The Great Exporters – France

30/10/2007

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The top leagues in the world are the English Premier League, the Spanish La Liga and the Italian Serie A, and perhaps the German Bundasleague would also lay claim to joining the elite at the top, although in recent years, the German national team not withstanding, German clubs have struggles in the Champions League. However, while these 3 or 4 leagues may lay claim to be the footballing hot beds of Europe, it is the lesser leagues of France ,and these days Portugal too, that are producing the worlds best footballers.

Since Frances 1998 World Cup win, and the Euro 2000 triumph that followed, France have always been amongst the top international teams in the world. Yet their league has failed to produce any real challenges to the likes of England, Spain and Italy’s best. Lyon, 6 times French champions in the last 6 years, have flirted with the idea of being contenders for Europe’s top club prize, but have failed to deliver and solid group form over the last 5 years. The list of French talent that has honed their skill on their home pitches before seeking glory, recognition and huge bank balances on other shores is staggering for such a league. While the likes of Platini, Jean Pierre Papin and Eric Cantona lead the way, the team that won the 98 World Cup and then Euro 2000 was littered with some of the best established and emerging talents to ply their trade on the European and world stage. Desailly, Petit, Deschamps, Barthez, Thuram and Lizarazu won great acclaim and success at the likes of Milan, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Parma, Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, while the generations finest player, Zinedine Zidane, did it for Juventus and Real Madrid. Those French teams also brought to the worlds, and subsequently the big boys in league football, attention to the likes of emerging, precocious talent such as David Trezeguet, who moved to Juventus shortly after, Robert Pires, who went to Arsenal and is now at Villareal, Anelka, who has played for a host of teams ranging from Arsenal and Real Madrid, to Manchester City and Bolton, and the holder of the new French international goal scoring record, and Arsenal legend, now with Barcelona, Thierry Henry. While that golden generation enjoyed its share of success during a prolific 2 year period, the new set of French super stars are arriving in bulk. Ribery, the flying winger was the first to make an impact, and after being linked to every big club in the world, is now playing in Germany with Bayern Munich, where he is helping to regain the dominance they lost last season, and has gotten off to a very promising start to his new club career. Hot on his heels are the talented young trio who look set to be involved in bidding wars in the near future from clubs in England, Spain and Italy, Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema, both of Lyon, and Samir Nasri of Marseilles. While Nasri has been labelled the new Zidane, as much for his undoubted talent as for his Algerian roots, and Ben Arfa has been lauded as the future of France football, it is Benzema who is making all the head lines at this moment. The 19 year old striker has scored 11 goals in the opening 11 games of the French season, and has been called up to the French national team ahead of Trezeguet.

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Benzema is now the hottest property in France. A striker, who has been used out wide, much to his objection, he has modeled himself on the Ronaldo who he saw playing for Barcelona and scored 47 goals in 49 games for the Catalan giants. With his growing reputation, and notice being taken by all the big teams, Lyon have offered him 5 new contracts in the last 3 years, the latest of which ties him to the club for another 5 years. Yet at the rate he is progressing, and the ambition he has shown, it is highly unlikely that Benzema will still be at Lyon in the next season or two, never mind five. Arsenal, who have a strong French bias, are rumoured to be interested in bringing both Benzema and Ben Arfa to London. Real Madrid are also interested, however a move to England, to either Arsenal or even Manchester United, would surely be more beneficial to his career, as the English game as been better suited to French players, and Ferguson and Wenger in-particular have a history of getting the best out of young talent.

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Hatem Ben Arfa was offered a place in Tunisia’s World Cup squad for Germany 2006, but turned it down, awaiting the call from France, his country of birth. The young midfielder has been widely acclaimed at Lyon since making his debut  against Nice in 2005. The left winger has attracted the attention of Madrid, Barca, Inter and Milan,and at the rate both he and Benzema are going at Lyon will find it very tough not to bow to the inevitable big offers that are bound to come for the pair.

