I’ll take 24 gills of merriment, barkeep

Tim Stillman Column

When you’re a supporter of any club, these are the sorts of spells you really just have to enjoy. Watching Arsenal play is a real pleasure at the moment. There are plenty that will plead caution and perhaps as many that will anticipate our annual spring collapse. To a certain extent, they’re not at all incorrect to do that.

Still I make no apologies for the sensation of pleasure I currently feel watching the Gunners. Form is always transient. In football and in life, sometimes you’ve got it and sometimes, baby, you just ain’t. It just seems to me that if we’re all prepared to thirst off the misery of poor form, suckling from its teat like famished parasites, poring over every error with gumption, then we should be equally capable of drinking from the flagon of cheer when we are playing well. (Fuck me – I’m beginning to sound like Stuart Hall here).

This side is giving me a different kind of pleasure though. There have been more free flowing Wenger prototypes than this. Indeed, I think that we’ve had teams with more talented individuals even during our relative trophy “drought.” (Did you know it’s been over six years since our last trophy? Some journalist really ought to write that shit down somewhere). But the overriding impression I’m getting is that this is a team that is better than the sum of its parts.

I wrote in this column a few weeks ago that understanding is a much underrated asset in football. Arsenal have been able to field something approaching a settled starting line up over the last couple of months and we’re seeing the dividends. Discussing the aftermath of the Norwich match on Vital Arsenal earlier this week, somebody made a thoroughly decent point that, for all of his qualities, the team has a greater diversity without Fabregas.

I grew weary of defending Cesc last season against accusations of a lack of leadership when I think it was his willingness to take on absolutely everything that was a hindrance. Too often, players would timidly nudge the ball to Fabregas before recoiling into the shadows, shrieking girlishly as Cesc cut their meat and veg for them.

But now the thrust of the team is van Persie, which means the ball moves forwards much quicker. With Gervinho allied to Walcott’s pace in and around RvP, Arsenal look a more dynamic team that attacks with greater tenacity. Add in the maturity of Arteta and the blossoming of Ramsey and it’s a mix that has certainly begun to froth.

We are far too dependent on the goals of van Persie, but probably no more dependent than The Invincibles were on Henry. The question is whether Gervinho can be a Ljungberg, Walcott a Pires, Arshavin a Wiltord. Can Chamakh achieve the standards of Tomas Danelivicius? Etcetera, etcetera.

Our next challenge is to deal with the density of fixtures for the next three months. The demands placed on the squad will take their toll. Regardless of injuries, rotation will be required. Our first choice XI is probably a clearer pick now than it has been for some years. The cohesion built up since September will be arrested to some degree.

The squad players are going to have to come into the side and be able to function in the same way as those they are displacing. For my money, the deputies weren’t able to do that last year, hence rather indifferent results against the likes of Leeds and Leyton Orient. This led to time consuming, energy sapping replays.

The bonus on this occasion is the greater maturity of our squad players. We’ll be asking the likes of Benayoun, Rosicky and Arshavin to step in, as opposed to more callow players such as Bendtner and Denilson. In his revealing interview with L’Equipe Wenger hinted that the team were overloaded last season, which contributed to the spring time collapse. It’s likely he won’t be looking to repeat that mistake this time around.

Meanwhile, Jack Wilshere has thrown down the gauntlet to Spurs fans this week, using his Twitter feed to pledge £3,000 to charity if Tottenham finish above Arsenal, inviting each Spurs fan that follows him to pledge a pound of their own should Arsenal come up trumps in the tussle for North London supremacy. (Though Spurs fans may be reluctant, I hear you can get an HD TV and a pair of Reebok Classics for significantly less than a pound on the Tottenham High Road). Behind the visage of banter and, of course, the net gains for a good cause; it does rather show that even the players believe Spurs and Arsenal to be in something of a shootout for 4th place.

It would be foolhardy to argue that Tottenham aren’t looking good at the moment. But if you scratch beneath the surface, I think they are under more pressure to qualify than Arsenal. After tax, they’ve essentially recorded something like £400,000 profit according to their recent accounts- and that was with last season’s Champions’ League run factored in. I accept they shifted some deadwood this summer to ease their wage bill up. But Friedel will be 41 when this season is over. Gallas is 34. Scott Parker is 31 (and reported to be on about £70k a week). All of these players will need replacing in the very near future.

Adebayor is currently a loan arrangement. If Spurs want him come the summer, they’ll have to buy him. (He’s already intimated that he wouldn’t accept a wage cut). If not, they’ll have to look for a striker of comparable quality. Not cheap in terms of fees or salaries. The spectre of Modric, Bale and van der Vaart’s contracts will begin to loom large. Modric was tied down recently, but the club has, as I understand it, already looked to open discussions to improve his terms in order to prevent him from agitating further.

Spurs essentially have to resolve these looming issues on a profit margin of around half a million. That’s with the estimated £38m of CL income. ‘Arry has never been famed for being a long term planner and Tottenham’s squad- whilst admittedly looking good right now- has a tenuous future with a relative shoestring to maintain / restock it.

The situations around van Persie and Walcott are delicate, particularly if we don’t qualify. However, most of our squad are tied to longer contracts which gives us the whip hand in keeping them in the event that we end up in the Europa League. Or else, if we’re forced to sell, we are in a strong position to negotiate a good fee.

Nobody’s saying everything will be peaches and cream if Arsenal don’t qualify for the Champions League, but with stadium costs too Spurs have to be in there just to have a chance of maintaining their squad. Nevertheless, I am excited about the race between us. It reignites the sporting essence of the rivalry. And in a shootout, what would you rather have in your artillery. A chicken on a basketball, or a fucking great cannon? Exactly.

With that fellow Gooners, I bid you adieu for another week. Form is a fickle lover indeed, so whilst it’s still inviting you into its bed, park your boots and get your kicks while you can. We’ve got the whole of next summer to gaze at our navels. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA


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