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Aug 8, 2008

No excuses for Wenger's young guns

As Arsene Wenger was finally forced to admit that Arsenal have become 'a selling club', many fans and pundits alike have questioned the credentials of the Gunners for the coming season.

No trophies in three years have seen the club slip from being seen as genuine title contenders, to one simply content to qualify for the lucrative Champions League. And with mounting debt, departing players and an impatient fan-base, talk of the 'transitional period' is wearing thin.

One must remember that the side were only a few games off a title winning season in 2007/08; but, as has been the case in recent years, a lack of experience towards the end of the campaign scuppered any hopes they had of lifting the trophy.

Man Utd and Chelsea have launched successful attacks on the Premier League title in recent years with a mixture of experience and youth, while Wenger's faith in his young players has been somewhat blinkered - if not in principle, then in application.

The Frenchman's summer signings so far have again been of the 'promising' variety, with 20-year-old Samir Nasri and 17-year-old Aaron Ramsey arriving and there is reason to believe that both will serve the club well in the future.

Nasri has done well in his few seasons with Marseille and, despite being tipped as 'the new Zidane', the youngster has kept his feet on the ground to make his mark on the French national side as well. A direct replacement for Barcelona-bound Alexander Hleb, Nasri's style of football suits the Gunners and, having been tracked by Wenger from an early age, he is expected to settle well at the club.

Ramsey, too, has been on Wenger's radar since making the breakthrough at Cardiff last year and the French boss will have been pleased to beat the likes of Manchester United and Everton to his signature. However, as impressive as Wenger's growing crop of young stars is, the squad cries out for experience.

Losing Jens Lehmann, Gilberto Silva and Hleb has robbed the squad of big-game players, and the absence of a cool-headed veteran may play its part in Arsenal's season, both on and off the pitch.

Furthermore, while Wenger has always been happy to let players go as their career starts its descent, this summer has seen a dangerous precedent set. He has lost players he wanted to keep and has had to watch them join other clubs in pursuit of silverware and, importantly, more money.

Arsenal have recovered from the departures of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira in recent years, but with their transfer dealings hindered by a £24million-a-season debt to pay towards their new stadium, the wage structure at the club has proved to be something of a barrier.

Wenger would have loved to have kept the 24-year-old Mathieu Flamini, fresh from a very impressive Premier League campaign, but was powerless to stop AC Milan doubling his wages when his contract expired. The fact that Milan won't be playing Champions League football next season may suggest a mercenary streak in the midfielder, but Wenger cannot claim to be surprised as he acquired the player in a similar way from Marseille in 2004.

Monetary constraints meant Wenger had to sell Hleb in order to bring Nasri in (when the side could have used both of them) and the wage demands of Emmanuel Adebayor played a large part in the drama surrounding his future this summer; yet Wenger remains undeterred in his focus.

Believing that a big-money signing would 'kill' the young players at the club, this philosophy was behind the surprise sale of Gilberto to Panathinaikos. While the Brazilian brought valuable experience to the side, he also stood in the way of the development of Alex Song, Abou Diaby and Denilson in the midfield.

Song, in particular, looks likely to get more of a chance of first-team football this season after impressing in the African Nations Cup with Cameroon. A good run at the Olympics could see him cement the vacant defensive midfield berth, although Wenger has used him as a central defender to date.

However, even with Song's emergence, the squad still looks light of a few players. An experienced defensive midfielder should arrive in August, while Wenger would also like the chance to strengthen in defence. Philippe Senderos, Johan Djourou and Justin Hoyte have not done enough to suggest that they should be fighting for first-team places when the season starts and an injury to any one of Wenger's first-choice of Bacary Sagna, Kolo Toure, William Gallas or Gael Clichy leaves them short at the back.

As Sagna's injury against Chelsea last season showed, the Gunners struggle to cope with a defensive crisis. With Wenger unhappy to play Emmanuel Eboue at the back the versatility of Toure has proved important, although with the news that the Ivorian contracted malaria this summer, his fitness has been called into question for the season opener.

Yet there is cause for optimism despite the talk of 'crisis' surrounding the club. In Cesc Fabregas, the Gunners have one of the best players in the world at the moment and, fresh from helping Spain win Euro 2008, the 21-year-old continues to improve. Tying together the Arsenal attacks, the Spaniard has helped the club become one of the most exciting teams to watch in the League and has spurned the interests of Real Madrid to pledge his future to Emirates outfit.

The emergence of 16-year-old Jack Wilshere in pre-season only adds further evidence to the claim that Wenger has collated one of the best young squads in the world and competing in the Carling Cup this season should only aid his young players' development.

The Gunners also boast a potent strikeforce. With Adebayor staying and offering the combination of height and strength that brought him 24 league goals last year, the emergence of Carlos Vela and Nicklas Bendtner means Robin Van Persie and Eduardo (once he has recovered from his horrific injury) will have plenty of competition for places. Theo Walcott, too, will be looking to establish himself in the side after only showing glimpses of his talent since his arrival and the sight of him in Thierry Henry's #14 shirt is an exciting prospect for many supporters.

As an attacking force, the style of Arsenal's football is almost unrivalled in world football, but even with external issues hindering their ambition, they cannot afford another trophyless season.

With a passing game that surpasses most others, frustration has been at the heart of the club for the past few years. Trying to walk the ball into the net has seen the side dominate possession, but fail to show the killer instinct required to finish teams off. And something has to change.

Ultimately, many critics wrote the Gunners off after the departure of Thierry Henry in June 2007 and they came very close to winning the league last year. With more than one departure to overcome this summer, the club is now in its fourth 'season of transition' and only a piece of silverware will stop the dissenters from claiming that Arsenal are not true contenders.


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