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Samir Nasri, the Marseilles midfielder, has already had to live with the billing as the new Zidane. While this has a lot to do with the fact that he is from Marseilles and of Algerian decent, that is not the whole story. The 19 year old Nasri posses skill and talent that are very much Zidane like, possessing an uncanny likeness to the French legend when on the ball. But the humble kid, showing maturity that many his age in the game are lacking, wishes to shy away from such comparisons, claiming that there is only one Zidane, and he is just a young player trying to make it in the French League, something he says he has not yet done. A host of clubs are looking at the young prodigy, who was named France’s Young Player of the Year last season, including Real Madrid, Arsenal and Manchester United. Rumours of a first option deal with Arsenal have been denied, yet with Arsenal Wengers history of bringing young players to London, and bias towards French players, don’t be surprised to see Nari at the Emirates Stadium in the future.

These three young players posses the potential and talent to once again take France to the top of world football, and are all being coveted by the best clubs in the world. Unfortunately the French league is a selling league, and all three will have to jump ship to England, Spain or Italy in the near future if they are to fully realise their potential. Hopefully it will see them under the nurturing eye of either Fergie or Wenger and not on the subs benches of Chelsea or Madrid, where their careers are as likely to stall as they are to flourish.

The next post will look at some of the Portuguese youngsters coming through the ranks at their varies teams, aiming to be the next Figo, Rui Costa or Christiano Ronaldo.


Players not Pawns

29/10/2007

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Sport in South Africa is riddled with political interference and legislation. This is an almost unique situation in world sport, with most countries preferring to leave sport on the fields and politics everywhere else. Unfortunately, due to South Africa’s historical past, the inequalities of a disgusting Apartheid regime, have meant that it is not likely that the politicians will leave sport untouched in a quest to speed up the quest for a representative cricket and rugby team, sports that have historically been white sports in South Africa. But is there a place for racial targets, as they are labelled by Cricket South Africa, in the national team?

There is no doubt that if transformation and development of the previously disadvantaged is to successful, in the here and now and future, racial targets will play a part. However these should only be implemented at certain levels. In schools cricket, at club level, and even at franchise level, the politicians can request that a certain number of players in each team should be non white. This will ensure that those with sufficient talent are being given opportunities at playing at a level that will ensure they get experience, exposure, and the playing field to show that they are capable players at that level. By saying that, at Franchise level, 3 or 4 of the starting 11 should be non white, will mean that, in the 6 franchise teams, at least 18 non white players are playing at any given match period. This will ensure that each province will give sufficient time and resources to development, to ensure that they get the best out of the system. In time, hopefully in only a few years, this target can be done away with as the players will be represented by merit. The problem arises with players like Kevin Pieterson who feel that they are being left out for non cricket reasons and so jump ship to another country. These players need to feel that if they are good enough they will play, they need to feel wanted and safe in the environment of South African cricket. Generally the talented players are identified early and are given sufficient playing time within the system. Young white players like AB Devilliers, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn have been identified early and have made it through to national level without being lost to England or another country. The reality is that even with a racial target system the players good enough to play international cricket will still come through. The problem that Pieterson faced is that, when his career started, he was a spin bowler and not a batsman, as he is today. He was behind Pat Symcox and Gulam Bodi in the Natal team, and subsequently left for England. Had he remained there is no doubt that his batting would have seen him emerge as a leading player for Natal, and then for South Africa.

While racial targets are a difficult reality in domestic cricket, the issue is even more murky in respect to international cricket. The use of the term “target” by CSA suggests that there is a number that they strive to achieve but may not inforce. That number, as it stands right now, is 7 non white players in any 15 man squad. Where this issue harms rather than heals the game is in the selection by merit. Players of colour in the South African national team, players like Ntini, Gibbs, Amla, Prince, Langeveld, Philander and Duminy are all in the team because they are good enough to play international cricket. But at teams they are treated like token players. They want to be in the team because they are good enough, which they are, and not because they are not white. When a player like Justin Kemp has a bad run of form there is no question about his worth because he has proved to be a match winner in the past. But when Philander drops a catch in an important T20 World Cup match against India, which South Africa go on to lose and are out of the tournament as a result, he is slated as a quota player. The double standard and indifference to this problem does little for a player at the beginning of his career. If there were no racial targets Philander would still make the team because he is one of the best young players in South Africa and will be a leading player in the future. And when he drops a catch it will be down to bad luck, a lack of concentration, or technique, and his colour will not be an issue. Racial targets at international level are not useful when the baggage that ensues damages a players confidence.

