But Arsenal absorbed. Structured and composed, they waited.And they seized their opportunities. The polar opposite to the Arsenal of recent years
As a Sunderland fan, and somewhat of a neutral when it comes to the top teams, I perpetually find myself drawn to the plight of the Arsenal. Perhaps it is their style. Perhaps it is their endeavour to persist on a budget that in world football terms can best be described as “shoe string”. Perhaps it is the cause of the underdog.
But with all the likely top four teams in action simultaneously this past Saturday, I found myself unable to change the channel from the game at the Emirates, even though the result was a foregone conclusion by the 30 minute mark. It was one of those days in North London that Gunners supporters could just sit back and enjoy. It was an exhibition that few other English teams can put up with any kind of regularity, and one that saw Southampton - a team that ran Manchester United all the way two weeks ago - look truly helpless.
But therein must lie the most infuriating anomaly of all for Arsenal supporters. Their side’s inconsistency (and lack of trophies as a result) has been a talking point for some seven seasons now, and year in, year out they flatter to deceive. In almost every one of the previous five years, they looked set to challenge for the title. Each time fans got their hopes up, believing that this year was different. That this group of players were different. But each year Arsenal would disintegrate come the month of March. This has largely been attributed to a lack of depth, for which Arsene Wenger’s stubborn transfer policy has received plenty of criticism.
Last season was obviously the exception, whereby they made a dreadful start and yet, with arguably their weakest squad in 15 years, recovered to third place. This was in large part due to the 30 Premier League goals from Robin van Persie. But it also showed a degree of fight and character that I have seldom seen in recent Arsenal teams. Was it the start of something new?
The summer sales of Van Persie and Alex Song led many to believe that they were now a weaker team. But in these early stages I am unconvinced by that. As a team, their performance against Liverpool at Anfield was damn near perfect. Although Liverpool have slipped down the ranks, it was still a massive game. And Liverpool were up for it. They had lots of possession, and attacked. But Arsenal absorbed. Structured and composed, they waited. And they seized their opportunities. The polar opposite to the Arsenal of recent years. More performances like this will make them hard to beat in any big game.
On an individual level, there can be no doubts over the quality of Lukas Podolski now, and the tough, attacking dimension he brings to the table. And, of course, there’s Santi Cazorla. Goodness, what a player he is! The summer signing from Malaga just relentlessly keeps them ticking. His performances impress me more and more, and Arsenal will hope he continues to pull the strings for them for many years to come. Also, Gervinho’s form seems to be on the up, and if Olivier Giroud can find the goal-scoring touch he had at Montpellier, Arsenal’s offence looks as good as any.
Another thing that struck me about the Gunners’ squad is that for the first time in ages, they look strong at centre half. Thomas Vermaelen is proven quality, and Per Mertesacker, despite his limited ability, now seems to have the measure of the Premier League and is not out of place. Throw into the mix the established Laurent Koscielny, and it’s clear that depth in central defence is not an issue. Steve Bould is doing a superb job, and, but for a horrific error by Wojciech Szczesny on Saturday, they would have started with four clean sheets.
Depth at the fullback position might be an issue, but Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson have been tidy enough, and Gibbs in particular looks as though he can offer something going forward. And as for the midfield, well, the imminent return of Jack Wilshere will be even better than a new signing, and if he can get up to speed quickly, they may not feel the absence of Alex Song at all.
It’s four games into the season, and it is way too early to talk up Arsenal’s squad. In fact, 30 games into the season would still be too early. But I still can’t shake this positive feeling I have about the Gunners in the post-Van Persie era. I do not think that they will win the league this year – the gulf between themselves and the Manchester clubs from last year is simply too great. But I think they will go some way to bridging the gap, be more consistent, and cause the big teams massive problems.
Tonight’s game against Montpellier is huge for them, and it is vital for them to get off to a good start in what is a slightly favourable Champions League group. But Sunday’s clash with Manchester City will be the real test of where Arsenal stand – and where they might be heading in seasons to come. And don’t be too surprised if they cause an upset at Eastlands on Sunday. At 11/3, I’d certainly be game for a punt.