By Richard Clarke
Can absence make the team grow stronger?
Around this time of year Arsenal are often adapting to the move of a player or two in the summer just gone. When it is someone who has dominated your pattern of play in previous seasons then the hole can take some time to fill.
Arsène Wenger’s side were in this predicament in 2007 when Thierry Henry left for Barcelona. Right now, Manchester United are in the same boat as they try to cope with the sizeable loss of Cristiano Ronaldo following his departure to Real Madrid. The Old Trafford side are reportedly the richest club side on the planet but taking out £80 million of talent is still going to have an effect.
Arsenal go to Manchester on Saturday evening for the first Big Four clash of the nascent season with a certain confidence flowing in their football. Four games, four wins, 15 goals and two successful Champions League Play-Off games – that is the mathematics of their season so far. Numerically a win at Old Trafford would add just a little more to their stats but psychologically it could be enough to form the foundation of a real title challenge.
It is difficult to know who the real Manchester United are right now – the edgy outfit who beat Birmingham 1-0 on the opening day, the bullied side who lost to Burnley or the well-oiled machine who breezed past Wigan 5-0.
Certainly, their campaign has not settled down and, though they retain much of the quality that has given them a hat-trick of Premier League titles, Wenger ventured to suggest they will miss the Portuguese winger who scored 68 goals in his last two seasons.
“I believe that nobody, not even the specialists, know what kind of effect [the loss of] Ronaldo can have on Manchester United’s results,” said Wenger at Friday’s press conference.
"It takes time to adapt but in our case [when we lost Henry] we had someone, Adebayor, who scored 24 goals in the season that followed. Also we had players who gained a little bit of charisma, like Hleb.
“Personally I believe even though he was good last year he was not the Ronaldo of the year before. It was for two reasons. Firstly, he was injured at the start and had a little surgery on his ankle and secondly he was certainly already thinking to move.
“Then again when you look at his numbers you’d think I have the wrong opinion. He didn’t look as convincing as the year before but when you look at the number of games he played and the number of goals he scored, he was still as efficient as before. So we'll see what happens.
“But I still believe Man United will miss Ronaldo. Will they find a new balance in the team and will Rooney pop up with 20 goals or Berbatov with 20 goals? That can happen.
“When a player becomes too strong in a team, sometimes the way of a game goes too much through him and others are a little bit isolated or forgotten. When he disappears suddenly other players turn up because the way of the game goes through different players and they maybe are capable to do that. Nobody knows really.
“In the end, Henry had a big weight in the team. No-one could refuse to give Thierry Henry the ball so sometimes the play becomes a bit more diversified when these players go.”
Cesc Fabregas is out of the trip to Old Trafford because the fitness test on his hamstring on Friday was “not conclusive”. Tomas Rosicky (hamstring) will not be risked. Wenger went on to say that there were no additions or omissions from Wednesday’s win over Celtic. From that we can conclude Aaron Ramsey has recovered from the knock he suffered against the Scottish side.
Despite all the talk about Ronaldo, Rooney and Berbatov, Manchester United scored the same number of Premier League goals as Arsenal - 68. The difference came in the goals against column – 24 for Manchester United, 37 for Arsenal.
"An influential player for Manchester United last year was Vidic,” admitted Wenger. “Ferdinand as well, but Vidic because he popped up with scoring goals in the air and they kept very many clean sheets. That was their main strength."
This game is being billed as Arsenal's first real test of the season. That overlooks the problems posed at Goodison Park in recent weeks but, certainly, a win would demand a hasty re-writing of certain pre-season predictions that suggested Wenger's men would struggle to retain their top four status.
“Yeah, of course, I accept that it is the big test for us,” said the Frenchman somewhat dismissively. “That’s why it is an interesting game for us.”
An away win would suggest Arsenal are playing with the swagger they had with Henry in the side. A home defeat may indicate Manchester United are still in the recovery position.
This game has arrived far too early to define the seasons of either team.
But it is certain to augment or diminish the trends we have seen in the opening weeks.
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