There are myriad annual sporting events: Wimbledon, The Six Nations, The British Open Championships and of course the Barclays Premier League. Internally, The Premier League has it’s own idiosyncratic, yearly occurrences and every Arsenal fan’s personal favourite is the Gunners 4th place prediction.
I am yet to read an article in any newspaper or non-opinionated website that realistically uses last season’s facts upon which to base their oh-so-well-argued predictions. The bulk of football pundits forecast a two-horse race for this season, which I can forgive them for. However the colossal dissatisfaction for Gooners occurs when Liverpool are prophesied to appear one place above Arsenal by the Oracles of the sport. The surprising aspect of this season’s predictions is that the pundits’ bubble of pseudo-infallibility was so violently burst by Arsenal last season. Why the press are yet to acknowledge Wenger and co.’s loud warning shot from last season is anybody’s guess. But I have set out to question the status quo that has developed within the inner-circles of sports journalism.
“Exodus” has to be the most used word of Arsenal’s pre-season. Some hyperbole was to be expected after the transfers of Flamini and Hleb were tediously drawn out, but the using the term “Exodus” to describe what happened at the Emirates is bordering on blasphemy. Flamini leaving is a loss, there is no use in arguing otherwise and a new defensive midfielder needs to be signed post-haste (Gokhan who?). Hleb however is not a large blow, he was – dare I say it – overrated. In 109 appearances for Arsenal, Hleb scored 11 goals and provided 9 assists, no wonder Wenger was “comfortable” with his departure. There has also been a direct replacement in the form of the Marseille man, Samir Nasri. Nasri is an archetypal Wenger signing. At Marseille the 21 year-old played on 102 occasions in which he hit the back of the net 13 times and assisted his teammates 17 times. You do the math(s).
A player often referenced to in Arsenal’s 4th place predictions is Gilberto Silva. No Arsenal fan can ever forget Gilberto and the way in which he played for Arsenal with true pride. He was an integral part of The Invincibles and a true gentleman of the sport, but, as callous as it sounds, he had peaked. Flamini was clearly superior and the Brazilian’s overall form had dropped slightly which is all its takes for Wenger to deny you that first team spot. The press has overstated the significance of his move to Panathinaikos, he was not a viable long-term solution to the defensive-midfield dilemma and a quick glance at the name of his new club is testament to Wenger’s decision to let him go.
All too often it is forgotten that 4 of Arsenal’s starting 11 were also in the PFA Team of the Year and I hasten to add that all 4 of those players (Sagna, Clichy, Fabregas and Adebayor) are still with us.
Jose Mourinho and the rest of the UK’s press would have you believe that Liverpool are better than Arsenal and will therefore come 3rd this season at the expense of Arsenal. Never has such a claim been so unfounded. In the past 5 Premier League seasons Arsenal have come 4th twice, in 05/06 Arsenal’s form in the league was way below-par and some dodgy food spared us the embarrassment of 5th place. In the 06/07 season Arsenal were 4th on goal difference, effectively joint 3rd. Thus there is no real justification for Liverpool being put up on the 3rd place pedestal. The most recent evidence suggests that Liverpool were fighting more with Everton for 4th place rather than with Arsenal for 3rd until the Toffees went slightly off the boil. Liverpool are an overrated team far too reliant on both Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrad who ride their luck like it was their own personal pony (see Standard Liege ball crossing the line) These optimistic predictions merely get their fans’ hopes up, until the league titles escapes them by Christmas, again.
The hugely hyped up strike force of Robbie “Rip-Off” Keane and Fernando Torres failed to score against the Belgian champions, now lets see them have a pop at scoring away at Aston Villa. You’d expect that journalists would be the people realistic/cynical enough to see that Liverpool are still lacking in major positions. Not only are they in an obscene amount of debt (that would have increased by £18m had Barry arrived at the club), but also Rafa Benitez is a strong favourite for winning this decade’s “Worst Manager on the Transfer Market” award.
The wall of hype around Liverpool is completely unprecedented and hopefully will soon come crashing down. Last year the write-off actually helped as Arsenal had next-to-no pressure on them, fans have even grown accustomed to the annual write-off, so maybe the factual imbalance by the predictors works in the club’s favour. As Wenger acknowledges, “The speculation is always against us. It was against us last season and it will be against us again this year.” Hey, maybe the Annual Arsenal Write-Off has become a great English tradition, and we all know how sensitive we can be when it comes to tradition.
In other non-rant related news, Arsenal secured a vital 2-0 win over Steve McClaren’s new outfit, FC Twente, with a performance uglier than Quasimodo first thing Monday morning. With a frustrating number of players injured for the game, the first hour of the match featured too many heart-in-mouth moments for most Gooners’ liking. There was a distinct feeling that a solitary goal would kill off Twente’s spirited challenge and Gallas’ scrappy goal was enough before the Walcott-to-Adebayor-to-goal process that we all know and love, killed the game off.
Despite being a win of monumental importance (in terms of finance and footballing status) the match showed that Arsenal can (and hopefully will) grind out the required results. McClaren felt hard done by and looked disenchanted in his post-match interview. It’s that feeling I want the managers of teams we play to have more often, instead of praising his side for salvaging a point from the game. The team needs to come out on top after being second best in matches and seize victory from the brink of defeat (or draw). Not only does it bank 3 priceless points but it sends out a strong psychological message: “You may play better than us, but we will still find a way to beat you.” That’s the mentality that Arsenal need and that Manchester United already have, and something that they use much to their advantage (see Man U 2-1 Arsenal, 13/04/08). Wenger has honed in on this mental issue and hopefully, like we saw against Twente, Arsenal will be able to churn out more wins through sheer hard graft.