Examining the brilliance behind Arsenal’s title challenge

(by Hugo Saye)

For the last few years a great rift has divided Arsenal’s support. On the one side were those who held unerring faith in Arsène Wenger’s youth project, happy to sacrifice a few years of trophies for financial security and the future potential that was visible among his young players. On the other side were those demanding lavish spending on big name players and immediate success, calling for the manager to be sacked when neither came. The internet has been a ferocious battleground as these factions have vociferously projected their views and derided those of others, pouring scorn on the ‘Wenger-following sheep’/ ‘plastic glory-hunters’.

But now that is changing. There is a unity growing, a ceasefire between the two sides so delicate it could be shattered by just one bad result, yet it is unmistakably there. Week by week the belief grows that this season Arsenal could be creeping towards a title that has looked at best improbable, at times impossible, and the fans are finally coming together again behind their manager. And rightly so because, should it be Cesc Fabregas lifting the Premier League trophy in May, Wenger will have produced one of the greatest managerial achievements of the modern era.

Arsène Wenger has built this current Arsenal side under enormous budgetary constraints, with a huge burden placed on the club’s finances by building the new stadium at Ashburton Grove then exacerbated by the global recession that followed. Of course Arsenal are not on a financial par with Portsmouth or even Birmingham City- they have bought three £10m+ players in the last two years alone – yet compared to the teams around them they are relative fiscal minnows.

The vast sums Chelsea and Manchester City spend on their sides are well documented, while Manchester United have spent more on squad players like Anderson and Nani than Arsenal have on any player ever. Tottenham’s squad has cost far more to assemble than that of their local rivals, while Aston Villa’s spending has seen them recently reveal a record £43.7 million loss for the 08-09 season.

But amongst all this Wenger has pieced together a squad challenging for the title while his colleagues in the boardroom announce a pre-tax profit of £35.2 million for the six months ended 30th November 2009, despite spending big on re-contracting players and paying off large amounts of stadium debt.

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What makes it all the more remarkable are the difficulties the club has faced on the playing side. Of course all sides pick up injuries over a season but Arsenal’s treatment room has been so busy this season that Wenger recently ordered an internal investigation into the matter. Captain Cesc Fabregas is currently sitting out his second significant chunk of the season, while centre back Thomas Vermaelen is the only first team regular not to have missed at least a few weeks.

Most significant of all has been the injury Robin van Persie picked up against Italy in November. Any team would suffer without their main striker (how might Manchester United and Chelsea have coped with Wayne Rooney or Didier Drogba missing two-thirds of the season?), but for a team so heavily geared towards offensive play as Arsenal to lose the focus of their attacking movements could have been crippling.

The impact was compounded by injuries to Eduardo and Nicklas Bendtner and the measures Wenger had to take to fill the gap, moving Andrey Arshavin to the position of central striker and thereby taking him away from the areas in which he is most effective. In October if you had asked anyone to name Arsenal’s most important players they would have undoubtedly included both van Persie and Arshavin, but in one swift crunch of Giorgio Chiellini’s boot both became relative sideshows in the Gunners’ season. Yet still they managed to push on.

If Arsenal do conspire to win this season’s Premier League there are those who will point to results against Manchester United and Chelsea and say that the third best team has won. Yet the simple genius of a league is that, by definition, the best team always wins.

Arsenal’s biggest weakness is that everybody knows how to beat them, their biggest strength is that very few can actually do it. Unlike most teams, United and Chelsea possess players of a high enough calibre to counter Arsenal in a head to head situation but these occasions, while often strong indicators, do not necessarily make them better teams. As such, the beauty of a knockout cup competition is that the winner is often not the best side to enter, and a few years ago Arsenal beat United home and away in the league but nobody insisted they were robbed when the trophy eventually went to Old Trafford.

The best team is the one that can win week after week against all standards of opposition and despite all setbacks, and that is why they end up with the most points at the end. If the team with the most points is either Chelsea or Manchester United, as still looks most likely at this stage, we will know they are the best team in the country. But if the team with the most points does happen to be Arsenal then we will know that, in spite of everything, they are the best team in the country. And if that is the case we should all join the unified ranks of Arsenal fans in saluting the genius of Arsène Wenger.

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