Another problem with racial targets at international level are when players are rushed through to fill a position, or when players are past it but picked because they fill that void. Examples of this are numerous in South African cricket. Justin Ontong was rushed into the South African test team as a young spin bowling all rounder in a match against Australia that should have been Jaques Rudolphs debut. Political interference meant that Ontong was in and Rudolph was out. The public slating that followed did a lot to damage the careers of both players, particularly Ontong who has had sporadic appearances for South Africa since then. His form for his domestic teams has suggested that he is a very talented batsman in all forms of the game, who, had he been better looked after, could have been, and still can be, a leading batsman for the national team. The selectors must ensure that such a debacle is never repeated. Another problem came about in the selection of South Africa’s World Cup 15 earlier in the year. Roger Telemachus travelled to the West Indies but never got a game, or looked like getting a game. The selection seemed purely one based on race. South Africa would have been better suited had a player like Dale Steyn, a lightening fast strike bowler, Johan van der Wath or Albie Morkel, devastating all rounders in the the Lance Klusner mould, had been picked. Instead the selectors felt that they had to meet the target of 7 non white players which upset the squad selection in terms of both the best available players and player options being greater.

In a recent game in Pakistan the selectors decided to include Andre Nel in the starting 11 in place of Charl Langeveld. In order to do this, to replace a non white player with a white player, the selectors had to drop Justin Kemp for JP Duminy, evening out the racial balance of those players coming in and those going out. There is no need for this type of action. JP Duminy is one of the most talented batsman in the country, and has a bright future in the South African team, so long as he is not made into a political pawn by selection issues. He must not be allowed to have his career stalled as Justin Ontongs was.

The main argument for why racial targets should not be used in international cricket is that winning units a country more than a enforced representative team. The Springbok rugby team recently won the Rugby World Cup with only 2 non white players in their 15, a number that the politicians were unhappy with. Yet the entire country got behind the team and were proud of their success and not moaning about racial issues. The cricket team follow that example. A South African squad made up of players such as Albie Morkel, Johan van der Wath, Morne van Wyk and others who missed out on selection for the World Cup because they were competing for 8 and not 15 places, would have had a better chance of winning the World Cup then the team that traveled did. Winning units a country.

South Africa has young talent, young non white talent, coming through, players such as Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Thandi Tshabalala and Yussuf Abdullah. These players must be allowed to progress their careers at a normal healthy level without political interference. They are sportsman, and not political pawns. For the sake of cricket, and the players, politics should be left off the field. South Africa will be better for it.


A Red Dynasty Awaits US

27/10/2007

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As Manchester United go in search of 4 more goals today against Middlesbrough, a feat that will emulate that of Billy Merediths team of 1907/08, by scoring 4 goals in each of their last 4 games, a record that has stood for 100 years, Sir Alex Ferguson is calling on his young side to build a new dynasty by becoming the world best team for years to come.

The last time United, and Sir Alex, had that opportunity was is 1998/99 when the team won the treble. That United squad contained Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, as well as a young Wes Brown, just starting his career, from todays squad, and boasted the likes of David Beckham, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Ole Gunner Solskjaer, Teddy Sheringham, Dennis Irwin, Jaap Stam, Peter Schemiecle, and was led by Roy Keane. After completing the treble in Barcelona, by beating Bayern Munich with 2 late goals, Peter Schemiecle, who was playing his last game for United that night, went on to say that this young team could dominate the Champions League for years to come. Since that day, a decade ago, United have 2 semi final appearances to their name in a largely unfulfilled period. Dominance at home could not be translated into European success. But after clawing their way back to the top in England, after a period of 4 years when Arsenal and the Chelsea reigned supreme, United are looking to take the step that has eluded them thus far in their history.

