Arsene Wenger will take his Arsenal squad out to a 10-day training camp in Austria tomorrow insisting the hard work starts now as he looks to mould them into a team capable of winning a first Barclays Premier League title since 2004.
The Gunners boss ran the rule over summer signings Laurent Koscielny and Marouane Chamakh during yesterday’s opening pre-season friendly at npower League Two outfit Barnet, where youngster Jay Simpson netted a double in a 4-0 win.
Wenger changed his entire line-up at half-time, and used three goalkeepers, although Manuel Almunia – whose position as Arsenal number one is by no means secure – was not available because of illness.
It was a welcome change for the Arsenal manager to get back to football following a summer of continued speculation over the future of captain Cesc Fabregas, which Wenger maintains must now stop.
While Fabregas, who has five years of his contract left to run, and fellow World Cup finalist Robin van Persie will not be asked to return until the Emirates Cup begins on July 31, the rest of the Arsenal players who were out in South Africa will join up in Austria, where warm-up matches have been arranged against Sturm Graz and SC Neusiedl.
Arsenal will then tackle AC Milan and Celtic in the Emirates Cup, before their final friendly away to Legia Warsaw on August 7 ahead of the trip to Liverpool for their Barclays Premier League opener.
Last season, the Gunners once again failed to sustain a title challenge as Wenger’s young side could not produce mature performances when it really mattered to keep pace with Chelsea and Manchester United.
Wenger, whose contract runs out in the summer of 2011, is determined this time, things will be different.
“We finished third last season, so we of course try to improve,” said the Gunners boss, whose ’Invincibles’ team went through the entire 2003/2004 season unbeaten the last time they finished top.
“Manchester City have now joined in on the big targets, so it will be hard.”
Wenger continued: “We have six players coming back to join us on Monday when we go to Austria, and then the hard work starts.
“We have some tougher challenges coming up, especially in the Emirates Cup, so those games will give the new signings an opportunity to adapt, but we have to give them some time.”
Theo Walcott was back in action yesterday, having been a controversial omission from Fabio Capello’s England squad which under performed at the World Cup.
Wenger believes the 21-year-old “looks sharp”, and feels Walcott will emerge a better player from the experience.
“Theo is committed in training and he has always shown that when he is in trouble or not rated as much as he should be, he responds well on the pitch,” said the Frenchman.
“I called him when he was not picked, and tried to help him focus on the future.
“He is a young boy and has it all in front of him.”
Wenger will look to further strengthen his squad before the new campaign, but appears to have cooled his interest in Fulham’s Australia international keeper Mark Schwarzer.
While both William Gallas and Mikael Silvestre are expected to move elsewhere after their contracts came to an end, veteran Sol Campbell could yet take up the offer of a one-season deal.
Free agent Joe Cole, the England midfielder also attracting interest from Liverpool, and Udinese centre-half Cristian Zapata are reported targets.
Wenger, though, maintains with the new Premier League squad quota of just 25 players, with eight having to qualify as ’home-grown’, he could be forced to move people on.
“We have to respect this rule, so with players coming in, that means players going out at well,” he said.
“I am not too much for rules, I believe what is important is the quality.
“The Premier League is the most watched league in the world, and you only get that if you focus on quality more than on artificial rules.
“I do not believe the fact that England did not win the World Cup is linked with that.”