As we sit and talk by the side of the Emirates pitch, Tomas Rosicky spots Freddie Ljungberg – a guest at the club’s members’ day – and jumps up to greet him. “Freddie, I am the only one here who remembers you!” he announces to his former team-mate, a joke that is a nod towards Rosicky’s seniority at Arsenal these days.
Rosicky is the third longest-serving first-team player behind Abou Diaby and Theo Walcott, who arrived just months earlier, and, at 33, he is the oldest member of Arsène Wenger’s squad. He arrived in 2006, one year after what was their last trophy until this May’s FA Cup triumph. Rosicky has been there through the lean years. He has had injury problems of his own – “a bumpy road” is what he calls it – but he is hopeful that the way ahead will be smoother.
Starting with tomorrow’s Community Shield game against Manchester City, he will face the usual battle for first-team football in a squad strengthened over the summer to the tune of £60m. Nevertheless, the Czech Republic international has always been a favourite of Wenger and played his fair share of games. It was not an act of charity that Wenger awarded Rosicky a new contract in January that takes him to the end of next season.
Possible Arsenal starting XI for the Community Shield v Manchester City
Possible Arsenal starting XI for the Community Shield v Manchester City
1/9 Mathieu Debuchy
Debuchy arrived as the replacement for the departed-Bacary Sagna, who joined Manchester City on a free transfer at the end of the season. Despite being favoured by France coach Didier Deschamps at the World Cup, many Arsenal fans felt Sagna enjoyed one of his best season’s before his exit, and Debuchy will have a lot to live up to if he is to justify his £12m move to the Gunners.
2/9 Calum Chambers
Despite signing for the club this summer, Chambers looks set to start the Community Shield given that Per Mertesacker is yet to return to the club. The 19-year-old impressed during the Emirates Cup, but the Premier League champions will pose a major threat to the young English talent.
3/9 Laurent Koscielny
The Frenchman formed a consistent partnership with Mertesacker last season, but his ability to play alongside Vermaelen still remains in the balance are a string of less than convincing showings over the past two years. Nevertheless, he has developed in to one of the key players among the current Arsenal squad, and has shown an eye for a goal when he is allowed to get in the box at set-pieces.
4/9 Kieran Gibbs
Gibbs overcame a number of long-term injuries to solidify his place as Arsenal’s first-choice left-back, seeing off the challenge of first Andre Santos and now Nacho Monreal. Hopwever, he is yet to reach the performances of his predecessors Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy, although at 24 years old he still has time to nurture his talent and rival Luke Shaw for the England left-back berth in the years to come. He brings a calmness to the Arsenal left flank, which tends to look rather exposed when he is absent.
5/9 Jack Wilshere
Arsenal’s golden boy has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons this summer, and he faces a potentially career defining season ahead of him that could determine his Arsenal future. With Aaron Ramsey enjoying his best season to date last year that saw him win the club’s player of the season award, Wilshere needs to push on or face being replaced in the first team. A number of injuries have not helped his cause, but a good start to the season could really help him cement his place for both club and country.
6/9 Alexis Sanchez
Much like Özil, a lot will be expected to come from Sanchez on the basis that the Gunners shelled out – by their standards – a significant fee to sign him from Barcelona. Sanchez is blessed with speed and his natural instincts in front of goal should help him settle quicker than Özil, but he will be judged on his number of goals. Wenger could look to start him through the middle, although the absence of the injured Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s recovery from injury is likely to see Sanchez start his Arsenal career on the right wing.
7/9 Aaron Ramsey
The Gunners will be hopeful that Ramsey can maintain his level of performance from last season after appearing to overcome the thigh injury that kept him out for nearly four months last term. The Welshman was a prominent figure in the Gunners title challenge, and there is no reason why they can’t win further silverware next season with a fit Ramsey in the side. The confidence he should gain from scoring the winning goal in an FA Cup final should see him push on even further.
8/9 Santi Cazorla
The Spanish magician is a wanted man with interest coming from La Liga champions Atletico Madrid, but Arsenal fans will not want him to leave after showing moments of genius since arriving at the Emirates. He has the tendency to blow hot or cold, as he tends to go missing when he’s not at his best, but his best is a joy to watch. Faces a much bigger fight to keep his place this season following the arrival of Sanchez which could see the attacking midfield trio rejigged to accommodate the Chile star.
9/9 Olivier Giroud
Despite calls for him to be replaced – or at least given support – Giroud is likely to continue as Arsenal’s lead striker, at least until the return to fitness of Walcott. Sanchez could take his place through the middle should he start the season slowly, but after showing more last season than he did in his first year with the club, there is an expectation that Giroud can push on further. If he can cut out his habit to miss clear-cut opportunities time and again, he could well contest the league’s top scorer award.
Rosicky is talking to The Independent to coincide with Arsenal’s involvement with the charity Friendship Works, an organisation that seeks to pair children who are experiencing problems at home and socially with adult mentors who provide them with days out. Arsenal have chosen the charity as the recipients of their £25,000 Community Shield donation. Rosicky listens with interest to one teenager reflect on how his days out with a mentor have helped his performance at school.
It takes him back to his own childhood with his parents Jiri, a former professional footballer, and Eva, a top Czech table-tennis player. Rosicky was nine-years-old when Czechoslovakia went through the “velvet revolution” and it strikes a chord with him when I point out that he is one of the last top footballers who can say they spent some of their developmental years in Communist eastern Europe. His parents were devoted to the lives of Tomas and his older brother, also Jiri.