Not resting on the triumph of last season’s league win, United spent heavily in the summer, bringing in Owen Hargreaves, Anderson, Nani and Carlos Tevez, into an already talented squad lead by Giggs, Scholes, the experienced pros and Ronaldo and Rooney, the exciting would be world beaters. They have invested in the future, rather than the now, with the likes of Nani and Anderson, along with Pique and Ben Foster, who may all got playing time this season (not Foster who is out injured until March), but it is next season, and in future seasons, where their impact will be felt. Potential has been invested in. Hargreaves and Tevez were bought for the now and the future. Hargreaves has the potential and ability, and more importantly in terms of English players and English football, the discipline to be the new Roy Keane, the shield in front of the back four, allowing the likes of Carrick and Anderson to be more affective in the attacking half of the field. While many may doubt the partnership of Tevez and Rooney, and Fergie may buy an out and out striker, especially if Saha continues to spend more time on the treatment table than on the pitch, but the reality is, as is becoming evident in the last few games, both Tevez and Rooney are talented enough, and clever enough, in footballing terms, to inter change between playing up front and in the hole, creating space for the other player to exploit, and getting the team goals. In fact Rooney may benefit from playing more games as an orthodox forward, where he will surely get more goals and improve his game.

There can be no doubt that United feel that they have missed out in the past, particularly after ’99, in stamping their authority on the world games, as Real Madrid or AC Milan have done, and will be looking to rectify that. The purchases made this season, and no doubt in the future, will be designed with that in mind, as well as allowing them to compete at the top of their domestic league. This season may be a stepping stone to a new red dynasty, one that has been a long time coming.


The Perfect Foundation

24/10/2007

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While it is true, an often more entertaining, that goals win matches – if you score more than your opponent, you win – it is also true that title winning teams are built on a solid defence. In the centre back pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand Manchester United have perhaps their best foundation for another successful era of glory.

In Sir Alex, and United’s, first dominant team of the 90’s, they were lead by the pairing of Pallister and Bruce and the back. Pallister, a once British record buy from Middlesbrough, had taken his time to settle at the grandeur turf of Old Trafford, where performances are expected from the first minute, and the luxury of time has seen many would be stars out before their feet have settles. But Pallister was given time, and with Bruce, the United vice captain and then captain, formed the centre back partnership that United have since been trying to rediscover in many guises. Pallister should have earned more than the 22 caps he picked up for England, and Bruce may have been the unluckiest player in England, having served at the heart of United’s defense for 9 years, and failed to pick up a single England cap. In the treble year of ’99 United had the Dutch giant, Jaap Stam, partnered by Ronny Johnson or Henning Berg, a partnership that perhaps was the closest United came to the settled calmness and confidence of Bruce and Pally. Until now.

In Vidic and Ferdinand United have a pairing that could ensure their appetite for goals is matched by their stinginess at the back. After a slow start to the season, when United failed to win their opening 3 games, with 2 draws and a defeat, they then went 8 games, 6 in the league and 2 in the Champions League, without dropping a point, or leaking a single goal. 611 league minutes without conceding. The solid performance has been build on consistency in selection at the back, as well as the understanding and form of United’s centre back pairing. During the later matches in the run Vidic missed out due to a concussion sustained against Wigan, but those who have stepped in, Pique, O’ Shea and Simpson have fitted in seamlessly, as United have build their run of form, and victories, that no stretches to 10 games, on a tight and frugal defence.  They have no managed to add goals to the equation, scoring 12 in their last 3 games.

Like Pallister, Vidic took time to settle in at United, the Serbian having made the move to Manchester from Moscow and Russian football. There can now be few doubts as to the calibre, dedication, and total commitment to the cause, of United’s tough tackling centre back, who has proved very successful with his prowess in the air at attacking set pieces. 7million now seems a bargain for the player, who was a relative unknown to most United fans when he joined 2 years ago.

