The season ahead.
I've promised to have a look ahead to the new season for a couple of days now so here goes. I've broken it down into areas on the pitch and then an overall view. Make of it what you will.
Goalkeeper: At the time of writing we haven't signed the keeper the boss said he was looking for last week. That was widely expected to be Uruguayan Sebastian Viera but some reports today suggest the player failed a medical. Despite bringing in young Italian Vito Mannone this does leave us a bit, but not much, short.
I say a bit because Jens Lehmann is suspended for our first two Champions League games of the season. That means Manuel Almunia will fill in if he recovers from his injury, if not we're certainly a bit light just for those two games.
I know people's opinions of Lehmann are fairly divided but for me he's a decent keeper in an era of very few outstanding goalkeeping talents. Bar Cech every keeper in the league had his embarrassing moments and while he looked a little too secure of his place in mid-season a spell on the bench certainly worked because when he came he was as good as anyone in the latter part of the season. Add to that the upcoming World Cup in Germany and you've got an experienced keeper who is going to be highly motivated to perform well all season long.
I think Almunia is a decent number 2 (heh) but no more than that. Realistically he's not going to pressure Jens for his place and will only play in cup games and on account of injury. For that reason it would be nice to see us bring in another keeper, one who will keep the current number 1 on his toes even more and somebody who has the potential to fill the position on a long term basis.
Defence: Personally I don't think we need any signings in this area. At right back we have Lauren, Eboue and Hoyte. We have four centre-halves in Campbell, Cygan, Senderos and Toure, the latter pairing being the first choice for the new season, and at left back we have Cole, Clichy and probably this Traore kid.
Sol's injuries and current state of mind is worrying. Has the hunger he had to prove the Spuds up the road gone? Is his body, which Wenger called a 'heavy machine', starting to show its age even though he's relatively young for a centre-half? If he's back and fit and competing we're well covered in my opinion. If not we have to hope Senderos and Toure stay fit because Cygan is not really an option for a lot of games. He did well enough last season filling in but any run of permanency in the team tends to affect our form.
Kolo is going to have a better season than last, I can feel it. It's not that he was bad it's just that he struggled alongside three different partners and he had a lot to live up to after his exploits the previous season. The partnership he forged with Senderos at the end of the season was extremely promising though and the two complement each other well. He's also got another season of experience under his belt which, more than any other position apart from goalkeeper, makes a big difference.
Philippe Senderos looks to me to be the centre-half Arsenal have been looking for for a couple of seasons now. Strong, committed, brave, intelligent, confident. Yes, he had a hard time against Drogba during the Community Shield but young players will have games like that. It's what they learn from them that really counts and I'm quite happy for him to have a game like that in a friendly and learn from it than do it in a league game.
There's a weight of expectation on him now as well which wasn't there last season but from the moment he made his Champions League debut against Bayern there was no doubting his quality. Some people have suggested we could make a signing in this area but I don't think it's a good idea. Toure and Senderos have the makings of a great partnership that could last years. What we have to do is allow two young defenders the time to create an understanding and awareness between them and when that really kicks in we're going to be looking at something special in my opinion.
I'll touch on how midfield can help them out now in a second but overall I think we're pretty strong at the back when everyone's fit and available.
Midfield: Obviously the main talking point is the sale of Vieira and I'm not going to go over the whys and wherefores of that again. Bottom line is he's gone and we've got to get on with it. We've also lost Edu and the one area where I think we really could add some depth to the squad is in central midfield.
The difficulty arises when you try and think who to bring in. Cesc is obviously going to take Vieira's place alongside Gilberto and his talent is such that the more he plays the better he's going to be. That said he's still only 18 so he's going to need a bit of looking after still. Flamini is a hard working player, sort of like a French Ray Parlour but often, despite his commitment, we bemoaned Ray's lack of nous, if you will. The same goes for Flamini really.
As well as that an injury to any of the three we have at the moment would leave us desperately short. There's just no way Robert Pires can play in there, despite some pre-season appearances, Hleb isn't a central player from what I've seen and while youngsters like Larsson and Djourou have real promise, they certainly lack the experience. Although then you come to the whole chicken and egg thing. How do these young players who have talent and promise get the experience they need without playing games?
Leaving that conundrum aside though I'd feel better if we made a signing in central midfield. Who do we get who's willing to come and battle against Cesc and Gilberto though? If Jenas was available for under £10m I'd be tempted to bring him and see what Arsene could make of his talent. At this point even someone like Dacourt would settle the nerves a bit. What I would say though is that while the boss is obviously putting his faith in young players where we have lots of options I think he's going to bring someone in here because we lack options.
If nearly every Arsenal fan you talk to speaks about the perceived weakness in central midfield then you can be sure AW is aware of it too. He's sold his captain and Edu. He knows we've only got three central midfielders. We know he was trying to bring in Baptista. He knows Cesc is only 18. He knows we lost Gilberto for a long time last season. He knows Vieira was injured a lot last season. He knows Edu was injured a lot last season so there's our three and after that we don't have any real cover unless Djourou and Larsson are much more ready than we know.
With that in mind I just don't think we'll get to August 31st without buying someone.
Wide midfield I think we're just fine. With Reyes multi-purpose on the left wing or up front, Bobby, Freddie and Hleb I think there's plenty of cover and plenty of options there. From what I've seen of the pre-season games I like the look of Hleb. He passes the ball well and his workrate is very, very good. I sat up a bit when during the Porto game he was dispossessed but chased and harried the Porto player all the way back up the pitch to get the ball off him. I like players that work hard and we're going to need them all over the pitch this year.
