In a little over two days, Arsenal will step out at Anfield for the first game of a season which will hopefully end with Cesc lifting the Champions League trophy at Wembley.
And yet, we enter it with a squad which is at least two or three players short, and the failures of the past few seasons ready to be exploited even more. No more can the excuse be given that this team is young and inexperienced. Gael Clichy is 25; Bacary Sagna and Robin Van Persie are 27; all of them have played over 100 games for Arsenal.
The problems are all too obvious. Arsenal beat Legia Warsaw last Saturday. But the scoreline was 6-5 – at what point will Arsene Wenger realise he needs to strengthen defence? Every year we concede too many goals to compete realistically for the Premier League. Last year we conceded 41 goals in the League; the year before it was 37 and the year before that 31. The defence is getting worse, not better.
What’s tragic is that David Seaman has never been properly replaced. Jens Lehmann put in three good seasons but if you sign a 34-year-old goalkeeper you can’t expect more than that. Almunia has flattered to deceive and the less said about Fabianski the better. One of the extraordinary things about Wenger is that in 15 years he has probably failed to sign a top-level goalkeeper. It is a sign of how Arsenal have fallen that the fans are desperate to bring Mark Schwarzer in. He’s a solid goalkeeper. But he’s 37 and he’s never played for a top club which tells its own story. And, arguably more pertinently, he’d be yet another stop-gap.
It’s telling that neither Liverpool nor Pepe Reina rubbished the story that he wanted to come to Arsenal. Even last season, when Liverpool finished 7th, they conceded six less goals than Arsenal. He’s a truly world-class goalkeeper and its all too worrying that the gulf in class between the men in goal will be exposed on Sunday (and throughout the season).
And yet, there’s truth in the argument that Reina is expensive. But Schwarzer isn’t. And nor has he ever been at any point this summer. It would be better to sign him than have Almunia in goal; but equally, it begs the question why he wasn’t signed earlier in the summer. It’s like buying a winter coat. Undoubtedly, you can buy it cheaper in the June sales but that’s because you don’t need it (as much) then.
Arsenal may have knocked 500k or a million pounds off the price through their brinkmanship over Schwarzer. But they’ve also missed a pre-season with him training with the defence and the lack of communication that may cause could cost far more than 500k.
And even if we do sign Schwarzer so what? It’s worth remembering that in the Champions League quarter-final last season Wenger was forced to play Mikael Silvestre at centre-back. By my calculations, he was fifth-choice: Vermaelen, Gallas, Campbell, and Song would all be played in front of him. And Djourou if fit.
Since then, Wenger has lost Gallas, Campbell and Silvestre. And replaced them with just one defender. Bear in mind also, that he has nobody to cover (well) for Alex Song so he isn’t a realistic long-term or short-term option at centre-back. Now despite Koscielny’s dodgy defending in pre-season, I have faith that he can strike up a good relationship with Vermaelen. But all our history shows is that centre-backs always pick up injuries and aside from the perennially injury-prone Djourou, Arsenal have few options.
I accept it’s hard to persuade a top-class centre-back to sign with the offer of being part of a rotation system. But with the number of injuries Arsenal pick up every year it can’t be impossible. The idea that Vermaelen and Koscielny can play 50 games each a season isn’t necessarily a nonsense; but it’s based on hope, rather than expectation and that’s no way to run a top level football club.
What’s so tragic is that all the fans are aware we’re only a couple of signings away from being able to compete. And yet our opinion isn’t heard: we were kept waiting for hours at members day to simply have superlatives trotted out by the players and all the questions pre-vetted: nobody was allowed to ask Nicklas Bendtner whether he really believed this squad had improved so much over the summer. Instead, we were told that he’d like to be Batman.
I hate to be downbeat about Arsenal’s chances at the beginning of a season and it’s the first time I’ve really been this pessimistic. Last year, I talked us up a great deal to no avail. But I feel a degree of realism is necessary and if the squad was too thin last year, losing players will not help.
I really believe Marouane Chamakh is a great signing and if we can keep RVP fit we will continue to score goals all season. But Wenger wants Arsenal to be like Barcelona. And the reason Barca continually out-perform Real Madrid was that they had a very solid defence. This may well be Wenger’s last year at the club although he has hinted otherwise. But with this squad, I have my doubts it will be a glorious one.
I’d love them to prove me wrong and I’d love them to bring in two or three new players. But currently, I can’t see how Arsenal can out-perform Chelsea over 38 games. With a different goalkeeper it would be a different story though, so never say never.
Keep the faith,