Ferdinand, who has always had a reputation as a fine footballer, established at West Ham, Leeds, and with England, did have a hard time justifying his record 29million pound transfer in 2002 from Leeds. Classy and elegant on the ball, able to play the ball out of defence, as a link man to the midfield, Ferdinand was prone to slight losses of concentration, that made many question his worth as one of the best centre backs in the game. The partnership with Vidic is pouring water on many of those claims and Ferdinand has been putting in the performances over the last few games of a player fully worth the adulation and esteem that has often been paid to him and questioned by some. His defensive work has been outstanding, and he has managed to score in the last 2 games, a part of his game that has thus far been lacking throughout his career.

The classy, ball playing, Englishman at the back, and the Serbian in the mould of a typical English center half, Ferdinand and Vidic, have laid the foundation for a team that looks to be building up momentum to do something special this season, and in seasons to come. A foundation build on the most solid defense. Winning teams always have good defenses.


Rafa Rotating Himself Out of a Job

14/10/2007

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Liverpool manager, Rafa Benitez, may find, come the end of the season, that his steadfast and unmovable rotation policy, may just cost him his job. While Benitez does have a Champions League and an FA Cup win to his credit during his spell at Liverpool, if he once again fails to deliver a Premier League challenge, he may find his time at Liverpool brought to an end.

It is perhaps true to suggest that had Benitez been at Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, he would not have survived this long. Since Liverpool last won the league title, 17 years ago, they have never been able to sustain a substantial challenge for league honours and have in reality never been close. The fans of Liverpool have demanded better from their team and have been let down time and time again. Rafa was seen as their saviour, especially after landing the Champions League in his very first season in charge. But that was nothing but a false dawn, and the time has now come for Rafa to put up or shut up.

His time at Anfield is becoming more memorable for his sour whining then any on field success, and if he is to turn that ship around, he had better deliver results on the pitch and not sound bites after a match. The signs were always there that things may not be as cosy as he would like the world to believe. Barely had they tasted triumph in Istanbul against Milan and captain Steven Gerrard had handed in a transfer request. After speculation linking him to both free spending Chelsea and Real Madrid, Gerrard withdrew his request, but this perhaps had more to do with the fans reaction to his action, then ay loyalty to his manager.

While Rafa may point to his success in Spain with Valencia as his proof that his rotation system works, the form of Liverpool suggests he is wrong. While it is true that Liverpool have not been challengers for League honours for the last 17 years, and not just under Benitez, it is also true that they have never had as strong a squad as they do now during that period. While a good start had many on Mersyside hoping that their time had finally come, the last few weeks have brought them back down to reality. Had it not been for Fernando Torres Liverpool would be languishing in mid table. And that is where the pain shows. It has always been said that Liverpool are a one man team, relying to much on Steven Gerrard to win them games, and without him they would be a mediocre team. Now with Torres up front and Gerrard in midfield they have two match winners. Yet Gerrards form has been patchy and inconsistent, like Lampard at Chelsea, he has not been the driving force that has forced Liverpool forward, and whether this has to do with tiredness, injury or just bad form, Liverpool have been paying the price.

So when you have one player capable of winning you games on his own, as Torres has had to do, what do you do with him? You surely play him in every league game and Champions League match he is fit for, and leave him out in the Carling Cup, right? Wrong. Benitez rotation system has seen Torres playing almost every other game, and bizarrely featuring in the Carling Cup, when Benitez has moaned that he is in need of a rest. Torres scored a Carling Cup hat trick against Reading, but surely a winner against Spurs or Birmingham would have been greater reward?

In 153 matches Rafa has sent the same team out once. His changes have not been one or two here but rather five or six, changes to half the team, so that it is a completely different team that takes the pitch match after match. This type of inconsistent team selection has been his failure in a league that demands the best 11 take the field whenever possible. Consistency is the key to long term success in the league. Form is fickle, but needs game time to be sustained, so while he may have a form player, like Torres, banging in the goals, he must be picked again and again so that the team can benifit from his rich form. With all the shopping and changing at Liverpool form can not be sustained, in individuals and in the team.

