Arsenal are ready to make Gonzalo Higuain the club’s highest-paid player to ensure that they secure their prime summer transfer target and replace the goal scorer they have been missing since Robin van Persie’s departure. Considered more lethal than Falcao and Ronaldo, Higuain can demand wages of £125,000-a-week, putting him above current high earners Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott.
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Some neutral spectators may be questioning Robin Van Persieís logic as he looks for the door at Arsenal, after he cleverly forced Arsenalís hand and formed the catalyst behind the clubs recent spending spree.
Arsene Wenger is oft criticised for his shrewdness in the transfer market; as other teams take high value risks, Wenger continues to operate on a relative shoe-string budget. This has often confined Arsenal to a life just outside of the biggest players and limited silverware in the last 8 years. The latest batch of signings though could be perfectly timed.
Back when Arsenal’s strength of character was being questioned in the wake of late capitulation at Newcastle, a list of natural born leaders had tripped off Theo Walcott’s tongue with only one name raising eyebrows. To cite Cesc Fábregas or Robin van Persie, senior internationals in a youthful team, seemed obvious. Gaël Clichy too, as the last remaining member of the Invincibles. “And there is Johan Djourou, a great leader as well,” said Walcott. It was delivered as an assumption, almost a gimme, yet the mention meant so much more.
Other members of Arsène Wenger’s side have drawn the focus this season, whether it has been the resurgence of Samir Nasri or the emergence of Jack Wilshere that has caught the breath, but the Swiss centre-half has arguably felt more like this team’s find of the campaign to date. Djourou has been transformed from an injury-prone bit-part player, all promise and no product, into a key member of the backline. Barcelona boast the capacity to provoke panic on Wednesday night, but the 24-year-old at the heart of Arsenal’s defence will exude calm authority as the visitors, all a blur, tear at him.
The Ivorian-born defender has waited patiently for this opportunity to prove his class. So much of his career has been lost to injury, with last season virtually a write-off after serious knee ligament damage restricted him to a solitary appearance as a substitute on the final day. Yet, with Thomas Vermaelen now the one suffering on the sidelines, Arsenal have increasingly learned to lean on the man plucked from Etoile Carouge FC in Geneva as a teenager. Fábregas summed up his importance: “With the way we play, we have needed a centre-back like him: strong, good on the ball, quick, making his presence felt on the opposition’s strikers.” Arsenal may have stumbled upon the answer.
Whether this team can prevail against Barça’s mesmerising talent over two legs remains to be seen, but they will clearly require strength and pace at the back along with a willingness to hassle and harry all over the field if they are to stand any chance. Djourou offers presence and power, as well as aggression. There was an admission this season that a year on the sidelines had changed his attitude. “Maybe I was too nice,” he said. “I was a boy before the injury, looking up to the guys in front of me, but now I’m a man. The injury gives you a lot to think about. It made me angry because I wanted to be playing.”
He has his chance now. Even with his knee problems, he remains the quickest of Arsenal’s centre-halves and, at 6ft 4in, he is more imposing than either Laurent Koscielny or Sébastien Squillaci at his side. That diminutive combination has been employed 14 times this season with the team shipping 22 goals in those fixtures. Djourou, in contrast, has not finished on the losing side in the Premier League since a 3-0 loss at Manchester City in November 2008, with the team breached just 14 times in his 25 games this term while he has been on the pitch. His selection prompts confidence these days.
His absence has the opposite effect. Wenger’s decision to omit him for the derby against Tottenham Hotspur at the Emirates in November, a contest lost 3-2, felt more significant in hindsight. Newcastle rallied after his withdrawal at St James’ Park – he departed injured a minute before Abou Diaby’s dismissal – and it is a measure of Djourou’s progress that it feels inconceivable that the visitors would have caved in so spectacularly had he remained on the pitch.
It is the sense that Arsenal now boast a partnership at the back which reassures most of all. Djourou’s chemistry and understanding with Koscielny in recent weeks, established most notably perhaps in the 3-1 victory over Chelsea and their dominance of Didier Drogba that night in December, has helped the Frenchman overcome an awkward start to his career in England since his £9.7m summer move from Lorient. Djourou is a commanding presence at Koscielny’s side. When Vermaelen returns from achilles trouble and is integrated back into the first team, it feels unlikely now that the Swiss will be the one to make way.
