We have come to this point in each Arsenal season since the dawn of the Roman Abramovich Era at Chelsea which has seen them become Manchester United's main rivals for the Premier League title.
"This point" is that time during the season when everything seems to be falling apart for Arsenal and the cries for Arsene Wenger's head on a plate get louder. As we are all well aware, Manchester City has now joined Chelsea and Manchester United in the conversation at the top of the league based on their financial power and the talent it has attracted. This has pushed Arsenal into a position where 4th place is really their highest realistic finishing spot based on the resources they have available. Sure, a team above them could stumble like Chelsea did in the league last season but year over year, money spent on transfers and salary will predict where a team is likely to finish.
Assuming you believe the above, here are a few questions that naturally follow:
- How do you evaluate the success of a manager if the ultimate goal of winning the league is exceedingly unlikely?
- Which group is Arsenal realistically closer to when it comes to competing on equal footing? City, United, and Chelsea at the top or Spurs, Liverpool, et al a significant rung below?
- Given that Arsenal's management have made a decision (one that would presumably apply to any manager that might replace Wenger) not to spend beyond their means, how is Wenger doing and what is the likelihood that a replacement could do any better?
- If there were a manager sufficiently talented to do better than Wenger with the resources Arsenal are willing to spend, why would that manager be inclined to take the Arsenal job when he would likely be a very strong candidate for likely openings in the near future at all three clubs ahead of Arsenal in financial might?
Here's my quick take before we get to my player picks. Arsene Wenger was, in his day, a revolutionary manager who provided the club with a HUGE advantage by pioneering a variety of "advanced" methods and on-field tactics. He wasn't ever perfect but the advantages he provided early were sufficiently large as to paper over his faults. As tends to happen to such innovators, the rest of the pack learns the virtue of successful innovations through losing out to them and they start to copy them. Throw in an injection of "innovation" at some other clubs in the form of exceptional financial power and you find that your previous innovator has been passed by and all of the flaws that were so easily papered over before are laid bare for all to see. Wenger is probably a slightly better manager today than when he was winning championships - he strikes me as someone who continues to learn - but others have improved faster by learning and circumstance.
That brings us back to the question of where Arsenal fit in the Premier League and the root of the angst that Arsenal fans are displaying season after season. For me, they are in a mini-league with a few other teams - Spurs and Liverpool primarily with potential encroachment from other teams on an occasional basis (Newcastle being last year's example and Everton and West Bromwich Albion being this year's contenders) - for the fourth Champions League spot. Based on their financial power, Arsenal SHOULD win that mini-league most years. For me, the gauge of Arsene Wenger's success as a manager at this stage should be that success. After just over a quarter of the season Arsenal are four points off the pace in this "mini-league". Everton, West Ham, and West Brom are VERY unlikely to keep up their current pace. That leave Spurs and Arsenal - currently separated by 1 point - competing for that final spot.
If Arsenal are successful, I'd judge Wenger's season a success. If they are not, then you'd have to consider it to be somewhat of a failure. I completely understand and sympathize with the notion that, for a group of supporters used to competing for the league title, this isn't a very satisfying state of the world. I even share this dissatisfaction as someone who came to follow Arsenal when their place in the world was much stronger. That said, it is foolish to turn your head from reality and expect that the club can create miracles when they don't have the finances to attract the top players in the world to play for them AND continue to stay in business.
Like adjusting to a bad break-up or the loss of a high profile job (you know what I'm talking about General Petraeus), it isn't fun but adjusting expectations is very much necessary if you're going to maintain your sanity as an Arsenal supporter. Our rallying cry should be "At least we're not Liverpool!" because that's what COULD happen to our beloved Gooners with a weaker manager and less competent management team.
With that venting in the rearview mirror and the North London Derby firmly ahead of us, here are my player picks for the upcoming week's matches:
- Sergio Aguero - I can't bring myself to pick Dzeko even though he's been City's most consistent goal scorer - there's just something that says that you shouldn't start someone in fantasy who isn't going to start the match. With Aston Villa visiting the Etihad there is certainly the potential for City breaking out and starting to resemble the team they were last season.
- Manchester United Forwards - All of the love was going to Javier Hernandez after his exceptional performance last weekend and the potential for injuries to Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney to propel him into the starting line-up at Norwich. Somehow I don't buy it. RvP and Rooney's injuries have all the hallmarks of Sir Alex's managerial genius as minor complaints save his charges from international friendlies. You definitely want a starter from United's forward line but I think we'll have to wait until Friday's Team News to make any recommendations.
- Djibril Cisse - Southampton on the road can make even QPR's dire attack look mildly attractive.
- Lukas Podolski - I'm concerned about over-spending on Olivier Giroud on the back of one strong performance. Giroud is showing all the signs of a target forward - when he's good and scoring goals he produces big in fantasy - when he's not scoring, he's not going to help you much at all. Last weekend he was a nice option at an inexpensive price, this weekend Podolski looks like the better bet given his still-reasonable price.
- Luis Suarez - I know, I know. It pains me to make the recommendation but he's been absolutely killing it (almost like it was Kevin Mirallas' ankle ;-) ) and the match-up is a strong one. If you're not sure how to approach the United forwards, Suarez might be your sure-starting alternative.
- Gareth Bale - If you're spending big on a midfielder then he's the one. Arsenal are giving up goals and have trouble on the wings. Bale has been scoring big fantasy points and gives teams trouble on the wings. What could possibly go wrong?
- Adam Lallana - Not like playing at Loftus Road should keep you from picking a very productive player even if he plays for the 19th place team.
- Adel Taarabt - His price is a touch high for my liking but playing the 19th place team at home (even when you're the 20th place team) sounds like an opportunity. If the price scares you off then Esteban Granero or Junior Hoilett could be alternatives.
- Marouane Fellaini - He just keeps crushing it. I'm a little wary with Mirallas out (he really seems to change Everton's attack) but Reading haven't been filling anyone's hearts with fear so I'm staying on the Fellaini bandwagon until the next Red Card happens.
- Yaya Toure - He's been frustrating so far but that can be said of most of City's attackers - the one benefit here is that unlike the rest of their attack, Yaya is pretty cheap.
- Tom Huddlestone - It's been a LONG time since we recommended THUD but he's the sort of bulky random guy with a strong shot from distance that feels like could give Arsenal trouble if you need a cheap option in midfield.
- Raheem Sterling - Still cheap and the match-up is solid
- Shane Ferguson - Starting in midfield while listed as a defender at a price of 2.16 - hard to say no to that even if the upside is only OK.
- Maicon - He's back and seems likely to get a start at home against Villa which seems like a solid investment to me even if City's defense has been anything but airtight this season.
- Fabio/Armand Traore - Fabio is off of the QPR injury report - if he's starting at home against Southampton then he could be very interesting at 3.26. If he's not then Traore or Ryan Nelsen are viable enablers.
- Chris Smalling - Same logic as Maicon - match-up is good and the price is reasonable.
- Andre Wisdom - On the off chance Liverpool get a clean sheet he's a cheap way to get those points. As a bonus he has yet to see his first yellow card and has only been whistled for 3 fouls TOTAL so the downside is low.
- Guy Demel - Great value play for West Ham with Stoke coming to Upton Park.
- Julio Cesar - There's potential for the QPR keeper this weekend given the match-up.
- Jussi Jaaskelainen - Stoke is coming to town, 'nuff said.
- Pepe Reina - It looks like he should be back and his price is nice and low at 6.68 at home against Wigan.