Clubs can grow during times of need

FOX Soccer’s lead analyst reflects on the latest news in and around English soccer.

Another great week of football is behind us and I think we can now say that we’ve got a real race on. Manchester City and Manchester United are obviously leading the pack, but with Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal all playing well, we’re getting a competition. It’s super for the fans and for the game.

Gunners salute

Speaking of Arsenal, I want to start with them because they had a great weekend. They were celebrating their 125th anniversary, punctuated by a win and a splendid goal from Robin van Persie. Arsenal’s great tradition and playing style were reasons why I supported as a young lad, so it was special for me to see the statues of Herb Chapman, Tony Adams and Thierry Henry go up. Henry was one of the best players I ever played against, a very dangerous striker and true gentleman. That goal from van Persie to win the game that followed against Everton was really fitting: it was just classic, stylish Arsenal football and it was a joy to watch.

I’ve been one of the club’s harsher critics this year, and it is good to see them turn things around. I think Arsene Wenger has come full circle in a way, because when he took over, he had a very strong back five with true leadership from Adams, Lee Dixon and David Seaman. Now they’ve gained some of that maturity by picking up Andre Santos, Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta. Those three have helped the rest of the team grow.

They are men that understand the tension of the game, as well as the training and the demands of preparation. That’s helped men like Aaron Ramsey and Alex Song out tremendously in attack. Song just looks so much better with Arteta out there – he’s having a great season now as a result. Mertesacker isn’t the best passer of the ball, but he does know how to organize a defense, which has helped Wojciech Szczesny. Andre Santos is sadly injured, but he has been very stable. If van Persie can stay healthy, you’ll see a club that can do damage in two very tough leagues. Van Persie is showing so much quality – you just cannot say enough about him.

Stating the obvious

Now, disappointingly, we turn to my team, Newcastle. The Magpies had a very tough week, which highlights what they have to address during this upcoming transfer window. I’ve said all along that this is not a Champions League squad, but rather, it’s a side that can finish in the top seven or eight this year. Owner Mike Ashley has to go out and get reinforcements. Steven Taylor is a long-term injury, and they need to bring someone like Matthew Upson – who’s idling over at Stoke – in to give them some depth in defense.

I like Upson: he’s a guy that wants to play for England and he gives you a boost in both morale and balance. Newcastle doesn’t have £30m to go out and spend, but can wheel and deal to improve their squad. What it comes down to is a situation where you don’t want to let the good work you did earlier in the season go to waste. You don’t want to have a team that paved the way for their future disappoint because of injuries.

Speaking of disappointments, Manchester United went out with a whimper this week in the Champions League. That was a very comfortable group for them and they should be through. Even with Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez out, there’s no excuse. Losing Nemanja Vidic just adds salt to wound. To their credit, they needed a lift and they got it against Wolves this past Saturday, with Wayne Rooney scoring and Nani grabbing goals. It was a good response and I think even Sir Alex Ferguson’s men needed that.

Why changes are sometimes necessary

I don’t know the statistics on this, but I have to think that 65-75% of the time when a team gets a new manager, the team wins that first game. Martin O’Neill coming in at Sunderland is great for the league and the team — he’s great character, an enthusiastic man and very knowledgeable. The results immediately paid off Sunday, with a bit of a last-gasp win that should boost Sunderland’s outlook for the remainder of the season.

The lack of confidence is the main root of the team’s early troubles. You have a lot of players there — Seb Larsson, David Vaughan, Phil Bardsley, Wes Brown — who are established professionals. They didn’t suddenly become bad players overnight. What happened was the pressure at home got so intense and they just couldn’t overcome the demands. O’Neill will change that, and Sunderland will get better.

Finally, let’s talk about Luis Suarez. He’s had a difficult month, but he comes up with a big winner for Liverpool to break that draw duck while showing the Kop this team can win. The Reds disappointed supporters against Fulham, and this victory gave them a needed lift at home. Say what you want about him, but he’s a high quality striker.

Keep in mind you can always follow me on Twitter at @warrenbarton2 and ask questions to all of us via @FoxSoccer. Thanks as always for reading and I’ll see you next week.