It is easy to get carried away by the stylish way in which Arsenal have started the season, evoking memories of Arsene Wenger’s teams of the early 2000s, but the signs are there that this team might be his best team since that period. Certainly there seems to be more depth in the squad than the 2007/08 side (or even 2010/11 side which showed fleeting promise), and on top of that, the same type of toughness which saw The Gunners reach the Champions League Final in 2006. But of course, the main draw about Arsenal has always been about the way they play and currently, it’s been a delight to watch.
The arrival of Mesut Ozil has given Arsenal a massive lift, providing them with not only a magnificent player, but also instilling them with a self-belief that before recently, could be very quick to unravel. Now, they are playing with a mixture of joy and ruthlessness that can be both intoxicating and devastating.
Arsenal’s first goal in their 4-1 win over Norwich City on Saturday encapsulated their new-found confidence, a nine-pass move which was as audacious as it was enthralling, and as quick as a flash, it was in the back of the net as Jack Wilshere guided the ball in. Of course, the joy with Arsenal is how the ball gets there; how A gets to B by getting off at stops C, D E and Z in the process. This goal can viably go down as one of Wenger’s best, though his words at the end were tinged with realism as well as elation. “It was certainly one of the best [Arsenal] goals,” he said. “One that I enjoyed the most as well because it was a team goal. It had combinations and the speed which you always like your team to play with – unfortunately it doesn’t happen always.”
The goal started seemingly innocuously – but you think that at your peril because Arsenal burst to life when they win the ball back at the edge of their own box. And so they did when Mathieu Flamini intercepted Jonny Howson’s pass. Wenger’s men moved forward with the ball and when Santi Cazorla fed Olivier Giroud, he and Wilshere performed a pair of improvised one-twos – not simple side-foot passes, but flicks with the outside of the boot and heel, before Wilshere finished first-time into the bottom corner. It was natural that some Arsenal fans got carried away after that; that type of telepathy, accuracy and instinct develops over time, and it seems Arsenal are developing rapidly as a team.
Of course, The Gunners will face a different type of test on Tuesday against Dortmund, because they will press Arsenal, leaving little margin for error for their quick passing game. Yet on the other hand, Norwich are the type of opponents Arsenal can have trouble breaking down – as they did against West Bromwich Albion – but they were able to find solutions, another gear, when it seemed impossible.
For a period after the first goal, Arsenal became a little bit sloppy, although that drop in intensity might be more down to the injury suffered by Flamini whose guided hustle brings a sort of filibustering quality to the side. However, dropping deeper might also have been a natural reaction to taking the lead as Arsenal dedicated more focus in protecting the lead. Nevertheless, they’re still a major threat even in front of their own box as goals two and four also came from fast breaks.
The speed at which Arsenal get up the pitch poses another problem for opponents as they’ll now have to revise how much ambition – or cautiousness – they show against Arsenal. When Arsenal scored their second, Norwich had committed both full-backs forward and that allowed Giroud to cross from the right to the onrushing Ozil. Similarly, a cross helped set up Arsenal’s fourth, this time breaking from the left, and Ramsey cushioning the ball down for Ozil to score again. In between, Aaron Ramsey showed what a complete midfielder he has become when he jinxed past three Norwich defenders before scoring.
Ramsey didn’t start the game due to a hectic early season schedule where he has featured in every Arsenal game and every minute for Wales. In his place came Cazorla to continue Arsenal’s theme of playing without wingers due to Theo Walcott’s absence. Instead, emphasis is placed on a one-touch passing game which heavily revolves around Arsenal’s front two. Ozil is more Dennis Bergkamp in his style, always looking for space, eliminating defenders with his first-touch and playing the perfect pass.
Giroud is not that much different in that his lay-offs require the minimum amount of touches and he’s constantly looking to take the marking defender out of the game with a quick pass. He starts off high up the pitch before quickly peeling off the marker who doesn’t quite know whether to stand off and get tight. For the first goal, the interchange between Giroud and Wilshere is bewildering yet watch Sebastian Bassong’s head dart left and right, unable to keep up with the interplay. He initially starts tight on Giroud but as the play gets nearer, drops off him but by then, Wilshere has already received the first pass and is free to receive the second.
This is generally how Arsenal have used Giroud in his time at the club. His play back-to-goal has improved immensely, as has his running with the ball, but mainly he’s been used as a target-man pivot to bounce passes off. Last season, Arsene Wenger was willing to overlook his deficiencies in front of goal because he made Arsenal play: thankfully, with 6 goals and 4 assists, he’s doing both now.
If Ozil has been likened to Bergkamp recently, then Giroud is like the wall in Amsterdam he used to practice bouncing passes off, kicking the ball and watching it come back. And it comes back perfect.