It feels like Christmas has arrived. Not chill winds blowing or storm clouds gathering but pantomime season is upon us. And with the antics of the last few days, yesterday’s press conference at Members Day only needed the assembled hacks to eagerly shout, “BEHIND YOU!!” for the day to be complete. In fact, had Jose Mourinho really got a sense of theatrics, he would have turned up. Apparently a friendly against Barcelona was more important. Pffft.
We do love to hate the Chelsea manager, don’t we? He knew we’d get our calculators out and prove him wrong, and lo and behold, a flurry of estimated transfer spend was cranked out to disprove his assertion that Arsenal were big spenders, far more so than his own club. Which entirely missed the point of his diatribe. That was to ratchet up the pressure on Arsène, to make sure that Arsenal weren’t given a free ride if they didn’t start well. He needn’t worry on that score.
Wenger is well aware of that, re-iterating the belief that the squad and he have that they can challenge for the title,
You cannot say that we finished third in the league last season and that we have no chance at all. The desire is to improve and move up there to fight for the championship. If I didn’t think that, it would mean we were standing still.
We want to improve but the difficulty for us is to know how much we have to improve. We know we will be better and we are working very hard to be better. It’s difficult, though, to know how much better our opponents will be because everybody tries to be better.
Arsène didn’t rule out spending more either. The usual ‘if we can, we will‘ proviso was attached. An instagram photo became the source for reinvigorating the corpse of the Karim Benzema transfer rumour, immediately turned into a £35m bid (or whatever sterling amount it took to get to €50m) being tabled. It was much improved apparently.
The crux, as Arsène noted, is that Arsenal have to improve to challenge for the title and not figure in a media contrived scenario. Chelsea’s consistency underlined the poor start Arsenal made, something the manager and players have made clear cannot happen again. There is more confidence in their words this time, a sign that the squad is perceived as stronger, even if most of that is based on faith that the post-Christmas form will be replicated.
Pre-season has gone well for the club. All games won so far and for the most part, at a canter. But it is just pre-season and even though this weekend is the same, you know more will be read into the Community Shield than is necessary or probably, healthy. Last season proved to be a false dawn, a deserved win but a scoreline which flattered Arsenal.
And as the following weeks unfolded, it was Arsenal who were found to have flattered to deceive as an ultimately unbridgeable gap emerged. That point isn’t lost on Arsène either,
If you have the choice, when you prepare a team you want a good pre-season. It doesn’t give you a guarantee that you start strong in the competition but it’s still better for the confidence and the belief of the group. Then, when it comes down to points, you add that little bit of extra commitment that is demanded in game.
The fixture list has been kind to Arsenal in the opening weeks. There are no clusters of difficult games and television gives a nice break before Liverpool’s visit to The Emirates. But that is to get too far ahead. Until a ball is kicked in anger, we won’t know how the team is going to perform week in, week out.
Of course, going into the season having beaten Chelsea won’t do any harm at all. For Wenger, it removes a millstone when it comes to this fixture; it won’t be hanging around, spoken or otherwise, like a bad smell. For players and manager alike, it is the fine margins such as this which can make a difference in their preparation and finding the keys to move the bus before the Premier League starts must be helpful.
A win will be completed without Alexis, the Chilean returning to training next week. Wenger didn’t want to be drawn on comparisons to the best in the world observing that every manager believes their player is the best. Comparing Hazard to Messi and Ronaldo was the hyperbole that the Premier League adores; overblown and over-hyped. The Belgian wasn’t even the best player in England, no matter what the trinkets might say. It is, as Arsène noted, a game of opinions even if as an Arsenal supporter, I’m not allowed one.
Wenger challenged Alexis to reach the level of others. His début season in England had been “absolutely exceptional” but he had some work to do; being at the top of the game “demands consistency“. In other words, you’re good but not that good.
Where he does have that similar positive impact that the likes of Messi and Ronaldo is his role in dragging higher performance levels from others. It’s the same with Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla, their consistency influences others. Alexis is more noticeable with his energy and positive words from younger players about the way he challenges them to work as hard in training. The personal recognition is good for him and that permeates into a team role. Having three game-changing players seems to give Arsenal an advantage; harnessing that over the course of the season will be key to success or failure.