By Richard Clarke
One statistic dominated Arsenal’s Premier League campaign in 2008/09 – those five defeats in their first 14 games.
As welcome as the 21-match unbeaten run that followed was, it seemed to be more about making up ground than making headway.
The early season shocks against Fulham and Hull were disappointing but at least they were tight. However in the last of those five defeats, at Eastlands on November 22, Arsenal lost their captain and then simply lost their way.
William Gallas had been relieved of the arm-band in the build-up to the game. Injury-hit and inexperienced, the team fell behind just before the break to Stephen Ireland’s goal and were well-beaten 3-0 on the day.
Saturday’s return game sees Arsenal in much finer fettle. They have introduced a new formation and a couple of new players since then (as well as letting some join Saturday’s opposition). Even their cross-town defeat a fortnight ago was heartening to an extent.
However, ahead of Saturday’s game, last season’s defeat still resonated with Arsène Wenger.
“Losing 3-0 at Manchester City last year was very difficult to take,” he recalled. “Everything went against us on the day. There was the penalty straight away after half-time and then the third goal came quickly. It was the kind of game where everything was wrong.
“But then it was a very difficult week overall and we have come very far since then. It was our last defeat in November and we did not lose again in the League until May against Chelsea.
“We have moved forward a lot from what was a low point for us. That game, like this one, was after an international game so we can show on Saturday that we have learned from that and we are much stronger.
“Certainly I was impressed by William’s response after what happened to him that week.”
The rejuvenation of Gallas has been marked this season. The French international was just behind Thomas Vermaelen, his partner at centre back, in the EA SPORTS Player of the Month poll on Arsenal.com for August. In combination with Alex Song, the duo have banished the term “soft centre” from any description of Arsenal at the start of 2009/10 – the very thing that undermined them in those five defeats a year ago.
And strength is requisite for Arsenal right now because Wenger is already stretching his resources. Andrey Arshavin came back from international duty with a groin problem meanwhile the manager confirmed that the knee injury collected by Johan Djourou in the last break would cost him the majority of the season. Theo Walcott (back) could return next weekend but Samir Nasri (broken leg), Lukasz Fabianski (knee) and Carlos Vela (ankle) are all missing. Tomas Rosicky’s competitive return for the Czech Republic this week was welcome but it does not mean he’ll be risked on Saturday. Meanwhile at his press conference on Thursday, Wenger had no news – good or bad – about Cesc Fabregas, who had made a goal-scoring return for Spain on Wednesday.
When Arsenal last went to Eastlands, the Manchester City revolution had barely begun. Just before the summer window closed they squeezed in a takeover and the record-signing of Robinho. Since then Mark Hughes has added pretty much an entire Premier League team - Shay Given, Wayne Bridge, Roque Santa Cruz, Sylvinho, Gareth Barry, Joleon Lescott, Craig Bellamy, Carlos Tevez, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor.
Of course the latter two arrived from Emirates Stadium in big-money deals and their influence has been immediate. Toure is now the captain and is leading the only defence in England that has not conceded a goal. Adebayor has scored in each of Man City’s three Premier League games. Unsurprisingly they have made a 100 per cent start.
Selling to a potential top-four rival raised eyebrows then but Wenger seemed phlegmatic about their sale at the time and was positive about their futures when his spoke pre-game.
“There are no hard feelings for Toure or Adebayor,” he said. “I always wish my former players to be happy.
"It is part of life that players move on. That is not a reason for you to want them not to be happy. I am extremely confident they will be and wish them well.”
Of course, Man City’s start has been impressive but, with respect, beating Blackburn, Wolves and Portsmouth will not a champion make. Arsenal were receiving similar star billing themselves in August ahead of a step up in standard against Manchester United. While a decent display at Old Trafford prevented the bubble from bursting, defeat certainly led to a little deflation.
Still, Wenger is sure of his side’s quality however he feels Man City’s credentials need further examination.
“They are difficult to assess,” he concluded. “The best way is to play against them and then you have a much more objective impression. So we will see on Saturday how strong they are.
“I believe they are a good side because they have good players and a good level of confidence because they started well. So it will be an interesting test.”
At this stage of the season, there is precious little evidence upon which to form sturdy opinions. Arsenal played well at United and lost. They can ill-afford the same at City.
Victory would re-assert their ambitions for the campaign so, in many ways, Saturday is more than an “interesting test”.
It will indicate further whether Man City can truly join the Premier League elite and if Arsenal have the strength to retain their membership.
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