Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Wednesday July 30 2008
Improvement should be the most intrinsic aim of any footballer; this is what marks out the likes of Fabregas and Clichy, who make a demonstrative improvement on their game. Fabregas has ironed out the physical deficiencies of his teenage years and the goal scoring surplus. Clichy has clearly worked on his delivery in the final third, which up until last season had been really quite poor. Despite surpassing the expectations of many last term, Arsenal still go into this season with plenty of players who have a great deal to prove. The media jostling of last summer in juxtaposition with the removal of our star player created an enthused symbiosis in the squad in the desire to step up and prove their worth. One year on and many players find themselves in a similar position. Last year, Fabregas had to prove he could become the fulcrum of the side without Henry; Adebayor had to prove he could lead the line and carry the goal scoring threat, William Gallas had to prove that he could captain the side; Robin van Persie had to prove he could stay fit for a whole campaign. Some things never change I guess.
This year a number of players have something to prove, and this sense of motivation should really be propelling our young side onto great things. There`s an old African proverb that says God gives every bird enough food, but he doesn`t throw it into their nest. Much of our campaign will be shaped by how well the following take their chances. Firstly, Manuel Almunia has to prove he is up to the task of being Arsenal`s first choice goalkeeper. He started last season as number two only to capitalise on a couple of early Jens howlers. He managed to stave off competition from the mad German for the remainder of the season. But personally, I am not convinced Almunia has the attributes to be number 1. He is a fine goalkeeper; two seasons ago I felt he was the best deputy custodian on the league. However, I would not bracket him as world class, and I think Arsenal`s goalkeeper should be world class and should definitely be in the reckoning for his national side- whether that be England or Spain. Almunia has been given the number 1 short and now begins the campaign as our bona fide first choice. He has to prove he is up to that challenge and that pressure. My concern is that he does not possess a big game mentality. Mistakes that come to mind appeared in games against Manchester United (x2), Barcelona and Chelsea. Almunia has to rise to the responsibility; I am open minded and open to being proved wrong. But not only does he have to prove his worth as a number 1, but as one of the senior members of our squad.
The respective departures of Flamini, Hleb and Gilberto present opportunities for others to step up. Firstly, youngsters such as Barazite, Vela and Walcott look as though they will be afforded opportunities. The back end of last season suggests Walcott is beginning to escalate towards first team credentials, he must continue to build on that foundation and stake a claim in the side, as well as contribute with goals. His assists record over the last two seasons suggests that, whilst his approach play can lack maturity at times, particularly in the lack of variation in his runs, his end product is lethal. Vela has served his 'national service` as it were and been ushered straight into the first team squad, being assigned the number 12 suggests he is very much part of Arsene`s plans. With Hleb gone and Eboue looking anything other than a right midfielder, there is a chance for Vela to stake his claim. The dearth in the centre also presents massive opportunities for Abou Diaby. Marooned out on the left flank for most of last season, he cut a frustrated and idle figure. He must prove that he can assume his favoured position on a full time basis and really push beyond the moniker of squad player, that means that his industry levels have to improve by about 300% on current standing. Likewise, Denilson has a similar challenge thrust before him. Can he adapt his game and become the defensive foil for Fabregas? He seems to have a most un Brazilian tenacity in his tackling, but also boasts an impressive passing range. Denilson and Diaby need to build on their early promise and show everybody that they are ready for the step up.
Bacary Sagna enjoyed something of a honeymoon season at right back, rarely putting a foot wrong and establishing himself as an integral member of the side. (Note to Adebayor, he also earned an improved contract as a consequence of this, he did not need to issue vaguely threatening statements to do so). But he must now assert himself further and admonish any suggestion that he could be a one season wonder. At the age of 25, he is also one of the elder statesmen and needs to show that leadership and communion with his younger charges. Captain William Gallas has something of a duel challenge. Questions have been abound surrounding his captaincy, and he has many to convince (not me personally, but a lot of people remain dubious). Gallas has to put those doubts firmly to bed, his statement of intent this week appears to recognise and accept that challenge. Gallas and Toure must also prove that they can flourish as a partnership; the lack of a big, commanding defender appeared to cost a lot of big goals last season. For my money, I`d like to see Senderos partner Gallas at the back, those that dismiss that suggestion based on Senderos` perceived liability to errors might like to consider that Kolo Toure conceded four penalties last season. The Gallas Toure axis has frequently been disrupted by external circumstances, given a lengthy spell in the side in tandem with one another; they might just yet dispel my doubts.
Staying with our African players for a moment, there is plenty to prove for Emmanuel Eboue. A fine right full back, but under whelmed last year in a wide midfield berth. I think he was a little too keenly criticised in some quarters, the boss is correct to point to his defensive attributes in lending the side balance. But simply, a right midfielder must contribute more than three assists; his composure in the final thirty yards of the pitch is reminiscent of a spotty adolescent in the final throes of love making. It would appear Wenger is entrusting him with the right wing role again, so there is plenty to work on for the less than popular Ivorian. Emmanuel Adebayor has made a massive great rod for his back this season, if indeed he does stay with the club. Personally, I wasn`t expecting, nor demanding another thirty goals from him this season. He is not a goal poacher and whilst there was no particular serendipity in last season`s total, I would have been surprised to see him repeat it in the role he performs. However, players that ostracise supporters with excessive wage demands give themselves more work to do as they evaporate all good will. Adebayor clearly has himself down as a thirty goal a season man, if he is to compare himself with Henry, he`ll need to obtain at least fifty per cent of that total in assists too. Having made such gargantuan demands and waxed lyrical of his own importance, it is not unacceptable for us as supporters to demand that kind of output from him this year. Simply, if he cannot, he has failed us. That is the position he has chosen, he must now put up or shut up.
As I said at the outset, every player in every team has a personal challenge ahead of them for the new season. But Arsenal, perhaps naturally given the youth of our squad, have several players who have teetered on the precipice of potential. Bendtner for instance made great strides as the season drew on, now it is time for the aforementioned to grow as players and as men and accept the responsibility and faith shown in them. As the likes of Fabregas and Clichy have done before them and I have no doubt will continue to do. It would also be really nice if we could keep Rosicky and van Persie fit for a good portion of the season. I think both players are in last chance saloon in this regard. Another injury hit season for either or both should really see us looking at moving them on. Gentlemen, the gauntlet lay before you.LD.
Date:Wednesday July 30 2008
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