The harder it rained on Shahid Khan’s parade at Fulham, the brighter the outlook seemed to become for Arsenal and its veteran coach. ‘’It’s been a good week for us,’’ said Arsene Wenger, rather understating his team’s response to a home defeat by Aston Villa on the opening day of the Premier League season.
Two victories — the first all but guaranteeing yet another presence in the Champions League — on two continents in the space of 65 hours, without even a hint of complaint about having to travel back from Istanbul and go almost straight into a derby at Craven Cottage. It was, said Wenger, just part of the game. Like reacting positively to setbacks, he might have added.
We’ve seen it all before. There’s no club better at bouncing back from adversity than Wenger’s Arsenal, who two years ago suffered an 8-2 mauling at Manchester United yet soon put together a five-game winning streak and ended up third.
The trouble — the reason so many of the fans are discontented — is too much adversity in the first place. It keeps recurring and the army of dissidents can see no change in the pattern unless Wenger regains his former vigor in the transfer market.
‘’Spend some money,’’ they keep chanting, and I’ve deleted the expletive. They know the club has got it and, as the payers of England’s highest ticket prices, they know where some of it comes from. And they want it spent on new players of quality. They want heirs to the tradition of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, and, although the bargain prices paid for those contributed to the construction of Wenger’s towering reputation, they don’t care about the cost any more.
The wins at Fenerbahce and Fulham, where the Jacksonville Jaguars’ owner, making his first appearance at the riverside home of his Premier League acquisition, endured a chastening 3-1 loss under weeping skies, have given Wenger a little respite — but not much.
The transfer window closes in a week and there are signs that his new main target, the French striker Karim Benzema, prefers to stay at Real Madrid in the hope of getting more game time in the absence of Gonzalo Higuain, now with Napoli in Serie A. It was well known that Wenger wanted Higuain too. So it’s wonder that Benzema, if he was a second choice, appears to lack enthusiasm for a move to the Emirates.
What Wenger claims in his defense is that players are not keen to move to clubs who are not in the Champions League — and Arsenal were unsure they could offer that until they built a 3-0 lead in the first leg of their playoff against Fenerbahce. Now he has to move quickly and the risk is that his formerly sure touch in the market — there used to be no better player of it in the world — will continue to let him down.
It recent years it has been a pattern of hit-and-miss. The misses include Gervinho, who was sold to Roma this summer, but one of the hits, Santi Cazorla, was man of the match at Fulham and Lukas Podolski seemed to alter his status with two superbly taken goals, prompting Wenger to deny rumors that he, too, might be offloaded to one of the German clubs with interest in taking him home.
With young and much-criticized goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny giving a sound performance behind a sound defense and the pace of Theo Walcott, who had been highly influential in Istanbul, keeping Fulham stretched, there was some evidence to support Wenger’s claim that new recruits are desirable rather than urgently necessary. But this would risk overrating Fulham.
The main task of Martin Jol’s side this season will be to stay in the Premier League. Wenger’s priority is to end a trophy drought going back to 2006. He has to beat better sides than Fulham and he’ll need reinforcements for that. The next week will tell and, although the midweek return match against Fenerbahce should be straightforward, the pressure will be back with a vengeance as Arsenal plays host to Tottenham in the London derby of derbies on Sunday.
Believe it or not, an even bigger game takes place that day. At least that’s how Liverpool and Manchester United will see it as they clash at Anfield, the home of a club that went into the season fretting about the restlessness of suspended Luis Suarez and now is the proud possessor of two wins, each secured by goals from Daniel Sturridge, flourishing in the role once played by the troublesome Uruguayan.
It was a dazzling solo effort that took the points at Villa Park and, although we should not make serious forecasts for the season until the window closes, a suspicion that Liverpool will be back in the Champions League, at least its qualifying stages, next season is hardening. Brendan Rodgers is forming a solid unit and, for all the talk of comings and goings, for all the pressure on Wenger to spend, that’s still what soccer is essentially about: winning.