Arsenal will be hoping to avoid new manager syndrome when they host Swansea this weekend.
Even someone such as myself, who pays as little attention as possible to the football world beyond N5, has spotted that the Swans have a new manager. Bob Bradley’s appointment to the position may have had Robbie Savage even more rabidly nonsensical than usual, but it also spells danger for Arsenal.
Leaving aside Arsenal’s distinctly average home record against Swansea, one win in four I believe, Arsène Wenger will be well aware of the dangers posed by a new broom in the opposition dressing room. in addition, this game marks the resumption of Premier League hostilities following two weeks of apathy also known as international football and there is a midweek Champions League fixture to consider.
Danger signs, they be flashing red, red, red, RED!
I said a while ago that I thought games with Chelsea were always a bit of a litmus test for Arsenal. Now, obviously, they passed that last test with flying colours. However, as much as they were at their scintillating best against our friends from south west London, they were more than a little handbrakey in their next league encounter. We all know how lucky we were to beat Burnley, so there’s no value in labouring that particular point here.
What is worth saying though, and I hope it’s being constantly reinforced, is that we have to prove how good we are every time we go out on the football pitch. That Chelsea performance and result was brilliant, but it was just one game in a 38 league game season. More than one person has observed in the aftermath of Chelsea that we handed out an almost identical 3-0 thrashing to Manchester United at an almost identical stage of last season. Unfortunately for us, we were left looking back at that performance in May and thinking to ourselves, a little forlornly, ‘How did that happen?’
It should have been a springboard to glory, that game, but it was nothing of the sort. We can’t make the same mistakes this season.
Happily, without wishing to jump the gun, I think we’re in a much better place to deliver on any expectation our win against Chelsea has created. Last season, no sooner had we beaten United than we lost both Theo Walcott and the Ox to injury. Okay, the Ox has become something of a joke figure for Arsenal fans now, but I think even his harshest critics wouldn’t contest the view that he is a player of considerable talent, it’s just a question of unlocking it.
As for Theo, you all know that he is far from being my favourite player to have pulled on the red and white, but he had just played one of the finest games I’ve ever seen him have for Arsenal. And then he was gone.
A bit like with Jack Wilshere, and possibly even Abou Diaby before him, it has often felt that there was a little too much trust placed in the fitness of the two former Southampton graduates. If we needed any evidence of that, then we saw it last season. We struggled in their absence. By the time Theo returned to fitness, the aggression we had seen in that startling performance at home to United felt like a trick of the mind, ‘did he really play like that or did I imagine it?’
Of course, the nadir came in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford, where his apparent cowardice saw many express the view that they’d be quite happy for Theo never to pull on the shirt again.
However, pull it on again he has. And how. The Theo Walcott that has started this season is not the Theo Walcott we are used to. Okay, he has had a couple of indifferent games, but nobody is going to be 8/10 38 times a season. I wonder if, in addition to his newfound clarity on his position, the time he spent on the bench towards the end of last season has focused his mind a little.
The really important thing, I think, is the composition of the squad now and this is the thing that gives me hope for Swansea at the weekend and the 30 league matches following. This is, by any measure, the strongest Arsenal squad assembled at any time since we last won the Premier League.
There is no room for a player to coast through a game, safe in the knowledge that however he plays, he will almost certainly be playing in the next game. I actually look at this squad and think to myself, it may be the best squad – in terms of the amount of quality players – that Arsène has ever built. However, statements like that invite ridicule, particularly when the Invincibles may be a receding memory but a memory nonetheless.
It’s worth thinking about though. After all Jens Lehmann’s deputy was Graham Stack, Pascal Cygan was our third choice centre back, Robert Pires… well, really, he had no deputy. If you look at this Arsenal squad, for every player you would think of as a first choice pick, he almost certainly has a quality back up waiting for the slip, the trip, the fall.
Except Hector Bellerin. And Petr Cech.
Okay, that was harsh on David Ospina, who has recovered from not being able to catch a corner and put in some superb displays in this calendar year. I take it back, for now anyway. The point here is a very simple one, the Invincibles almost picked themselves; but if you look at this squad and tried to pick the team – well, I bet 20 people would give 20 totally different answers. We feel much better placed to absorb the kind of injuries which derailed us last season.
Everybody has a point to prove, something to contribute. Let’s hope we see that on Saturday, and the game after that and the one after that… Or, as Joy Division once, had it, “keep on keeping on”.