Djourou would expect as much. He is, after all, an international with 25 caps. Yet he began this season feeling like a fourth choice at the Emirates Stadium and has since come of age. Wenger has treated him cautiously, his initial fears that Djourou could not play three times a week gradually easing as the centre-half’s progress has been maintained. “He has gone from strength to strength since the start of the season,” said the manager. “When the team have had difficult moments – when we have had to defend in the air – he has been dominant. And he has not only shown dominance but personality as well.”
That will be needed aplenty against Barça, when Arsenal must push and press high up the pitch to stifle the visitors’ attempts to monopolise possession. The hosts’ centre-halves are sure to be overworked regardless but, at last, this team do not feel rendered vulnerable by a soft underbelly. Djourou has a point to prove.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Wojciech Szczesny agrees. You don’t have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper but it helps and it is not difficult to see where he gets it from. His father, Maciej, was a Poland goalkeeper who won the domestic title with four different clubs and Szczesny, the coming star at Arsenal, has a favourite story from his playing days.
“My dad got sent off for punching Roberto Mancini in the face,” he says. “It was in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup quarter-final in 1991 and if you look on YouTube you will have confirmation. It’s a very clear punch. He just went straight through him. I can’t wait to play against Mancini now. Maybe he will remember.”
Sampdoria had just scored an 89th-minute goal through Gianluca Vialli in the second leg against Legia Warsaw but needed more to avoid elimination. Szczesny Sr grabbed the ball and Mancini, now the Manchester City manager, wanted it back. “The question for my dad was: ‘Do you want to play in the final?’” Szczesny says. “But obviously being a nutter … it was: ‘No.’ Bang, he punched him. It was the last minute and he was suspended for the semi-final, which Legia lost to Manchester United. He wasn’t very happy. I just hope that Mancini still remembers it.”
Szczesny’s focus is trained on making a different kind of impression at the business end of the season, having completed a whirlwind rise to prominence. This time last year he was playing in front of 6,000 fans at Brentford, during a loan spell at the League One club, and by the end of September he had grown utterly exasperated at his lack of opportunity at Arsenal. But now, Lukasz Fabianski’s season-ending shoulder surgery coupled with Manuel Almunia’s problems with form and fitness have seen Arsène Wenger install him as the No1.
Szczesny is 20. He has played in 11 first-team matches for the club (conceding five goals) and yet, rather abruptly, the quest for the Premier League title has come to rest, in part, on his 6ft 5in frame. He is also looking towards the Champions League last-16 tie against Barcelona plus the Carling Cup final with Birmingham City, which he hopes to start despite Wenger’s policy of fielding the back-up goalkeeper in the latter competition. Szczesny has played in all bar one of the ties thus far.
Then, there is his country. Poland co-host the European Championship next year and Szczesny wants his No1 status at Arsenal to be reflected at international level. Although he has only one cap, he stands to win another against Norway next week, having been called up for the first time this season by the coach, Franciszek Smuda .
There is something about Poland and goalkeepers. The name of Jan Tomaszewski will always resonate with England fans but it is the depth and quality of the modern vintage that is remarkable. It was said that Poland’s best three players in their Euro 2008 squad were goalkeepers – Artur Boruc, Tomasz Kuszczak and Fabianski – while the lesser-known but well-regarded Przemyslaw Tyton and Grzegorz Sandomierski have emerged more recently. “Don’t forget we have Jerzy Dudek at Real Madrid as well,” Szczesny says.
Eccentricity runs through them in varying degrees. “Boruc is nuts,” Szczesny says, with a smile. “He is a very good friend of mine and so I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying he’s a nutter. He really is crazy. And he’s brave. I mean, some of the stuff he did when he played for Celtic, blessing himself in front of the Rangers fans … how brave is that?”
Boruc is currently out of the Poland reckoning on disciplinary grounds, having got drunk on the team flight back from the USA friendly in October. With Kuszczak struggling for regular football at Manchester United so not in Smuda’s plans and Fabianski injured, Szczesny senses an opportunity. “It looked like Fabianski was going to be the No1 but he has got injured,” he says. “I like to believe that whoever wins the competition for Arsenal will be the No1 in the national team.
