Right, that’s the suits sorted.
I got a chance to talk to Arsene Wenger immediately after the most recent AFC Shareholders’ meeting in October. At the time he felt the club still needed to work harder. That was his comment in response to my fulfilling a long harboured desire to simply shake his hand and thank him for all he has done for the club. A simple “You’re welcome” would have been sufficient.
My guess as to how he’d answer the above question is: “Quite”.
He would be the first to point out we’ve won nothing yet, this season, and there is a long way to go. He might mention something about little bit marathons and sprints. I don’t know.
But this uniquely humble, committed, visionary genius of a man would be the last one in any room to start counting his chickens.
I, on the other hand, unburdened with a fraction of his wisdom can, as I write, immediately spy that we are top of the two leagues that matter, out of one domestic cup competition and ready to do battle in another.
On what basis, then, might Arsene argue that we are merely doing “quite well”, at this stage.
Arsene, in that modest manner of his would suggest that our house is in relatively good order with a fully-functioning world class stadium continuing to routinely sell out on match days.
Our squad is a balanced one with a decent mixture of young first-teamers developing their talents alongside older heads. Our recent arrivals ply their trade shoulder-to-shoulder with those who know only how to wear the Arsenal shirt. Our squad is also a profoundly stable one having emerged intact from the last transfer window with no loss of stars and a trimmed down squad. There was the small matter of the addition of three players, at least one of whom can legitimately be described as a world class superstar. And whilst Flamini’s impact on the squad has proved as great as the speed with which he hit the ground playing the Wenger-way as though he’d never been away, a third fellow, oh Yaya, can usefully described as a decent future prospect. None of the three new players added can be said to have disrupted the squad or its playing style at any level.
It’s worth noting that not all new signings work out – at AFC or any club. The development of Olivier Giroud is bordering on astonishing. Despite what some might suggest our first choice forward is indeed fit to wear the shirt and not only that, is fast becoming one of the most dreaded and least ‘playable’ attackers seen in the EPL possibly since Drogba cast his immense shadow across the defences of the land. Per Mertsacker (100 games for Germany, 95 at senior level) has suddenly just revealed himself, to some, as one of the finest centre-backs in the game.
As Arsene probably wouldn’t say.
And to cap it all, Aaron Ramsey’s turned out not too bad. Much to the chagrin of those who fell over their own reputations in writing him off as ‘not good enough for Arsenal’.
These four players alone have in recent months been the subject of some public doubt and even ridicule but in reality their success simply highlights that far from Arsene Wenger having somehow ‘lost it’, he has very much retained his eye for talent – and world class talent, at that. At the same time, 2013’s defeat of both Bayern Munich and Dortmund also exposes another lie that Wenger somehow does not ‘do tactics’. This summer’s purchases in particular embarrassed those who liked to claim he does not have the nerve to deal in high-profile, high-value player acquisitions.
Evidently, these three aspects of our recent history serve to suggest the Manager is in extremely good nick. His continued public charm, humour and humilty are not the hallmarks of someone about to give up on anything, either.
We have an injury list that has proved manageable with established first-teamers getting back to action in time to facilitate squad rotation nicely ahead of the business end of the season.
We have quite possibly the most exciting U21’s squad likely to be found anywhere in world football.
We appear to have cash in hand to fund further strengthening in either January or possibly more likely in the summer. Unlike most UK clubs we are not up to our eye-balls in debt and neither are we hemorrhaging support despite the dire warnings from the nay-sayers. We lack neither the wisdom, confidence or the stability at the highest levels of the club which would otherwise cause us to rush out and squander all available cash like headless (wait for it) chickens. We are big enough to bide our time.
In the EPL, as of this weekend, we find ourselves on 28 points and a goal difference of 14, four points ahead of second-placed Liverpool and Chelsea, five ahead of City and Southampton, seven ahead of Man u and Everton, who bring up the rear in seventh. Way, way down in mid-table, after 12 games gone and with 26 to go, Tottenham, having jettisoned all the cash from the Bale bale-out, cling to 9th place with just 20 points and a goal difference of -3 (minus three). But, ironically, Spurs’ situation, despite the envy-driven, panicky hysteria amongst some of our own less well-grounded fans during the transfer season, turns out to be not really relevant for this article, after all.
