It’s more of the same with Arsenal blowing hot and cold. While the Gunners are still in with a shout, Everton will offer a stern test.
IT was an ideal weekend for Arsenal to lessen the gap between them and Premier League pacesetters Chelsea, as they took on Newcastle United two-anda-half-hours before the Blues visited the venue where they cleared their one final hurdle en route to their title six months ago. Anfield again provided the setting for Carlo Ancelotti’s men to reiterate their intention to retain league honours but the 0-2 reverse suffered on Sunday only benefited Manchester United.
The sunnier Arsenal supporters felt that it was an opportunity lost; the rest believed that the campaign is adopting an eerie familiarity after the Gunners fell to their second home defeat. In a discouraging aside to the setback, the Magpies became the other promoted side to humble the Gunners before their own audience after West Bromwich Albion ran off with three points in late September.
Arsene Wenger must surely know that his prediction of the team’s suitability for the crown of champions is about as consistent as his goalkeepers’ displays. The season may be only three months old but we could almost taste the staleness that pervades the Emirates Stadium, despite their triumph at Wolverhampton Wanderers. The same factors have been regurgitated to explain Arsenal’s flutter: a rearguard that is not equipped to deal with aerial bombardment; netminders who are more adept at gathering dismal headlines than the floating ball; Francesc Fabregas and Wenger himself.
The criticism that is stacking up on the Frenchman is not a scenario that he has not been exposed in the past. It has become the norm for fair-weather fans to flood forums with the customary “sack the manager” drivel without providing any educated solutions for the consequences arising from such a move. Wenger is used to it – or even immune – and there is still an expectation that he would go on to complete his 15th year at the club next October.
If we were to deal with the here and now, there are more issues than answers for Wenger at the moment. On Sunday, supporters frowned over his tactical formation, substitutions and his transfer dealings in the summer. The general consensus is that the 4-5-1 that Wenger favours is not consistently bearing rewards. Robin van Persie’s return, after another long lay-off, should have been postponed to allow Nicklas Bendtner to batter the Newcastle backline longer while doubts were being raised over Marouane Chamakh, their two-goal hero at Molineux.
Unfortunately – or fortunately – supporters tend to fall back on hindsight in assessing a situation, a luxury not afforded to the man in the dugout. Managers are useful up to the moment their players leave the dressing room and once they are out there, the likes of Wenger need to pray that their meticulously prepared instructions are not breached. On this instance, it was clear that his midfielders did not have the appetite for a bruising evening and no one encapsulated this defeatist attitude more than Fabregas.
The Spaniard has had another torrid period in the close season handling queries on his Barcelona homecoming and did not look like the inspirational individual who steered the Gunners past many calamities. Wenger has been seared for his loyalty to Fabregas and only he knows what is nibbling away in his star performer’s mind, after a horrendous late tackle on Wolves’ Stephen Ward landed the midfielder on the stretcher. The official excuse is that Fabregas has been hampered by hamstring troubles but the player and manager must determine whether the question of fitness is related to the body or mind.
The more practical Arsenal loyalists are waiting for the day when the team walks out without their talismanic captain. Fabregas is in pursuit of meaningful medals that could sit alongside those that he took home from the World Cup and European Championship in the last two years. Arsenal, right now, are incapable of providing him with the assurances of glory at club level: weighed down by the debts that were accumulated as they built the Emirates Stadium, the Gunners have found it impracticable to compete for players in a market inflated by the financial muscles of Manchester City and Chelsea.
Wenger needs Fabregas more than ever against Everton – which offer a similar challenge as Newcastle in that they are able to blend steel and silk into their game. Come Sunday at Goodison Park, the Toffees would be more than glad to roll out the full treatment for Arsenal midfielders and it does not take a tactical genius to figure out that their opponents’ defence is a primary target. Arsenal appear light at the back without Thomas Vermaelen and the continued absence of the Belgian – out for the last two months – has affected their form.
David Moyes is facing an inviting chance to post Everton’s first win over the Gunners since March 2007. In the last three seasons, Arsenal have blasted 17 goals in six league games past Everton, with 11 of them arriving at Goodison Park. While this has been a happy hunting ground for the Gunners, they no longer exude an air of superiority and the Toffees draw confidence from having held United to a draw and humbling Liverpool at home in the last two months and their unbeaten streak in the Premiership stretched to seven matches after the 1-1 stalemate with Bolton Wanderers on Wednesday night.
The Toffees have yet to taste defeat in the league since Newcastle downed them at home on Sept 18 and another superb result over one of the big boys would ramp up their confidence. Moyes dipped into the markets in Portugal, France and Poland to come up with strikers Joao Pedro Pereira Silva and Magaye Gueye, plus goal-custodian Jan Mucha before turning to Newcastle and Coventry City to lure midfielder Dan Gosling and another forward, Lucas Jutkiewicz. He and Everton are holding on for them to make their impact.
The head-to-head statistics suggest that Arsenal are bound to prevail but a dozen games into the season is not the most appropriate time to generate forecasts on the destiny of the Premier League trophy. Wenger may have correctly predicted that Chelsea would squander points at Anfield though he could not see that his team are prone to succumb to the same affliction. There are more obstacles that lie ahead that would weed out the pretenders from the contenders for the title race and it is rash to dismiss the challenge from the Gunners – lying five points adrift of Chelsea – as much as it is fashionable to do so.
Going bonkers: Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas is struggling to comprehend his team’s erratic performances.