"Christina Ruse - 'I'm an optimist and believe we can undoubtedly challenge for third place, have a very good FA Cup run and maybe take on Europe to the quarter-finals'"
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal haven’t got a hope in hell of winning the Premier League. Well that’s the view of most pundits. And I can see where they’re coming from. They’ve lost their main talisman in Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljunberg’s gone to West Ham, Arsene Wenger hasn’t made any big name replacements and they simply do not have the same strength in depth as their rivals. There’s even the suggestion that their North London rivals could edge them out of Champions League places. But count Arsenal out at your peril.
Wenger’s young guns are a year older and wiser, the Emirates Stadium will feel like a proper home after last season’s settling-in period and, let’s not forget, the way Arsenal play they will always create a glut of chances. With Robin Van Persie, back after missing much of last season with injury, Ade Adebayor, Nicolas Bendtner and Eduardo Da Silva, who has one of the best scoring records on the continent, fighting it out for a starting place, I expect to see the Gunners going goal crazy and giving Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool a real run for their money.
Despite finishing fourth last season many commentators thought Arsenal had a disappointing campaign. They struggled to adapt to life away from Highbury, injuries to key players seriously dented their ambition for silverware and they ended up losing a number of games to teams around the foot of the table. But on their day Arsenal gave their fans a lot to cheer about. They did the double over the eventual champions Manchester United, were unbeaten against the then reigning champions Chelsea, beat Liverpool and took four points off of Tottenham. The young guns also showed their potential by destroying Liverpool in their own backyard and reaching the final of the Carling Cup.
The one accusation that has repeatedly been thrown in their face is the claim that they are not physical enough and that teams like Bolton and Sheffield United just simply bully them off the park. (I’d hate to be Arsene Wenger’s shoes. A few seasons ago he was slammed for his side’s alleged aggressive tactics and now they’re too soft!) So what’s changed ahead of this season? If you look at the personnel – not a lot. Eduardo Da Silva has come in for Henry, Bakari Sagna has arrived to strengthen the defence and Lukasz Fabianski has joined to challenge Jens Lehmann. If anything Arsenal appear to have a weaker and less experienced squad than before, but there’s a feeling amongst Arsenal fans that they could make a real challenge for the title.
“Arsenal have always been better when they have been underdogs and I am relishing the prospect of this season,” said Mark Brindle from the South East Essex Gunners supporters club. “Arsene is 100 per cent certain that these young lads can do it and do it now – let’s see if he is correct. If the youngsters pull it off then it could be a truly great season for all us Gunners, and it will be great to remind all those who have written us off just how good we are.”
It wasn’t long ago that Arsenal were Premiership champions and went the whole season unbeaten. Two players who played a huge part in that awesome run were Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljunberg, but they won’t be around this season, nor will Jeremie Aliadiere. However, Christina Ruse, 65, who has seen many heroes come and go at the club, insists the club will be better off without them.
“Only Henry is a 'loss', but we haven't had a good season from him since 2004-5, though we have struggled to perform well without him (or without his full commitment). We have been learning about life after Henry for a long time. I do believe the world has seen his best years in football and any group of players would miss such a great talent on the training pitch. Lundberg (now) and especially Aliadiere are no loss. What we do lack is maturity but Gilberto gives us that and at Colney there are many Arsenal legends, best of all Brady, who can inspire our younger players.”
This view is shared by Mark.
“Obviously Thierry was/is a legend at Arsenal Football Club, but football always moves on and I believe the future is bright for AFC. We will of course miss his goals but I don't think he was a great captain and I believe that Arsene may have felt that Thierry could be affecting some of the young guns in terms of confidence and so on. At times over the past two seasons players got into great positions to score only to then look to pass to Thierry. Also as well like in the days of Wrighty some players almost used Thierry as the 'get out of jail free' card, i.e. don't worry Thierry will come up with something special to get us out of trouble when they should have been shouldering more responsibility themselves.
