- Written by Shane Thomas
“Wilshere is a top player. He is an excellent player, not just Arsenal, but also for the national team.
“But I guess he is lucky because [Barca] have many players in the second team like him, but he plays every game because there is no pressure at his club to win titles.” - Pep Guardiola
Many news outlets used this quote in their build-up to Tuesday's game between Arsenal & Barcelona. But the focus was on the merits of Jack Wilshere, rather than on the perceived pressure (or lack of it) on Arsenal to win trophies.
However, it is a topic that bears some scrutiny. Jose Mourinho has also pointed out how the pressure on Arsenal to fill their trophy cabinet is non-existent in comparison to other big sides in Europe. Would a coach of any other club with designs on the major prizes in the game be given five seasons without tangible success and still be in a job? So are the Arsenal board simply being lax in their duties or is there a greater understanding of what Wenger is trying to achieve?
First, it has to be remembered that Wenger has bought himself a great deal of grace at Arsenal due to the successes he has attained whilst being manager at the club. When he arrived in 1996, Arsenal hadn't come close to being in contention for the title in six years. In his first full season, Wenger rectified that by winning the double. Not only were there trophies in the cabinet, but it was achieved with a style never seen before at the club. Never has a goal been symptomatic of a manager's philosophy more than Tony Adams's volley in the 4-0 win over Everton that secured the Premier League back in 1998.
Two more league titles and three more FA Cups followed, as did the entertainment. And going the 2003/04 Premier League season unbeaten is a feat that will probably never be seen again in our lifetimes. So when we hear, "five years without a trophy", it has to be remembered why the expectation surrounding Arsenal is at the level it's at. Arsenal would probably have sunk into mid-table mediocrity without the coaching skill of the urbane Frenchman.
Also, while Arsenal have always been a well supported club, they don't have the global fanbase of a Manchester United, AC Milan or the Spanish giants of Barcelona & Real Madrid. And there's no financial sugar daddy in place like at Inter Milan or Chelsea to supplement the squad, without having to worry about the inevitable financial losses incurred in the process.
So much like Nick Clegg before the last General Election, Wenger proposed a "third way". Eschewing placing the club in financial strife, he decided to rely heavily on the youth system at London Colney and add the odd cut-price signing where he can.
Now this completely goes against the grain of football in the modern age. In this 24 hour, Sky Sports News, non-stop Twitter stream of free information we live in, opinions fluctuate at an exponential level. You can be a genius one minute and a dullard the next.
Patience on the other hand is non-existent. It doesn't matter that Arsenal are one of the most financially secure clubs in Europe, "Five years without a trophy". It doesn't matter than they play some of the most progressive football in the world, "Five years without a trophy". Or that the club are often held up an an example of how to run a club. "Five years without a trophy".
And this lack of patience shouldn't be surprising. At other big teams, lose a couple of matches and the press scream crisis. Both the fans and the media have a slavering desperation for instant success. And people such as Roman Abramovich & Sheikh Mansour have taken advantage of this, trying to buy glory as if in a supermarket. Wenger on the other hand, is trying to grow his own from scratch. He's planted a seed and hopes that the fruit it bears will prove ripe enough to match the best the world has to offer.
So yes, Guardiola and Mourinho are right. There isn't the pressure to win trophies at Arsenal compared to their rivals. Because what Wenger is looking for is more than baubles. He wants a legacy, something that will endure long after his time at The Emirates is over. Similar to what Johan Cruyff did at Barcelona, he wants Arsenal to be the envy of the football world in years to come. It's maybe an impossible dream, but also a noble one.
- Written by Rob George
Manchester United’s controversial 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge last night may have been too late to aid Chelsea’s quest to retain the crown but it did ensure we will need to wind the clock back nearly 10 years - ladies and gentleman welcome to Fergie vs Wenger, round 10. Frank Lampard’s penalty 10 minutes from time ensured that, barring a collapse or a stunning run of form from Spurs or Manchester City , this year’s Premier League shootout will be between two of the oldest gunslingers in the west, Sir Alex and Arsene.
Fans of both sides will have reached for the internet, a match programme, Sky Sports or their newspaper to see the run-ins for both sides and immediately the advantage is with Arsenal. The Gunners can and should close the gap to a single point on Saturday when they welcome Sunderland to the Emirates, a team who has one just two of their last 10 games on the road. Meanwhile Sir Alex takes Manchester United to Anfield with King Kenny licking his lips at the prospect of handing his old sparring partner another bloody nose. United will be missing Ferdinand, Vidic and Jonny Evans while few would bet on Andy Carroll announcing himself in style with a goal.
If we assume United escape with a point then the teams will meet in the FA Cup on March 12 with Man U leading 61-59 on points. Following the cup clash United host Bolton on March 19 with Arsenal travelling to West Brom – both these sides have caused problems in the past but the mystic in me suggests Sir Alex and Arsene will come out on top. Then comes April and six games for the Gunners which will make or break their season, home games with Blackburn and Liverpool are mixed with visits to Blackpool, Bolton and to the Tiny Tots Hotspurs. Meanwhile United go to West Ham and Newcastle and host Fulham and Everton. If we assume both sides will come out on top then thanks to a game in hand (Spurs (a)) the league table on Saturday April 30 will read: 1. Arsenal 77
2. Manchester United 76.
That sort of scenario would suit Gooners down to the ground as that weekend sees Sir Alex ride into the Emirates to face the Wenger boys in a game which could be so good Sky Sports will rename it Super Saturday!. A win for either team could be enough to get one hand on the trophy, especially when you look at the final three fixtures for the teams. Arsenal have Stoke (a), Aston Villa (h) and Fulham (a) while United face Chelsea (h), Blackburn (a) and Blackpool (h).
Who wins? Well the two things which can be certain in our unpredictable Premier League is that we will know come around 6pm on May 22 – the final day of the season and that the ribbons needed for the trophy will be red and white. After that, it’s anyone’s guess and that’s what I have attempted to do here, take a look and see what you think.
Arsenal – Final points total 85
West Brom W
Man Utd D
Aston Villa W
Man United – Final points 80
West Ham D
Based on my predications, Arsenal would virtually secure the title at Stoke as a win there would leave them five points clear with two games to play, how much satisfaction would THAT bring!
- 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.