Arsenal - Success at last?

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Andrew Onyearu is excited about Arsenal's 2013, and asks if the following year can be even better...

Reading Adrian Durham examine Arsenal’s title winning credentials in the Daily Mail of 26 November 2013 presents some interesting analysis.

He picks out two seasons and some of Wenger’s comments about the team’s ability. He says – and this is interesting to quote – “In August 2010 Arsene Wenger said: ‘Trust me, my team is ready to deliver!’ Arsenal sat second in the table, seven points behind Manchester United with a game in hand at the end of March that season.

Wenger said they were ‘ready for the fight’. They won two of their last nine games (one of them against United) and won the ‘fourth-place trophy.’ He then goes on, in analyzing the same situation in 2009 by saying “…Before that, in August 2009, he declared that the season ahead was ‘massive’ for the club, and that his team was ‘mature enough to deliver.’ Wenger said: ‘To talk of winning the league is an audacious statement but I built this team and I want to deliver.’ He accepted that Arsenal ‘are at the period now where we will see whether I was right.’ The Gunners finished third, 10 points behind United, and 11 behind champions Chelsea.

Ordinarily, these would be damning, direct, and probably true indictments of Arsenal’s prospects season in, season out. But 2013 is markedly different.

For a variety of reasons unique to this season in the Arsenal dressing room and as quietly optimistic as most of us fans have been since the beginning of this season, I agree with Adrian that the Premier League is now Arsenal's to lose. Here is why.

Something happened to the team after that opening day defeat. It was a numbing, chastening experience. Arsenal has suffered humiliating defeats in the past against teams from the lower leagues such that the effect that Aston Villa’s success that day would have been modestly ingestible.

They did not play that badly. In fact, in seasons before, they had played better and lost. The team that lost that game has changed only marginally. Of the match day squad, only Oxlade-Chamberlain is not now available through injury. It’s the same goalkeeper; same back four and attack. The only additions have been Arteta (from injury), Flamini and the majestic Ozil.

That defeat was hard to take and caused the players to review their application so much that huge changes in their individual and collective game have since occurred. There is an extra X percent on top of 100% that they have found from somewhere. And they are working for each other. Now to some specifics.

They started this season with virtually the same team that finished last season. Although several players were released, no one who could compete for a first team place apart from Gervinho departed. The team has been strengthened. Squad additions like Sanogo whose potential has yet to be seen, followed.

The annual parade of young players has seen Sergei Gnabry and Isaac Hayden promoted which Chuba Akpom given an airing now and again. Others like Gedion Zelalem lie in wait. Then the two major additions. Mathieu Flamini, an old boy whose career at Arsenal before his departure to AC Milan was on such an upward trajectory that he was approaching his best, re-joined the team. Slotting almost seamlessly into a midfield supposedly lacking steel, he has brought a leadership to the team that is almost akin to an on-field coach.

And then the marquee signing. For years, Arsenal had played the poor second cousins to the top end of the Premiership. At £17 million, Andrey Arshavin was Arsenal’s most expensive, probably highest profile acquisition ever. Doubts were creeping in about a “war chest” that appeared imaginary coupled with what was perceived to be managerial reluctance to spend to strengthen the team with top players. On transfer deadline day, Wenger acquired the services of the German Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid for £42.4 million.

Easily recognized as one of the world’s leading “No 10”s, his arrival, a masterstroke, gave the team, management, supporters such a lift that the performances were bound to improve.

His mere presence in the team invigorated it. Adrenalin rose by huge doses and the players began to perform in a manner not seen hitherto at the Emirates – and before that Highbury – for several years. Many believed that it was a “luxury” addition to a midfield that was already probably the best in the league but it confirmed the “upgrade” from diamond to platinum of that midfield.

The irony is that the results have been achieved even with the serious disruption by injury to a number of key players, some of whom still remain unavailable, Lukas Podolski for instance.

On field, there are a number of performance features that have been responsible for this new approach and end product. Team wise, Wenger has settled on the 4-2-3-1 formation that he feels best suits the purposes for which the club is competing.

This is how all the teams from Under 17 to the first team now play. With a settled back four, Arteta allows him to switch from two holding midfielders to one and the other a slightly deeper, ball playing one in front of the back four. Depending on availability and the opposition, he now has the option of playing both for a defensive approach and leaving out one to increase attacking options.

Then there is Aaron Ramsey who, if the season were to end now, would probably be the player of the season just ahead of Liverpool’s Suarez. With the most fluid midfield in the Premier League and Ozil directing proceedings at the apex of that midfield, Olivier Giroud provides the icing on the cake. His physical presence as the focal point of the attack and his ability to hold up play whilst midfield runners go beyond him places him at the forefront of strikers in the league, this term.

Finally, there is the competition for places in the team. Gibbs, easily one of the most improved left backs in the league is pressured by the Spanish left back, Nacho Monreal. When fit, the contest for midfield places by Arteta, Flamini, Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil, Walcott, Carzola, Rosicky, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski, Gnabry and Hayden in a midfield where only four can play in any one game is probably the fiercest in the league.

Infact, virtually every position has a competent alternative. Apart from Giroud, every position has a player who can provide cover. This makes nonsense of the comments about the depth of Arsenal’s squad, painstakingly accumulated over the last few years. Suggestions are that the Giroud situation will be addressed in January, one-way or another. If the luckless Abou Diaby – easily one of the most talented players at the club - were to return, again to an already congested midfield and a striker added, the destiny of the title may be foreclosed even earlier than most would think.

Concerns? Yes. Injuries, loss of form and difficult fixtures will all occur at some point this season. How the team cope with these will impact this title race as well as their journey in the Champions League. There is, visibly, a one-game-at-a-time philosophy, which appears to be implemented strictly.

Wenger is playing his best team and rotating minimally. The attainment of results on a game-by-game basis is yielding results. Every player is playing for his place. Which is why the team captain, Thomas Vermalaen, despite playing very well when selected, has not returned to the team as an automatic choice.

The message in that has been evident for others. All round, the robustness of this level of performance remains a matter of some pleasant conjecture.

Arsenal’s detractors are waiting for this bubble to “burst”. They may be in for an indefinite wait.

image: © lodekka

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