Capital gains

Early days, I know, but could it be that we are seeing the signs of a north to south shift in the Premier League balance of power? And could it be that Arsene Wenger, in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement now the grand old man of English football management, is presiding over the second coming of his beloved Arsenal, the club he has managed for 17 years and led to three league titles, four FA Cups and 16 consecutive qualifications for the Champions League. As I ponder the latest set of results – and performances – that is the inevitable conclusion, as Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea occupy the top three places, with Manchester City slipping out of the top four – and Manchester United nowhere, the two northern giants having lost two and three times respectively.

You won’t find many football people who don’t admire the way Wenger’s teams play, irrespective of the fact that Arsenal have gone eight years since winning a major trophy. Regular readers of this column know that I am a confirmed fan, a long-time admirer, of the Gunners teams Wenger has produced. And the current side is shaping up to become a team that not only plays fabulous football but, also, one which has the capability to take silverware to The Emirates. After all of the close-season concerns about lack of transfer activity, and the premature furore that followed the first-day home defeat to Aston Villa, Arsenal have emerged as the stand-out team in the Premier League, executing their impressive, short-passing game with equal ease at home or away. Wenger produced a master-stroke when he signed Ozil from Real Madrid on transfer deadline day, having already secured the return of Flamini. These quality players were added to the midfield ranks that also include Wilshere, Cazorla, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, the rejuvenated Ramsey and Arteta. What variety. So many options. Only big-spending Manchester City have such strength in depth in midfield, but they compounded their away defeat to promoted Cardiff by losing yesterday at Villa. Such inconsistency – City had thrashed derby rivals United and, then, Wigan in the Capital One Cup, last week – must be addressed if their immense potential is to be realised.

United gave manager David Moyes more cause for concern by losing to West Brom at fortress Old Trafford, where the normally impregnable walls were torn down amidst a shambolic defensive display. Moyes is a cool, determined customer who will remain calm and address his problems on the training pitch. Worryingly, though, United already appear to be patching up, trying to plug holes. I’ll say it again, the problems that were bubbling under the surface last season are popping up and giving Moyes a lot to consider. The stark fact is that he needs striker Robin Van Persie back to give him an extra goals threat and to complement Wayne Rooney, who is playing out of his skin. With such an alarming shortage of midfield creativity, Rooney looks the one player capable of making something happen. And happen it must if the title United won last season is not to slip from their grasp early in the race, for it is statistically proven that the big prize rarely is won by a team that has lost six matches. Ferguson, who amassed 13 titles, always stressed that five defeats was the limit if you had Championship aspirations. Three down and two to go – and only six games played!

Spurs and Chelsea fought a 1-1 draw at lunchtime, with Arsenal winning at Swansea in the evening kick-off, results that leave the three London clubs setting the pace and leaving the two Manchester big-hitters floundering a little. How heart-warming to see Southampton, currently sporting the most successul Academy in the top flight, sitting in fourth place. They also play a passing game that is easy on the eye.  A nod in the direction, too, of Steve Bruce, whose promoted – and unfancied – Hull City have had a wonderful start, creeping into seventh place yesterday. We now look forward to an intriguing Monday night clash of contrasting styles when unbeaten Everton, who play possession football under Roberto Martinez, entertain Newcastle, who hit more long balls last season than any other team. It should be fascinating.




Last day drama

The Premier League title race was decided weeks ago by Manchester United and Wigan, Reading and QPR are confirmed as the three relegated clubs – but, thankfully, we still have drama to savour in tomorrow’s fixture finale. Tottenham are hoping to pip Arsenal to fourth place and, therefore, qualification for the Champions League play-off place, while the Gunners are also involved in a race for third place with Chelsea. And that particular battle could result in a tension-filled play-off at Villa Park on May 26.

That scenario would occur if Chelsea were to draw at home to Everton 0-0 and Arsenal were to win at Newcastle 2-1, leaving both London clubs level on points, goal difference and goals scored. At least, that’s as I understand the complicated situation! The third-placed club would go into the Champions League at the Group stage, while fourth place means the qualifying competition. Mark my words, it won’t be easy for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. While I expect Arsenal to at least draw at Newcastle,  who are safe from relegation and under no great pressure to perform, and Chelsea, fresh from their Europa Cup triumph, are buoyant, I expect my former club Everton to make life very difficult at The Bridge. Look at the facts: Everton, who have lost only one more match than Manchester United, have drawn 15, making them the draw specialists of the division. The Toffees haven’t won at Chelsea since my team did so, 1-0, in my second game in charge in 1994 and I’m sure outgoing manager David Moyes would dearly love to sign off with  a similar result.

For Tottenham, their home clash with Sunderland is a must-win game. And I expect them to do so. Injury-hit Sunderland, who have secured safety by the skin of their teeth, don’t have the firepower to win at White Hart Lane, where they might do well to win a corner-kick! Tottenham, on the other hand, play their biggest match of the season, with Player of the Year (and Young Player of the Year) Gareth Bale primed to sign off his superb season in style. I just feel that it will end in bitter disappointment for Spurs, as I expect Arsenal to beat Newcastle, thus securing fourth place, at least.


Arsenal must pay the price

Arsenal go to Newcastle on Sunday for their final Premier League fixture, when a point will be enough to clinch Champions League qualification – and what a massively important outcome that would be for the Gunners. The word is that manager Arsene Wenger will have up to £70m to spend in the transfer market this summer, provided he maintains his annual success in qualifying for Europe’s top competition. It follows that, if Wenger spends big on top-drawer names, he will also have to pay top wages and that’s something Arsenal haven’t done. At least, not in comparison to the Manchester Uniteds, Manchester Citys and Chelseas of this world. I think that is what the Gunners will have to do if they are to end their recent trophy-less seasons and take on the Big Three.

Arsenal is one of the best-run clubs in the world and, in Wenger, they have a manager who has consistently produced teams that play exciting, fluid football. Wenger’s teams get behind the opposition, get to the byline so often. I often think how happy I would have been to be the centre-forward. If you could put Alan Shearer in to the teams Wenger has produced, he would have smashed every scoring record. The problem has been that Wenger has lost a lot of top class players in recent years, men who have gone to other clubs where they have often doubled their wages. And, because Wenger has been unable to compete in the pay stakes, his replacements have too often not been of similar quality. I am an admirer of Wenger, who goes on producing inspirational – if not always functional – teams, despite this financial handicap and I believe that, if the board backs him with hard cash, Arsenal will be a serious threat next season. Put it this way, if they are serious about trying to lure Wayne Rooney, from Manchester United, they will have to increase their current top pay packet of £100,000 a week to £250,000. Crazy, I know. But that is football at the highest level in the modern era. It will also be interesting to see if Tottenham, who are also knocking on the door for that final Champions League place, reassess their wages policy in a bid to make the step up to the top four.