“Unfortunately Freddie is a shadow of the player from a few years back, injuries have taken their toll. He could be a success at the Hammers but I doubt whether he can play three games in a week anymore, maybe West Ham will not have that problem?”
While Arsenal have been quiet in the transfer market, others like Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool, West Ham, Manchester City and Newcastle have been splashing the cash around like confetti. Such is the financial benefit of breaking into the top four, more clubs than ever are prepared to think big. Tottenham have made some impressive signings in Gareth Bale and Darren Bent, amongst others, and many believe that Spurs won’t get a better chance to split the big four, with Arsenal expected to miss out. However, with that expectation comes pressure and Mark Brindle believes that their rivals will be under more stress to perform than anyone.
“I believe the pressure is really on the likes of the Spurs rather than us this season. It is not only this season that a lot of clubs have outspent us, it has been going on for years, especially since Wenger took over. The fact is that the majority of our 'challengers' have had virtually the same potential income streams as ourselves over the past decade and in some cases like Newcastle far higher income streams as their capacity was far larger. The only differential between us and them is that we have consistently qualified for Europe and therefore earned out of that. This has obviously been a magnificent effort by all at Arsenal but the main responsibility has to be with Mr Wenger. He is the key, if he signs again then I can see us seeing off the likes of the Spurs, if the current instability continues then I can see possible problems.”
One of Arsene Wenger’s few signings this summer was that of French defender Bakari Sagna. Not a lot was known about him before he arrived but the report card has so far been glowing. However, Christina admits that she would love to see an experienced big name player arrive to line up beside Robin Van Persie in attack.
“I was very impressed with Sagna last weekend – skill and commitment. I can even see midfield potential, perhaps more so than Eboue! What I do think is needed is a proven and mature striker to work up front and inspire these younger players and take the pressure off Van Persie. For me this isn't Anelka who seems far too adolescent whatever his qualities as a striker. The whole club – first team, reserves, management – and fans could really do with the morale lift of a name player up front. The danger is such a man would display the arrogance that was evident in Henry, which can fracture squads. It's a tricky pick. Quiet stable gifted Gilberto is the role model.
“I was truly impressed with the way in which the Arsenal sides used the whole pitch in the recent Emirates Cup. We haven't seen the width – on both sides – used so well. Maybe we were a little guilty of too much going down the sidelines and then being crossed into a crowded central area, but we were neatly spread giving bags of room for the central midfielders. In both games we dominated those midfield areas even without Fabregas at his best. So, The Emirates really is our 'home' ground now.”
Arsene Wenger has won seven major trophies at Arsenal and the Gunners have featured in the final of every domestic and European competition going. But it’s been two years since they last won any silverware – the FA Cup in 2005 – and it’s a situation that has split the fans. Some say they are happy watching the Arsenal play their beautiful game without winning any trophies, but Christina says it’s time the Gunners got themselves amongst the silverware again.
“Trophies are what the game is all about so of course silverware is a MUST for the fans, investors and everyone. Anybody who thinks any different is kidding themselves. No true Arsenal fan would be content to have yet another season of 'exciting' or 'innovative' play without trophies. Arsenal's history demands silverware and the fans' expectations are quite rightly very, very high. It is up to the club to deliver. We have the right venue, manager, almost the right squad, and fan base, so we demand a major trophy in spring 2008.”
So what can Arsenal achieve this season? Christina firmly believes the Gunners have what it takes to compete for honours.
“I'm an optimist and believe we can undoubtedly challenge for third place, have a very good FA Cup run and maybe take on Europe to the quarter-finals. And with a Wenger contract, hard work, Van Persie and Fabregas gelling as a partnership, Dudu being as good as Wenger says, we have every chance of competing for trophies. Arsenal can be very good when people ‘write us off'.”
Make no mistake about it Arsenal will surprise a few people this season – if only because everyone has written off their chances already. Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie have talked up their title hopes and if they stay free of injuries there could be no stopping them. I’ll admit, it’s hard not to see past Chelsea or Manchester United winning the Premiership, but if there’s one team that can pip them to the title I’m convinced it will be the Gunners.