We often hear about how great Arsenal are. It is basically implanted in everyone’s brains that they play the most attractive football in Europe, alongside Barcelona. It has however been too long since they’ve won anything. The excuses of inexperience are getting old and even Arsene Wenger has come out and said that his players should have enough experience by now to see them to glory. Arsenal still are a young team, but having played from much earlier ages in the Premier League and the Champions League makes them an experienced bunch. There is however, a barrier that has stopped this very talented Arsenal side into a winning team that can compete with the best in Europe.
No, that barrier is not Manuel Almunia (even though, he’s doing a great job to stop Arsenal from achieving greatness). The barrier is that first trophy. Many of Arsenal’s young stars have yet to taste glory at its fullest, so they seem to doubt themselves when they get close. Some people will put it down to them being unlucky, or the huge amount of injuries that Arsenal always seem to get. In my opinion though, it is much more about mentality.
Three years ago, when Arsenal put up a serious challenge for the league title, the injury to Eduardo destroyed the fragile minds of the players. The final stretch for the season saw a horrible run of form, with draws to Wigan, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, Birmingham, as well as defeats at Chelsea and Manchester United. Champions League elimination from Liverpool also showed a lot of inexperience from the Arsenal team, who should’ve gone through after scoring on the 85th minute of the match. At the time, it was written off due to Eduardo’s traumatic injury, which saw the rest of the team rapidly dip in form, which was a fair point, there had been a correlation. Arsenal had put up brave fights against their contestants away from home but had been unlucky and fallen short. Things did look for the next season however.
It simply didn’t happen. Arsenal lost important players such as Alex Hleb and Mathieu Flamini, who both made the midfield tick and didn’t buy a replacement for the latter. Nasri slotted in nicely for Hleb and had a good debut season, but being a newcomer to the Premier League, inconsistency appeared and Arsenal had no other option but him during his bad patches. Flamini was replaced by Denilson, who despite being a promising player, wasn’t ready to have such responsibility resting on his shoulders. The 4-4-2 formation with Fabregas and Denilson in the two centre midfield positions made Arsenal so vulnerable away from home. The first half of the season was a complete write-off, Arsenal had been awful and, despite beating Manchester United at Home and Chelsea away, were out of the title race by December. Having his last Champions League spot threatened by Aston Villa, Wenger was forced to buy Andrei Arshavin in January to create an attacking edge, which was, unsually, lacking for the North London side. The emergence of Alex Song added some steel to a fragile Arsenal midfield. After that, a run of 19 unbeaten league games in late February to April saw Arsenal see off the challenge of Aston Villa and reach Champions League and FA Cup semi-finals. In the FA Cup, after taking the lead, Arsenal conceded a silly goal before half time and crumbled. Were completely outplayed by a Chelsea side they had beaten away earlier in the season, albeit under a different manager, and got beaten 2-1. In the Champions League, after losing the first leg 1-0, a slip from Gibbs, mistake from Almunia and a great Manchester United goal, so them embarrassingly get knocked out at home with a 3-1 score line. They had however, put up a great fight in the second half of the season, but in the end, some mistakes and a lack of luck, saw them fall short. Things did however look bright for next year.
Are you starting to see a pattern in this?
Last season, Arsenal started it in scintillating form, with a 6-1 win away at Everton and a 4-0 whooping of Portsmouth at home. When they played Manchester United away, they dominated (despite the absence of Cesc Fabregas), but were defeated, due to an Almunia mistake and a freak own goal from Abou Diaby. Arsenal continued a good run of form up until they faced Chelsea in November. When they had the opportunity to go top of the table, they were bullied by the Blues in their own home ground. It was embarrassing. The same thing happened when they faced Manchester United at home and Chelsea away in quick succession. Despite losing to all their direct rivals and playing the majority of the season without a striker, Arsenal were still in the race. After scrapping many hard fought wins, another away day at Birmingham saw their title hopes fade, after a mistake from Manuel Almunia in stoppage time, saw them lose two points and Manchester United and Chelsea get away from them at the summit of the Premier League. The end of the season was miserable with losses away at Tottenham, Blackburn, Wigan and a draw with Man City at home. Things did however look bright for next season (here is that key expression once again!).