“It’s unbelievable that the Euros are in Poland. The national stadium that has just been built in Warsaw is five minutes from my house. I live on the 10th floor so I can see the stadium from my window. For every player, the national team is a priority and it would be a dream to play at the Euros. My debut against Canada was one of the proudest moments of my life.”
Szczesny oozes confidence. When he was thrust into his Premier League debut at Manchester United in December, his assurance was startling. He jokes on his must-follow Twitter page, 53szczesny53, that he is a “big head” but it is not true. He is far too ready to laugh at himself for that. Take the saga of the pink shirt. For reasons that are unknown to him, Arsenal’s kit suppliers have included a particularly garish goalkeeping number, which Szczesny has been forced to wear. He said that he was disappointed that the Leeds United fans did not give him more stick over it during the FA Cup tie last month. His elevation has come at a sartorial cost.
“It’s embarrassing,” he says. “I mean, you just wouldn’t see David Seaman or Jens Lehmann wearing a pink shirt, would you? I think Lehmann would have burned it. I consider myself a very confident person but I don’t actually think I am big-headed because my confidence doesn’t affect me … just yet. Obviously, though, because of some of the things that I’ve said about myself recently, the boys try to take the mickey.”
Chief among those things was his outburst to a Polish newspaper after he was not included in the squad for the Carling Cup tie at Tottenham Hotspur in September. He poured out his frustrations, saying that Wenger “seems to forget he has a goalkeeper named Wojciech Szczesny” and muttering darkly about his need to play or else. “It was a big blow, I am not going to lie to you and I was very disappointed,” he says. “I am ambitious and I want to be No1. I came out with a few things that I shouldn’t have said but I have learned from that. Maybe I was too honest. Funnily enough, I have been in the squad for every game since, although I know it’s a coincidence because Manu [Almunia] got injured.”
If Brentford to Barcelona feels like an improbable journey, then consider the fact that football was not even Szczesny’s first sport. “I’m a little embarrassed to talk about it now but the very first sport that I did, if you can call it sport, was ballroom dancing,” he says. “I was aged seven to nine or 10. I was tall and so I think I was a little bit stiff but I was getting the movements and everything.”
Szczesny was also an athlete – he excelled at the javelin – but football gradually took over. He was spotted by Legia and he blossomed under the tutelage of the legendary goalkeeping coach Krzysztof Dowhan, who had worked with his father. Szczesny made his Legia debut at 15.
His path to the top at Arsenal was interrupted by a grisly accident in November 2008 when, working with a heavy weight at the club’s gym, he lost his balance and felt the bar crash down on to his forearms. They were both fractured. “You could see my initials … W here and S there,” he says. “Put it this way, my arms weren’t straight.”
Metal plates were inserted into each arm and he was ruled out for five months. The scars offer a permanent reminder. “I say that one is from the war and the other is from a shark bite,” he says. Physical discomfort is the goalkeeper’s default setting. “I have always said that to be diving around for two hours every day and to get hit and to be in pain every day, you have to be a little bit mad,” Szczesny says. “That is what we do, so we are crazy.”
Yet the rewards make it worthwhile. “The Premier League is the priority and we fancy our chances of catching Man United,” Szczesny says. “Then, there is the Barcelona game, which is a bit surreal for me. They are probably the best side in Europe but we believe that we can get something out of it. We are a much better team than we were last year. Every single player is a year older and a year better. We are a bunch of confident guys and this year, there is no psychological barrier.”
Szczesny’s name is virtually impossible for an Englishman to pronounce. He does not care, as long as it is on everyone’s lips.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
The Independent, a relatively Arsenal friendly newspaper (some might even say a piece of Arsenal propaganda – but i wouldn’t go that far) has picked up on, or created, a debate. Simply put, for the sake of immediate explanation, it asks are Arsenal cheaters or cheated on. A desperate housewife from America’s midwest with no sense of irony might say you can be both but this is football and we like to polarise. It must be one or the other. So, where do i stand?
So since I have been away and last posted what exactly has happened? Well, the usual Arsenal fare. We won, we lost, we won, we lost, we won. To be more precise those results against West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United happened, whilst so did the impressive victory at Everton and the Wolves. Really, can a team be any more inconsistent? Sure Chelsea were smacked by Sunderland and Manchester United stumbled to relatively disappointing results, drawing with Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion but these results truly shocked, especially Chelsea losing by three at home and Manchester United surrendering a two goal lead at Old Trafford.
