Despite a start to the season that caught everyone by surprise, Arsenal were written off by many as being too lightweight, inexperienced, or even lacking in quality to finally end their lengthy trophy drought.
Bias naturally pervades, but I don’t think Arsène Wenger’s side have received nearly enough credit for their exploits this campaign. Going forward they look as dangerous as they ever have, with Aaron Ramsey in particular playing like the proverbial man possessed. Whilst at the back, the Gunners have kept two consecutive clean sheets and conceded fewer than each of Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United.
But, as I have personally alluded to before, the idea of Arsenal being a robust, effective defensive unit does not fit the media narrative. Following the victory over Crystal Palace a fortnight ago, Match of the Day used a clip from three seasons ago to illustrate the Gunners’ susceptibility to counter-attacks from their own corners and said that it was a recurring issue. Surely this undermines their own argument? It cannot be that regular an issue if they’ve had to delve deep into the archives to find another example.
Mikel Arteta is not the hulking, great six foot six figure Arsenal have apparently been lacking, but protects the defence better than anyone in the country for my money, and a quick glance at his stats will tell you how good he is at recycling the ball and instigating attacks. For some, though, it just isn’t enough.
What grates with Arsenal fans is the hypocrisy of certain ‘experts’ and the way they freely change their mind to maintain these banal, outdated stereotypes. All we heard in the build-up to the clash with Liverpool last week, not unreasonably, was the fantastic form of the blossoming partnership between Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge and that the Gunners wouldn’t be able to tame them. Lo and behold, the league leaders kept them at bay and the pair were frustrated for the majority of the afternoon: cue Alan Shearer and co then dismissing Arsenal’s title credentials, arguing that they were yet to be tested. It’s just staggering: you cannot bang on about the quality of ‘the SAS,’ and then decide that, actually, they’re not that good.
It’s not even as if beating your title rivals is the be-all-and-end-all, anyway. Teams have won the Premier League by being relative flat –track bullies, and even if Arsenal did come up short against Chelsea and Manchester City, for example, there’s no reason why they can’t win the title by continuing to be as ruthlessly efficient against the so-called smaller sides. And Liverpool who they beat comprehensively.
The Gunners then of course travelled to Germany to face Borussia Dortmund having lost the first game in London 2-1, which naturally led to claims that Arsène Wenger’s side couldn’t hack it against the top teams. They responded in emphatic fashion with a famous win – becoming the first English side in the Westfalenstadion – and now boast victories, and clean sheets, over Tottenham, Napoli and Liverpool as well as the German giants. If they’re not ‘big tests,’ I don’t know what is. If Arsenal win at Old Trafford at Sunday, will that suddenly cease to be a real challenge, just because they’re no longer managed by Sir Alex Ferguson?
Finally, though, at least some sections the mainstream media are beginning to recognise Arsenal’s qualities and to their credit, there was plenty of justified praise for the outstanding defensive duo of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, and the team’s mental resolve that has notoriously been so lacking over the last decade or so. Arsenal are winning games that they would have drawn, or even lost, little more than 12 months ago.
I’m a big believer that familiarity and consistency breeds defensive supremacy. Some of the best centre-half partnerships in the recent past; Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić, and John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, to name but two, were so successful because, not only were they fantastic footballers, but they developed a rapport over a number of years, where they became . They all had rocky periods at the beginning of their careers because you cannot simply throw two players together and instantly expect them to understand each other’s game. Not in the vast majority of cases, anyway.
Whilst I appreciate defending is a lot more complex than this, the simple tactic employed by all is that one centre-half (Koscielny/Vidić/Terry) attacks the ball higher up the pitch – be that winning an aerial battle, or making an interception on the floor – whilst the other (Mertesacker/Ferdinand/Carvalho) sweeps in behind and offers a calming, reassuring presence which only really comes with experience; something each of those players had in abundance.
Jürgen Klopp said that Arsenal could go all the way in the Champions League (providing they don’t meet Bayern Munich – who lest we forget the Gunners have also conquered in 2013 – along the way), and why can’t they? The team looks as assured defensively as they have in a long, long time; pressing high up the pitch and using the ball intelligently when it’s in their possession. The signing of a player of Mesut Özil’s quality of course is a reason for that, but the improvements made by Olivier Giroud and, of course, Ramsey, cannot be overstated.
It’s also worth remembering that Arsenal’s success has hardly come on the back of a clean bill of health. Mathieu Flamini’s importance is perhaps a little overstated by some, but he brings experience, leadership and tenacity – qualities you’ll struggle to find in one single player on the market, particularly for a free transfer – and has missed the last handful of games. Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski are relatively long-term absentees, and their return will offer a more direct outlet that gives the Gunners a lot more variety, and of course, goals, to their game.
The only worry is that there is nobody who can replace the excellent Giroud should he ever pick up an injury, but one would hope Wenger and his team will be busy during the January transfer window to bring in another striker to ease the burden on the Frenchman.
Amidst all the politics, it’s important to remember the salient facts: the Gunners have won an outrageous 14 of their last 15 away games, are five points clear at the summit of ‘the best league in the world,’ and top of the undisputed ‘group of death’ in the Champions League. Slowly but surely they’re becoming a feared opponent once again. Maybe, just maybe, this is Arsenal’s year.