- Written by Rob George
It wasn't supposed to be like this, it was supposed to end much differently in a flurry of red and white confetti with young pups like Jack Wilshire proudly showing off their winners medals – it was supposed to be the confirmation of the arrival of the post-Invincibles as Arsenal trophy winners and the start of a new era. Instead the nightmare scenario of losing another cup final awaits all Gooners this morning as well as the nagging doubts over whether this team can actually cross the finish line to become winners.
Arsenal were the overwhelming favourites, with much of the coverage basically telling Birmingham not to bother turning up. But while the odds put pressure on the Gunners, they gave Birmingham the freedom to express themselves and enjoy the occasion. And it was that freedom which saw Birmingham push and probe to ultimately give Arsene Wenger and his team the Blues. It also meant that since the biblical high of beating Barcelona, Arsenal have drawn with League One Leyton Orient and lost to Birmingham City, a team 16th in the Premier League who Arsenal beat 3-0 at St Andrews just seven weeks ago.
Most Gooner will quite rightfully point to the absence of Walcott and Fabregas for they would have made a difference going forward. But it's at the back that questions are yet again being unanswered by Wenger and the backroom staff. The horrendous error which led to Martins tap in to win the cup had all the hallmarks of a back four who don't communicate and could have all be solved with a shout of 'Keepers' from Wojciech Szczesny.
But he is a young keeper and will learn from his mistakes, what the howler showed is the need for a Tony Adams like centre half, someone who will marshal the back four and get them properly organised at set pieces, something which was horribly lacking yesterday. Paul Merson was right when he spoke on Sky Sports and said if Arsenal had Roger Johnson and Ben Foster they would have won the cup. Johnson is an old-fashioned English centre half, leg hanging off and yet still barking orders at his back-line.
Arsenal have no-one of that ilk, Koscielny has had a couple of great weeks since his inspiring role in the 2-1 triumph over Barcelona, Squillaci is injury prone as is Vermaelen while Djourou has undoubted potential. A respected football manager once told me that any defence needed a 'talker' – someone who barks orders and encouragement throughout the game. It's that sort of player who will get Arsenal defending well again and ensure mistakes like Szczesny and Koscielny's effort are not repeated.
If reports are to be believed, Pat Rice may hang up his assistant manager boots at the end of the season after 30 years of service to the cause. Maybe Arsene could promote Steve Bould from the youth ranks to become his assistant and get him to do what George Graham did when he joined in the late 1980s, drill the back four into a cohesive unit. Failing that I am sure a call could be placed to Gabala in Azerbaijan – come home Agent Adams.....
- Written by Shane Thomas
The intention of the Premier League season is to determine the merits of its respective clubs. After 9 months and 38 matches, the class will always rise to the top. It allows for the vagaries of player injuries, form and luck. A loss is seldom catastrophic as there's always a chance to make amends next week.
Cup competitions however, are altogether different. They reward not consistency but the ability to peak at key moments. To find the very best of yourself when it's needed the most. The demands increase when the occasion in question is a cup final.
And it's been something that Arsenal under Arsene Wenger's management have struggled with in recent years. The statistic about Arsenal failing to win a trophy since 2005 has been repeated so many times as to become tiresome. But since that most recent FA Cup success, Arsenal have made it to two competition finals (as well as 3 further semi-finals), losing 2-1 on both occasions.
Not only were the defeats narrow ones, but Arsenal took the lead in both games, and were unable to hold on to full-time. And I think the comparative youth of Arsenal counted against them during each encounter.
To raise your game at important moments, as well as overcoming adversity, is the mark of winners, a quality that rarely goes hand-in-hand with youthful energy and exuberance. Even the great Ajax side that won the Champions League in 1995 had experienced heads like Danny Blind and Frank Rijkaard to steer them to success. In previous seasons, it was easy to justify near misses by stating how young and inexperienced the Arsenal players were. Callowness is easy to accept when it's teemed with the expectation of getting better results in the future.
Well the future is here and now for Arsenal. Failure can no longer be explained away by excuses of being jejune. With the exception of Jack Wilshere and Wojech Szczesny, the Arsenal first team are all established international players - and it's not as if Wilshere & Szczesny have underperformed themselves this season.
With the Carling Cup final on Sunday, Arsenal go into the match against Birmingham as strong favourites to end their trophy duck. And for the sake of the club, it is paramount that they secure victory. As has been stated many times before, the Carling Cup has proved a launching pad to sustained success. Chelsea's triumph in 2005 precipitated two Premier League titles, while Manchester United's success the following season led to three titles on the spin, as well as the Champions League in 2008.
