Mar 082007

The last eleven days have been painful. The Carling Cup final started brightly, but from the moment Drogba equalised Arsenal’s season has tumbled. An admirable loss in that final was the high point, with painful exits against Blackburn and PSV following, both with late goals against the run of play.

In truth, the PSV troubles started in the first leg. A 0-0 away draw is a dangerous enough result in the world of away goals, but a 1-0 defeat puts you in a hugely difficult situation. The opposition can sit back to the extent that three goals are unlikely, which means a clean sheet is imperative.

And Arsenal just can’t keep clean sheets at the moment.

But the fickleness with which some fans and newspapers have launched at Arsene Wenger and his young team have been ridiculous. Of course there are criticisms to make, Lampard’s goal tally shows you that if you shoot enough, lucky deflections will go your way from time to time, and individual mistakes have been responsible for most goals conceded lately. But ten days ago, the same ‘fans’ and media were raving about how good this Arsenal side would become. Now, they’re either suggesting Wenger doesn’t have it in him to take us back to the top, or insisting that a bunch of star players needs to be brought in. Patience is not a quality held by a football fan, it seems.

Of course that isn’t true across the board. In amongst the reactive ‘Wenger out, Hleb out, Senderos out, Henry’s useless’ garbage, there are reasoned opinions, and most of these discussions centre around the P word.

We hear the word ‘potential’ a lot when it comes to this Arsenal team. No-one doubts that it is present by the bucketload, the only question is to what level it will be realised. This isn’t the time to analyse the strength of every position, but we all know Wenger has a long term plan. He won’t waver from it, nor should he – he is at one of the few clubs in the world that allows that luxury. He inherited a shambles of a youth structure over ten years ago, and has shaped it into a finesse factory. Of course these players need to learn, but experience, especially painful, drives players forward. Many of these Arsenal players are still raw, and a few others aren’t at the races right now. But that happens with every team. Fans seem to hate the word ‘transition’, but what do you call it when older fading players leave, a few more look on the brink, and an exciting array of young talent breaks through to take their place? Transition.

A lot of these knee-jerk reactions centre around transfer mistakes. Either a star player should’ve been bought, or another player shouldn’t have been allowed to leave. Let’s look at those in turn.

Wenger knows that if he buys four star players and pushes them straight into the team, he will lose one vital asset – the young players’ belief that they can make it. Why hold them back when we can see their ability? The more players ahead of them, the more restless they’ll get and they’ll be out of the door in no time. Why lose a player who Wenger believes will be that star in a few years time? The same fans who demand signings marvel at the skills of young Cesc and Denilson, who could form a partnership for years to come.

As for sales, find me an Arsenal fan who wants Cole back. For one, he didn’t want to stay, and if he’d been forced to it would’ve have a massively detrimental effect on morale. Pires, Edu, Vieira – none of the trio barely play football anymore due to injury, so they wouldn’t be much help either.

As for the players he has bought recently, Rosicky is an undoubted talent, but has had his season ravaged by injury, Gallas looks classy at the back but again has been injured, and Baptista is only on loan.

Things haven’t gone well this season, that’s plain to see. But amidst the gloom, remember that we’ve been shorn of our two most potent weapons, Henry and Van Persie (who is still our top scorer) for long periods, along with every other star the club has bar Toure and Cesc. Perhaps a gentle run-in and a summer off is exactly what the doctor ordered. Maybe this season will be remembered as the year the kids showed just how good they would become, a poor season lit up by a glimpse of the fantastic years to follow.

The potential is frightening. The only question now is whether Wenger can mould this potential into tangible success. I’d be surprised to find an Arsenal fan who thinks he can’t.

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