The last time I wrote about Arsenal was just after the Winter Transfer Window had closed and Arsenal had brought in Gabriel from Villareal to solve the backup CB spot and Krystian Bieik from Legia Warsaw to send to the Reserves. Hector Bellerin, Francis Coquelin and David Ospina had begun their runs on the Starting XI. The North London Derby and a Champions League clash against AS Monaco were in the immediate horizon and things were looking good.
Obviously things didn’t go as planned against Spurs not in the first leg against Monaco. One was a loss to a hated rival, which gave them crowing rights for a good long minute about how the shift in North London was at hand (again). The other was a push of the old self-destruct button for Arsenal where nothing went right and, even with a key goal obtained, the defense was all shambles and let the tie get away at the death. Two key losses in a run of 14 games. Two losses.
And 12 wins.
That’s where the focus has been for us Gooners. Not on the losses to Tottenham or Monaco, but on the run of wins that has Arsenal in second place of the Premier League table. Not on the annual Round of 16 exit from the Champions League, but on the just booked Wembley date against Aston Villa for the FA Cup Final – a chance to defend last year’s trophy. It’s been on beating Monaco in Monaco, on thrashing Liverpool 4-1 (turn that into a TV ad!) and on beating Manchester United at Old Trafford to knock them out of the FA Cup.
Much of that success has been built on the strength of a solid back 5 of Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal at fullbacks, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker at centerback and Francis Coquelin sitting in front as defensive midfielder. Bellerin has burst onto the scene like a certain other young Arsenal fullback did a decade back. While we won’t know if he’ll become akin to Ashley Cole the footballer, he’s making the choices for Arsene Wenger easier in regards to Calum Chambers and Carl Jenkinson. On the other side of the pitch, Nacho has been another revelation and is rightfully keeping a good Kieran Gibbs on the bench. He’s not put a foot wrong in any of the moments he’s been called up. And what else can I say about Le Coq that hasn’t been already said elsewhere? Dude is a monster and is one of the reasons Arsenal are where they are right now.
I’ll also give props to Gabriel, who has managed to integrate well whenever called upon and has deputized well with the first choice pairing of Koscielny or Mertesacker regardless of whoever is out. The hope is that we’ve found another solid defender who’ll spend the best of his years marking and terrorizing attackers in the Premier League and in Europe. And while he’s not needed to be all-world, David Ospina has been a solid and sure-handed keeper and made Wojciech Szczesny sweat for his position as Arsenal’s #1.
But if the back 5 has been the foundation, it’s the attack that’s drawing all the accolades. Not surprisingly. After all, Arsenal have under Arsene Wenger been defined by their attack – from Wright and Bergkamp to Henry, Pires and Ljungberg to Adebayor, van Persie, Nasri and Fabregas. Now it’s Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla who terrorize opponents with their verve, speed and style. Built on the solidity of the defense, they have finally adapted to the much-maligned 4-1-4-1 formation with which we started this season.
What’s more impressive is how Giroud and Ozil returned from injury stronger and more focused. Whatever Shad Forsythe did with them when they were out clearly worked. The Frenchman is far more clinical and looks for the chances to strike against weak defenses. The German, on the other hand, is way more robust and able to handle the niggling tackles and tough handling from opponents. He doesn’t look to avoid contact, but will stand for himself and fight against those who think they can bully him.
Meanwhile Santi Cazorla is back to the form he showed two years ago. He creates, he dribbles, he escapes and he is a wizard. There seemed to be a dip last year as he found his role with Ozil’s arrival. But that’s by the wayside now. They both fit seamlessly in this team and provide the team with two creators. And obviously, Alexis seems to have found himself out of his midseason slump and is back in his attacking, scoring best.
The result has been a solid team that keeps players like Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczesny, Mikel Arteta, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky firmly on the bench, coming as substitutes or starting in cup games. Which is, to be honest, quite fine with me. The idea that we’ve a squad that’s complex and talented and capable of answering any challenges is a positive as far as I’m concerned. Does it mean it can’t stand to be improved upon? Of course not. But that’s a topic for a few weeks from now – when the season is done and we can assess it all.
For now, we can revel in what feels like the most complete Arsenal side we’ve seen since the heady days of 2007-08. That’s what’s so positive about this run. We’ve seen runs where the defense has taken over and helped the team over the line for 4th place. We’ve experienced patches of seasons before where it felt like the offense was clicking, only for it to dry up when winter came and the midtable minnows closed rank. This time it feels like all facets of the team: the attack, the defending, the creating, the passing, etc are all working in conjunction as a whole.
It’s why Arsene Wenger must be so loath to bring in a player like Theo Walcott back into the side – dangerous as he can be. He, however, demands too much of the ball going forward and does so little tracking back. With the team firing as well as it is right now, there’s no reason to upset the apple cart. Not with things going well. Theo can ride the bench and be the impact sub that he really is meant to be.
There are now 6 Premier League games left in the season. 6 league games and 1 Cup Final. That’s what’s left of this season for Arsenal and the goal should be to finish as high as possible in the table and retain the FA Cup. That mission starts this Saturday against Chelsea at Emirates. The Blues under Jose Mourinho may be a bogey team for Arsenal, but there’s no reason to enter that match with fear or trepidation. They’ve much more to lose than the Gunners. Beyond that are games against Swansea, Sunderland and West Brom at home and Hull City and Manchester United away. Barring the games against the other two English giants, Arsenal should set out to scoop up 3-points from every match they take. Hell, go after 3-points in every match. If they can end in 2nd place and beat Aston Villa for the FA Cup, it’s a good season.
More importantly, it can be the season that finally springs Arsenal into that new dawn that’s been so long promised. The one where the best players around the world ream of wearing the red and white. Where the European giants fear to tread the grass in North London for what may happen to them. The dawn where challenging for the Premier League trophy is the expectation and not the surprise. The long promised new day that’s been waited for since the concept of Emirates Stadium was presented.
We’ve been here before though. False dawns have appeared at one point or another in the last decade or so. But the hope that this is the one that finally is real is not unmerited. This Arsenal side is intelligent, talented, capable, and most of all, hungry. Rooting for them is easy. How high they can go is the adventure every Gooner is ready to follow.