A String of Away-Fixtures is a Reason to be Excited for Arsenal

Bit of news to get through as our most difficult away fixture since Liverpool comes up on the horizon.

Wenger interviewLet’s begin with a formulaic opening to manager Arsene Wenger, who has said that the loss against Sevilla does not signal an ‘end to an era’ (what era? We haven’t even gotten started yet!) like it did when we gotkickedoffthepark lost to Manchester United in 2004/05. Wenger has said that today, we find ourselves at the start of an era, certainly not at the end of one. The manager says:

If you examine our season then the players have shown their mental strength plenty of times this year in the final 10 to 15 minutes of matches. Every time we had to deliver, we did. I knew this period would be a test for the squad. That was one of the reasons I was happy we qualified for the knock out stages of the Champions League after four matches.

“It gave me the chance to rotate players a bit but maybe I didn’t do it enough because we lost Cesc Fabregas in Seville and we lost the game.

Quite right – a loss in a competition whose latter stages we have already qualified for is not the same as being cheated out of the longest unbeaten league run in history by one’s bitter title rivals. Of course, the team’s away journeys will not be made easy with Cesc finally confirmed as ‘out’ of today’s fixture, with Clichy and Hleb having to go through late fitness tests prior to the match.

There’s no way to call who will make the match out of those last two without completely guessing. Both have had long-term injuries in the past (Clichy more so), so I cannot really favour one as potentially being ‘more fit’ than the other. More on that later.

In the lead-up to the match, Wenger has said that the English FA have effectively ‘stuffed up’ when they backtracked on placing Villa boss Martin O’Neill as England coach in favour of the joke that is Steve McClaren, and that there is no way O’Neill would accept the double-dip this time round. Staying with O’Neill, the Aston Villa manager has said that Wenger’s foreign signings can only be expected, and that he himself might be signing more foreign talent in the coming months. O’Neill says:

(Wenger’s) job is not to make the England national side better. His job is to win football games for Arsenal. He has done that consistently and brilliantly for 10 years.My own view is that if you are good enough, you will come through. It might take a bit longer but you will come through.

The point I make is if you have some English players playing in those great sides, as Arsenal did with the whole back four at one stage, then, with playing alongside great foreign players, they can only improve.

Many point out that Wenger ‘merely inherited’ the famous back line of Winterburn, Bould, Keown, Adams and Dixon, and that it was down to George Graham as a manager to find and nurture those players. Certainly, Graham enhanced them defensively, but Wenger did two crucial things: Firstly, as most know, he extended their playing careers by bringing in new dietary regulations and fitness regimes (that, ironically enough, involved a lot less jogging around the place).

Secondly – and this is the part that many miss – Wenger did not storm into Arsenal, get rid of ‘the old legs’ and bring in a bunch of Frenchman, as most would have you believe. No, Wenger kept them on all the way from 1996 to 2002 – six years! – before finally replacing them with Sol Campbell (an Englishman! How dare he!), and Kolo Toure. Wenger recognizes talent where there is talent. The talent just happened to be English talent. Will you hear that from the likes of Sam Allardyce, Jermaine Pennant and Alex Ferguson? Not on your life.

On another note, Fabregas has been the ‘surprise nominee’ for France’s Ballon d’Or award, which the article points out, will inevitably be awarded for the ‘top three personalities’. Regardless, it’s simply indicative of the glowing recognition the young man is receieving world wide. Good on him.

Wenger, talkative as ever in match buildups, has admitted he might stengthen the squad defensively, with Eboue and Toure leaving for the ACN in a few months time. Though this most probably will mean Djourou returning from his loan at Birmingham (we hope), Senderos’ performance – loathe as I am to say it – may cause Wenger to consider other signings in that department. We wait and see.

To wrap up, Arsenal Analysis reports that Tresor Mputu’s trial with Arsenal was ‘successful’, and the Emirates Stadium bagged itself yet another award. I’m sure we’ll all be lining the Seven Sisters Road bragging to Spurs fans how many awards our stadium has picked up. We have nothing else to crow about, do we?

And now, onto the Aston Villa match preview. Of course we all want Arsenal to win every game they play, and even though I go into most matches with a pragmatic view on our chances, it always runs against my most basic of instincts how it can be humanly possible for us to concede goals or lose. Even with Igor Stephanovs in defense.

Nevertheless, Aston Villa is a tough, tough fixture at their ground. We have not played well against this team, home or away since the Highbury Salute season, and the players should be made aware of that. Drawing at home in our inaugural league match at the Emirates last season, and scrounging a 1-0 win at Villa Park earlier in the year when our goal was bombarded from all corners of the ground – it’s time to pick up against the Villains.

We have Newcastle and Middlesbrough coming up in quick succession after this, and as difficult as the sequence of games may be (not necessarily the games in isolation, mind you), it is a reason to front up as Arsenal fans with excitement at what this team can do – not what they might not do. Shorn of Fabregas, Hleb and Clichy maybe, it is the dogged mentality of Flamini, Toure and Gallas that can excite when the afformentioned skillful tyros are not available. What wins titles, and what will win this sequence of three away games will be guts and a refusal to lose – traits that win titles to boot.

We may have lauded our team’s ‘dream-team’ potential for the past few seasons, but the fact we are now title-challengers is excitement enough. To win titles, you need grit and hard work, not just flair. That grit has to be on show against Villa, against Newcastle, against Boro.

011207-a-villaPredicting the team to head out against Villa meant deciding between two things: Is Arsene going to stick with a 4-5-1, or start to attack teams more with a 4-4-2? On my reckoning, he will see players like Ashley Young and Agbonlahor, and think that Villa will not be as naturally inclined to sit back and wait for counter-attacks as other teams do. This is a team that rates itself, with the assured Gareth Barry as the fulcrum of this side.

For this reason, it’s 4-4-2 for me, for both teams, in fact. Three more contentious areas of the pitch remain – the strikeforce, the left back and central midfield. Bendtner’s performance against Wigan and Sevilla should be enough to see him get one more start against Villa, as difficult a fixture as it may be. Eduardo, coming under a bit of stick from myself in the last game, may start instead so as to gear up towards the two London derbies on the horizon, but if form is dictating any selections, it’s Bendtner to front up alongside Adebayor.

As much as the last game was a baptism of fire for young Armand Traore, he should be given one more start for confidence’s sake, with Rosicky sitting in front of him protectively instead of Eduardo, who certainly is not a left-winger. I’ve gotten the central pairing wrong once or twice lately, with Diarra often the incorrect prediction, but I’m sticking with his selection again, after Gilberto’s lackluster performance in Europe, and Denilson’s youth leaving a bit to be desired for this fixture.

On the bench, I see Lehmann (who Almunia needs to keep in mind, and will need a strong performance today), Senderos, Eduardo, Denilson and Walcott. Predictions for a result? Frankly, anything could happen in this game – all three types of results are possible, but there is a win inside this team if they front up and work up elbow grease. I’ll be pushing for a win, because the fans certainly need to maintain belief in the side, in the face of the ‘You still haven’t been tested yet, even though you’ve played ‘Pool, Man Utd, West Ham away, Tottenham away, etc etc ad infinitum’ you can still find lurking in the media.

The players know it’s a tough game, we know it’s a tough game – so let’s hope for a ripping performance. ‘Ripping’ – that should some it up. I like it, muchly.

Salut.

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