All guns blazing at Arsenal

BY foxsports • November 11, 2009

If Arsenal carries on at this rate, there'll be a line as long as a London bus of one-time doubters, this humble hack included, waiting outside manager Arsene Wenger's door to apologize at the end of the season. "Sorry," we'll say, "You were right to believe that your young players would come good in the end. Right not to spend your way to success. Right to insist that football can be both beautiful to watch and victorious at the same time." Being an affable chap, Wenger would accept the groveling gracefully. Proving wrong the many people who question his methods at Arsenal is not the primary motivator for this French professor of the round ball. His soccer philosophy - the word is apt given the deep thought that Wenger puts into his job - is far more profound than simply hoping he will finally be able to crow "I told you so." When Arsenal finished last of the Premier League's big four clubs last term, trophyless yet again, the reasons seemed glaringly obvious. The squad was too small and immature. It lacked spine, experience and strong leaders. Buy, buy, buy! fans implored in the offseason. With Manchester City vacuuming up talent with its bottomless wells of Abu Dhabi oil money, Arsenal appeared doomed unless it, too, broke with club tradition and spent heavily. Yet, except for the reported $16 million wisely paid for Belgium defender Thomas Vermaelen, Wenger stood firm. He largely stuck to the young Gunners he has nurtured so patiently. He refused the quick fix of transfers from a market inflated by the wantonness of City and Real Madrid. Now, while those big spenders underperform, bargain-basement Arsenal is setting records. First Premier League team to score 36 goals - the previous highwater mark was 31 - in the first 11 matches and the first to average more than three goals a game in that period. With 25 points and the best goal difference, Arsenal is second as the league breaks for players to fulfill international duties, nearly a third of the way through its season. When Arsenal routed Everton to make its best ever start to a season, few would have argued with captain Cesc Fabregas' sobering prediction that "we're not going to win 6-1 every day." No, but they're coming close. Portsmouth, downed 4-1. Wigan, sent packing 4-0. Blackburn, crushed 6-2. Wolverhampton, brushed aside 4-1. The only blips, and big blips at that: back-to-back defeats at the two Manchesters, United and City, and a 2-2 draw at West Ham that left a straw to clutch to for those who argue that Arsenal still isn't ruthless enough in closing down games when ahead. Neutrals and those who hope - are there any left? - that money isn't everything in soccer should cross fingers and toes that Arsenal keeps scoring like this and wins something this season. Failure for a fifth consecutive year could not only force Wenger out but also consign to history his belief that teams aren't obliged to spend massively to be champions. Placing so much faith in young players will seem as outdated as candlelight if they finish second-best again to the more free-spending likes of Chelsea and United. Although soccer, unlike art, doesn't reward beauty just for the sake of it, the artistry, the quick and controlled freedom that Wenger's players are crafting surely deserves some silverware. Masterpieces like Fabregas' goal on half time against Wolverhampton. Defender Bacary Sagna recovered the ball deep in Arsenal's half, lobbed it wide to Fabregas, sprinted down field, ran onto Fabregas' neat pass and crossed to the lurking Robin van Persie in the box. With one sharp stroke of his right instep, the Dutch international took the speed off the ball and delivered it like a love letter at the feet of the on-rushing Fabregas. Time elapsed from Sagna's first touch to Fabregas' near-post goal: 13 seconds. Wolverhampton had six players in their quarter of the field. They could have had 20, it still wouldn't have made any difference against such speedy efficiency. Arsenal threatens from all over the pitch. Its league goals have come from 12 different players, compared to nine for United and for league leaders Chelsea, and just seven players - mostly the injured Fernando Torres - at sickly Liverpool. Now, some provisos. In the Premier League, only half the time has the team with most goals after 11 games held on to win the title. Indeed, in 17 full seasons, the top-scoring team has not won seven times. Arsenal under Wenger also has something of a history of faltering in November, which he attritibutes partly to the onset of injuries with winter, and of New Year slumps. So scoring freely now will not be enough. But it is a good start. --- John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org


share