To go back to what I was saying earlier about the defence I think the fact that the central defensive partnership we have is so young I'd like to see Gilberto play quite deep, almost right in front of them, giving them a shield until they get into their stride. I hate to say Makelele style because I hate that cunt but you know what I mean when I say it. Alongside him Cesc is not afraid to get stuck in and while he doesn't have the physical presence of Vieira he won't shy out of tackles, I'd warrant he might work harder than Paddy did in his last 18 months and he certainly won't give the ball away as much.
One signing in central midfield and we're set.
Forwards: We've got one of the best, if not the best, in the world in Thierry who is going to smash Wright's record in the first part of the season. He's also our captain but I don't think that's going to affect him negatively in any way. I think he's got the personality to make it work but he can't have those little inward spells any more. He's got to encourage and keep the heads of the others up, he can't afford to let his own drop.
I think Dennis will start the season, perhaps brightly, but I'm not sure how long he'll last the pace. As brilliant as he is he is 36 years old and that does take it's toll no matter how talented you are.
Reyes has a bit prove this season but he's signed a new contract, he seems to have grown more accustomed to life in England and has made strides when it comes to the language. As well as that he shouldn't have the same off field distractions he had last time around and I don't think it's unfair to say that we expect a lot more from our record signing this season. I'm confident he's going to have a good campaign.
Robin van Persie has obviously had a difficult summer and won't know for a while yet what's going to happen with regards to his court case. For so many reasons I hope there's no case to answer and he can concentrate on his football again but I'm sure when he's on the pitch he'll be fully concentrated on the game and not anything else. I think he's a player of huge talent and potential and we were beginning to see consistent flashes of that last season. After his sending off he seemed to grow up quickly, his football improved and he showed some real class in his scoring and all-round play. All other things going well I'd tip him to be Thierry's partner by the end of the season.
As well as those we have Lupoli and Quincy waiting in the wings, both very different players but again two with tremendous potential. We'll see if they, like Senderos last season, can step up and take their chances when they get them. It looks like David Bentley is off on loan again and to be honest I'm not quite sure where he could fit into the team at the moment.
Overall: I think people are lingering too much on Vieira's departure. Yes, he was a great player for us but nobody knew him better than Arsene Wenger and if he decided this summer was the right time to sell him then that's good enough for me. Perhaps it might make a difference to teams psychologically when they come to play us without Vieira. Maybe they won't have the same fear. Maybe that will work to our benefit though and keep the pressure off Cesc.
We have a core of young players who gained a huge amount from last season and will do the same this time around. They're talented, hungry for success and determined to make it at Arsenal. We have more experience than people give us credit for. Henry, Lehmann, Sol, Gilberto, Ljungberg, Pires, Bergkamp, Lauren and Cole will help bring these youngsters along even more.
Like all of you I see Chelsea spending like it's going out of fashion and you do get itchy for the club, actually the manager to open the cheque book. As I mentioned earlier I think he will when it comes to midfield and keeper but to me the season ahead is like a battle between good and evil. Chelsea's filthy millions and mercenaries against our (mostly) pure and well-bred youngsters.
Arsene Wenger has been building something at Arsenal for years now. I remember a few seasons back when people would bemoan signings like Vivas, Luhzny and Grimandi because they got in the way of young players. Young players like Hughes, Bothroyd, Vernazza, McGovern, Weston and so many more. Those young players never had a chance at Arsenal. Now we have a crop of incredibly talented young players and people want the manager to go out and buy players to hinder their progress. Right now I wouldn't buy any player to put ahead of Senderos, Cesc or even van Persie.
Of course I want Arsenal to win the league, of course I want us to strengthen the squad but we shouldn't go out and spend money in the short term that would impede on what is a fairly obvious long term plan. Remember as well that long term in football is about 18 months! The young players need to play as much as possible and I think the boss will give them as many opportunities as he can.
I also think he's got to be realistic about the strength of the squad and it is obvious we need a midfielder. We could cope without a keeper but I think going into the new season without adding some depth to the squad in central midfield would be a serious error of judgement. I trust Arsene implicitly when it comes to our team, his record shows that trust has been earned over 9 seasons, but that's not to say he's infallible. Get a midfielder boss, please!
One other thing I'd say is that because of our success it's hard to see us lose games and so many fans have such high expectations that they lose sight of the big picture in the wake of a bad result. I like to think Arsenal fans are intelligent enough to be able to cope with a few defeats. As these young players grow up they are going to make mistakes but they will learn from them. We need to be patient and supportive of them now, and this season coming, because they're our future. They're going to bring us success in the seasons to come. We're fans but we're also supporters.
It's just a couple of days till kick-off. I'm excited. I'm nervous. I'm confident. I'm really looking forward to football again and, maybe it's just me, but I love the way everyone has more of less written us off already. Last Sunday's papers did their prediction things and I don't think anyone had us above third.
This might be a line some of you hate to hear but this time two years ago we only brought in Lehmann and Gael Clichy having lost Seaman, Gio and Luhzny and and everyone wrote us off then. We went that season unbeaten.
While it might be too much to even hope for the same thing we have to remember this is a team with character, with resilience, with wonderful players who play fantastic football and know how to win, and most importantly, and don't ever forget it, this team is The Arsenal.
Bring it on.
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