It was less than two weeks ago that Alan Hansen brazenly denounced Arsenal's hopes of winning the Premier League on the BBC's Match of the Day and in his weekly newspaper column.
The Gunners had just beaten Crystal Palace playing much of the second half with ten men. Top of the Premier League, artfully creating masterpiece goals, steadfastly unbeaten on their travels since March; Arsene Wenger’s side were riding mega-high on the crest of a seismic and ever-swelling wave. You weren’t convinced though, were you Alan?
Easy start, you thought. Not played anyone decent yet. Hard-fought victories (with clean sheets) over Tottenham and Napoli put to one side. Dismissed.
You saw the attacking brilliance of Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund, and Manchester United lying in wait though.
You also saw flashes, tiny little glimpses of the ‘old Arsenal’, the Arsenal who loved to play but didn’t care as much for defence, and that was enough. That was what you were going to focus on.
“They are just not good enough when they do not have the ball”.
If ever there was a historical, out-dated viewpoint it’s this. Go back a few years and the criticism rang true. You can score three but we’ll score four was Arsenal’s attitude, and in the big games, the ones that really mattered, their lack of focus on defending as a unit was often exposed.
Since the start of 2012/13 there’s been a sea change. Now, there’s a plan. Pressing high up the pitch at every opportunity, the hunger is there to win the ball back as quickly as they can. Behind them, the midfield and defence push up, hunting in packs. When that’s not possible all 11 men will retreat, keep their shape, block holes, and do what needs to be done to protect their goalkeeper. There’s a relish, an appetite to defend properly as a team.
I think we’ve seen that with our own eyes in the last 180 minutes of exceptionally difficult football. Oh, and last season only Manchester City conceded fewer goals than the Gunners by the way.
“They will target Arsenal’s weakness without the ball and the question marks over their central defenders and goalkeeper”
What question marks? I discussed the Polish goalkeeper’s progress in last week’s column. He’s learned from his mistakes and come out the other side a significantly more reliable custodian. This season he’s been exceptional.
The BFG (Mertesacker) may have looked a little ponderous in his first season in English football, but isn’t it time everyone just said what they saw here and now? In the last season and a bit, the German has been top class. Reading the game with admirable ease, standing tall when the team’s needed him, I can’t recall the last time a striker ‘exploited’ his deficiencies.
Koscielny has grown into a man’s man. Hard as nails, super-quick, anticipating danger instinctively, I don’t know if there’s a central defender in Europe that’s more annoying to play against than the French tiger.
Together they are beyond reprimand. As witnessed against Dortmund, Liverpool, Tottenham, Napoli, and last season when the Gunners ground out win after win to reach the top four, they are a fantastically reliable partnership with the ideal blend. Oh, and the Villa defeat was the only time in 15 months they’ve been beaten in the Premier League when starting together.
“I still do not see a leader on the pitch when I look at Arsenal.”
How about Mikel Arteta? A more responsible player you couldn’t wish to find. Leading by example with his defensive play the Spaniard is driven to succeed and inspires those around him.
How about the entire back five? The goalkeeper and centre-halves are no longer shrinking violets. They put their bodies on the line, and demand the same from their team-mates. Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs may be quiet lads, but I don’t see them hiding when a job needs to be done.
How about Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud? When a moment of magic has been required, when the side’s needed a lift, when the workers have asked someone to push themselves to make something happen; all four have stepped up to the plate and done it. That’s responsibility, and that’s leadership too.
There’s also Mathieu Flamini. How about him? Injured of late, but the Frenchman’s non-stop cajoling of team-mates and selfless defensive play has shone brightly, drawing praise from all quarters.
Oh, and it’s not just them. To beat Liverpool and Dortmund the Gunners needed 11 leaders to show up, and they did.
"Only now, when they start to face the big teams, will their true credentials be borne out”
Well said Alan. You’re spot on there. There’s no need for me to expand on that.
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