Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Last year, just about this time of the summer.

Time was, a newsletter circulated around Milwaukee called The Highbury Times. Time was, some used that as outlet to share thoughts about the football. About the Arsenal. Right around this time of year last season, I used that space to lay out some thoughts for the upcoming campaign for the Arsenal. It was a time when so much was uncertain. Predominantly because Arsenal had just sold their all-time scorer Thierry Henry (a man, notably, who has just been named as Arsenal's all-time number one in a vote of the 50 greatest players by their fans on the Arsenal Web site). So let's pause and take a deep breath. A breath to look back and see just where our heads were at the start of last year as we plow ahead into a new campaign. On to it then...

Right. Well then, let’s start from the top. We’re going to be alright. In fact, we might even be better than alright. Rest assured, heads will be turned, eyebrows will be raised, imperceptibly polite nods will be offered and more than a few drinks will be spilled.

Who’s we? Come down on a Saturday morning, or better yet, come down at 5:55 a.m. on Sunday, August 12 to find out. Readers of this space in years gone by (hey, look at that, we talk in years now!) will know fully well. We (my ego and I) support The Arsenal. We support Singing In The Name Of. We support Mates and we support the conduit to a higher existence that is The Football.

Last season was disappointing for Arsenal and their supporters. The season before? Right, disappointing as well. A fabulous run to Paris and the Champions League final did provide a wonderful distraction from domestic woes but losing a final comes with consequences. We start now a new campaign with an interesting level of hope. The press, throughout the summer called for crisis: turmoil in the board, the loss of transfer lothario David Dein, questions over Arsene Wenger’s perceived hesitance to put pen to paper on a new deal and, most importantly, the dramatic sale of captain, talisman and all-time goal-scorer, Thierry Henry. But you know what? We’re gonna be alright.

The talk of last season centered on the Young Guns. Arsenal’s crop of could-be stars who displayed a remarkable amount of poise and skill, if not inexperience in spades. A lack of true grit was their undoing as they barely climbed into fourth in the table. Entering this new season, they are not now just a team with another year’s experience, they are a team that is finding themselves. And a large chunk of that falls to the absence of Henry. He was a gentleman in his approach in the game, until last year. I’m not going to slander a man who is one of my favourites and still holds the key to France’s Euro 2008 hopes but it’s important to recognize the difficult presence he came to hold for the younger stars. They waited for him to perform, cowered after poor delivery and looked for his approval above all. It was time for Henry to move on and it’s time for the new Arsenal to accept itself.

No longer will they trot out a 4-4-2 with a striker traditionally drifting left to act as a wing. This year we’ll see something more in the vain of a 4-4-1-1. Similar to the formation they’ve used in the Champions League. Preferred line-up? Sagna, Toure, Gallas, Clichy across the back. New boy Bacary Sagna will be a mainstay for years. He’s strong, pacey and has a carrot on stick in front of him – Wily Sagnol, France’s right-back, can’t play forever. Sagna is next up for that spot. Toure, while not as tall as you’d like a center-back to be, is the lynchpin for the back-four. A surprisingly powerful shot, composure, experience, fitness, Kolo is the man and we’ll likely see him grab the captain’s armband a few times this year. Gallas can be sublime but he’s a head case. His comments throughout the summer were destructive and we can only hope that he channels his experience into leadership. Clichy is a precocious talent and can potentially offer more than Ashley Cole did in that spot.

The middle of the park provides the most interesting problems for Arsene. Cesc Fabregas will be there. That much is sure. Gilberto should feature but will be pushed hard by Abu Diaby who looks more and more like Vieira. The right flank gives us the biggest question, Emmanuel Eboue. Last year’s right back, Eboue’s utter speed and endurance could destroy opposing teams this year. Pushing play up the right through Sagna and Eboue will be eye-opening – the friendly against Inter Milan gave a nice preview. On the left, Tomas Rosicky needs to maintain a higher level of fitness to make an impact but as we saw, he has a knack at drilling goals from outside the area.

Time for the glamour, the strikeforce. Robin van Persie continuous to show us his genius and wizard-like skills. Losing Robin to a broken foot last year had a huge impact at the end of the year. He’s the kind of player that you’ll need to set the alarm and rush down to The Highbury to see all season.

An interesting twist this year will be the position floating just behind van Persie – and when he features, Adebayor. Alex Hleb will be freed from the trap that Arsene had him in on the wing and should feature most of the year in his preferred position, linking the midfield and the strikers. New signing, expensive new signing, the relatively unknown Eduardo da Silva – The Crozillian – will also slot into that role. He reportedly brings bags of goals with him but we’ll see what happens when he adapts to the new and much more difficult Premier League.

In the end, Arsenal supporters are looking and are ready for a new hero. So come on then you Gunners, let’s see what you’ve got against Fulham!

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