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Aug 14, 2012

Faster, higher, stronger

Honestly, I've taken my eye off most things Arsenal in the last week and a half with the London 2012 Olympic Games meaning I've been trying to understand the rules of judo and have been getting massively over-excited about track cycling and handball. I've watched some of the Olympic football tournament, but have been so engrossed in the other sport that the men's football has generally felt like a needless sideshow. The women's football tournament however was a superb advert for fans to follow the female game more, with Team GB beating Brazil.

I've partly not been bothering myself with Arsenal news because the Olympic Games don't come to a nearby city very often. The wave of Olympic excitement in and around London has been brilliant, with sport bringing people together and making people proud to be British. Also, there has been a severe lack of media coverage of football ahead of the new season, which is probably a good thing as it's stopped me fretting and starting to worry about Arsenal too far in advance of the season. We go through enough emotions during the season so avoiding some of them in pre-season should be welcomed.

The major Arsenal interest was in the women's football tournament. The Team GB 18 player squad featured six Arsenal players, all of whom featured in their impressive 1-0 victory over favourites Brazil in front of a record UK crowd for a women's match in this country at Wembley. Arsenal have been flag bearers on the pitch for women's football for many years, however despite the success of the team, the women's game has struggled for coverage and popularity.

The motto for London 2012 is ‘Inspire A Generation'. Many people just disregard these sort of statements because they're arguably just written for advertising and branding purposes, but the motto really is true for these Olympics Games, and it's been typified by Team GB's women's football team. Goal scoring full-back Steph Houghton has become a household name, whilst Kim Little, Alex Scott, Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey and Ellen White were all Gunners that made significant contributions to the Team GB side that reached the quarter finals. The FA and the Women's Super League have to build on the success of the women's game from the Olympics, and play some WSL at the big stadiums. Arsenal should play some games at the Emirates as there should be, and is, an increasing interest in women's football.

A lot of the club football news to squeeze its way through the mass of Olympo-mania has been about the Arsenal, with Robin van Persie still hanging around and Santi Cazorla arriving from Malaga. After the cancellation of Nigerian tour match, we've had a lack of pre-season games, but with all the other sport drawing others' attention, Arsene Wenger quietly seems to be building Arsenal to be faster, higher and stronger in this Olympic summer.

In my last blog, I was a bit downbeat about Arsenal having just watched us dominate a pre-season match with Manchester City, but still lose. However it seems everything isn't as bad as it seemed. From the snippets of news that have come out of the club, the team seem to be in good spirits, and with the quality of players arriving, that should be the case. Lukas Podolski's international record speaks for itself, Santi Cazorla is an absolute steal from Malaga, and I think Olivier Giroud will adapt well to the Premier League. Part of me thinks that if all three were such good deals, why were more clubs not in for them? However, it also shows how Arsene Wenger can pick a deal, and was able to get a better deal because of our quiet way of doing business and the attraction Arsenal still has for players. We might knock our own club back sometimes as fans, because of the hopes and expectations we have, but to a lot of players in Europe, we're still a top club with a genuine chance of winning trophies.

The squad is looking full, so departures are inevitable. The likes of Nicklas Bendtner and Sebastien Squillaci are still on the books, and hopefully departures are forthcoming. However the sale of Robin van Persie, when it once seemed inevitable, is now in a little bit of doubt. With every day that goes past towards the end of the transfer window, the more embarrassing Robin van Persie's statement looks. Although not directly saying he wanted to leave this summer, the digs he took at Arsene Wenger and the club appeared to have made his position at the club untenable. However reports suggest that interest has cooled in van Persie. He must also be impressed by our summer signings.

Whatever is going on with Robin van Persie, and none of us can truly know what he's said to anyone inside the club, it seems we're nearing a conclusion by default. I agree with the club's position of not wanting to sell on the cheap, so if the offers aren't there, then he stays. Simple. If he goes to one of the Manchester clubs, he'll be remembered as a good player for the club, but nothing more.

If he does ultimately stay, it'll feel like an extra player. As soon as van Persie released that statement, it felt like he'd left so I have imagined going into the season without him. I still don't think he can be the club captain, and with Thomas Vermaelen leading the team in Asia, he would seem the obvious choice. I'm still unsure as to whether he's guaranteed a starting place at centre back with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny also competing for the two spots. I think Mikel Arteta should get a bigger role in the squad with the vice-captaincy.

So despite being heavily distracted by the Olympics, I've gone from pessimism to optimism about Arsenal's season during the summer months. The squad is definitely stronger than last season, and with others re-joining the squad after the Euros, some of the occasionally abject performances in Asia should be things of the past. My biggest concern at the moment is that there is only one friendly left before the kick-off against Sunderland. Plenty of the squad are yet to appear in pre-season, so will have to hit the ground running. However the signs are good that this Arsenal team will be faster, higher (although Cazorla is more Arshavin than Mertesacker in terms of height), and stronger.

My other recent cause for Arsenal optimism came in the break from my wall-to-wall Olympic fortnight. Just more than 1,000 others got the first chance to see some of our newest youth recruits blossom at Meadow Park on Saturday, as an Arsenal XI beat Chesham United 6-2. Did I recognise most of the 16 and 17 year olds playing for Arsenal? Not really. However one or two of them will make it into the first team, and even though they were playing a limited Chesham team, it's exciting to see another crop of youngsters coming through the club. Full back Hector Bellerin, midfielder Kristoffer Olsson and Isaac Hayden and striker Philip Roberts caught the eye with confident performances. It wasn't really a major game, but it signalled to me that the season is just around the corner. As much as I'm loving the Olympics, the sporting bread and butter for most of us is the football season. Arsenal have signed some good players, so it's time for a little bit of blind pre-season optimism.