Success begets success. It's all well and good players and coaching staff stating that they believe they can win trophies, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and since 2005, Arsenal have been unable to hold their nerve when glory has been in sight. This team seems to have a greater belief than they've displayed in the past (their focus in beating Barcelona at The Emirates is testament to that).
But if Arsenal were to fall short on Sunday, the consequences could be disastrous for the club. When it comes to the acquiring trophies, ability is never enough. You need to also have a mental assurance that victory will be yours. And if Arsenal fail to believe that they will, not can, but will win at Wembley, then why should they believe they can win any of football's more prestigious prizes?
Make no mistake, it may only be the Carling Cup, but this is one of the biggest matches of Arsene Wenger's career. It could decide the future of this current Arsenal side. Win on Sunday, and expect it to be the first of many baubles. Lose, and another trophy-less season beckons.
- Written by Rob George
“This has been my best day as an Arsenal player by far. It is not over yet,” – the words of Jack Wilshire to reporters in the aftermath of Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Barcelona on Wednesday, a result which made everyone in Europe sit up and take notice. But the result was all the more noticeable in the development of Arsenal’s youngsters especially on the back of the 3-1 slaying handed out to Chelsea two days after Christmas, a result which did much to suggest the kids were indeed alright.
No-one has embodied the growth and increased maturity more than 19-year-old Wilshire who had one of his best games in an Arsenal shirt against the Catalan giants. Ironically he was probably up against two of the greatest midfielders in world football in Xabi and Iniesta but while they delivered their usual metronomic efficiency, Wilshire stood tall and rose to the challenge. And while most 18/19-year-olds would be overawed by the situation, Arsenal’s own young lion went about his work with a strut and confidence which belied his tender years.
He himself has acknowledged the crazy fortnight which has seen him make a debut for the England national side before lining up against the team to which Arsenal and Arsene Wenger aspire to emulate. But the young pup has taken to the task well and just approached every game, whether it’s Wolves in the Premier League or Barcelona in the Champions League.
In fact a look at the stats from Wednesday’s game highlights just how much of an influence Wilshire had on proceedings. The 19 year-old completed 93.5 per cent of his passes overall with a staggering 91 per cent of his passes in the final third of the pitch. Only Xavi and Iniesta boasted superior passing rates while the man they were all talking about before the game, namely Cesc Fabregas, almost faded from view. That was until the Emirates proclaimed ‘We’ve got Cesc Fabregas’ in a non-too subtle dig at Barca’s failure to bring the boy who left Catalonia at 15 home during the summer.
And while I have argued before that Cesc leads by allowing his team-mates to express themselves on the field, perhaps Wilshire is also fast becoming a leader in his own right as well. Not captaincy wise because he needs to flourish and find his own game before grabbing the armband, but a leader of the Wenger’s boys, the young pups who have found themselves handed the shirt and challenge of playing for the Arsenal.
The air of confidence Wilshire exudes is contagious and has rubbed off the likes of Wojciech Szczesny who has taken on the challenge of being Arsenal’s number one and made it look like he has been there for many years. Yes, Wilshire has areas in his game to improve, namely his tackling but there is no finer finishing school than the one he is currently excelling at under headmaster Wenger.
And another performance like Wednesday night on March 8 in the Nou Camp will ensure that the star pupil continues to be noticed. Wilshire grabbed shirts from Messi and Xavi after the game, might he not Fabregas be wearing the same shirt as the Catalan stars in the future? That would indeed be stunning conclusion to the meteoric rise of Jack the lad.
- Written by Rob George
“Cesc has gone through a lot, difficult moments, but has always come out stronger - this guy is a fantastic leader.” The words of Arsene Wenger 48 hours after the skipper became an embroiled in a row over an alleged verbal outburst to the fourth official during the Gunners 2-1 battle against Everton on Tuesday night to keep Arsenal very firmly in the title race. But were his actions those of a traditional, passionate, English style captain and leader? No probably not.
It’s hard to believe Rio Ferdinand, John Terry or Steven Gerrard would find themselves in the same position that Cesc did on Tuesday night, their reputations and their style would see them through any problems at first. Indeed, the verbal blasts would be handed out to teammates rather than to the assistant referees and, allegedly, to the fourth official in the tunnel. But does his passion and capacity for getting into trouble in this manner make him any less a captain? Should he reign it in and become more of a skilled negotiator on and off the pitch?
