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Arsene’s Winning Gambit

Raise your hands if at any point during the summer you said this:

“We need at least 4-5 incoming players to fill out our roster.”

Raise your hands if at any point during the summer you said this:

“We need at least 4-5 incoming players to fill out our roster.”

Yep, me too. Now your permutation of that 4 or 5  may have been different. You may have said we need 1 world class player and 3 or 4 good players. It could have been any variety of that.  But after a summer that saw us let go of about 27 players – first team, fringe players and youngsters, it seemed pretty obvious to us prognosticators – of the arm chair variety, that Arsenal were thin.

We all worried what would happen to the team when injuries ravage the squad. Which as we all know is as close to a certainty as death and taxes. Given the long slog that a Premier League team has to go through, some argued that letting go of too much in one fell swoop was going to be detrimental to the club’s ability to sustain an assault on their coveted top 4 spot.

But nearly two months in to the season, it seems that Arsene Wenger’s risky gambit is paying off dividends.  What was that gambit? It was a calculated risk to retain a smaller squad and preserve the new found focus and emphasis on the team above all.

A lot of the players that were jettisoned were players that many of us had questioned not only their ability to play but their general work ethic and ability to put the team above themselves. I give you the case of Andrei Arshavin. For all his talent and the misguided notion that “he was played out of position,” Andrei never possessed the work ethic and focus to do anything substantial with this team. In the run up to the 2011/2012 season, Andrei was told he would have to fight for his spot – he wouldn’t and didn’t and now he is gone.

For the most part players of this ilk are gone. While Niklas Bendtner retains a spot on the team it isn’t without the club trying to move him on. The player wanted out and the team was all too happy to oblige. However, his personal demands made any move impossible. So he stays. The hope is that Arsene can unlock something in the Dane and that his visit to the last chance saloon pays off either to Arsenal or to the Dane in one way or the other.

So, Arsene made the choice to run with a thread bare squad to preserve the team first mentality. He kept players he felt had the ethos he was working towards.Again, it’s a risk and above the odds, Arsenal have survived injuries to key players including all of their first and second choice wide players.

While it’s early in the season, sitting atop of the Premier League even this early isn’t something any of us saw. If you did, please tell me what this week’s lottery numbers are. Sure, some of us saw a group of players that were talented than many were giving us credit for and for my part, I thought this club as it is currently constituted had to be given the nod for top 4 again. With the exception of offloading “dead wood” it was the first time in memory that Arsenal weren’t in a state of upheaval and flux.

Arsene managed to keep all his key players. He locked down a british core and supplemented that with very good talent and added a world-class game changer in Mesut Özil. All-in-all, it has to be viewed with a sense that Arsene’s managerial genius has once again reared it’s head.

For the first time in recent memory, the summer saw many question the beloved manager’s methods. Not many were willing to give him credit that he may be on to something.

When all the other clubs around us saw major changes – either in managers or substantial player changes, Arsenal were for once a sea of calm and at one point you have to wonder if this was where Wenger wanted to be all along.

Knowing that Chelsea and City were going to change managers again was the worst kept secret going into the Summer. Tottenham keeping Bale? We knew that wasn’t going to happen so even if Tottenham hadn’t spent all the cash they got they weren’t going to be the same team. It’s even speculated that Wenger may have known about his former adversary’s retirement before others.

Assuming all of this then, keeping everything on a level plane at Arsenal was essential. And it was Arsene has done. If we’re going to criticize Arsene for poor transfer policies of the past, poor player selection and other issues, then we have to give him credit for what looks to be a masterstroke very few of us anticipated.

When I looked at our squad before the kickoff of the season, I thought the core and team concept were going at a minimum give us the edge in duking it out for 4th. No, I am not saying that is what I want in terms of “success” but in looking at our chances, realistically this is what I thought.

Looking at the upheaval of the other teams, I still thought they had enough in them to leave us fighting for a spot at the Champion’s League table. As it turns out, Wenger’s trust in his squad, his addition of Flamini and Özil haven’t stirred the pot, rather they have further solidified a strong squad (albeit it thin) and strengthened the mentality of it.

And that has been the difference between this Arsenal and recent incarnations. Arsenal after trying other incarnations looks like he has finally got the right balance he has been looking for since the end of the 2005 season.

It’s a risk running with a thing squad. When the injuries started rising, we were all worried that Arsenal would slide. If you didn’t sorry, you’re only fooling yourself. But Wenger looks like he has gotten it right across the board with this squad. Since 2005 he has been trying to find the right balance of finesse and grit. We look to finally be there.

Is it complete? Probably not. While players are returning from injury and they will only make the squad stronger, the need for an additional striker off the bench is necessary. Unless Niklas Bendtner finds his inner-striker he won’t offer us much. Again, hope we are wrong on that but past history suggests we won’t be.

Olivier Giroud has shown enough early on that will at least cause a rethink on which striker to go for. Giroud has been on fire for both club and country. Karim Benzema can’t find favor at Madrid and isn’t finding favor in France. His look of abject nonchalance at Giroud’s wonder goal last week says all you need to know about how Karim feels towards his countryman.

Wenger clearly wanted another striker. He hasn’t gotten one and he placed all his faith in Giroud to come good and pay further dividends in this grand gambit. It has worked. Arsenal need a striker but Giroud taking the faith given him has for now given the manager room to adjust his thinking on exactly the type he needs.

I was one of the many who prior to the season wondered, sometimes loudly if the game were passing Wenger by. Evidence prior to the start suggested it may have. I was always a realist and never bought for a moment Wenger didn’t want to spend. I always felt the club had agreed to an existence of frugality until such a time as new commercial deals could be locked down and advance Arsenal.

But admittedly I had my doubts. We know Wenger controls all football aspects of the club. And when money was spent early and additions weren’t made early, I and man others (a majority) were openly worried.  Some went the wrong way with abuse. I’ve always tried to be fair. But it’s become clear that Wenger’s faith in his charges proved right.

Now, let’s all accept that we will still go through a difficult spell this season. Every team does. But I am slowly coming around to the thought that the make up of this current squad, both talent wise and mentally, might make it a road bump rather than a mountain.

Wenger will ultimately be judged at the end of the season. If Arsenal maintain a consistent level of this type of performance throughout, then Arsenal will have a say in the title race and Wenger will have once again been proved right. It’s worlds away but a good run and being part of the title picture will seem world’s away from where we finished last season.

You gotta give credit where credit is due and for Wenger, this opening gambit is proving a masterstroke.

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