Team is the key word that Rafa’s broken English seems to be battling with. His players are in one week out the next, playing in one position this match and another that match, that a true team spirit and team roles can not be formulated. Kolo Toure knows that when he plays the ball out of defense Cesc Fabregas will be the first person he sees calling for a pass, Paul Scholes knows that when he sprays a pass down the right Christiano Ronaldo will be waiting for it. The only thing a Liverpool player knows is that Pepe Reina should always be behind him. They seem like virtual strangers sometimes on the pitch, not knowing who’s going to make what run or who’s going to be at the end of a cross. This hurts the new players the most, as they are not given the help needed in settling and adapting to a difficult league, particularly when they come from weaker leagues. What this all means is that it takes individual brilliance from a Torres or Gerrard to win games, and this can;t happen every week.

Unless Rafa delivers the Premiership title this season, it may be time for Liverpools board to start looking for someone knew, someone who does tinker as much, a consistent manager for a consistent league. Rafa’s number may soon be up.


The Storm Is Coming

08/10/2007

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Manchester United have been threatening the type of scoring display that Wigan were subjected to on Saturday all season, and finally on an early afternoon at Old Trafford the clouds broke and United obliged.

While many of been relating United’s recent run to that of George Grahams Arsenal, 1-0 to the Arsenal, in truth it was only a matter of time till the attacking flair of United saw the goals breached in regularity, and although Wigan were Saturdays victims,it could have been anyone, such was United’s growing frustration. In the 3 games United have failed to win, the 0-0 opening day draw with Reading, the 1-1 draw with Portsmouth and the 1-0 defeat to neighbours Manchester City (this does not include the 2-0 loss to Coventry in the Carling Cup, but rather United’s first team games) United have been far an away the dominant team but had been unable to turn possession and chances into goals. Since then they have won 8 in a row, 6 in the League and 2 in the Champions League, and 6 of those wins have been 1-0, with only the 2-0 victory of Chelsea and Saturdays match bucking the trend.

There are many reasons why United have taken so long to warm up, from new faces, injuries, suspensions, and tiredness (Tevez missed out on a lose season break after a gruelling Copa America with Argentina) but the important thing was that while they struggled, to score rather than to get results, they have managed to stay in contention, and lay just adrift of Arsenal, and have 2 wins from 2 in the Champions League.

In the last few games things have started to come together nicely for United, Wayne Rooney got off the mark against Roma on Wednesday and followed that up with a goal on Saturday, Tevez netted his second of the season against Wigan, and Ronaldo is back amongst the goals. Add to that Andersons fine display against Wigan and it seems that United are building to go on a run that could see a return to the free scoring form of last season. With an international break of 2 weeks that will give United’s injured players time off and the likes of Scholes and Giggs some well deserved rest, Aston Villa must be waiting with more than a hint of trepidation.

United were always likely to be a goal scoring machine this season, having added Tevez, Nani, and Anderson to an already formidable attacking unit, and Hargreaves to protect the flair players, but it has taken them longer then they would have liked, and certainly longer than the public expected, to find their scoring boots. However now that the way to goal has been rediscovered, and certainly when their injury list shortens, United promise to deliver on the type of entertaining, free scoring football that used to be their bread and water, and meet the expectations of their fans and followers of the beautiful game, the way it was meant to be played.

With only a few weeks till United meet Arsenal, the standard bearers of entertaining, goal scoring football, this season, United may be running into form at just the right time to give the world a game that could be the best advert for the sport around the globe – two of the games most entertaining teams battling out a top of the table clash and promising goals. A mouth watering prospect for all.


Thierry Who?

