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Arsenal’s improvement last season was powerful testament to Arsene Wenger’s heroic commitment to youth development and glorious, crisp passing football. Because of the financial burden they took on building the Emirates stadium, they’ve not been able to spend like Chelsea or United, but thanks to good scouting they’re really not far away now.
Arsenal’s youth development has been impressive and dangerous – impressive in providing a top-quality left-back like Gael Clichy (whose emergence allowed them to sell Ashley Cole for Gallas and plenty o’ cash) and dangerous in providing slightly sub-standard players who are given a chance for a couple of years, weakening the side before they’re finally disposed of (Senderos and Hoyte). Their best young talent (and this IS an extraordinarily young side) has been bought in from outside as the almost-finished-article – Fabregas, Walcott, and now Nasri and Ramsay. Forgive me while I gush for a bit: I love watching Fabregas and Walcott. Fabregas’ centre-midfield position had, until a few years ago, been the business of powerful men like Vieira, Ince, Petit and Keane, and the no-nonsense hardman was a player every manager thought was essential. Like Paul Scholes, Fabregas has shown that if a small man has fantastic touch and movement and energy, he can play the position too. Fabregas’ appreciation of movement around him and ability to weight the right pass for players on the run is exquisite, and great to watch, and he plays completely without malice or nastiness so I was pleased to see him win Euro 2008 with Spain. Walcott plays in a similarly fair spirit, but is fun to watch for a completely different reason – his UNBELIEVEABLE pace. He really is unlike any player I have ever seen for the sheer nuclear-bomb-style-explosiveness of his acceleration. Against Milan he twice closed down Paolo Maldini from about 15/20 yards away with extraordinary fighter-jet-style openings of the throttle that made me want him to get the ball a few more times just for the jaw-dropping circus-act spectacle of it. And then, when he did get the ball, he went and made another goal. His balance is incredible and his running style is silky smooth. He’s getting better at handling the physical game now, and his positioning seems to be improving, and I’m really curious to see how good he can be. His floor is being a sort of deluxe Marc Overmars (who would just push it by the full back and run every time), but his ceiling is being a unique and special player of a sort we’ve never seen. If Rooney is ever going to be a good in-the-hole player for England, then we could do worse than hope Walcott emerges to play the front man.
Emmanuel Adebayor emerged last season as a rangy, quick, physical striker of the sort Wenger’s not had at Arsenal before. He’s a bit like Rooney in that he makes wasteful decisions and his finishing is wild, but his height and exceptional spring make him a danger in the air and he generates (and is given) enough chances to be among the league’s top scorers. It’s not surprising that Milan were after him this summer, because his performance against their elderly back four last season was exhibition stuff, running them ragged with his power, pace, appetite and stamina. He’s very important to them for the first six months of the season, because Eduardo’s not fit yet and Van Persie never seems to get more than 15 games together before being injured again (and I’m not completely convinced by him, anyway – he’s talented but has too many games where he contributes absolutely nothing). He and Walcott are potentially a brilliant partnership, but then Adebayor and anybody with any talent at all is potentially dangerous because of how well he fills the power-striker role.
In the midfield, Flamini leaving is a bit of a problem (he had loads of energy and a great selfless, disciplined attitude and more quality than most players that work that hard), though Gilberto’s longstanding presence has shown that they can get by with very average talent in that position. Xabi (who they have been linked with, and who is clearly very available) would suit them brilliantly, because besides being very competent defensively (reading danger and closing down early), his passing is exceptional and Arsenal have the pace and movement to really feed off that. Walcott receiving long, precise early passes from Xabi is an appealing prospect. Around Fabregas and whoever they bring in (or, if they don’t bring in, then maybe Denilson) there’ll be the usual carousel of talented ball-players that just slot into the smooth-running slick passing style that is the Arsenal trademark. Rosicky is terrific, and was missed when he got injured last year, and if he plays the left side he’ll be an immense upgrade over Diaby - incredibly limited and one-footed on that side last year. Nasri might be a bit lightweight to explode into the Prem, but he ought to be good next year, and though I was impressed by Aaron Ramsay in the cup final (great movement, two good feet, wanted the ball even in tight areas) it’d be remarkable if he made much impact as a 17-year-old.
The defence is very sound if everyone’s fit, with LOADS of pace and just a little worry over defending the ball in the air (as a centre-back myself I like the way Gallas and Toure play the position – they’re proper athletes unafraid of taking strikers on one-on-one and they don’t go in for the niggly stuff like Terry and Vidic). Clichy and Sagna are both exceptionally good.
It’s hard to predict how much Arsenal will improve this year – I think they’re probably good enough to win a title, but to win THIS title, probably not (it’s interesting how much better teams have had to be in the last couple of years since Chelsea’s insane spending lifted the Premiership into being the world’s elite league).