This now brings us to the current season: Arsenal’s time to step up. They managed to keep Cesc Fabregas from going to Barcelona and if they hope to keep him for longer, they better start delivering on the trophy front. Despite the weekend’s shock defeat to West Brom, Arsenal started the season strongly, playing some scintillating football as usual, but can they give Chelsea a run for their money on Sunday?
The swagger with which Arsenal put away Blackpool, Braga, Tottenham and Bolton was impressive. Chelsea’s sometimes larger score line, didn’t do justice to the beauty that whoever was watching the Gunners saw. It was completely out of this world. Fantasy football at its best. They also showed some great resilience at Blackburn and Sunderland (where they were terribly unlucky to not come out with all three points) and tremendous fighting spirit to get a point in the last minute against Liverpool.
The defeat against West Brom however, showed a completely different side to Arsenal. Completely lethargic, complacent and slow to the ball, they were deservedly beaten by a much sharper West Brom side, that just seemed to want it more than the Gunners did. No movement up front, Song always being caught of position, Diaby looking lazy, Clichy a liability. Only Nasri had an above average game. The question that remains is, which Arsenal will turn up on Sunday?
Chelsea have been a machine since the start of the season. Tearing sides apart, and only conceding a single goal so far this season. They looked absolutely unstoppable up until they faced Manchester City on Saturday. Chelsea barely threatened going forwards and had a lot of trouble dealing with Tevez at the back. It wasn’t a pretty game to watch, but it is one that Arsenal will have to study carefully if they want to get anything out of the game at Stamford Bridge. All Man City did was get into Chelsea’s faces and not allowing them any space to play and then breaking at speed as soon as they got the ball. Nigel De Jong and Vincent Kompany were absolutely outstanding on the day and completely denied the threat of Chelsea’s midfield. Tevez was also brilliant, a one man army leading the front, making great runs, getting into great positions and scoring a fine winner.
This is what Arsenal have to do to beat, or even get a draw against, Chelsea. They need massive performances from the two deepest lying midfielders in Wenger’s 4-2-3-1 formation (probably Song and Diaby). Song, who was one of Arsenal’s best player last season, has had an awful start to the current campaign. He’s been often caught out of position and was one of the worst players on display against West Bromwich Albion. He needs to sit deep and not give the Chelsea midfield a single second to think about what they’re going to do. It is difficult to predict how it will turn out for Arsenal. After all, Song is a very different player from De Jong, the Dutchman is a much harder tackler and is one of the best at doing his job, breaking up play. Arsenal also don’t have a defender like Kompany in their ranks. They will be looking for the return of Vermaelen to fix the problems on show on the weekend. Nasri needs to step up once again, especially since Fabregas is a doubt for the clash, and put in a performance like he did in the second half versus Albion and against Tottenham.
Chamakh, despite being a very good buy from Wenger, can’t do to Chelsea what Tevez did. He is expected to start, as Robin van Persie is still two weeks or so away from fitness, and needs to have the game of his life if he is to do anything against Chelsea. He looked uninterested and slow in the last week and despite bringing a lot of positive things to Arsenal, it’s clear so far that he doesn’t have a killer instinct. He often checks back and plays the safe ball rather than look for a shot when he is slipped in at a difficult angle. A true “killer” would just take the shot no matter what and in the process would eventually score some goals; Chamakh doesn’t seem to have that in him and it is something Arsenal generally lack.
In the end, I believe it will be a difficult challenge to Arsenal and I fully expect Chelsea to come out with a win. Arsenal do need to avoid defeat at all costs however, as they would be 7 points behind Chelsea at such an early stage of the season. City did show them the cards to beat Chelsea and Arsenal have enough quality in their side to do it, it’s just up to them if they want to sacrifice the beauty of their football for a single day in order to make it effective and truly trouble Chelsea.
Whatever Sunday brings us, it’s bound to be a classic. The biggest game of the season so far and one that the away team cannot afford to lose.
Sep 30, 2010
Time to Nut Up or Shut Up - The Chronicles of the Wenger Boys
By Gregor Vasconcelos