Andrew Weber, from the popular Gunner blog, Arsenal FC Blog, has been big enough to have a quick chat with me following our 3-1 victory over them on Sunday.
Scott the Red: At the start of the season, did you think winning the league would be beyond United in light of Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure?
Andrew Weber: No, I didn’t. My prediction at the start of the season was that Arsenal and Manchester United would be up in the two spots with Chelsea third and Liverpool out of the Champions League places. I haven’t been far off, I have to say. United are always a threat for the league because they have a smart manager and a winning mentality. Most teams in England are still scared of them because of their recent history and it means they will generally get enough points to hover around the top, even if they lose the big games.
STR: We haven’t been brilliant in many of the big league games this year, losing away to both Liverpool and Chelsea, despite playing well against the latter. But our win over your lot this weekend was definitely our best performance in a big Premiership game this season. But why didn’t Wenger learn from the mistakes of last year’s CL semi?
AW: The game against United at Old Trafford earlier in this season suggested he had learnt his lesson. He played a possession game, we were far more secure at the back and only the most one-eyed United fans would say they deserved more than a draw out of that game. Why he decided to play an all-out attacking game at The Emirates is beyond me. It played to your strengths and meant that even with a lesser team than last season you were able to exploit our weaknesses.
STR: Over the past few years we’ve seen United get the results when they’ve mattered against Arsenal. There was the 4-0 in the FA Cup, our 2-1 towards the end of the 07-08 season, the Champions League semis last season, the point that won us the Premiership last season and now Sunday. Do you think Arsenal are missing big characters that would help you in these games?
AW: To be honest, I don’t feel we are. Cesc, Arshavin, Vermaelen, Song, van Persie and Bendtner are all players that I would consider big characters. They have more heart, soul and drive than a lot of our players have had inprevious seasons. They are the reason we’ve been able to grind out results and get near the top of the table despite a fairly horrid injury crisis. At the moment we are being let down by a small minority – Denilson and Almunia are struggling for confidence, Clichy is in a bit of a slump and if you have a couple of players underperforming it makes it hard to win the big games.
STR: I imagine Wenger brought Sol Campbell back to give you an old head at the back. You were “delighted” when Silvestre signed for the same reason, saying “He ticks all the right boxes – experienced, a Premiership player, a proven winner and of course French.” Are you as confident about Campbell, despite Silvestre’s lacking impact?
AW: I think Sol is a good signing. He appears psychologically revitalized since his break from the game and that is probably the most important thing. His opening two performances have been good and I wouldn’t have a problem with him playing a number of games before the end of the season. His pace isn’t great but if he plays alongside Gallas or Vermaelen, whoare both quite quick, it’s not too much of a problem.
STR: He hardly played a blinder in your FA Cup exit at the hands of Stoke. Regardless, I imagine the more important issue is hanging on to your best players rather than bringing in new faces. How long do you think you can hang on to Fabregas before he leaves for Barcelona?
AW: I really don’t think it’s as cut and dry as the media makes out. He is the Arsenal captain, a player who loves the club and will be around for awhile yet. I don’t think he would go anywhere until 26 or 27 if he does but if Arsenal are winning trophies by that point – which I suspect they will be – then he may not leave at all.
STR: Honestly, I think you are kidding yourself. There’s no doubt he feels a lot for the club, but you have to understand that Barcelona will always mean more to him. If you win things again, he can leave knowing that he has contributed to your success, and if you don’t win things, he can cite that as the reason for leaving. But with all the hype surrounding him, do you think he has been Arsenal’s best performer this season?
AW: You could pick any one of Song, Vermaelen or Fabregas. It feels like every single time I write a match report I make mention of how well that trio play. We’re still conceding goals at the back but Vermaelen’s no-nonsense approach has improved our defence, Song has provided us with a player whois able to assert himself physically in the midfield while Fabregas hashad his most productive season yet. The fans will surely vote Fabregas as the best but at this point in time Song would get my vote.
STR: You’ve told us about your great players, but which of ours do you think would get in to Arsenal’s starting XI?
AW: Evra and Rooney for sure. Vidic would be an amazing partner for Vermaelen. Whichever goalkeeper you want to give us! In midfield Fletcher would probably be a good addition alongside Cesc and Song while up front van Persie, Arshavin and Rooney would be my pick. I’ve picked five United and six Arsenal there so we must still be better team!
STR: Course you are. With this better team, fancy doing us a favour this weekend against Chelsea?
Of course – history proves it is possible. We won 2-1 last season at Stamford Bridge and we can do it again. The main thing is that we get our passing into a groove, don’t push forward too recklessly and a few of our big players fire. Bendtner will surely be starting too and although he polarizes opinion, my view on him is that he is a very dangerous player who will prove that if given a good run in the side.
STR: You’ve had to play United and Chelsea in one week, but who do you think will win the league?
AW: You could really pick any of the top three at this stage, although the argument for Arsenal has probably weakened since the weekend. As I said before, United will always pick up points because of their character while Chelsea appear to be the best group of players in the Premiership. At this stage if I had to stick my nose out I’d probably say Chelsea out of the two of you, yet it could all change very quickly. In terms of Arsenal, things are certainly not over. If we get a result against Chelsea and are within 5 or 6 points of the top of the table after the Liverpool game then we stand a good chance. Our run-in is ridiculously easy compared to United and Chelsea and our recent run of results, prior to the weekend, shows we have the squad capable of putting a good run together. Bendtner will be back, reports are van Persie will be back in March and we will finish strongly.
STR: You’d drawn two of the past four in the run up to playing United but you’re right, things do change very quickly in the league. But if Arsenal are trophyless again this season, how long will Wenger have? It’s hard to believe that the last time you won a trophy was when we were robbed in the 2005 FA Cup final. It feels like forever ago though, given that we have won three league titles, the European Cup and two League Cups since then. It is interesting to note that since winning his first trophy in 1990, Fergie hasn’t ever gone longer than one season without winning something. How many seasons will Wenger get?
AW: The thing about Wenger – which I think United fans would understand abovemany others – is that his impact cannot really be measured simply by trophies. Sure, we want to win. Sure, we don’t want to be a feeder club or just a club that is worried about finances or blooding young players. But in a long-term way that is what the club and Wenger have decided to do and the fans must be patient with him to ensure he gets sufficient time to see his plan come to fruition. For me it’s not really about trophies, it’s about developing squads of players to their peak every three or so years and having a really good run at the title. That was what was so disappointing about last season. We were so close to the league in 2007/08 that to see us lose key players and basically have a year of no progress last season was disappointing. If we’d hung on to Flamini and Adebayor hadn’t had his head turned then we would have had a chance. As it is this season is pretty much what I expected last season and perhaps the next one will be our best shot at the league.
STR: I suppose that has to be the worry for Wenger. He will keep bringing through talented players, only for them to leave for a bigger a club/a club which provides them with a greater chance of winning something. But at least you’re not massively in debt eh?
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