Quiet optimism reigns in Arsenal camp
For some years now, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has scoffed at the idea that the summer break, the so called off-season, in any way resembles a holiday.
A lot of the work is more tiresome, more stressful, more demanding than dealing with the regular season, for all the non-stop pressure and emotions that brings. Summer, for Wenger, means an ear glued to the phone (or both to several phones), some intensely difficult conversations, and a gruelling fight to try to keep the best parts of his team together. It is not a fight that is easily won these days.
Years ago he confessed he could write a book about the shenanigans of a single summer transfer that would be a blockbuster, and the look in his eyes suggested people would barely believe what really goes on in these underhand tugs of war over a footballer.
More than a dozen years have passed since Wenger battled over the future of Nicolas Anelka, who ended up being prised away by Real Madrid for more than $35 million. The upshot of that particular deal was that it funded the arrival of another French kid by the name of Thierry Henry, who cost a fraction of what Arsenal made from Anelka’s sale. That didn’t work out too badly. But selling high and buying an even better replacement on the cheap is a trick that is ridiculously difficult to repeat.
Balancing the ins and outs has become a dominant part of every summer at Arsenal. At least some lessons appear to have been learned since this time last year, when the Gunners conducted their transfer business with all the sharpness of a sprinter wearing lead boots running through treacle.
They knew that Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri would go, but appeared paralyzed to do anything about it until they finally cut ties perilously close to the end of the transfer window, which left them little time to recruit new players. They started the season pummelled on the pitch, and dashing around the bin ends of the sales off it. All in all, it was a complete mess.
This summer’s operation has been much more pro-active. With Robin van Persie’s position still hanging in the balance, Arsenal went shopping early, decisively, and have recruited three talented, international standard attackers, all in the mid-20s age bracket so they are in theory ready to step into the thick of it.
In Lukas Podolski, they have a German striker with more than 100 caps. Olivier Giroud was top the scorer in France last season and has the kind of imposing physique and attitude that ought to fit in nicely with Premier League football. Santi Cazorla brings the poise and creativity that is synonymous with small Spanish midfielders these days.
In an ideal world, these would be additions to van Persie, whose mastery in front of goal last season made him player of the year in England. In theory, that would make Arsenal an interesting case to make up some ground on the two Manchester teams that finished above them last season. Reliance on van Persie, who scored the bulk of his team’s goals, was an issue that obviously needed addressing.
The real world, though, is likely to deprive Wenger of the kind of strength in depth he needs for Arsenal to mount a more sustained challenge. The next two weeks are critical not only regarding van Persie, but also Theo Walcott, who is another with one year left on his contract, and Alex Song, who is coveted by Barcelona.
If more than one of those names end up elsewhere before the window slams shut, Arsenal will need to find another pearl to come in - and pronto. "We are still looking, and we’ll see," said Wenger. "We still have an eye on the market and the two eyes on our team. If a good opportunity turns up, we will take it."
For the record, the latest van Persie update is that he did figure for Arsenal over the weekend in their final warm-up game in Germany. He came on for the last 20 minutes, and picked up the captain’s armband, but notably he was the only first eleven player who didn’t play a whole half. Read into that what you will.
With so much emphasis on the attacking side of their game, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that Arsenal also require an upgrade on the defensive side. As they have not altered their personnel in that department, the biggest change has come through coaching. Steve Bould, a tough defender who won titles with the club in the past, is Wenger’s new assistant. The players have already complimented Bould on his new drills and ideas. Time will tell whether that is sufficient to cut out some of the basic errors that can be so costly. Arsenal conceded 49 goals last term: too many.
Pre-season is never the most accurate barometer of how a team will fare, but there is a concern that Arsenal have not had the ideal conditions to prepare the team’s fitness. Wenger’s dream scenario is a meticulously planned few weeks ramping up fitness out of the public glare with a string of increasingly challenging fixtures to help the players to find their rhythm.
What he has had to contend with is the now ubiquitous tour of Asia (something he tolerates only because he has to due to the financial booster), there was a game scheduled in Nigeria that was bizarrely cancelled, and finally a match against an under-strength FC Koln team from the second division in Germany, which was hardly a tough assignment. A series of international matches just days before the Premier League kicks off is Wenger’s idea of a nightmare on top of all that. Cazorla, for example, must travel to Puerto Rico with Spain.
So, what kind of Arsenal team will show up at the Emirates on Saturday against a Sunderland team that will be geed up themselves? Will they be ready? Will the arrivals have had enough time to gel with their new teammates? Will van Persie play?
One thing is certain: fans have swapped loud pessimism for quiet optimism. Arsenal undoubtedly feel readier, and steadier, than last time.