Arsenal are a team I have a certain amount of sympathy for. They are a ‘team in transition’, with Arsene Wenger selling off the last of his 2004 ‘Invincibles’ team this summer, eagerly anticipating the success of years gone by to return.
This is a situation, as United fans, that we are very familiar with. After winning the league in 2003, we had no reason to doubt that we’d be challenging strongly for the league the following season. I imagine Arsenal fans felt exactly the same in the summer following the 2004 season, where they went 38 games undefeated. However, for a whole host of reasons, the two clubs who’d passed the league title back and forth for the years preceding were now fighting it out for 2nd place.
We could blame this entirely on Roman Abramovich’s rubles if we wanted, but that wouldn’t be painting an accurate picture. Whilst Chelsea could afford whoever they wanted, lead by the fella who’d just won the Champions League, the quality of the United and Arsenal teams in comparison simply wasn’t good enough. Both were a shadow of their former selves.
When Chelsea claimed their first title under Mourinho in 2005, Arsenal finished 12 points behind Chelsea, claiming 7 fewer points than their last title winning season. United finished 18 points behind Chelsea, falling 6 points short of our last title winning season. United bridged the gap somewhat in 2006, finishing 8 points behind Chelsea, whereas Arsenal lost the plot, finishing a massive 24 points off the top.
There have been several changes, ups and downs, since then, with Arsenal having nothing other than an empty trophy cabinet to show for their past three seasons. Sir Alex Ferguson has questioned Chelsea’s ability compete next season, so does this mean Arsenal are the team we need to look out for?
With or without Cristiano Ronaldo (although I reckon United mean business and he will stay for another season at least), United will start next season as favourites to win the league. United have a perfect combination of youth and experience, English and foreign, all with confidence and talent in abundance.
Carlos Tevez, Nani and Anderson all enjoyed hugely successful first seasons at Old Trafford. They all scored in our Champions League final penalty shoot out, with several other highlights throughout the course of the season. Add to these our more experienced youngsters, Rooney and Ronaldo, and you’re looking at five incredibly talented first team players carrying an average age of 21.8-years-old. They’re still yet to hit their peak, that is some way off, but helped steer United to the a league and European Cup double.
When we look at our older players, it’s undeniable that they still have a part to play in our success (Scholes’ goal vs Barcelona, Giggs’ goal vs Wigan/penalty in Moscow etc.), they took a backseat last season.
Aged 19, Anderson filled in brilliantly for Paul Scholes between October and January the veteran was recovering from surgery. Anderson and Scholes both made 24 appearances for United in the league last season, with 26-year-old Michael Carrick claiming the most Premiership appearances for the position, with 31.
Giggs made 31 appearances for us in the league, with Park Ji-Sung’s recovery at the start of the season seeing the Welsh winger play more often than maybe Fergie would have liked. However, for the crucial games towards the end of the season, against Arsenal, Wigan, Chelsea (CL) and both games against Barcelona, the younger options of Nani and Park were relied upon.
Now, Arsenal are a team who were continually referred to as ‘kids’ and ‘inexperienced’ last season, but these were not tags most Gooners appreciated. Truth be told, there wasn’t a great difference in age between Arsenal and United’s first team, however people don’t tend to think of Rooney and Ronaldo as kids, who have been playing first team Premiership football for five and six years respectively.
Arsenal have brought in 21-year-old Samir Nasri and 17-year-old Aaron Ramsey to bulk up their squad, with both players having bags of potential, like most of Wenger’s signings. However, after saying goobye to Gilberto, Alexander Hleb, Mathieu Flamini and Jens Lehmann, what Arsenal need is experience.
With players who should know better, like William Gallas, falling apart at the seams when the pressure was on, having proper guidance with appropriate people setting the example is vital at Arsenal.
“Arsenal are a unique team,” Mourinho claimed not long ago. “Their coach hasn’t won anything for years, but he’s an idol. There are no pressures at Arsenal. But do not say he’s growing young players into talents. What he does is take jewels to the club and polishes them. It’s different. He has time to work in a serene atmosphere and get results.”
Whilst I don’t make a habit of agreeing with the not-so-special-one, he certainly does have a point here. This period of transition has now lasted four seasons, and unless Wenger buys in bulk over the next few weeks, the barren spell will continue.
It’s a case of one step forward two steps back, for Arsenal at the moment, bringing in players who should be bulking up the squad, but instead, will end up be used as less developed replacements for the players who are leaving. Nasri is not yet ready to fill the boots of Flamini (who spent four years in the Premiership) or Gilberto (who spent six years in the Premiership), just as Ramsey can not take on Hleb’s (who spent three years in the Premiership) role.
So in two or three years time, at the least, when these new youngsters are better formed, what’s to say that 24-year-old Fabregas doesn’t make the move to Barcelona, with 28-year-old Sagna, 27-year-old van Persie or 25-year-old Clichy all looking for new challenges abroad? Just as Arsenal are on the brink of forming a World class side, more players leave, and Wenger is close to starting from scratch in developing other youngsters.
So whilst I definitely admire Wenger for his perseverance in developing young talent, something he claims the financial situation of the club bounds him to, I can’t see Arsenal reaping the benefits any time soon. Footballers are more self-serving than ever before, and like Hleb and Flamini left this summer, obviously not wanting to go another three years without winning anything, it will continue to happen.
Last season, Arsenal fans were believing that finally everything was fitting in to place, that the transition period was over. However, the club capitulated in from February onwards, finishing 3rd in the league after leading the table for over half the season. Now several of their more experienced players have left and they are certainly worse off now than they were at the beginning of last season.
Arsenal to pose the biggest threat to our title campaign? Sorry Gooners, Chelsea’s ‘pensioners’ will come closer than Arsenal’s ‘kids’.