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Arsenal Review: At the Halfway Point

Arsenal - RamseyWith the victory today against Cardiff City, we have now passed the halfway mark in the Premier League campaign.  20 games played, 18 games left to go.  And what a surprise it is to find Arsenal are atop the table, isn’t it?  It is a tight race and Arsenal are ahead by a single point from Manchester City, two points from Chelsea and eight points from midtable teams like Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. (I keed, I keed).  Not surprising, many pundits who were unsure of the title credentials are now hedging their bets on a second-half collapse.

But before we talk about the second half of the season, let’s look at what’s gone on and see what trends can be gleamed.

Arsenal have played 20 games and won 14, drawn 3 and lost 3.  No team besides Manchester City has won as many.  No team but Everton has lost less (2) with Chelsea equaling Arsenal’s 3 losses.  Only Fulham, Crystal Palace and Manchester City have drawn less (1 game, 2 games and 2 games respectively) than Arsenal.  This has given Arsenal a point total of 45 points. The Gunners have scored 39 goals and allowed 18 goals for a +21 goal difference. Overall, that is a pretty impressive record.

What’s been most impressive is that the team has been as good at home as they’ve been on the road.  At home, it’s 7 wins, 2 draws (Everton, Chelsea) and 1 loss (the season opener against Aston Villa).  The team has scored 18 goals and conceded only 6 for a +12 goal difference.  Meanwhile, away from North London, the record is 7 wins, 1 draw (at West Bromwich Albion) and 2 losses (both in Manchester).  The goal tally is even better away with 21 goals scored, but the goals against is double at 12 thanks in no small part to the 6-3 thrashing at the Etihad.  That said, the goal difference is a respectable +9.

That’s part of what should be highlighted: Arsenal are winning, but they’re not putting teams to the sword like teams of old.  While there are a few 3-1 scorelines and even a 4-1 against Norwich City, most of the games have been of the 1-0 or 2-0 variety.  Arsenal are winning by being a tough, tenacious team to score on – the 18 goals conceded tying Everton’s 18 for best Goals Against in the league.  Arsenal - Kos & Per(Aside: and 1 better than Chelsea’s 19 with their Mourinho-imposed anti-football). The partnership between Wojciech Szczesny and his defenders has been tenacious.  Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are one of the best partnerships in the league, with the tall German one of the best readers of the game while the Frenchman is capable of taking any attacker out of his game.  Kieran Gibbs is healthy and that is allowing him to show his true talents while Bakary Sagna continues to be one of the best RBs in the game.  I hope he gets re-signed soon.  They’ve done so well that but for injuries and last-minute substitutions, Thomas Vermaelen, Nacho Monreal and Carl Jenkinson have been left on the bench.

Let me also go on a bit on Szczesny, who was, for a while, as prone to a blunder as any young keeper was.  This season he appears far more assured of his role and what he needs to do.  He challenges attackers, marshals defenders and knows how to position himself to deny clear shots.  His maturity and his intelligence seem to be matching his physical skills.  In 25 games played so far, he’s had 75 saves, conceded 23 goals, and kept 13 clean sheets.  While he’s still capable of finding more room to grow, I can’t say that he’s done anything but impress so far this season.  He’s made Lukasz Fabianski and Emiliano Viviano enjoy many cups of tea watching from the comfy chairs.

Meanwhile, while Arsenal have scored 39 goals, they are lagging behind Manchester City’s 54 goals Liverpool’s 44.  Of course, those teams have Sergio Aguero (13 goals so far) and Luis Suarez (19 goals, leads the Premier League) scoring for fun.  Arsenal’s joint top scorers, Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey, have to content themselves with their 8 goals in the league and 10 goals overall so far.  But it goes to my point regarding the defense.  After those two players, the next higher scorers for Arsenal are Theo Walcott (5 goals), Mesut Ozil (4 goals) and Lukas Podolski (3 goals).  That’s right, Lukas Podolski, the very same player who spent most of his season out injured is amongst Arsenal’s top scorers so far.  However, the scoring has been split evenly between the forwards (19 goals) and the midfield (17) – defense has provided 3, by the way.

