Arsenal has finished higher than the Guardian’s preseason prediction for six years running. You know, their writers aren’t idiots – as a group they’re about as good as it gets in the football world.
And I’m sure you’re aware that they’re not the only ones – Arsenal’s slide has been predicted all over the place for at least ten years. In August 2003 we were about to drop out of the top two because we hadn’t done any business, while both Chelsea and Manchester United had added to their squads.
On a train journey during that hot summer I remember picking up a discarded tabloid and reading an opinion piece suggesting Wenger would be a managerial casualty in 2003-04. Yeah, we know what happened next.
On the cusp of 2011-12, as Cesc, Nasri and Clichy scurried out the door, it would have taken a brave Arsenal fan to predict that we’d finish further up the table than in the previous season. I don’t think I did it, and I can’t remember seeing such a thing written anywhere.
So do you know why so many people underestimate Arsenal in preseason? I think it’s because, as outsiders, we either need to have lots of faith or some kind of mystical divining ability, to be able to say for certain that Arsenal is no weaker than the season before. We need this because we don’t know; we don’t see players train and don’t know how confident they are in the team or their own abilities.
We can only trust that Wenger’s doing what he does best – turning promising players (and sometimes apparently unpromising ones) into stars.
For outsiders it feels far safer to look at the previous season, see who’s gone, and assume that the players who remain will play the way they did before. Yeah, it feels safe to do that, but it’s also highly misguided, as the last six years have proven. The players change before our eyes, and the truth is it occurs so often, and to such impressive degrees that we take their huge strides for granted, and only notice the difference when we think back to how they used to be.
The gloomy types among us would presuppose that Gervinho, for instance, will be just as inconsistent this season. I tend to disagree, although as I’ve said before, I can’t be sure. What I do know is that his ability to dribble past defenders is shared by only two or three other players in this league. It’s spectacular, and after a year learning the Premier League ropes under the tutelage of a manager who has produced more stars than almost any of his rivals his cut-backs, crosses and shots should find their target more often.
I have the same optimism for our “panic signings” last year. Though it’s likely we snatched Park from the same kind of record shop basket that used to have Bread and the Starland Vocal Band’s Greatest Hits on cassette, the others like André Santos, Mertesacker and Arteta have something very promising to build on, and should be looking meaner (in Santos’ case, leaner too) after a real preseason at the club.
Many assume that because Diaby and Wilshere have been through the injury mill over the last year they won’t be able to offer us anything this season. Well, van Persie and Vermaelen have been in the same points at various times over the past few years, and both completed last season pretty much unscathed. Rosicky was completely written off; Benayoun had also missed a season of football before we took him on loan, and both contributed to our season.
Let’s look at about Wenger for a moment. Back when his hand wasn’t being forced by players who could earn more at financially doped clubs, Wenger was often praised for sensing when to let a player go, as if he could predict the future.
But here’s the point I’ve been labouring towards. Wenger isn’t prescient; he’s just a very talented man who swears by facts. His estimation of players isn’t swayed by reputation or what’s come before; he’s more interested in the now, and the possibility of future improvement. Whereas fans need to have faith that players will get better and the team will click, Wenger will oversee training sessions, study Prozone data, spot trends and perhaps most importantly will have close a relationship to the player, knowing what he’ll need to do to improve.
If the BBC story is true then Wenger will have studied the data and drawn on eight years of working with Robin van Persiem and decided that £24 million now is a better choice than the option of keeping him for a final year, or even trying to persuade him to sign a new contract. In Nasri and Cesc’s cases, this was never an option.
Let’s see how it pans out I suppose.
In the meantime, we’ve got Santi Cazorla. Of course, as with RvP’s sale, it’s too early to say how what will happen, but from what I’ve been able grasp there’s widespread mystification in Spain that he didn’t end up at Barcelona or Real Madrid. But I’ve read some people here claim that he can’t be a world-class player, as he didn’t start for Spain in the Euros.
The players keeping him out of that team were Xavi and Iniesta, who have been on the Ballon d’Or podium (although they haven’t yet won it) as much as Lionel Messi these last few years. And the few pundits who are aware that domestic is played in other countries tended to place Cazorla in their continent-wide teams of the season this summer.
But for all his talent, he seems to be on a different plain to other stars as a person; twice rejecting a move to Real Madrid, first to stay at Villareal, and then in favour of Arsenal. Little old Arsenal! For everything Wenger’s had to deal with, it must be a breath of fresh air.
So Santi, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.