His father won a couple of caps for Czechoslovakia and played his whole career at Sparta Prague and Bohemia Prague, restricted from playing for a foreign side by the Czech state’s rules. During an away tie with Sparta in Switzerland, Jiri senior was offered a chance to seek asylum and play professionally there, Tomas recalls, but turned it down on the basis that he did not know whether his family would be able to follow him.
“In those days [in Prague] when you wanted to buy fruit, man, there was a long queue,” Rosicky says. “Sometimes I got an apple, sometimes I got a banana. Things you take for granted now. When it [the revolution] happened you got more. It didn’t happen overnight but suddenly our parents could get us more stuff like that. My mother was always looking at us getting vitamins and it was not always possible. Whatever they got they gave just to us.”
It is eight years now since Arsenal paid a relatively modest £7m to Borussia Dortmund for Rosicky, and he has proved a very useful, popular acquisition. He has suffered two serious injuries along the way. One, a tendon problem, caused him to miss 18 months, including the entire 2008-2009 season. Rosicky had never wanted to leave, however, and the faith Wenger has shown in him is something that he feels keenly.
He is the first player I can recall who has brought up the subject of his own club’s financial model, this time in response to a question about whether he senses a different kind of mood around Arsenal, a decade since their last Premier League title. “I cannot say I sense something really different. Arsenal for me is a massive name in the whole world. Even when there were rough periods the Arsenal name was up there with everyone.
“The road was bumpy for whatever reason but you can see now the club is stabilised. It doesn’t have to look to someone from whatever country who owns them. It’s a very clean club. It can compete from its own resources with everyone else.”
With Wenger, Financial Fair Play is a weekly preoccupation. Is it the same for his players? “I don’t think the players look at it that way,” Rosicky says. “You see what is going on behind you. I have been here since 2006. This is my ninth year. I always had everything that I wanted here. Even in the difficult times.
“It is a big club with big ambition and for me it was always worth fighting for it. That’s why I have been here so long. Was I happy that we didn’t win for so long? Of course I wasn’t. I just wanted to stick around and fight for it. This is a club that is worth fighting for.”
Part of that comes from the way that Rosicky was treated by Wenger over his injuries, in 2008 and then again when he came back injured from Euro 2012. “I always wanted to come here because I always liked the type of football that Arsenal and Arsène Wenger wanted to play. When I was in Dortmund I was looking at it that I would like to play for Arsenal because of the philosophy of the club.
“When my injury happened it was 18 months I didn’t play and they stuck with me. I am a person who does not forget how I am treated when something goes wrong. That is something which plays a big part in it. I want to pay everything back that I can.”
His high point last season was his goal against Tottenham that gave Arsenal a 1-0 win over their local rivals in March. He was also in the side for the 6-0 thumping at Stamford Bridge and a second half substitute in the 5-1 defeat to Liverpool. For all the bounce that the signings of Alexis Sanchez, Mathieu Debuchy, Calum Chambers and David Ospina has given the club, it still does not feel that Arsenal have addressed their tendency to collapse. Or at least the way big teams have been able to expose Arsenal’s soft centre.
Rosicky concedes that there are concerns. “The aggression from Liverpool in that game was too much for us. We couldn’t cope with that. In the Chelsea game it was a bit different. We had the best chance of the game [early on]. We missed our chance, straight after they had a chance they scored and a second one. They had two chances and two immediate goals.
“That is what we have to improve as well. Maybe the influence of Sanchez can help in this department. In these kind of games you cannot expect to get two or three chances for a goal. You get one chance and that is it. That is what Chelsea do very well in the big games in particular. There is a place for improvement in this department. Sometimes it is right what you are saying, sometimes not really. Sometimes we are overrun but I don’t agree with that completely.”
Against City tomorrow, Arsenal face the fifth of their number who has decamped to the Etihad since the Abu Dhabi revolution. This time it is Bacary Sagna, a free agent last month who took up the offer from City. “It is not particularly that he left to Manchester City,” Rosicky says. “First of all we didn’t want him to leave because he’s a great defender. A natural defender.
“No one was really looking where he was going. It was more the point that he was leaving. Everyone approaches their career differently. Some are looking for money, some are looking just for the football side. Every player sees it different and everyone has the right to choose what they want.”
As for Rosicky himself, he will be part of the Czech team that has the Netherlands and Turkey in their Euro 2016 qualification group and has no plans to retire just yet. He is six caps short of his century and the third in the Czech Republic’s all-time list behind Karel Poborsky (118) and Petr Cech on 107. Rosicky admits that it became more important for him now to reach 100 as the years passed since he made his international debut at 19. And now, more than ever he has the challenge to keep his place with Arsenal.
“When the boss bought me. He told me, ‘Yes, I have you in this position, and I also have [Cesc] Fabregas, [Jose Antonio] Reyes, Ljungberg. Now, the names are different but the situation is the same. This is a big club and there always will be great players you must fight for a place. You know there will be good players and competition and I like that very much because it pushed you every day and you cannot take a week off in training.”
And can this Arsenal team of 2014 win the title? “Last season we were there [top] for a big period of time. We didn’t make it to the end. We had troubles at the end. We showed last season we are there and now we have some great new players. I think we will be up there at least. It’s our goal to win it.”
Arsenal football club is donating its £25,000 from the FA Community Shield to Friendship Works, that improves the childhood and ultimately life chances of children living in Islington and Camden through mentoring. To donate or for more information on volunteering as a mentor, visit: www.friendshipworks.org.uk
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