07/10/2007

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Arsenal produced a opening 20 minute spell against Sunderland that suggested a goal glut was in the offering. They took a 2-0 lead, and, but for a bad call from the linesman, would have been 3-0 up in no time. That they let the lead slip and were pegged back by Roy Keanes enthusiastic and determined players, who brilliantly clawed themselves back to 2-2 before letting Arsenal grab the expected win with a late van Persie strike, should be marked down as a positive for Sunderland, rather than a short coming for the Gunners. Arsenal, who racked up their 10th straight victory in all competitions, and are yet to be beaten, are playing a brand of football that sets them apart from the rest – and all this without one Thierry Henry, arguably Arsenals best ever player.

The flowing, attacking, almost care free style of Arsenals football is almost reminiscent of kids on the street, kids who know that they are better then most. Yet their free scoring approach should not be misunderstood as arrogance, but rather commended as expression, as they play in a way that any team in the world hopes to, entertaining, and fruitful – they are winning. They are playing the sort of football that would probably make Roman Abramovich wish he could buy at Chelsea, yet unlike their London rivals Arsenal didn’t buy this form, but rather had to sell.

Arsenal are long removed from the boring ,boring Arsenal of George Grahams tenure, where 1-0 to the Arsenal was the desired result, and have been over the last few seasons famed for their beautiful football style of play. A style that had at his apex Thierry Henry. The Frenchman was everything good about Arsenal, flair, panache, creativity, and beautiful goals. No doubt the young Gunners Arsene Wenger was bringing through learned a lot from their leader, both in a match and on the training ground. However there was often no  end result to Arsenals attractive play, and the last two seasons saw them scrapping for 4th position, and the last Champions League place, rather then fighting for the title. So when, in the close season, Thierry Henry finally packed his bag and headed off to Barcelona, many were suggesting that Arsenals struggles had just begun. How foolish they must feel now. If anything, after a decade in English football, Arsene Wenger has proved that he is no fool. While many have seen their last two seasons as a struggle, Wenger would have seen it as a necessity. While the term “transition” has been branded about to describe a team struggling, often used as an excuse for their lack of results, the term was apt in the case of Wengers Arsenal. The last few seasons, after the unbeaten season, have been a transitional period for the Gunners, a period that has seen the finest group of youngsters introduced and embedded in a team since the introduction of Giggs, Beckham, Scholes and the Nevilles at Manchester United in the 1990’s. Cesc Fabregas, Arsenals heart and soul, leading from the midfield, and no doubt future captain, is 20 years old and has already made over 113 starts for Arsenal. Without those transitional years, first under Patrick Vieria and then Henry, Fabregas would just be a promising midfielder trying to make his way in the first team. Instead he is now, at the tender age of 20, one of the best midfielders in the world. He has already managed 4 league goals in 8 games this season, compare that to 7 in the last 3 years, and the development is clearly seen. He needed to add goals to his game if he was to become the midfield boss capable of leading this young team, and he has done that.

In Robin van Persie, Arsenal have a player with all the attributes to be better than Henry, provided he can stay clear of injury. He superb finisher and striker of the ball with both feet, deadly from dead balls, quick feet, the ability to beat players at will, and to link play or be the focal point, ven Persie is the real deal, and while Fabregas has rightly been claiming all the headlines this season, it is with van Persie that Arsenals titles aspirations, both domestically and in Europe, are pinned.

Sir Alex Ferguson commented shortly after Henry left, that he felt that Arsenal were a better team without Henry, while at the same time not diminishing the achievements or role of Henry, Arsenals record goal scorer, has had over the years, but rather suggesting that this team, this young Arsenal squad, needed more responsibility, and not a dependence on Henry. Without Henry they have flown, and risen above all expectation, and surprised many. Arsene Wenger, no doubt, has not been surprised, but rather pleased that his plan has blossomed and matured into the type of team that is leading the way in attractive football, a style that only Manchester United and Barcelona can join them in, and one that both Chelsea and Liverpool have failed to emulate.

Whether or not the young Gunners can sustain this form is not for the here or now to judge, but rather for us to sit back and enjoy.