Club Focus – Arsenal – An opportunity missed, but a point gained

With the winter weather taking its toll on the Premier League schedule this weekend, Arsenal were one of the few teams able to fulfill their listed fixture. As it turned out, Saturday’s draw with Everton became their much-anticipated game in hand after Wednesday’s game against Bolton had been postponed.

The Gunners had been saving their trump card, but now have played the same number of games as rivals Chelsea, as well as the majority of the other league teams and face a daunting run of fixtures to come. Starting at the end of January, they face Aston Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool in quick succession with the aforementioned Bolton game to be scheduled in at some stage. Once again fixture congestion is beginning to trouble Arsene Wenger.

Saturday’s game was the corresponding fixture to that of the season’s opener back in August – a game the Gunners ran out comprehensive victors. Another 6-1 rout it was never going to be, and although Arsenal may be slightly disappointed to have dropped two points at home to Everton, the nature of Tomas Rosicky’s last-gasp equaliser made it feel more like a point earned. This is indicative of a certain resilience and strength of character that had been lacking from previous campaigns, but has been evident so far this term. And as events unfolded at St. Andrews later that day, the point earned meant that they maintained status quo with Manchester United and moved to within three points of Chelsea at the summit. Importantly for the team they avoided defeat and continued their momentum, stretching their unbeaten run to seven games in the league and having also progressed in the Champions League and FA Cup during that sequence.

As Arsenal rode their luck with the result, their apparent hold over the weather conditions slipped away. Almost inevitably as the heavens opened the match descended in quality and quickly became a physical battle in challenging conditions. Everton were characteristically robust in central midfield, but Wenger’s men did not shirk from the fight, and so, for a team often criticised for a lack of steel and pluck, the fighting spirit displayed was more than welcome. The steely resolve of the team was augmented by the manager’s post-match comments as he encouraged a ruthless streak in his players. Commenting on Denilson’s injury he suggested that in the same situation again, the midfielder or any other Gunner should commit a deliberate foul so as to prevent an advantage arising for the opposition. Whether this would constitute mere gamesmanship or something less savoury, it highlights the demands Wenger is putting on his players as the need for silverware presses on.

As the Champions League remains the Frenchman’s Holy Grail, the actual artefact remains a thing of legend. Similar status had been ascribed to Le Professeur’s fabled “transfer war chest”, but this week it transpired that it does actually exist. Created as part of the loan agreements and debt refinancing involved in moving to the Emirates Stadium and the redevelopment of Highbury, Wenger, much like a wise squirrel, worked hard in the summer to save up for the cold hard winter. No figures have come to light but it is rumoured that the majority of transfer funds received by the manager have been put into a separate account, the purpose of which is to extend contracts, buy players or merely accrue interest. This is encouraging news, especially in light of Real Madrid and Barcelona reviving their interest in club captain Cesc Fabregas, as Arsenal clearly do not need to sell the player, who has again reiterated his happiness at the club. Similarly, it means the Gunners could afford to splash out on a star striker, although ‘could’ appears to be the operative word.

Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis reaffirmed the club’s stance that they will not “respond to short term pressure” or “spend irrational amounts”, yet the latest revelation of a substantial transfer fund inevitably increases this pressure. Whilst there is an increasing clamour for Arsenal to buy a striker, they are hardly short of goals, scoring two more at the weekend, and have generally been prolific throughout the season. More of a concern is defence. Armand Traore – although admittedly third choice at left-back – looked weak and should have shown more awareness to prevent Tim Cahill releasing Steven Pienaar for Everton’s second goal. Similarly, there are signs that the central defensive pairing are beginning to look jaded, having been ever-present in the league so far. Coupling this with the imminent departure of back-up centre-back Philippe Senderos, in search of first-team football before the World Cup, and Arsenal start to look a bit threadbare at the back. Wenger’s uncharacteristic name-dropping of transfer targets may yet prove to be another example of smoke and mirrors as he resists buying a striker to quietly swoop under the radar and reinforce his defence.

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