Tuesday August 3rd, 2010

What can preseason friendlies really tell us? Anybody watching Arsenal in the Emirates Cup over the weekend would have concluded that it holds the ball well, tends to overcomplicate attacks instead of fully exploiting possession and has a mystifying weakness at the back that can transform a game it is controlling into something senselessly nervous. But we knew that already.

As Arsenal on Saturday drew a game against AC Milan in which it had looked in control, and then on Sunday hung on for a 3-2 victory against Celtic after battering Neil Lennon's side for most of the game, it looked very much like the same old brittleness, with brilliance undermined by defensive and perhaps temperamental flaws. But then, the nature of the preseason, particularly in a World Cup year, is that the young and reserve team players get their chance, and whatever assessment is made must take into account the fact that this was Arsenal without Robin van Persie, Abou Diaby, Alex Song, Nicklas Bendtner and, most critically, Cesc Fabregas.

With that in mind, this suddenly looks like a terrifyingly good Arsenal side. Last season, despite lengthy injury absences for van Persie and Bendtner, Arsenal appeared to be a genuine title contender until a freakish Kevin Phillips equalizer cost it two points in the closing seconds at Birmingham City at the end of March. Subsequent defeats at Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers came after Arsenal's chance had gone. This season, even allowing for similar injuries -- and it wasn't so much the number of injuries as the fact that they struck simultaneously just where the club was weakest -- Arsenal seems far better equipped to cope.

Morocco striker Marouane Chamakh, signed from Bordeaux, offers not merely extra attacking personnel but also a more physical option than Arsenal has had for years. That means that, if necessary, its defenders will have the option of belting the ball long when under pressure -- although you suspect they continue to eschew such an unsophisticated approach -- and, more significantly, when Arsenal works a crossing opportunity wide, it will be worthwhile sending the ball into the box.

One of Arsenal's problems in recent years has been a tendency to compress everything in the attacking third into central areas because there seemed so little point in crossing. With a powerful forward who is strong in the air, the cross becomes a dangerous option again, and opposing defenses will now have the full width of the pitch to protect. Chamakh, though, is a particularly Arsenal breed of target man. Awkward and full of elbows as he may be, he also has a deft first touch and plays with a spirit of imagination. His goal on Saturday gives some indication of the potency he should add.

It is harder to be sure about the other new signing, center back Laurent Koscielny, bought from Lorient. He looked solid enough against Milan, but in coming off the bench against Celtic, he seemed to be caught up in the general panic. That position, though, is an area that needed addressing, particularly after the departure of William Gallas, and at least coach Arsene Wenger has made some move to address it. The return of Johann Djourou from injury should also help, but Wenger has hinted at a further signing in that area before the transfer window closes at the end of the month.

Just as important over the weekend were the performances of 18-year-old midfielder Jack Wilshere, who played every minute of both games. He has been hyped for some time -- and, before anybody gets too carried away, it should be remembered he was superb in the Emirates Cup last season as well -- but his range and selection of passing, the crispness with which he strikes a ball and his atypicality as an English player make it difficult not to get excited. Having been toughened up by a loan spell at Bolton last season, he surely will become more of a fixture this season.

As Wenger pointed out, Emmanuel Frimpong was also impressive in a more combative way alongside Wilshere, and with Aaron Ramsey hopeful of returning from his broken leg by the end of the year, there is a wealth of young midfield talent to make Arsenal confident for the future. The problem, though, is that confidence about the future begins to get tiresome when it has produced nothing in the way of trophies for five seasons. Some may see the quality of football Arsenal plays as reward enough, but the danger is that without medals those players who promise now will end up delivering for somebody else -- which is why, of course, the Fabregas affair is so vital.

If Fabregas were to join Barcelona, it would be a blow. From a playing point of view, however, Arsenal would survive; Samir Nasri looked very good in the role toward the end of last season. The bigger issue is symbolic: If even Fabregas, who has become the leader of this generation, both officially in the sense of being the captain and actually in the sense of being the best and highest-profile player, ceases to believe in Wenger's project, if even he can be lured away -- albeit to the club where he grew up -- then what hope does a youth development policy have?

And the truth is that if he does stay -- and if his mind is right -- Arsenal has an excellent chance of winning the league this season. Chelsea is the favorite, but age will catch up with its squad eventually, Manchester City is still jelling and Manchester United has all the problems -- and overreliance on Wayne Rooney -- it did last season.

Arsenal has stability, zest and balance, and has plugged one of the weaknesses that undermined its challenge last season. Central defense and goalkeeper still offer cause for concern -- as does the fact it lost all four games to United and Chelsea last season -- but the prognosis looks bright. All the usual Arsenal caveats apply, but this is a stronger side than the one that came very close last season.

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