back-to-back defeats against Chelsea and Manchester City. This was going to be THE Summer when the bright new future which the move from Highbury promised. Ivan told us so, Arsène reluctantly agreed. The squad was pruned; Arsenal flirted with Jovetic, seduced Higuain and cast both to the wind when Luis Suarez puckered up. Norman Lamont may regret nothing, the same cannot be said for Arsenal as they remain embroiled in a tawdry tug of love.
A summer of promise has descended into frustration and rancour. Arsenal have nobody but themselves to blame.
Things might change with seventeen days left in the transfer window. As it is, tomorrow sees the Premier League kick-off with the Champions League hot on its heels. Optimists will tell you that the title challenge will emerge because all Arsenal have to do is replicate the form shown between March and May. It’s a simple theory and not without merit. It isn’t without flaws either, some of them very serious. Just four points were dropped out of the final thirty, little wonder the theory emerged. The two draws are the flaw; four points out of six dropped in home matches against Top Six sides, continuing the poor form we displayed in those fixtures. Let’s be realistic about our expectations; Arsenal will drop stupid points, all clubs do. Minimising those mistakes is the aim, the basis upon which success can be built. The real test for this side comes in the reaction to defeat, they didn’t cope well with that last autumn. Encouragingly, spring saw Arsenal veer from excellence to abomination, usually in the same game but they still came through. There is a mental strength that will stand them in good stead for this season.
An equally flawed theory emerged, one the manager has been keen to propagate albeit tempering it in recent days. Managerial stability is going to help Arsenal, the changes in Manchester and London will weaken them. I can believe United will be affected but we won’t know for sure until the season gets under way. City? Possibly but Chelsea seem to have torpedoed that argument entirely. It was a dangerous theory to expound on two levels. Firstly, it was an admission that Arsenal were not good enough to win the title through their own abilities, it suggests that we need other clubs to fail for us to succeed. Secondly, if those clubs prosper, managerial change is a virtue not a hindrance. What then Arsène?
With only the injured Sanogo added to the squad, hopes rest on organic improvement. This confers exclusivity on Arsenal, that we are the only ones with players who will improve. If Wenger and his coaches can draw them out of our players, other managers will be able to do the same with their squads. Will it be enough?
Koscielny and Mertesacker, the strongest pairing we have at the heart of the defence will be a crucial platform upon which to build and they need to replicate their post-March form. Early indications are promising, the pre-season suggested their form has held. Vermaelen may displace one of them but it would be a brave decision by the manager to do so, unless injury or suspension force his hand. Then again if Szczesny can regain favour, the same opportunity exists for the captain. Much of that defensive quality came from the work-rate of the midfield, Arteta sitting in front of the back four and ably supported by Aaron Ramsey. Arteta’s injury might put a spanner in the works until October. The Welsh international was the most impressive player in pre-season, consistent and energetic in his performances. If he can add a goalscoring presence, he will be living up to the promise which made Arsenal sign him in the first place and in the process giving his detractors the appropriate salute.
There are others – Wilshere, Podolski – where injury dampened their performances last season. Fit this time around, surely we are not wrong to expect consistently improved form from them? But this squad is painfully thin. Tomorrow’s match against Aston Villa has highlighted this already. In the nuclear scenario where every niggle precludes any involvement, we have about 16 fit, experienced players, to the extent that the likes of Frimpong, Park and Bendtner may yet see their Arsenal careers resurrected.
It shouldn’t be this way. Others around Arsenal – with the exception of Manchester United – have strengthened, have sought to close the gaps on those who finished above them. Arsenal’s reliance on organic growth will be sorely tested by a Tottenham squad which has been added to, as well as presently retaining their Simian Superstar. Spending money is no guarantee of success but this summer, they appear to have done well with their signings.
So as things stand, where are Arsenal? Involved in a battle for fourth in my opinion. It is a battle which Arsenal must control, we cannot continually rely on other clubs failings for our success, no matter how relative that is. That is what we have done in the past, late surges have drawn the club into the top four. As a strategy, it is high risk. With more money coming into the game and other clubs more active in the transfer market, Arsenal must find the consistency which eluded them last autumn. History cannot keep repeating itself. Until the cavalry arrives, Arsenal need to be strong. The fixture list favours them. Looking through to this autumn, is it unrealistic to expect Arsenal to arrive at Old Trafford having dropped no more than three points? There are difficult games; Tottenham and Liverpool feature but it is a list which lends itself to hope. Arrive at the home of the defending champions unbeaten and anything is possible. And it is equally possible for them to arrive there struggling for form. With the squad as it stands, it is hard to be certain which Arsenal will turn up.
And that is why I don’t believe that Arsène won’t act before the transfer window closes. He knows better than any of us the opportunity which awaits decisive action. Unless he is blinded by his conviction, his belief in these players, he will act. Questioning the abilities of the squad, their potential is heresy in some quarters. Such an attitude ignores the view that very few think this squad is not a strong enough base upon which a title challenge could emerge. But they need help, they need experience, they need more players. That, more than Ivan’s seemingly ill-chosen words, is the cause of such frustration. Knowing that adding quality in the shape of three players could propel this squad into contention.
Those are points which the manager agrees with and has publicly admitted. Who knows, maybe Arsène is a heretic.