Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Can Arsenal end their trophy drought?

The transfer saga of the summer is finally over. Well, for now at least. Despite the best efforts of several prominent Barcelona officials and players, Arsenal's refusal to negotiate with the Spanish giants has prompted talismanic captain Cesc Fabregas to commit his immediate future to the club. 'I am a professional and I fully understand that it is Arsenal's prerogative not to sell me', he stated after joining up with the rest of Wenger's squad for pre-season training. 'I owe a lot to the club, manager and the fans and I will respect their decision and will now concentrate on the new season ahead with Arsenal.' The news will undoubtedly be music to the ears of Gunners fans, who would otherwise understandably have been dismayed to lose their most influential player. But replacing these fears in the minds of the Emirates faithful will be the familiar, nagging question which has plagued their thoughts in recent seasons: will this be the year that Arsenal end their trophy exile?

The 2005 FA Cup trophy is the most recent piece of significant silverware that currently resides in the Arsenal FC trophy cabinet at the Emirates stadium. The Gunners have not won a major prize since they moved into their new multi-million pound home, and nowhere is this barren spell more apparent than in the commemorative list of achievements that adorns the base of the top tier of the stadium, which sports a gaping hole after 2005.

Yet there is cause for Arsenal fans to be optimistic about their sides chances this term. Fabregas' continued presence is surely a massive boost, both in terms of his influence in the dressing room and on the field. Opta's Premier League statistics for last season show that the Spaniard created a scoring chance from open play, on average, every 29 minutes - better than anyone else in any of the top European leagues. Even for a squad with the creative talent which Arsenal possess, that level of productivity would be sorely missed. But the sale of Fabregas would have also had a profound impact off the pitch. Arsene Wenger has sold big players before - Marc Overmars, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry to name just three - but invariably when their best years were deemed behind them, and their departure considered beneficial to the development of a new generation. The sale of Fabregas would be the sale of a player who likely has his best years ahead of him, and would therefore leave the north London club open to the accusation that they lack the ambition to continue to challenge for top European and domestic honours. Whilst the overriding impression is that the Spaniard's return to Catalonia is a matter of 'when' rather than 'if', his presence in the Arsenal side this season is crucial for the Gunners' hopes of immediate success.

In addition to playing a vital role in keeping Fabregas at the Emirates, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger has also had a significant impact on other areas of the Arsenal playing squad this summer. In defence, the volatile and divisive figure of William Gallas has been jettisoned, along with the release of veterans Mikael Silvestre and Sol Campbell. Replacing Gallas in the Arsenal backline is Laurent Koscielny, a £10m signing from Lorient who, despite boasting only one season's experience of top flight football, is an adept reader of the game and possesses good technical ability, not too dissimilar to his new defensive colleague Thomas Vermaelen. Croatian frontman Eduardo has also departed, having failed to live up to his early promise after the horrific leg-break he sustained against Birmingham in 2008. In his place is Marouane Chamakh, one of the stars of Bordeaux's surprise Ligue 1 title win in 2009. A skilful, mobile target man, the Moroccan should provide a different dimension to the Gunners attack - a suggestion apparently borne out by the fact that 11 of his 16 goals in all competitions last season were headers. The lack of a top-level keeper remains a concern, but rumours linking Arsenal with a move for Cagliari and Italy's World Cup number one stopper Federico Marchetti indicate that Arsene Wenger is seeking to remedy the problem. Whilst Koscielny and Chamakh are not exactly marquee names, they are astute purchases that should aid the North Londoners' push for trophies this season.

There are other reasons why Arsenal fans can reasonably expect that, circumstances permitting, Arsene Wenger will head into the new season with a stronger squad than in recent years. For starters, there is hope that perennial injury absentees Tomas Rosicky, Robin Van Persie and Abou Diaby will enjoy better fortune now that they have returned to full fitness. Rosicky in particular looked extremely sharp in the Emirates Cup, and the impression I get with Van Persie is that all he needs to establish himself as a genuinely world-class frontman is an injury-free season. The fact that the Dutchman's return of 10 goals was the best of any of the club's frontmen, despite his injury problems, indicates how much the Arsenal attack missed his cutting edge when absent. Diaby, at his best, adds much needed physical presence and drive to the Gunners midfield - a particularly useful asset on away days against the more robust teams in the Premier League, such as Blackburn or Birmingham, who both took points off Arsenal last season. There are also the 'rookies' in the squad - Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Emanuel Frimpong among others - who are a year older, wiser and better. They all looked extremely accomplished in the Emirates Cup, and should be expected to provide reliable service if called upon.

