Wenger prepares for new era

August 14, 2006
By Dale Johnson
(Archive)

After a season which saw their form completely flip, with the Premiership a struggle and the Champions League a healthy distraction, Arsenal will look to rediscover their appetite for the league title in 2006/07.

Arsene Wenger
GettyImages / JamieMcDonaldArsene Wenger: Ready for a new era

Arsenal's troubles in the Premiership were largely blamed on the departure of talismanic midfielder and captain Patrick Vieira. Wenger spent much of his post-match press conferences deflecting questions about the wisdom of offloading such an important player.

With Vieira departed to Juventus, much of the responsibility fell on the shoulders of teenager Francsec Fabregas. The 18-year-old found the extra workload hard going in the first half of the season, but after Christmas he grew in stature as Arsenal improved - leading to his first full international cap and a place in his nation's World Cup squad.

The Gunners' start to the season was more than a disappointing. By mid-December they had already lost more Premiership games than Champions Chelsea and Manchester United would over the whole campaign. They were rescued by a run-in which saw them record just one defeat in the final 11 Premiership matches.

It was the first time since the 1996/97 season that the Gunners had failed to finish in the Premiership's top two - meaning the fourth place finish was Arsene Wenger's worst in the job. They were fortunate to even qualify for the Champions League, with arch rivals Tottenham pipped on the final day after many members of their squad were struck down with a virus.

Despite improved fortunes in Europe, Arsenal failed to beat Barcelona in the Champions League final in Paris. They faced an uphill struggle after goalkeeper Jens Lehmann was sent off for bringing down striker Samuel Eto'o but still took the lead through a Sol Campbell header. But Barca hit a quickfire double late in the game to snatch victory.

Arsenal have pinned their future on the strength of their youth set-up, though they have come in for much criticism for scouring the globe for teenage talent rather than concentrate on up-and-coming English players. There is no doubt that the Gunners have a plethora of talented young stars, as proven by their ability to comfortably beat Premiership sides in League Cup matches.

Inexperienced players, however, do need experienced role models and Thierry Henry's decision to sign a new contract with the club as they begin a new era in the Emirates Stadium gives a platform for success. There was the very real chance that the Gunners could have moved into the new ground at Ashburton Grove without both Champions League football and their record goalscorer, instead they have both and impetus for 2006/07.

Wenger, one of the most successful managers in Premiership history, is now charged with the task of completing the tricky transition of the old to the new at Arsenal. Vieira has been followed out of the exit door this summer by Sol Campbell, Robert Pires and Dennis Bargkamp - in very difference circumstances of course.

The departure of Campbell does leave Arsenal somewhat short in the centre of the park, with Philippe Senderos out for at least two months with the shoulder injury he picked up against South Korea at the World Cup. Swiss World Cup defender Johan Djourou is also struggling, which may force Wenger into business before the transfer window closes at the end of August with only Pascal Cygan remaining to partner Kolo Toure. West Brom centre-back Curtis Davies has been linked.

It will be interesting to see how Wenger chooses to use Emmanuel Eboue. The Ivory Coast right-back was one of the finds of the season in the absence of the injured Lauren and he deserves to keep his place, though the manager my chose to revert to experience with the questions marks over the central defensive partnership - especially as Ashley Cole seems intent on engineering a move away.

Gareth Southgate
GettyImages / JamieMcDonaldThierry Henry: Decision to stay was a massive boost

Pires' departure for Villarreal at the end of his contract paved the way for the £7million arrival of Tomas Rosicky. Arsenal looked to have signed the player at a snip after his performance in the Czech Republic's opening group match of the World Cup against the United States, in which the former Dortmund midfielder scored two crackers, but the rest of the his campaign was not as impressive.

With the likes of Fabregas, Matthieu Flamini and Gilberto Silva more comfortable sitting in the centre rather than marauding forward, Rosicky may well be given the licence to operate as support to the forwards.

With Henry staying, Wenger was spared the fruitless task of trying to sign a replacement. But Arsenal still struggle to have anyone they can call a true partner for the French star. The involvement of the now-retired Bergkamp had been reducing over a number of seasons so his loss will be more felt in the dressing room as an icon than for his contribution on the pitch.

Wenger has long spoken of Robin van Persie, the man signed from Feyenoord two years ago, as the natural successor to his fellow Dutchman. After a slow start, the temperamental Van Persie has shown a great deal of improvement. With quick feet and the ability to finish with style, the 23-year-old has provided glimpses of how his career could progress if he manages to stay on the straight and narrow.

After being groomed into the role, he must now prove he has the ability to become a top Premiership performer. There is no doubt the Netherlands international has the ability, the real question marks remain about the application and concentration.

With Jose Antonio Reyes continuing to look like an expensive misfit, as well as determined to follow Cole out of the exit door, and Emmanuel Adebayor consistently inconsistent, Arsenal do not have a wealth of credible options. But, as with the rest of the team, there is youth lying in wait.

There's little more to be said about teenage protégé Theo Walcott right now, but surely we will get to see the former Saints man in Premiership action early in the season, while ex-Parma trainee Arturo Lupoli and prolific Danish youth Nicklas Bendtner have been earning rave reviews in Arsenal's second string. Bendtner will spend the first half of the season on loan at Birmingham City and his progress will intertest Wenger greatly.

Wenger has to gel his squad together straight away rather than face another horror start. Chelsea are unlikely to stumble out of the blocks and others can not afford to be behind after the opening fixtures.

While supporters will expect to challenge Chelsea for the title, much may simply depend on how Jose Mourinho manages to mould his new clutch of galacticos.

With another year under their belts the likes of Eboue and Fabregas should again improve - a frightening thought for the rest of the Premiership - but it could be another 12 months before this Gunners squad is sufficiently ready to wrest back the championship crown.


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