This should highlight the great pressure that’s been on Olivier Giroud so far this season.  When the loan deal for Demba Ba failed and Nicklas Bendtner was kept around, everyone understood that the French striker would be required to bear the burden of leading the line for the club in almost every game.  And he has done so without complaint or moaning about the pressure he’s been from some sections of the supporters.  Giroud has started 24 games – 18 in the league and 6 in the Champions League – and provided 10 goals in total: 1 goal ever 2 games basically.  And that’s with him playing in just about every game and providing great link-up play and running around like a madman.  It’s not a surprise he’s had a few poor outings in front of goal.Arsenal - Giroud

Plus, between the injuries to Podolski and Sanogo, the mediocrity of Bendtner and the confusing presence of Park, who else is there to take the burden off Giroud’s hands? This highlights the need for buying a striker in the January transfer window.  While a world-class talent that can both play with and instead of Giroud is ideal – those infamous Diego Costa rumors – the fact is we need bodies up front.  A decent striker that can spell Giroud, who can substitute for him during games without feeling like the game’s a lost cause and who can provide more goals from up front.  I don’t care which name you pull from the hat: Christian Benteke, Diego Costa, Mickey Mouse.

I’d also say we need a true winger.  Theo Walcott has been a goal-scoring threat whenever present.  And he’s provided tantalizing glimpses of what his speed can do when coupled with the vision and passing of Ozil.  But there’s still too many games when there’s a timidity in our attack.  Too many games where Theo and Santi and Jack and Ozil and everyone else drifts centrally and clog the midfield.  I’m not going to say the name Marco Reus, but someone akin that can take on fullbacks and stretch defenses open would probably help – not just in the number of goals that player can contribute, but in how he can help others score against the parked buses we’re likely to encounter until May.

Speaking of Santi, I think we should also acknowledge that his first half of this season has left a lot to be desired.  Don’t get me wrong. I continue to support him as a player and think he’s still a great talent.  But 1 goal and 2 assists from 13 starts – even if that goal was a beauty – is a far cry from the little maestro’s best.  Some wonder if the arrival of Ozil and his move out wide left have robbed Santi of his impetus and his best position.  Except that, in Arsene’s system, the CAM isn’t a fixed spot and players drift in and out across the 4 most attacking positions.

Thing is, most of the team has performed well and sufficient enough to get the wins and the points needed. If there’s been any real disappointment it’s been in how little rotation has occurred to bring younger players into form like Miyaichi, Gnabry, Akpom, Frimpong and Hayden.  Unfortunately, injuries have robbed Zelalem and Sanogo of chances to get playing time, but I wonder if they would be getting much.  It’s why I’m always reticent of not buying during the summer months while the youngsters are pushed as the eventual answer.  Come December, unless there’s an injury crisis, most of the youngsters are not seeing any playing time and we’re looking for answers in the transfer window.

If it seems like I’m nitpicking, that’s only half-true.  Fact is that Arsenal have had their best first half of a season in years.The defense has been tenacious.  The midfield sumptuous.  The forward line sufficient. But for the stumble against Villa and the horror show at Manchester City, the season has been a lot of fun.  With one caveat.Arsenal - Ozil

I have tried to dismiss the 1-0 loss to United on the fact that it was a fluke goal that separated the sides – perfectly hit and it dipped exactly how it needed to go. Of far greater concern is the lethargy that the team showed after two big games against Liverpool and Dortmund.  Because it also reared its head when facing Chelsea after facing Everton, Napoli and Manchester City one after another.

It will be a problem given how the schedule is set up from here on out.  After this weekend’s FA Cup clash against Tottenham, there’s going to be a nice run against Aston Villa, Fulham, Southampton and Crystal Palace.  That’s followed by Liverpool, Manchester United and Bayern Munich in the Champions League.  Any way you slice it, that’s going to be a tough outing.  But wait.  After a slight reprieve against Sunderland, Stoke and Swansea, there’s another run of tough games. Bayern in the CL again, Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton.

That run right there could define this season in so many ways – both league and Europe and not just because of a win or a loss.  Form can be a wild thing to control and the team will have to be as fresh and as complete to be able to handle these fronts.  And this doesn’t count further progression in either cup competition, where games will only increase in importance and pressure.  The season at least will end with a run of West Ham, Hull, Newcastle, West Brom and Norwich City, but games get tighter and tougher as the season ends and teams fearing the drop fight for their lives.

Hence my hope that this January window, we don’t fumble about, pining our hopes on the walking wounded coming back and hitting their form at the outset.  We know what we need.  We have the resources to get it.  So far, the work is only half done and, after all the positivity of so much of this season, it would be horrible to see it go unfulfilled.  There’s a chance to end that ballyhooed drought.  To finally put all the negativity and doubt of so many seasons aside.  It’s still there, creeping around like a nasty fruitcake at the back of a dessert table.

Time to throw the fruitcake away.  Or at least package it and ship it out to White Hart Lane.  Time for this team to finally put all the pieces together.  They can do it.  Crazy as it sounds to many, Arsenal can do what they all said they could not.  They can win.

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