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Van Persie and Campbell show the way forward for Arsenal

Tottenham 2 Arsenal 1

On a night on which Spurs took all three points from them for the first time in nearly 11 years, it was Arsenal’s oldest and most injured players – respectively, Sol Campbell and Robin van Persie – who provided the potential blueprint for future success for a club now destined to go trophy-less for the fifth consecutive season.

Campbell, 35, made his 20th appearance of the season for Arsenal last night, having been signed as something of an afterthought in January, and was outstanding throughout despite the incessant barrage of abuse he received from the home fans. Even though he has clearly lost a yard of pace over the years, he remains a redoubtable physical presence whose intelligence and anticipation remain undiminished, and he is a far more reliable proposition than Mikael Silvestre, three years his junior. Arsene Wenger will undoubtedly plunge into the transfer market this summer; his first move should be to offer a new one-year contract to Sol. Certainly Wenger acknowledged Campbell’s influence in his post-match interview, saying:

“He has shown the way to some players. What a winner he is. He showed what you need if you want to win titles.”

The oft-injured Van Persie was making his comeback after torn ankle ligaments had sidelined him for five months. By rights, he should have been rusty and off the pace. Instead, his 68th minute arrival transformed the match, providing a cutting edge to the Arsenal attack and demonstrating to Nicklas Bendtner that, for all that the young Dane has contributed to the scoresheet (nine goals in his last 11 games), there is a massive gulf separating him from the tag of ‘world-class striker’ he believes he deserves.

For nearly 70 minutes Tottenham keeper Heurelho Gomes had been a virtual spectator, with Arsenal’s only attempt on target being a bundled effort from – of all people – Campbell as early as the second minute. But, as Spurs began to tire after their Wembley exertions 72 hours previously, van Persie launched what seemed at times to be a one-man assault on the Brazilian’s goal, most notably a sumptuous effort in which, with his back to goal, he chested the ball down, swivelled and fired a fierce volley in one fluid movement which a diving Gomes did well to turn away.

Ultimately, it was too little too late, with Bendtner’s late tap-in – inevitably, van Persie was at the heart of the move – no more than a consolation.

The game had been lost long before van Persie’s arrival, though. On his league debut, 19-year-old Danny Rose had opened the scoring with a rasping 30-yard volley – truly, a candidate for goal of the season – after Manuel Almunia’s punch fell straight to him. And the second half had barely started when Gareth Bale raced clear of a shambolically invisible backline – how often have we said that about Arsenal this season? – to clip home the second, his first league goal in two and a half seasons, his previous one having also come against Arsenal.

On the night, it was clear to see how much Arsenal missed Cesc Fabregas, Andrey Arshavin, Alex Song, William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen (who limped off with a calf strain after 20 minutes), not to mention Aaron Ramsey and Johan Djourou, who would have provided reinforcements from the bench. But that’s neither a complaint nor an excuse. Arsenal fans will have rightly expected greater leadership from senior campaigners such as Tomas Rosicky and Emmanuel Eboue and for younger (but hardly inexperienced) players like Denilson, Abou Diaby and Samir Nasri to step up to the plate. In reality, only Nasri and to a lesser extent Eboue have done so in recent weeks. It is a distinct weakness in a squad which is over-reliant on youthful potential and lacks consistency.

Which is exactly why Wenger needs to add more players like Campbell to his squad. His team is too dependent on Fabregas and, to a lesser extent, the likes of van Persie and Vermaelen to take games by the scruff of the neck. Too often there is a lack of purpose up front and a sense of barely-controlled panic at the back. One or two more experienced heads – as opposed to yet another promising teenager – could make all the difference in that respect.

The other key is keeping van Persie fit. It is no coincidence that, before last night, Arsenal had averaged 3.3 goals in games in which he had played, compared to 1.8 without him. It is futile to speculate on what might have been had the Dutchman played more this season, but suffice to say he has been sorely missed. Fabregas, Arshavin and Nasri provide the creativity from deeper positions, but he is the only one of the club’s batch of centre forwards who can truly turn a match with a moment of individual skill. Regardless of what his shirt says, Bendtner is an old-fashioned number nine who lacks pace and guile. Theo Walcott has pace to burn, but lacks physicality and aggression. Eduardo is no longer the player he was before his injury; he seems to actively avoid any potential 50:50 challenge. And Carlos Vela looks lost whenever he is asked to play in anything other than the Carling Cup (it’s no wonder he misplaced his passport and missed last week’s Camp Nou trip).

Summer signings

So what should be top of Arsenal’s shopping list this summer?

Firstly, a good luck charm for van Persie, who has missed a significant chunk of every season he has spent at the club through injury. But given that he is never likely to be a 50 game a year player, a quality lead-the-line striker is a must. If the rumours about the impending arrival of Bordeaux’s Marouane Chamakh are true, consider that box ticked.

Even if Campbell stays, the increasingly injury-prone Gallas and the ever-inept Silvestre are also out of contract this summer, and Philippe Senderos will undoubtedly be sold. Djourou’s return will help, but there is a clear need for another central defender, possibly two.

To strengthen the porous defence, I would target a new goalkeeper – I’m a fan of Lyon and France stopper Hugo Lloris – and another defensive midfielder who can partner Alex Song. I know Denilson has his supporters, but to my eyes he is too much of a bits-and-pieces player – decent at most things, but not exceptional at anything – and a liability defensively. And although Diaby is often compared to Patrick Vieira physically, the resemblance ends there; he is a good option going forward, but poor defensively. For me, Diaby is a great option from the bench; Denilson should be offloaded. And I would look for someone like Brazil’s Felipe Melo, who has struggled to settle at Juventus.

So, that would be four (five at most) new bodies in – targeting where possible players in their mid to late-twenties – with Campbell and hopefully Gallas re-signed, counterbalanced by the release of Silvestre and the sale of Senderos, Denilson and possibly Rosicky, with Jack Wilshere returning from his loan spell at Bolton to take his place.

To my eyes, there’s not a big gulf between this year’s squad which has challenged for honours, and one next year which could actually win them. A touch more experience and fewer injuries to key players could transform this team, and the last 20 minutes of a depressing defeat to the annoying neighbours showed me enough to suggest that a line-up like this would enhance Arsenal’s prospects for a successful 2010/11 season.

Lloris

Sagna – Vermaelen – Gallas – Clichy

Song – Melo

Fabregas

Walcott – Van Persie – Nasri

Well, I can hope, can’t I?

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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