Arsenal fans are, I think, still a touch cautious about venerating the team’s chances in the title race. This is understandable of course. Fingers have been burned, fibulas broken and dreams shattered at the business end of the season a few times since we last held silverware aloft. (How long ago was that? Nobody ever seems to mention it). However there comes a point when we’re no longer considered a team on “a good run of form” and we are simply considered a very good team.
Arsenal’s improvement since early March has been consistent and it’s still accelerating. I’m as bruised by the recent past as the rest of you, I too am reluctant to clamber to my rooftop and declare that the milky bars are on me. But it feels like there’s a very pleasing chemistry fomenting in this team. It feels like we’re at the beginning of something. Arsenal have become a more tactically savvy outfit since March, however, I think there are several intangible reasons that ‘there’s something in the air’ as Thunderclap Newman termed it.
At this year’s AGM, Wenger described his younger players, such as Ramsey, Gibbs, Wilshere and Szczesny as “the personality” of his team. Jack has had his fitness battles, but Ramsey, Szczesny and Gibbs have come through the teething troubles one expects with young players. The fact that Gibbs took a knock against Liverpool and didn’t break into tiny pieces suggests a physical maturity is emerging in him too. All three are reaching the benchmark for experience required to assert consistency and good judgement over situations. They’re at an age where in game intelligence is becoming a reflex. They’re all hitting that upward curve simultaneously.
As the purse strings have gradually loosened since the stadium project, Wenger has been able to buy a more experienced level of performer. Where once our squad suffered for its callowness, players such as Arteta and Mertesacker supplement the team, alongside wily characters such as Sagna and Rosicky. There’s a little but more nous there and there’s a more pleasing level of character. Blogs made a point earlier in the week about Arsenal’s starting line up at Old Trafford in 2011 and the difference in the level of quality compared to now.
This was our starting line up when we lost to Stoke in November 2008: Almunia, Sagna (went off injured), Toure, Silvestre, Clichy, Denilson, Fabregas, Song, Diaby, Adebayor, Bendtner. Subs were: Fabianski, Nasri, van Persie (who was sent off), Vela, Ramsey and Djourou. Now, there’s some quality in that squad. However it’s a team short on the sort of personality that you’d back to go to war for their teammates. Indeed we totally wilted under the lights at Stoke that day. It feels different now.
We have players like Koscielny and Giroud who, though a little older than Szczesny, Ramsey, Gibbs et al, are finding their feet in the Premier League and are blossoming into important players. Now we’re able to add players such as Cazorla and Ozil to this bubbling froth. It feels like everybody is on an upward trajectory at the same time and that atmosphere is beginning to radiate into the stands as well. I found some games poisonous to be at at times over the last 2 years, but even after defeats to Dortmund and Chelsea, I haven’t felt that acerbic streak home or away. The waspishness has evaporated.
In many senses I find it frustrating that the wider public attribute this season’s up turn solely to the arrival of Özil. Arsenal have been on an upward curve since before he arrived. However, I think that he has really liberated his teammates. Özil is often double and triple marked by opponents, but he knows that and he’s incredibly smart about exploiting that situation. He willingly draws 2 or 3 players to him, which frees his teammates up. He’s like a lava lamp for the opposition, especially when he drifts towards the touchline, attracting a swarm of slack jawed defenders, like moths drawn to a flame.
Ramsey’s goal against Liverpool was the perfect example of this. Three Liverpool players drifted towards Özil, he waited for them to arrive and left a giant chasm for Ramsey to run into. I think Ramsey has scored so many goals this year because he is beginning to appreciate how to find space (a friend of mine compared him favourably to Bryan Robson in his pomp), but Ozil’s appreciation of space is incomparable and Ramsey is benefiting from that. Özil plays in his own timezone. Often you’ll think he has underwhelmed in a game until you go back and watch the highlights again.
So what of Arsenal’s chances for success this season? A lot will depend on extraneous circumstances. Firstly, as with most teams, on the health of key players. Last season, Manchester City lost Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany for significant periods and it reduced their title defence a limp surrender. There is much anxiety over the continued fitness of Olivier Giroud given the paucity of our striking options. I think it’s just as important that we keep our first choice centre halves healthy.
Arsenal have kept clean sheets against Liverpool, Spurs, Napoli and Borussia Dortmund this season. Sturridge, Suarez, Coutinho, Higuain, Lewandowski, Reus and that guy that takes penalties for Spurs have all been foiled in games by Arsenal’s improving defence. Centre-halves should always be judged as partnerships and ours is crucial to our prospects this season. The back 5 has been pretty stable all season and it shows.
Once knockout competitions begin to emerge on the horizon, then our progress will be tested to the utmost. Arsenal’s improvement started when they went out of the F.A. Cup and the Champions League last season. Can we cope if, come March, we’re still in the F.A. Cup, the Champions League and the title race? Especially if we’re carrying injuries. Mind you, we’ve hardly been blessed on the injury front this season so far.
Arsenal’s current tactic is to sit off, keep our shape and make ourselves difficult to play through, before sucker punching teams with short spells of devastating attack. Much of this is achieved on the counter attack and you can see how important the first goal is to this Arsenal side. We’ve only come from behind to win games twice in 2013 (West Ham in January and Norwich in April). Though in fairness, we haven’t gone behind many times in that period.
Our game plan can be thrown off when we concede first and teams can effectively mimic our preferred style. It’s hard to absorb pressure and play on the break when the other team has earned the liberty to do so. Arsenal have gone behind a total of four times this season, we’ve lost three of those games and drawn one. There will be times that we’ll have to dig deep and turn a game on its head. Think Henry against Liverpool in 2004 or Macheda for Manchester United in 2009.
Every title winning team is able to do that and Arsenal will have to prove that when legs are heavy , the schedule is arduous and the referee is being a bit of a dick, they can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. We won’t find out whether they can do that when it matters for a few months yet. For now, it’s not important for the critics to take Arsenal seriously, so long as Arsenal don’t take their critics too seriously. LD.
Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA