Wenger chooses youth over experience again
Another 'season of transition' for Arsenal is just about the last thing that fans or players at the club could want. But it is unavoidable.
While Arsene Wenger may contend that his young squad have the quality to challenge for the title this season, many will remember a similar boast last campaign that culminated in a 21 point gap behind winners Manchester United. Unfortunately for the Gunners, nothing much has changed. Arsenal are still a young side with a lot of potential, who lack experience and they have not matched their rivals in the transfer market again this summer.
In fact, quite the opposite.
The departure of yet another top player, this time talismanic captain Thierry Henry, is almost unheard of for the other major clubs. Having spent the past few years with Barcelona breathing down his neck, the Frenchman finally decided to move to the Nou Camp after growing disillusioned with the continuing saga behind the scenes at Arsenal and his presence will be missed.
While two years ago he would have commanded a fee of at least £30million, the 29-year-old was sold for only £16.1million - less than Darren Bent by comparison.
How much the club will miss their captain on the pitch is up for debate. Playing most of last season without him, due to a succession niggling injuries, Arsenal's youngsters have already shown that they do not have to rely on Henry, although also failed to convince anyone that they could be title contenders this season.
While Henry is undoubtedly one of the best finishers the Premier League has ever seen, many would say that the last few seasons have seen a decline in his form. Hindered by injuries, the Frenchman has looked a shadow of his former self, hence the Arsenal board's decision to sanction his transfer to Barcelona and the bizarrely low transfer fee.
Not helped by the departure of David Dein from the Arsenal board, Henry's own mind was made up after failing to get any assurances over the future of manager Arsene Wenger. With Wenger's contract ending in the summer of 2008 and no ground being made in persuading him to sign a new one, the striker chose to jump ship - a decision that the board hope will not be taken by Arsenal's other players.
Young starlet Cesc Fabregas has already hinted that he would have to consider his future if Wenger was to leave the club, with the usual suspects of Real Madrid and Barcelona sniffing around. So while the departure of Henry may be something that will send short-term shockwaves around the club, securing the future of the manager should be much more of a concern for the Arsenal board.
With talk over an imminent takeover from American billionaire Stan Kroenke failing to disappear, the disharmony in the boardroom has every danger of spilling over into the running of the club. Wenger, for one, will not be happy should any takeover materialise and it is hard to see him staying on as manager under new ownership.
While not in the same league, in terms of spending, as his rivals, Wenger has splashed around £20million on four new players, including French utility man Bacary Sagna, Polish goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski and young Norweigan defender Havard Nordtveit.
£8million Croatian striker Eduardo Da Silva will receive the most attention, as he has an incredible goal-scoring record for his former club Dinamo Zagreb, netting 73 times in 104 appearances, and looking sharp in pre-season. With Arsene Wenger's search for a 'fox-in-the-box' style player having proved fruitless in past years, including the likes of Francis Jeffers and Julio Baptista, he finally looks like the kind of player who will benefit from Arsenal's attacking prowess.
Too often last season the Gunners lacked the finishing touch to end their impressive build up moves. Used to having a goalscoring midfielder in the form of either Robert Pires or Freddie Ljungberg, who would contribute at least ten goals a season between them, the side struggled with Alexander Hleb and Tomas Rosicky failing to find the net with regularity.
Rosicky in particular boasts a fearsome shot and has the potential to fulfil this role for his new club, while Hleb has been wasteful in front of goal, often preferring to pass instead of shoot. Fabregas, too, was guilty of some shocking misses last term and while he is the creative lynchpin for the club, often creating more goals than he has the chance to score, he could benefit by making more runs into the box.
With the impressive Robin Van Persie keen to show fans that he can score 20 goals a season, having been injured for three months while still netting 12 last year, Arsenal's fluid attack is one of the most feared in the league.
Aiming to fill the boots of Henry more than any other player, Van Persie will be the focal point of the Gunners' forward play, and alongside Emmanuel Adebayor or Eduardo, should find a great deal of success if he can control his wayward temperament and avoid injury. Much will be expected of young Theo Walcott as well, given that he has now cured a troublesome shoulder complaint; while Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner is keen to establish himself in the first-team.
With a lot of promise in the attacking half, Arsenal's defence will provide most cause for concern this season. If William Gallas can stay injury-free, then his partnership with Kolo Toure in the centre of defence has pace, strength and stamina; although Toure will be missing for the African Nations Cup and will be replaced by the unconvincing Phillipe Senderos or Johann Djourou.
Wenger has placed a lot of faith in his young defenders, but they have been found wanting so far in their Premier League excursions. New signing Bacary Sagna can slot in across the backline and will prove a useful addition when the African players depart for their bi-annual competition, but it is the likes of Justin Hoyte, who have failed to provide adequate backup when players are injured.
Full-backs Gael Clichy and Emmanuel Eboue have shown exceptional attacking talent which often outshines their solid defensive work and may find themselves playing in midfield more regularly this season, but injuries to either leaves a youngster, rather than an experienced defender, to fill in.
Certainly Arsenal have one of the most talented squads in the league. In terms of youth, they are the envy of most clubs, but have yet to fulfil the potential that has followed the side since their unbeaten season in 2003/04.
Citing the break-up of that side as reasons for leaving the club, Freddie Ljungberg and Ashley Cole have joined an ever-increasing voice at Arsenal, claiming that the 'Invincibles' were sold too quickly, without time to adjust. Youth has supplanted experience and the likes of Fabregas, Denilson, Clichy and Eboue have benefited; but certain players have never been adequately replaced.
While Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool continue to spend the big bucks, Arsenal have not shown much ambition in the transfer market. Wenger seems unwilling to pay over the odds for any player, which is no bad thing until it starts to harm the side's chances of success.
Without the money, the big-name players and a realistic chance of winning the title, one wonders what the future holds for an Arsenal side who have finished fourth for two consecutive seasons. The dilemma is that something needs to change, but if that something is a takeover, then the man who made the club what they are today may decide that he has taken the team as far as he can. And that could lead to a real crisis.