But undoubtedly the biggest asset available to Arsenal in their quest for trophies remains their manager. Arsene Wenger is arguably the best technical coach of players in world football, and consequently his teams win over many neutrals with their crowd-pleasing style. But he is also a winner, experienced in competing for some of the biggest prizes in the sport, and always instills this winning mentality into his players. Whilst the Frenchman may not have had his reward in the way of silverware recently, his volatile reactions when confronted with his team's failings in high profile matches over the last few seasons at least show that he has not grown accustomed to losing. Wenger will certainly believe whole-heartedly going into this season that his Arsenal side can succeed on the biggest of stages, and if this cast-iron conviction filters through to his players, then the North Londoners will certainly have a chance. The Arsenal manager's faith may also be strengthened by the relative inactivity of both Chelsea and Man Utd in the transfer market. Both sides possess aging squads, and despite the fact that both will probably give youth more of a chance in their first-teams this term, Wenger will hope that the younger legs of his charges will be decisive over a long and demanding season.

But in spite of the fact that Arsenal head into this season in a stronger position than in previous years, it is remains hard to back them for major silverware any time soon. The Gunners finished 12 points off champions Chelsea in the Premier League last season, losing all four of their head-to-head meetings with the Blues and Manchester United in the process. Furthermore, with the exception of United's last gasp victory at Old Trafford, Wenger's side were not only beaten in these fixtures, but outclassed. In Europe, Arsenal were humbled by an exceptional Barcelona side, and in the domestic cups their young guns were bested by Stoke and Manchester City.

In one sense, it is harsh to use Arsenal's results against Barcelona, Chelsea and United as a stick to beat them with, as these three sides have been a cut above everyone else in the last few seasons, in terms of their consistent level of achievement at the top of European football. But the reality is harsh, because this is the level of opposition which Arsenal will almost certainly have to overcome in order to win the Premier League or the Champions League. In Europe, Barcelona show no signs of slowing down, Real Madrid will surely be a formidable contenders under Jose Mourinho, and Inter Milan possess a talented squad now helmed by another experienced Champions League operator, Rafa Benitez. On the domestic front, the tightening of purse strings at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, coupled with the rise of Manchester City and Tottenham, should ensure a slightly more competitive title race, but the fact remains that Chelsea and United still possess stronger starting XIs and squads than their rivals, and I would be surprised if neither John Terry nor Gary Neville are holding the Premier League trophy aloft in May.

The fierceness of competition that Arsenal face in their quest to win the Champions League or Premier League makes it reasonable to suggest that the FA Cup or Carling Cup may represent a better opportunity to get their hands on a long-awaited trophy. But in these competitions their chances have been fatally undermined in recent seasons by Wenger's stubborn insistence that they be used as an opportunity to provide the Gunner's numerous talented youngsters with valuable first-team experience. The Frenchman's commitment to this philosophy is admirable, and indeed sensible, in the early rounds of cup competition, since these initial games provide a unique opportunity for youth academy products to gain first team experience in a lower pressure environment. But any side with aspirations of winning a cup competition must overcome quality opposition sooner or later, and it is on these occasions that Wenger's unwillingness to turn to the more experienced members of his squad has been detrimental to his side's prospects of silverware. A clear example of this was the 2007 Carling Cup final against Chelsea, where a second string Arsenal side, packed with youth, took to the field against their London rivals' strongest XI. Despite putting up an admirable fight and even taking a first half lead through Theo Walcott, the greater experience and quality of the Blues proved decisive in the second half, and they ran out 2-1 winners. The Gunners haven't reached a final since, and Wenger would be well advised that the older heads in his squad represent the best chance of reversing this trend.

Cesc Fabregas has given Arsenal another chance to prove that their ambition matches his own. Despite having some astute new signings and promising young talents at his disposal, Arsene Wenger faces a tough task if he is to avoid disappointing his captain, and may even have to go against some of his most vehemently held principles in the process. It may, then, take time before Gunners fans once more have something to shout about, and a new era of success is ushered in at the Emirates.

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