Faith in Wenger fading
The pressure on Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger is a self-inflicted pressure. At the time of writing, the Gunners' frailties from last term have not been addressed through the addition of personnel, resulting in optimism ahead of the new campaign arriving at a level far lower than it should be without a competitive ball having been kicked. The 'In Arsene We Trust' mantra is being put to the test.
The Cesc Fabregas saga of last summer has reared its grotesque head again and subsequently hogged the headlines. Barcelona seem more likely to land Arsenal's skipper this time around, but their apparent stinginess to meet the £40 million market price for a world-class midfielder and a player they - the club, and also the Barca players - claim they want so much, has meant deadlock.
That the situation still remains unresolved has unquestionably affected the Gunners' pre-season preparations. And, despite the yearning for an end, no matter what some people will lead you to believe, the loss of Fabregas will weaken Arsenal.
Samir Nasri, too, has had a saga of his own. The France international has entered the final year of his contract, sparking speculation over his future. It remains a subject of conjecture whether his hesitancy to pen an extension is about the club's ambition or money, or both. Manchester clubs United and City have been tracking Nasri this summer, but Wenger appears happy to retain his services, risking losing him on a free transfer next year. Effectively, if the mooted figures are true, Arsenal will be paying £20 million for a player for one year - a player who has only really sparkled for half a season.
And this scenario despite Wenger stating three months ago: "We will sort that situation out quickly after the end of the season. We need to know very quickly. We do not want to do that [allow them to leave on a free like Mathieu Flamini]. We won't allow that to happen. It has to be resolved before the season starts again." Wenger's stance, though, on Nasri appears to be fading; the coach having gone from "I expect Samir Nasri to stay" to "it is not completely sorted that Samir will stay" - one wonders whether much hinges on the disposing of Udinese in the Champions League third qualifying round, although both Cesc and Nasri will be cup-tied if they play.
Wenger has stated his aim to be ''active and busy'' in the transfer market and there have been incomings. First through the door was Carl Jenkinson, a 19-year-old right-back from Charlton Athletic. There was little fanfare at the purchase, although the addition of a natural right-back to as an understudy to Bacary Sagna made sense. Absurd own-goal aside, Jenkinson has shown promise in pre-season.
Then Gervinho arrived, with good pedigree, too. The Ivory Coast international was instrumental for Lille last campaign as the club claimed the Ligue 1 title - he recorded ten league assists in the 2010-11 term and netted 15 goals. Gervinho has impressed during pre-season for his new club, scoring a brace on his non-competitive debut and catching the eye with his direct running during the Emirates Cup. He may turn out to be a key player in the season ahead, during those home matches when Arsenal's sideways passing proves ineffective, but he does join an extensive list of forward-thinking players already boasted in the squad.
The signing of 17-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, though, has only served to irk those Arsenal fans pining for the opposite of an attacking youngster with much potential; it has been an odd reception for the Southampton academy graduate. But while it is easy to use the move as another proverbial stick to hit Wenger, one can argue the acquisition holds little relevance to their current plans. This is a purchase for the future. Although few commenting on the Chamberlain signing were eulogising the capture, perhaps Wenger needed to pounce, much like Manchester United did for Phil Jones.
After a sixth campaign without silverware, there were cries to oust the deadwood that have disappointed during those years of frustration. Brazilian midfielder Denilson has left, albeit only on a loan to Sao Paulo, while full-back Gael Clichy, a Frenchman in decline in recent times, has been moved onto Manchester City for £7 million after, like Nasri, entering the final 12 months of his contract. Manuel Almunia, Emmanuel Eboue and Nicklas Bendtner are also expected to leave, Wenger having confirmed they are on the verge of exits, but no transfer for the trio has been rubber-stamped as yet.
The links with potential centre-backs to be brought in have been extensive. Bolton's Gary Cahill, Blackburn's Christopher Samba, Everton's Phil Jagielka and Werder Bremen's Per Mertesacker have all been mentioned, but still there has been nothing doing, as Arsenal's current squad of centre-halves reads (in no particular order, of course): Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny, Johan Djourou and Sebastien Squillaci. Compared to, say, the Premier League champions' hefty contingent, Arsenal pale into insignificance.
However, if the club do finally bolster their defence with a high-profile signing before the transfer window slams shut, then the mood could lift for Gunners followers. But, in spite of the clamouring for a man-mountain of a stopper, it would be naive to suggest that the puzzle would be complete; that Arsenal would suddenly turn into world-beaters. The side's issues seem more deep-rooted than the starting XI selected, amid question marks over tactics and organisation. Wenger did hint he would consider adding to his coaching staff over the summer but no change has been forthcoming.
Expect the season ahead to be another one of rollercoaster emotions, although Gunners could do without a repeat of last season's 4-4 draw at Newcastle on their opening day of this campaign. Indeed, Arsenal have demonstrated little evidence during friendly matches they have rid themselves of their habit for capitulation. With competition from rivals ever-increasing, a title challenge, in all honesty, looks beyond Wenger's men. A cup run is likely their best window of opportunity to end their drought. This is a huge season for Wenger. Surely not his last, for who could realistically replace him? Yet its importance is doubtless.
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