So the 2015 Emirates Cup is done and dusted and next up, looming like a filthy, giant troll trying to prevent our passage over the bridge, is Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the upcoming Community Shield. Even though it is another glorified pre-season friendly, whose results will have absolutely no bearing on either team’s eventual league position, one can be absolutely certain that next Sunday both teams will try to lay down a marker as to how they will approach the season.
In the coming days the game will be predictably hyped by the media as Champions vs Contenders. Mourinho’s record of winning titles in 4 countries and his supposed infallibility vs Wenger will be thrust in our faces. In contrast, his record of substantially outspending almost all his opponents at every one of his managerial destinations will be shamelessly downplayed. But there will be one almost insurmountable challenge for the media; how to spin Mounrinho’s negative, boring defensive brand of football. I have no doubt he will have to employ these tactics on Sunday if he is to curb the insatiable desire of the current Arsenal squad to create goal-scoring opportunities and profit from them. These tactics are in his DNA, validated by a history of success, hence the inability of this leopard to ever change its spots. The major problem for the media is, when competing directly versus Wenger, Mourinho is completely exposed for the contrast in footballing philosophy, i.e. the professor vs the translator, the artist vs the artisan. This is increasingly validated by the masses of football fans across all the away-grounds that Chelsea must play who spontaneously erupt with chants of “boring, boring, boring” to the dismay of Mourinho’s fawning cheerleaders and stenographers in the press corp. I expect no less at Wembley.
But I digress. In truth the game is not about Wenger vs Mourinho, blah, blah, blah, but where is the current squad in terms of its readiness to make a meaningful assault on the Premier League title, the last such attempt, to my mind, having taken place in the 09-10 season. It is almost the unanimous opinion that this is the strongest group of players Wenger has assembled since the Invincibles of 2004. They are certainly more battle hardened and there is far more quality in depth than the VanNasriGas era at the height of their near-success.
So how much of a gap exists between the two clubs at the end of the 2015 season? Despite the siren cries of doom and despair from diverse pundits in the media, a look at the following table suggests Arsenal is not that far away.
The difference between both teams can be distilled into four losses, most of which were the result of performances way inferior to the known standards of the squad as established in the 2nd half of last season. The seven losses total were to Chelsea – away, United – home, Swansea – home and away, Stoke-away, Tottenham – away, Southampton – away. With the probable exception of Chelsea and United, none of the other clubs are expected to beat Arsenal on an average day. Thus if Arsenal’s 1st team maintains the consistency and high standards it set between January and May of 2015, any reasonable man or woman would have to conclude that the gap between both clubs is surmountable.
But reasonableness is foreign to the legion of pundits feasting on the riches of the EPL. In April, even one of our more famous ex-players, Titi Henry, now seated firmly in the cushy comforts of Sky Sports, pronounced:
“Arsenal need to buy four players, they need that spine,
”They need a goalkeeper, they still need a centre-back, they still need a holding midfielder and, I’m afraid, they need a top, top-quality striker in order to win this league again.”
Despite the uproar from sections of Arsenal fan-dom and public repudiation of his statement by current players, most famously by Giroud, Henry as recent as mid July was still singing the same tune:
“I still think they need four players to get closer to Chelsea.”
In contrast, previewing the upcoming season Arsene remarked:
“We built up something special last season. That is a good team dynamic, a good confidence level, a convincing and efficient style of play. We want to work on that and we do not expect too much from outside now.
“It’s inside our squad that our performance has to be efficient. We have to focus on the quality of our performance inside the group. We also want to focus on the style of our play and our performance – that’s what football is really about.
“Part of the respect of your players is to focus on the players you have and to try to improve and look at the performance.
“We are open-minded [about transfers] everywhere and we work very hard to find the quality of the players we can. Let’s not forget that we have spent a lot of money in the last two seasons and we have bought as well Gabriel in the middle of last year to give him time to adapt and be ready for this season.
“If there is something more, we are not reluctant to spend the money. I know that you like to paint me as doing that! I didn’t do it for a while because we didn’t have the money. Now that we have, if we find the players we will spend the money.”
It is not as if Arsene words are inconsistent with his actions. So far there has been only one major signing, Petr Cech, clearly aimed at upgrading the quality of the goalkeeping department. Despite the mindless racket in the press and social media suggesting that Ospina has been a failure and therefore supplanted by Cech, in due course it became clear that Wojciech Szczęsny had been identified as the weakest link and is to be sent out on loan. This should have been self-evident to any unbiased observer of the Pole’s role in some of the poorer performances by Arsenal in the last campaign. But being unbiased is as rare as common sense among those who preach loudest about the needs of the football club.
Pre-season performances in Singapore and at home in the Emirates Cup suggests that Arsene has been working to build on the team dynamic and confidence level that was reflected in the annihilation of Aston Villa in the FA Cup final. Score-lines are usually meaningless at this stage but surely the freedom at which the team has been hitting the back of the net in these games is at minimum good for confidence.
What of the existing players whom Arsene says there is need to focus on trying to improve. The boss has suggested that the main objective is getting:
“…. some more goals from some players who are not really strikers and that was our strength traditionally. Our offensive and creative players scored 10 to 12 goals, that’s what you need. In the second part of last season we only conceded 13 goals in 19 games. So we want to keep that and add a few more goals. I think we can find that from inside, I am convinced of that. If we can find it from outside then we will do it as well.”
Upon reflection, it is clear that in 2013-14 Alexis (16) and Giroud (14) were carrying too much of a goal-scoring burden without the expected contribution by the British core in particular. Due solely to the injury blight, compared to the prior year, there was a significant fall-off in output from Walcott and Ramsey with almost no input from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere:
The table does no justice to the significance of Theo Walcott’s the absence. In both of the years covered above he was absent for more than half-a-season. A better baseline for comparison purposes should be 2012-13, his last full season, when he scored 14 goals and made 12 assists. Surely this more than a 50% loss in expected goals from Walcott is arguably the primary reason why the club was not more competitive in the past two years. It is noticeable that the media is dominated by a clamor for a new world-class striker versus almost indifference to Arsenal re-signing someone who was on course to becoming a 20-goal a season producer. Tells us all we need to know about the hysteria and sensationalism surrounding this club.
Even the newly signed Danny Welbeck who was expected to make a contribution only scored 5 league goals in 24 games before being struck down in April.
Finally but by no means least I have included Wilshere as a possible source of goals, because from time to-to-time he has shown the potential. Last year’s strike in the match at home against Man City to put the team up 2:1, prior to conceding a late equalizer, is an example of his quality. Nobody expects Wishere to be a great goal scorer but as demonstrated by his volley against West Brom in May as well as his two long range rockets for England vs Slovenia in June, he can be a scorer of great goals. This is a very useful luxury to have.
Surely this blog hasn’t put too much pressure on the British core. But one cannot ignore the challenge that history has presented them. It bears reminding that after the heights scaled by the youth project, almost all the stars of that group showed, what can be politely described as, a lack of commitment to the club and an unwillingness to press on and win the League. Once they became stars, under Wenger’s tutelage, they all became susceptible to bigger clubs waving fistful of dollars. Arsene may never say this publicly but Adebayor, Fabregas, Nasri, Van Persie, et al had one element in common; being non-British they did not identify with the competitive tradition of the English League and could be easily swayed by more lucrative offers from competing clubs. In 2015-16, four years after signing Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (and Karl Jenkinson) to long term contracts and pronouncing them the British Core, fate has presented them with the challenge to help the club cross the winning line. Hopefully they will embrace it by staying fit and scoring the goals.