Wednesday night has left all right-thinking Gooners rightly depressed. Another season with no silverware, lots of debate about whether we’re moving forwards or backwards, whether Arsene has taken us as far as he can.
The following thoughts were penned after the second Barcelona game but before we played the Spuds. They are shamelessly optimistic but, even after this week’s despair, I still stand by them:
What was your reaction to our mauling at the hands of Barcelona? Most of the Gooners I know fell into two camps. The majority – philosophical sorts that they are – took it on the chin. They felt we couldn’t have been expected to do much more against the best team in the world, particularly with so many key players injured. They shrugged their shoulders, smiled ruefully and put it down as one of those things, before turning their focus back on our battle for the Premiership Title.
The other camp – the minority – saw, in the huge gulf between Barcelona’s performance and our own, a damning indictment of the Wenger ‘experiment’. “The Invincibles wouldn’t have rolled over like that,” they howled. “It just goes to show that Wenger has spent five years building a house on foundations of sand.” (I’m not a builder, but apparently building houses on sand is not a good thing. Not sure how they manage in Dubai, but that’s another issue altogether). On the face of it these were two very different views: one fatalistic, one pessimistic, and the sparring between both groups spilled across the blogosphere for days.
But were they really such different viewpoints? In fact, on closer analysis both the shruggers and the shriekers were agreed on one thing: the current Arsenal team and style of play is a million miles behind Barcelona’s: at our best, we may be the sexy pretty things of the EPL, but when we share the catwalk with the supermodels of the Nou Camp, we’re revealed for the Essex slappers with ladders in their tights that we really are.
And this is where I would like to offer a different angle, a Third Way, as Tony Blair might put it. After much thinking, pondering and scratching of the head after the two Barça games, I find myself reaching a tantalizingly optimistic conclusion, and it is this:
We are nearly there. We are not far from being Barcelona.
I reached this conclusion by thinking about what was really different between the two sides. The trite answer is that Barça have more money, better players and their players work harder.
But let’s examine those points: More money? Yes, they have been spending more than us (almost £100m in the last year, let’s not forget), but thanks to judicious management Arsenal are about to enter a period where we will have solid cash to spend on players and a sound financial footing for the club.
Better players? Messi is a marvel, Iniesta is incredible, Xavi is something very good that begins with X… all their players are comfortable on the ball. But think of it this way: If Tomas Rosicky was dropped into that side at the expense of, say, Pedro, would Barcelona become shit or would TR slot right into their pass-and-move footballing ballet? Cesc in for Iniesta – disaster for Barca, or business as usual? Nasri in for Keita? Clichy in for Maxwell? Would the player weaken the team or would that amazing team accommodate the player?
With an Arsenal shirt on, Rosicky had a stinker in the second leg, but he is a player of real class, great technique and a footballing brain as we have seen on many occasions. So, too, are Nasri, Cesc, Song, Vermaelen and others. If Arshavin was playing for Barcelona we would be drooling over his performances. True, we don’t have a Messi and, on balance, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and co are a little ahead of our players – but not by much.
Arsène has assembled a group of players who, with one or two exceptions, have the ability to play in the style of Barcelona. So why aren’t they? Why are they less than the sum of their parts?
One answer is that, good though our players are, we’re really missing maybe two truly world class players – a striker and a midfielder – players at the top of their game and at the right age – 25 or 26. Well, with the improving financial situation at Arsenal I fully expect Wenger to sign them this summer (and I mean two world class players in addition to a keeper and a central defender). I believe AW has hinted in his post Barca comments that he’s ready to do just this.
The third point is that Barça’s players work harder, and that one’s difficult to dispute. But in the early part of the season we, too, harried and pressed our opponents whenever they had the ball – it led to us outplaying ManUre at Old Toilet, even if the points went astray. After seeing Barça’s style up close, I believe Wenger will place greater emphasis on this part of our game in the future. He will add work rate to technique.
But there’s one big, big difference between Barcelona and Arsenal that I have not yet mentioned, and it is the most important one of all: Barcelona have won things, this Arsenal team have not. Barça’s team swept all before them last season and this year it has allowed them to play with even more confidence, even more freedom, even more swagger. It explains why they work so hard and it partly explains why they’re so good when they have the ball.
If Arsenal had that collective self-confidence, Rosicky-Cesc-Nasri-Arshavin-Song would be running up possession stats to equal the Barça boys.
The current Arsenal crop is very, very close to breaking its duck. Even though, following that oh-so-painful defeat at Sh*te Hart Lane, we’re not going to do it this year, it’s really important not to despair or turn on Wenger and the squad, because next year will be even better.
Wenger will bring in new, mature players this summer who have the required technical ability but who also have the engine for a high tempo pressing game. No other team in the Premier League could remotely hope to get close to Barcelona’s level of playing simply by the addition of two new players, but we can. We are streets ahead of other English teams in the style we play, and with a few modest adjustments we’ll no longer be bullied out of games by the Chavs and Mancs.
Arselona, here we come.