Over Before it Begins?

Friday, August 12th, 2011, 3:43 pm

Was it really that long ago, February 16th, when Arsenal out-Barçaed Barcelona to defeat the best team in the world? Andrei Arshavin’s go-ahead goal seemed to signify great things ahead for my Gunners. An upcoming date with Birmingham in the Carling Cup final promised to land Arsenal it’s first trophy since 2005. Not an especially prestigious bit of silverware, but after beating Barça Arsenal could dream of reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League by vanquishing the overwhelming favorite. They were still in the FA Cup and within striking distance of the top of the Premiership. With a straight face manager Arsene Wenger said his team could win a Quadruple. And Arshavin’s goal made one believe that this wasn’t mere delusion.

Sports fans have long memories, alas. Not that Arsenal fans needed one to remember their team’s self-immolation 11 days earlier against Newcastle. After cutting the Magpies to ribbons in running up a 4-0 lead, Arsenal shat the bed in the second half and let Newcastle score four times in the final 22 minutes, perhaps the worst collapse in Premiership history. And, sadly enough, it turned out that game was the true harbinger of Arsenal’s final destiny, not that stirring victory over Barcelona.

Because Arsenal stunk out the joint against Birmingham in the Carling Cup final on February 27th, struggling against a team that would be relegated before goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and centre back Laurent Koscielny effed up in a way that has to be seen to be believed:

 

The team talked a good game after that ghastly loss, reminding supporters that they were still in the hunt for three major trophies. But who actually believed these Gunners could deliver the goods? It didn’t take long for Arsenal to show they were mere pretenders to the thrones, as they tied Sunderland, West Brom and Blackburn in successive Premiership games (two of them at home), lost to Manchester United in the FA Cup, and got beat 3-1 at the Nou Camp as Barcelona continued its march to be crowned Kings of Europe.

A stirring 1-0 victory over Man U was impossible to savor, thanks to an earlier, horrific 3-3 tie at Tottenham, Arsenal blowing a 2-goal lead just as they had earlier in the year when Spurs came back to win 3-2 at the Emirates. They then limped to the finish line with losses to Stoke and Aston Villa and a tie with Fulham, which meant Arsenal could claim a quad of sorts–they finished fourth in the EPL, and would have to qualify for a Champions League spot.

Unfortunately for Arsenal fans the nightmarish end to the season has continued all summer. Instead of summoning reinforcements to improve the squad, Arsenal might have been weakened more than any other team in the Premiership. It seems that captain Cesc Fabregas’ long flirtation with hometown club Barcelona will finally be consummated, after what seems like eons of speculation.

Losing a player of Fabregas’ talents is a huge blow, but the idea was that Sami Nasri would effortlessly assume Fabregas’ role and that Wenger would use Catalonian loot to, oh, I don’t know, buy himself a central defender with the strength and aggression of a minotaur and a keeper with opposable thumbs. But now it looks like Nasri is leaving as well, to the moneypits of Manchester City. That would push wunderkind Jack Wilshire into the starring role…except that he’s hurt.

Arsenal fans were ticked even before this looming catastrophe came to a head. Desperately needing help at the back, Wenger failed to bring in a central defender. Indeed, Manchester City added Gael Clichy to it’s collection, though one hopes (prays) that Kieran Gibbs is ready to take over full-time at left back. But even with Thomas Vermaelen and Johan Djourou returning from injury it would behoove Arsenal fans to stock up on the Pepto, what with Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci still among the team’s top defenders. Wenger did bring in Gervinho to hopefully add firepower to the front line, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is both a major talent and also just 17 years old.

So with the season set to begin tomorrow (here’s hoping the riots that forced the cancellation of the Tottenham-Everton game come to a quiet end) the squad is in total flux. Arsenal fancies itself a European titan but their two best players are flitting off to wealthier, sexier teams. They’ll probably take in £60 million but Wenger is known for being tighter with cash than Scrooge McDuck. Can the parsimonious Wenger buy quickly, and wisely, enough to keep Arsenal from imploding? What’s Robin Van Persie thinking right now? Or Wilshire/Ramsey/Walcott? Or any other top player over the age of 20 who wants to play Champions League football and rack up trophies?

Arsenal plays beautiful football, second only to Barcelona. But last year they were a hard team to root for. The stupefying collapses against Spurs and Newcastle. The idiotic red cards earned by Abou Diaby against Newcastle and Van Persie against Barcelona (I mean the first one for complaining, not the second one which was a joke). Emmanuel Eboye’s inexplicable penalty box takedown with seconds left against Liverpool that cost the Gunners two points. Arshavin’s maddening inconsistency–superhero one minute, invisible man the next three games. And then there’s Nicklas Bendtner, with his pink boots and insufferable preening and blinkered belief that he’s a taller and more lethal Lionel Messi. Bendtner had a golden chance to send Arsenal through against Barça in the Champions League–here’s what he did with it:


barcbench767 by arsenalist

It looks as though Bendtner will also be gone sooner than later, perhaps a case of addition by subtraction. But with the transfer window closing August 31st there isn’t much time for Wenger to buy quality reinforcements, and integrating new signings into the club during the season doesn’t bode well for Arsenal’s chances. Hey, I think Phil Jagielka would be a nice addition. But a pedestrian signing like that wouldn’t do much to mollify fans watching Fabregas and Nasri sprint away from North London, and Lille isn’t giving up Eden Hazard without at least an exchange of artillery fire.

I heard on a podcast that Arsenal should consider adding Joey Barton, and I can see the logic in that (perhaps the first time “logic” and “Joey Barton” have appeared in such close proximity). Barton is a talented passer and he’s long desired a chance to perform on the biggest stage, so he’d certainly be motivated. Of course Barton possesses a disposition, both on the pitch and off, that could be compared to a Honey Badger at the ragged end of a four-day drunk. Whether Wenger would take on such a potential headache might be an indicator of how desperate he is.

Those players who are actually committed to Arsenal have no time to pout or ponder. Tomorrow’s opener at Newcastle is followed by the first leg of their Champions League qualifier against Udinese. Then they host Liverpool, a team most figure has eclipsed Arsenal this off-season and one that could shove Arsenal out of the top four in the Premiership. The return leg at Udinese follows and then there’s a trip to Old Trafford to take on the defending champions. We could have a very good idea what kind of season Arsenal is going to enjoy (or not) by August 28th.

I’m thrilled that the season’s about to start, but I can’t say I’m looking for much from Arsenal this year. But maybe that’s a blessing in disguise–after so many years of high expectations, perhaps this is the year they overachieve, not under. There’s still a ton of talent on the squad and maybe Wenger can transform Fabregas and Nasri into gold. Or, failing that, silverware.

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