Or is it more of a case of Cesc simply not being a traditional English captain? He will not be the team’s spokesman to the officials, the man to get around the team and deliver Tony Adams style teamtalks or the one in the penalty area in the 87th minute shouting at his team mates to keep their focus and defend for their lives. But if you need some to spring open a defence, take a vital penalty or deliver the right goal at the right time then please look no further than the creative little genius from Vilassar de Mar in Southern Spain.
Perhaps the skipper’s role has been best defined by another young talent in Arsenal’s midfield this season, namely Jack Wilshire. In the January issue of the official club magazine, he is quoted as seeing Fabregas as a mentor-like figure, someone who has walked the same shoes and rose to the prestigious honour of being named Arsenal captain.
“He’s great to me, always has been. He’s been there before – I think he looks at me and thinks yeah I have done that. He’s great leader and I want to be like that when I am older,” Wilshire told Arsenal’s official magazine. There for me lies the rub, Cesc is not a leader of men - he is a standard bearer of the heights all young players need to achieve to deliver a golden future for themselves and for Arsenal Football Club.
So when Denilson talked about the lack of a leader last month, he was right, Arsenal are not ‘led’ or ‘lectured’ by Fabregas, more inspired to use their own talents to deliver a team performance week in, week out that will propel the Gunners to honours at home and abroad.
Just as Arsene Wenger brought a revolution to British football on the field through diet and preparation, could there be one stirring off the pitch with the unveiling of the first captain who does not lead his men but instead embodies a whole footballing philosophy?
- Written by Arsenal Latest
The Arsenal have played dazzling football in their recent run of form both on the road and at the Emirates, but yesterday's 0-0 draw with City does a couple of things. It proves Arsenal have very good quality and can play with any club in the Premier League. It also begs the question as to if Arsene Wenger ought to move outside his typical refusal to spend mid-season and add a player during the January transfer window.
Many things come into play in this discussion. Primarily, Arsenal are just now becoming fully fit for the season and while they still miss their young center-back Thomas Vermaelen for the near future, Robin Van Persie has finally come alive and looks to be getting his left foot going again. Cesc Fabregas has combined well with start-up Samir Nasri and Arsenal are playing as strong attacking football as they have all season long. Matched with the imminent return of young gunner Aaron Ramsey from his loan spell with Nottingham Forest and Nicklas Bendtner finally recovering from his groin injury, Arsenal are full of depth at the top level and in their youth squads and it may be difficult for any new arrival to the Emirates to find the pitch on a regular basis.
With the December signing of 18-year-old Japanese star Ryo Miyaichi, Arsenal have proved they are not hesitant to pull the trigger on the right player for Wengerball, but his impact may not be felt until well into next year as he adjusts to the pace of the English game. There have also been links to French football star and Belgian International Eden Hazard, though Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid are all involved in the speculation. Arsene Wenger has also looked to move young Mexican player Carlos Vela on a loan spell to allow him some regular match time, and there is a possibility he will use that as leverage to bring back Gary Cahill on a full transfer. Bolton is requesting 20 million Euros for the defender and it looks doubtful if Wenger will pull the trigger on it.
At this time last season, Arsenal supporters were begging for the Gunners to dive into the transfer market for a goal-keeper. One year later, the picture that has been painted is quite different. Lukasz Fabianski has not been flawless this season, however his time with the first team has displayed his ability to control the game from the back. His distribution is strong and the young Pole has certainly earned his place as the clubs #1 man in net. Wojciech Szczesny's has also played strongly in the back, kept some clean-sheets, and his recent contract extension with the Arsenal could instill a spirit of competition in goal, which would do nothing but help Arsenal's chances to win the Premier League. Manuel Alumunia is seeking a return to Spanish football Arsenal supporters world-wide would do nothing but support the keeper in that effort.
The question about transfers for the Arsenal are never "when" like it is with many clubs throughout the world, it's an "if." Wenger has a strict policy of building from within and only using the transfer window when absolutely necessary. But with the clubs return to match fitness, Arsenal have a very full squad of talented footballers who will make it difficult for any new import to find match time. Apart from the players mentioned already, Abou Diaby hopes to be near a return soon. Andrey Arshavin, the last big Arsenal purchase has continued to struggle in English football, though he still has shown a knack for being in the right place at the right time, compiling some big goals and assists for the North London side, while also looking disinterested at times.
Will Arsenal make a move this month and bring in some new blood? Supporters will have to wait and see. But as Arsenal sit four and two points behind United and City respectively in the league, and still being involved in the FA/Carling Cups and the Champions League, Gooners most certainly hope Arsene Wenger will make a move, as there is a real chance to bring some hardware back to the Emirates this season.
Who would you like to see make a move to North London?