In order to better grasp how well Arsenal are doing at this early stage it probably helps to look at our nearest competitors and consider what kind of health they are in. The problem is, it’s not always easy to tell exactly who are our nearest competitors. Liverpool have undeniably done well, having survived the early games of the season sans Suarez, and they are now clearly benefiting from his particular brand of attacking talent. If ever a player was putting himself in ‘the window’ it’s Luis and one fears for Liverpool’s post-January prospects should they fail, like Tottenham in the summer, to keep their best player. The impact of the loss of key players to Arsenal in successive seasons has to provide a salutary lesson for all; subtract Suarez and it’s difficult to imagine Liverpool keeping up with the leaders as Spurs have conspicuously failed to do.
Whilst City remain the favourites with many to win the EPL, their form is remarkably inconsistent having already lost four EPL games – a third of those played – drawn one including the loss to Sunderland, a side looking destined for relegation (again). City’s away form in combination with a huge question mark over the confidence issues affecting their goalkeeper are nonetheless still a side a long way from a crisis. Equally, however, given the sums spent in recent seasons, they, alongside every other competitor to Arsenal, are a long way from dominating the league and if the points-lost trend of the last 12 games is maintained, then success is hardly assured.
Both Chelsea and Man u play a particularly unattractive, unappealing brand of football which has nonetheless been getting results. A good number of these results, however, can hardly be said to have been all that deserved. The simple fact is that the south Londoners have already dropped 12 points and united 15 and it’s still only November.
It’s true that Arsenal have also dropped points – 8 in all – but these days points gained at our expense are generating a shock wave of surprise at the loss, such has been the nature of our form throughout the whole of 2013. Our goals against column shows 10 goals conceded which ain’t bad for an attacking side supposedly frail at the back (who’s writing this shit?). Only one side, Southampton, have a better record with 7 against and we just stuck two past them on Saturday. Does that count as a ‘test’? I’m guessing not on account of their not being above us in the league (is it the same person writing all the crap, it certainly feels like it?).
In contrast, Man u dropped two more points at Cardiff yesterday but this resulted in merriment amongst observers rather than shock or awe. Despite having had decades to plan this, the ineffective handover to Moyes from Ferguson coupled with their abject failure in the transfer market and the rushed replacement of backroom staff at Old Trafford has clearly had an impact on united’s start to the season. Meanwhile, down Fulham way, Jose’s touch looks far less assured than first time around and how he copes without a limitless transfer budget remains to be seen. His first summer actions in loaning out some of the club’s best talent might be considered odd in the extreme. Neither his nor the Glazer’s club will likely run away with anything this season even with a fair wind from now until May. Quite what the impact will be of failure to finish in the top four for any of these clubs hardly bears thinking about.
That all said, in truth, and without bothering to attempt a like-with-like analysis versus last year’s fixtures and results, the English Premier League is wide open. There is plenty of time for others to sort out their form (not you, Spurs) and for Arsenal to, theoretically at least, lose their way over the coming 26 games (they won’t).
But for me, it’s the trend that is significant. In overall terms and on every identifiable criteria, the club is going forward where others are stumbling or stalling. Even in Europe our form has been outstanding with the warning from London being heard loud and clear across the continent following remarkable performances and results against Dortmund and the rest. It can not pass without mention that the two defeats in the EPL have come about to some extent as a result of either refereeing intervention or intervention of a less divine source with both squad sickness and terrible officiating playing key roles in our rare 2013 setbacks. Had the fans of any of the top clubs been offered parity on points at the top of the EPL by Xmas I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have to be Lois Suarez to, well you can guess the rest.
So yes, Arsene, if you were to say to me you thought we were doing quite well I’d have to agree. Sure, the marathon/sprint thing is as true today as it’s always been. But I do think with the hard graft the manager already believes is required clearly permeating the squad’s work ethic, we are as well placed as anyone to win, and to win well this season.
Whether that turns out to be the trophies some say the club clearly deserves to win, only time, a handful of games in Europe plus twenty-six riveting encounters in the EPL, will tell.