Don’t write off Arsenal just yet!


One thing has become abundantly evident in the opening exchanges of the nascent Premier League season: the media love Fergie’s Fledgling’s 2.0. In fact, such has been the clamour to acclaim Ferguson’s vision and daring that it’s easy to lose perspective and forget that United have won a glorified friendly, eased past a side that conceded 71 goals last term and were merely comfortable against another making their delayed start to the season deprived of their best player and whose strikers have a record over the last season or so that would disappoint Emile Heskey.

While the media will always look for new darlings, they equally inevitably will cast around for new targets. In this case it undoubtedly is Arsenal who have stepped into the line of fire. The loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri (their previous importance to the club being a subject that has been more than adequately covered) and the apparent failure to replace them with established midfielders precipitated the circling of the vultures around Wenger.

Prior to the mid-week encounter away to Udinese there was almost palpable excitement in both print and online media over the prospect of Arsenal exiting Europe this early in the season. Instead of sticking to the script a young Arsenal team (the average age of the starting lineup was 23) that included Gervinho , Wenger’s principle summer signing, gave a performance that, had they played with devils rather than cannon on their badge, would have drawn admiring remarks from across the spectrum.

Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that Arsenal were up against minor European opposition, either; Udinese, acclaimed for their attacking football, finished fourth in Serie A last season, ahead of such luminaries as Lazio, Roma, Juventus, and Fiorentina, and while they have lost Alexis Sanchez to Barcelona they retain the services of the excellent Antionio di Natale. Despite going a goal down Arsenal came back in the second half to score two goals and take the two-legged tie 3-1. Their second half performance, particuarly the interplay between Gervinho, van Persie, and Theo Walcott, was impressive, and it showed on the scoresheet.

Gervinho, at 24, looks a potentially quality addition, sending off against Newcastle aside; Emmanuel Frimpong (19) looked increasingly capable prior to his late challenge on Lucas Leiva in the defeat against Liverpool (a result which may be viewed at as unlucky at worst – the own-goal was unfortunate, and had Frimpong still been on the field it is unlikely there would have been the space to create Liverpool’s second); Szczesny (21) has continued to impress in spite, rather than because, of his youth; and they still have the excruciatingly gifted Aaron Ramsey (21) and Jack Wilshere (19), the latter missing so far this season with injury, to forge a central midfield partnership that is potentially exquisite.

Arsenal may have lost two of their most important players, but the replacements in Ramsey and Wilshere come almost ready-made; both have spent the last few seasons being educated in the Wenger way – both are quick and agile, possess excellent ball skills, vision, and movement, and like to pass. Perhaps most importantly, Arsenal still possess one of the best strikers in Europe in van Persie, and additionally Thomas Vermaelan, still only 25, is a centre-back of undoubted ability.

A major challenge for Wenger will be in keeping both Vermaelen and van Persie fit; should he do so, his team will have great quality both at the back and up front. Married to a gifted midfield of Ramsay and Wilshere, with Song (23) behind Gervinho and Walcott (22) ahead providing from wide, any team that doesn’t take Arsenal as seriously as they might have done last season will be making a potentially huge mistake.

Yes they need to bring in a left-back, an experienced and proven centre-back, and more depth in midfield, and, yes, they still need an alternative to Robin van Persie that isn’t the hapless Nicklas Bendtner, but there is quality in this Arsenal squad and time to make additions. The results against Newcastle and Liverpool are disappointing for a club that intends to challenge for the title, but we are two games into a 38 game season. There are undoubtedly weaknesses that are quite possibly sufficient to prevent Arsenal from winning any major trophy for a seventh consecutive season, but it is churlish to acclaim United’s youth while dismissing Arsenal’s equivalents. This is an important season for Wenger and his team, and now is the time that Arsenal must make the long-awaited step from potential to challengers.

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