The final home match of the season arrives today, Norwich City visiting The Emirates for the first time. They bring some uncomfortable memories with them having been Arsenal’s opponents in the first Premier League fixture back in 1992 with The Canaries flying away with a 4 – 2 victory, the second and so final league win at Arsenal. There was a certain symmetry with the rubble of the North Bank and the Arsenal back four that day. Perhaps we should have known things were going to go awry when one of the parachutists ended up disappearing into the building site. Still he had a banner for The Sun so it wasn’t all lost.
Today’s match has parallels with 1995/96; winning the last home game with Bolton was a pre-requisite to qualify for the Uefa Cup. That was achieved with Dennis Bergkamp’s strike; fast forward to this season and a win is imperative for third place. This fixture is – on paper – a routine home win. Norwich have lost seven of the last eleven. It is poor enough form for their comfortable mid-table position achieved through an exemplary team ethic, to have become a comfortable lower reaches position. This season has taught us that nothing is straightforward. If you need that emphasising, Norwich’s last win was at White Hart Lane.
But this is about Arsenal playing to the maximum of their potential, realising their ambitions. Mikel Arteta is missed, the domestic record in his absence is poor; Arsenal have not won without him in the team in a Premier League fixture since he joined. Talismanic the Spaniard may be; absent he definitely is. That record is bizarre and needs putting to rest. Whilst he will return next season, there are some in the first team – a number of the squad as well perhaps – who are very possibly featuring in an Arsenal shirt for the last time.
Amongst them, Yossi Benayoun made his sadness clear on Twitter. The Israeli has been a key player in recent months, adding a touch of guile to the attack and certainly different options on the left. Some deride him but I believe he is a good player to have in the squad and his experience cannot be easily dismissed. That said, I am not sure that Arsène will look to extend the deal or make it permanent in the summer. Much will depend on the movement of others with manager non-commital over the future of his strikers this summer. I can understand that players want to wait and see what offers come but to be honest there are seasoned internationals on the bench – Park will replace Diaby in the squad – who must surely place more value on their careers than their paycheques?
The situation is muddied with players such as Vela, Bendtner and Arshavin returning from loan. There is a surfeit of players for three places even before the arrival of Lukas Podolski. Arsenal do indeed love a striker, a pity that so few of them have been able to produce their best form on a consistent basis. It is an area of the team where I think there will be the majority of transfer activity this summer; the problem is that new homes have to be found for them before new blood can come into the club. When one of them tells his current employer that the club is not good enough for him, I am not convinced that will be an easy job. Still I am sure that nice Mr O’Neill sought clarification from the, um,confident Nicklas Bendtner.
Those are thoughts for another day. Back to this afternoon. Theo Walcott will in all likelihood not be fit until next weekend which seems likely to mean Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continuing in the side. On the left, there is a conundrum for the manager. Gervinho’s directness was a thorn in the side of Stoke last weekend and with Norwich possessing a similar liking for the wider areas of the pitch as the team from The Potteries, the Ivorian may get a nod over the more thoughtful Benayoun. Either could make a strong case for inclusion.
Overall, it is hard to see many changes for Arsenal, if any:
Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Rosicky, Song, Ramsey; Oxlade-Chamberlain, van Persie, Gervinho
Talk of contracts becomes more intense as the summer approaches. Arsène’s self-imposed deadline of resolving Robin van Persie’s situation before the commencement of Euro2012 seems optimistic. The Dutchman offered little clue as to his future, proferring the view that he would always be a ‘Gunner’ wherever he was in the world and wherever his career takes him. A turn of phrase that is as ambiguous as it is non-commital. Quietly this has taken the pressure from Theo Walcott who is in a similar situation. The young England international has not engaged with the club over his future, perhaps (understandably) waiting for new signings and some clarity in the Summer.
In what shape or form that will arrive for either of them is unclear; whatever, as long as the club resolve the issues quickly and efficiently. Neither is irreplaceable but situations need to be handled effectively to ‘spin’ the situation as favourably as possible. Obviously it is ideal if both sign – and I suspect they will – giving the squad a great platform to take their challenge to the next level. By coincidence today’s Arsenal On This Day revisits 1958, a time when the club imposed their pay scales onto the players, paying them at the value they deemed fair which is something demanded now.
But it is the result which is important; performance is not so long as the outcome is three points to Arsenal. Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.