At least for one night, the incessant hounding of the 2011-2012 Arsenal team (and specifically the hounding of manager Arsene Wenger) will slow down or perhaps stop altogether. With a team full of young players, with no major new transfer signings, and most importantly without its two best players from last year (Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri), Arsenal went to Udinese and came away with a 2-1 win to advance to the Champions League group stage. Especially significant is the fact that Udinese was piling on the pressure and looked to have a realistic chance of scoring not just one but two goals before the halftime robbed them of the momentum, yet Arsenal regained their composure in the second half and came back to win the match. Last year's team completely fell apart down the stretch. First there was the Carling Cup collapse. Then the resigned way they played through the last twenty minutes against a Barcelona team that was suddenly light years beyond where Arsenal hoped to be. Finally there was the Premiere League debacle, where a team that was challenging for the title suddenly turned up in fourth place and needed to qualify for European play that seemed like a sure thing just a month before. Did this year's Arsenal team already put those ghosts to bed by not just gutting this victory out, but coming back to earn it decisively?
One indication that this might be the case is the play of Wojciech Szczesny. The young goalkeeper's progress has been most impressive and he has surely been Arsenal's MVP in this short season. Today, he stepped up at the biggest time, on a penalty kick by Antonio Di Natale, making a reaction save with his left hand to tip the shot up and over the bar. Rather than deflating an Arsenal team that had just scored and built up a two goal cushion on aggregate, Szczesny brought them roaring back into the match, saying that things weren't going to fall apart this time. He made several other superb saves during the match and his heroics have started to inspire confidence among fans, and hopefully among his teammates as well.
There was also the play of Gervinho to build on, a wonder because just last week I could have sworn that he left his finishing game behind in France, so unable was he to provide a final ball or shot on goal. Yet here he was today smartly taking a poor angled shot on goal in an attempt to generate a rebound, there he was laying the ball off to wide open players twelve yards from goal (sidebar: Walcott, you have to bury that shot), and ultimately he made a brilliant run to the touchline and then cut a pitch perfect pass to a waiting Robin Van Persie would could not possibly duff such an opportunity. Gervinho today was the menace that his talent hinted at and while it will certainly be a shame for him to miss the next two Premiere League matches, I am already waiting for his return.
What about the steady play of Thomas Vermaelen in the back? Or the clever passing of Bacary Sagna, whichever side of the field he is playing on? How about the clever possession of Aaron Ramsey that has been keeping Arsenal in control of the ball so that he has longer to pick out the perfect pass to get things moving forward again? Aren't all of these indications that this Arsenal team is better than most people expected and primed to put the pieces together so that they can make a run for the title? I mean, Jack Wilshere isn't even back yet and he was supposed to be the biggest fix for the transfer woes of the squad! Why shouldn't Gunners fans be optimistic about the direction of their squad?
Because Arsenal did not just win the Champions League, or even make the final game. They stayed alive in an elimination game to make the group stage. While I am very excited to see Arsenal moving on, this is what should be expected of a club like Arsenal, a club that has every advantage going for it and has a history of success. This would have been akin to the Lakers or Red Wings barely making it into the playoffs as an eight seed, or the Yankees winning a one game playoff against the Indians to get in as the wild card. Of course you're happy that your team is in, but you also wonder how on earth it got to this point. With all due respect (and I really do mean this because I loved the way that Udinese played in these matches), Arsenal is not playing to beat Udinese. Arsenal is playing to beat Manchester United and Chelsea and Inter Milan and Barcelona and all of the best teams in the world. They're not supposed to get psyched over making it to the show. They're supposed to already be in the show looking at what teams they're going to dismantle and take down. That's the swagger that has been lost from the Gunners and while a win over Udinese helps, it's not all the way back yet.
This is the problem for Wenger and Arsenal this year. They are not a middle of the table squad trying to turn in a good performance in a down year. They are a perennial contender, a club that will not and should not expect anything outside of a top four finish in England and European play to follow. Such clubs do not have down years because they have players waiting on the sidelines to burst onto the scene and players lined up all over the world waiting to get a chance to play for them. These are the expectations and while it is perhaps unreasonable to assume that a club will succeed 100% of the time, it is reasonable to assume that such a club will not shoot itself in the foot and fail to make use of its name and image. This is the heart of the criticism that Wenger has had to deal with all year because it looks to some as if he is treating Arsenal as a mid-table club rather than a dominant franchise. Dominant franchises don't just sign 17 year-olds that they can develop. They also sign big names to fill any gaps they have, or just improve their side and battle the other top teams for the premiere signings in the world. Perhaps that's what people truly want from Wenger: him to throw his weight around and act like a big boy, even if his strategy of buying young and developing players has worked for many years now. There's no confident arrogance or flexing of muscle. It's all cold calculation and when things start to drift astray, quiet dignity does not have the stabilizing effect that some fans want.
Do not take this exposition as a 180 from the "give it time" stance that I've kept over the past two weeks. I am sticking to my guns on this team. However, those guns have belonged to Wenger and Arsenal because they have my trust from years of management excellent management of this team. That trust will be tested if they do not make moves in the last week of the transfer window as this team obviously still needs depth and can do with standout players at several positions. If Arsene fails to bring anyone in, relying on promotion from within, then he won't get free passes over draws to inferior competition, or home losses no matter who the competition is. Remember, Arsenal is playing to win a title. That's how they should feel every single year. And while an away win at Udinese to move on to the Champions League group stage is absolutely a victory to celebrate, it is only a moment in time of this season. Here's hoping Arsenal's time in the sun continues. As always, Go Gunners.