When it comes to us, and the West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle results, I am not to sure anybody was actually that shocked. Surprised, indeed. Shocked? Far from it. When the Saturday afternoon fans turned on teletext there were no mouths open aghast, just a little sigh and groan about here we go again, same old Arsenal. The same way no fans, neither the Saturday afternoon or the hardcore, were surprised when we beat Everton away. It’s just the Arsenal way. Full of hypocrisies. We go on an inconsistent run that pretty much means we throw away the title and we lament our inability to perform to a high standard for a long series of matches and yet then we manage to string together an unbeaten run of ten matches or more, performing well consistently, and pull ourselves right back into the title race. When we anticipate right we turn left and when we then guess left Arsenal go right. It’s just the usual Arsenal fare. Well, the usual Arsenal fare of the past six seasons.
So, I asked myself, where or who do I blame this time? After all, it’s not my fault. I’m not guilty for the wrongs of Arsene Wenger. See what I did there? ( It’s his fault ) Still, are they even wrongs? Well that’s an odd question but yes, I will answer it. They are wrongs. Arsene Wenger is guilty because he has such a group of players at his disposal, all of whom can, on their day, play so mechanically, to orders, like they demonstrated at Goodison Park, that there is no reason why they should lose like they did against West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United at The Emirates. Sure, Arsene Wenger collected and developed the group, so credit where credit is due, but I don’t appreciate the trend where Arsenal fans, well, the majority, are ready to absolve all of his wrongs when he clearly shouldn’t be. The players evidently were not motivated or focused against West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United and these are familiar failings of the past six seasons.
It’s the usual Arsenal fare, a sorry muddled state of affairs. I don’t, however, blame anybody apart from Arsene Wenger for it. Thanks, we are near the summit of the table and Van Persie isn’t even fit yet. Really, thanks. But, Manchester United are shoddy, Chelsea are stumbling, and we, if we have genuine aspirations of usurping them, should already be top. Satisfied with being second? That’s a Saturday afternoon Arsenal fan of the modern age. Wenger has manipulated Arsenal fans into thinking coming second is an achievement and we should be thankful for it. Not for me.
Cesc Fabregas said we would have won against Manchester City even if they had 15 players on the field. Roberto Mancini said Manchester City would have won if the game was an even contest and his side had the standard 11 players on the field. Wayne Rooney said he wanted to leave Manchester United because they couldn’t match his ambition. Then Wayne Rooney said he wanted to stay because he was reassured about the clubs ambition. In the summer Arsene Wenger said he had complete trust in our goalkeepers and would not be looking for a new custodian. During the summer Arsene Wenger made a rather overt attempt to sign Mark Schwarzer from Fulham but was rebuffed by Mark Hughes. This isn’t about contradiction, hypocrisy, gradual change in thought or difference in opinion. Rather, I am merely wondering about how much of what we hear in football is even worth paying attention to. I want to understand our season as objectively as possible. I want the truth.
Samir Nasri, Alexandre Song and Nicklas Bendtner all score in the same game away from home in the North against a genuine Premiership rival and the goalkeeper and defence manage to avoid conceding even one single goal. If I made that up you wouldn’t believe me but it is Monday afternoon and you know it to be true. What I can’t decide, though, is did we win in spite of Boyata’s sending off or because of it?
Chelsea beat us again and it’s more than i want to take. I could take more, if i enjoyed torment i probably would take more, but i don’t want to. Chelsea beat us again. But wait, that isn’t my torment. Chelsea beat us and they deserved to so there are no complaints from me and as far as I can tell from my ensemble of Arsenal supporting friends there are no complaints over there (them) either. We lost to the better team. That I can accept. What i can’t take any more of is Arsene Wenger and his ridiculous excuses. His rhetoric, his failed sophistry. His crap French players.
As the title makes clear, if it isn’t going to be our year, if, then who would i prefer wins the league? Lets get the White Hart Lane scum out of the way to begin with. They won’t win it, they can’t win it and they better not win it. Man City? If i believed they could win it then this question would be tremendously easier as i would most definitely choose them. Nevertheless they won’t win it so it’s academic, or as they say in Manchester it’s Eastlands (counts for nothing). So, Chelsea or Manchester United?