A little step back
“It must be fun to write the blog at the moment,” someone said to me in the The Tollington on Saturday.
And it is. Sitting top of the league, playing well, smashing Mugsmashers, watching the rejuvenated Aaron Ramsey, the rugged Giroud, the confident Szczesny, and players like Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla bringing that bit of top quality to proceedings is like old times.
When you consider, ahead of a trip to Old Trafford, how things have changed since that fateful 8-2 just a couple of seasons ago, it’s amazing. The team that day was: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Koscielny, Djourou, Traore, Rosicky, Ramsey, Coquelin, Arshavin, Walcott, van Persie. The subs were Oxlade-Chamberlain (making his debut), Marouane Chamakh (brought on when we were 7-2 down), and Henri Lansbury. The other options were Sunu, Ozyakup and Ignasi Miquel.
You look back now and it’s hard to think of it as anything other than rock bottom. It’s always darkest before the dawn, and all that. It prompted a sweep of signings, two of whom, Mertesacker and Arteta, are still invaluable to the team today. Yossi Benayoun made an important contribution to the season he played on loan with us, despite spending the middle part of it overlooked by Arsene, while Andre Santos and Ju Young Park were gambles which just didn’t work.
Since then, we’ve seen Djourou, Traore, Coquelin, Arshavin, Lansbury, Chamakh shipped out. The three unused subs are gone. The Dutch Skunk left in circumstances which were far from ideal but, with hindsight, are probably beneficial to us in the longer term (while still acknowledging our lightness in the striking area). The calibre of player we’ve been signing has improved.
Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud in one summer was a step forward. Their arrivals and performances were, of course, clouded by the van Persie departure and the understandable ill-will that followed it, but all three have improved both the team and the squad. We’re no longer as reliant on Cazorla for final third creativity as we were last season. Podolski’s injury is unfortunate and although it’s hard to look at what many might consider the ‘first’ team and find a place for him in it, he’s exactly the kind of depth a squad needs.]
Our reliance on Giroud has increased and it’s certainly a scary prospect to think of him out of the side, but it’s not as if there hasn’t been an upside either. His confidence and belief is soaring, he knows he’s important to the side, he feels the love, and that has been reflected in his performances. As he told Amy Lawrence at the weekend:
In the first year I felt a little bit of pressure. Maybe sometimes I didn’t play naturally. I didn’t feel relaxed on the pitch when I was ready to try something. It’s complicated to explain. The boss talked a lot with me about my game. He really trusted me. This season I felt really good from the beginning. I built up a lot of confidence.
I’m still a huge proponent of competition for places, others have responded to challenges brilliantly and I think if we realistically want to compete all the way to May we need somebody else to carry some of the striking burden. However, let’s not overlook there’s been something of a silver lining to the lack of strikers cloud.
This summer Mesut Ozil arrived, eventually, showing the club had the ambition to really kick on. I don’t think we’re going to see us spend that amount of money on a regular basis, but while it’s nice to go large it’s not always necessary. Flamini’s return has been a surprising success. The component parts have been put together, the club went through a summer without losing anyone vital for the first time in a long time, and that’s showing both in how we play and where we are in table. We’ve lost just once in our last 20 league games.
There have been some blips, for sure. The cup exits last season were pitiful and I still think, despite how it ended, the summer saw us skating on some very thin ice for a while. A wrong turn somewhere along the way and it might have cracked in a big way, but on the whole things are a lot, lot better than they were.
And I also think that sometimes, when the prevailing culture of analysis is built around failure and looking at what went wrong, that we forget to look at the things that have gone right. Aaron Ramsey, for example. Last December the club handed him a new, long-term contract at a time when he was struggling for form and, it’s fair to say, had a proportion of the support well and truly on his back.
Questions were asked about the wisdom of giving him the new deal, but what did it say to him other than the manager and the club had faith in him? Faith in his talent and potential. His response was to become an important part of our end of season charge and a vital cog in this well-oiled Arsenal 2013-14 machine. The player rightly gets huge credit for his performances and development, but so too should the decision to back him with a new deal. We’ve been critical of players receiving contracts they didn’t merit from a football or financial point of view, so it’s worth recognising the flip side.
The loss to Chelsea provoked anger, as any loss usually does, but for me some of it went over the top. I saw people on Twitter, before the game, saying the manager should be sacked for his team selection. It hadn’t even kicked off. And I think that because good performances and good results don’t exactly make for lengthy debate and discussion, some people miss the drama that comes with defeat. So much so they embrace it far more than they should.
Even some of the good things (Flamini) were presented in such a way that other good things had to be dismissed (Arteta). The Frenchman was something new (ish) and different, and really enjoyable to watch, but it didn’t mean Arteta was consigned to the rubbish heap (on that note something I wrote for ESPN about the Spaniard).
I know I’ve talked about silver linings, but there’s no need to always go seeking out the cloud too. All of which comes back to my original point about how it must be nice to write about the Arsenal these days. And it is. But it’s more difficult.
And I really hope it stays that way.