Wengerball: World Gone Mad

Date: 25th November 2011 at 7:49 am
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Has the tide finally turned for Arsenal? Are the Gunners over-reliant on Robin van Persie? What does About Diaby’s return mean for the Arsenal midfield?

Wengerball attempts to chart yet another season in the Arsenal red and white, one that hopefully culminates in much anticipated glory in England’s highest footballing echelon.

Sunshine and Blue Skies

What a difference a month or two makes in football. Scarcely three months after a horrific 8-2 capitulation to Manchester United, it seems Arsenal are back on track. While fans in some quarters might have been holding their breaths and muttering counter-wards in order as not to jinx the run of good results the team have been racking up, the team has now gone nine games unbeaten in all competitions.

Not since a 2-1 reverse to bitter rivals Tottenham away at White Hart Lane have the Gunners lost a fixture. Of course the 5-3 win (also away) at Chelsea did much to lift the doom and gloom at the Emirates, but much has gone Arsenal’s way these past weeks.

Thomas Vermaelen’s return has done much good for the defence, even if Per Mertesacker may still commit the odd clanger or two. While he may have looked clueless at times, including failing to control an awkward ball in the box and letting Steve Morison steal away for Norwich’s opener, it seems the Arsenal faithful are much more forgiving of late. The general consensus is that Mertesacker needs a little more time to adapt, and that his undoubted pedigree will see him come good in time.

Bacary Sagna’s unfortunate injury has been papered over too by Laurent Koscielny’s tireless work at right back. While it may have seemed unlikely a year ago, Koscielny’s dependability in defence meant he has been preferred over Johan Djourou. While he might not offer much penetration on the right flank, his defensive abilities mean Arsenal have not missed Sagna too much. Besides, is there really that much need of an overlap when you have Theo Walcott marauding up the wing?

Speaking of Walcott, while the much-maligned forward has blown hot and cold all career, there have been signs that he is maturing fast. His understanding with Robin van Persie has been key, and with Gervinho similarly linking up from the opposite flank, Arsenal’s winger problem seems to be a thing of the past.

It can’t have come at a better time really. With progression in the Champions League secured (amazingly the first of the English clubs to do so, who’d have thunk?) and a steady progression up the league table, the press have been left to question whether Arsène Wenger might be inclined to leave the club next season on his own volition.

With Fulham up next, and Manchester City right around the corner, the stage seems set for the mother of all revivals. Beat the current league leaders and Arsenal might just find themselves in with a huge shout. All of which would have been inconceivable barely three months ago, when the shock thrashing to Man Utd forced Wenger into making what most people thought was a rash last minute panic buying spree.

Sunshine and blue skies, it’s certainly a world gone mad.

Running on RvP

Can you really blame the hacks? When Robin van Persie leads all comers in the Premier League goalscoring charts with 13 goals in 12 games, and the next highest Arsenal scorer is on a measly two goals, surely it wouldn’t be out of the question to ask if the club would be the same without its striker extraordinaire.

It’s a valid query no doubt, and of course the answer would be that Robin van Persie is irreplaceable. There’s a reason why Gunners fans worldwide are praying Arsenal’s number 10 stays till season end, and a reason why Arsène Wenger made a deal with the Dutch FA to bring the sharpshooter home early from international duty. A crooked van Persie is of no use to anyone, and given his renowned fragility, the Arsenal captain has to be carefully nurtured through the season.

While there is no doubt that Robin van Persie has played a huge part so far in Arsenal’s upturn in fortunes, it is one thing to laud the striker and another to claim that he is single-handedly pulling the club up the table.

For if you take a look at the charts, while Mikel Arteta, Gervinho and Walcott are the only other members of the team to have scored more than one goal so far, the assists column tells yet another tale. It’s a much more even spread in that list, with Gervinho top on five assists. Alex Song is next, with four, as well as Aaron Ramsey. van Persie chips in with three, and Walcott with two.

In a way, it’s a product of Arsenal’s style of play. Gone are the days of 4-4-2, where you had two strikers up front to share the load. van Persie plays the lone striker role these days, and Arsenal’s play is structured such that all service will go through to him in the end. While there’s always the option of holding the ball up and playing in team mates, can you really fault the Dutchmen when he goes for goal instead? van Persie is in such hot form, and he himself no doubt realises it. Just watch him play these days and you can see him brimming with confidence. Every move he makes is instinctive, every shot he takes is without second thought and with unerring accuracy.

If van Persie was taking defenders on every game, producing solo goals just to haul the team into contention, then yes it would be a worry. But while the team is linking up so well, with van Persie the fulcrum of the Arsenal attack, I say enjoy it while it lasts and maybe, just maybe, one of his fellow strikers will start to find some form too and allow him a breather.

Depth in midfield

About Diaby’s return to first team action is starting to give the Arsenal midfield some semblance of depth. While the injury-prone Frenchman may sometimes flatter to deceive, the summer departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri has left the midfield lacking some much needed flair. While Jack Wilshere might still be out till the New Year’s, renewed competition in the middle of the park can only be a good thing.

There has been an onus on Aaron Ramsey to perform of late, especially with Wilshere out and Arteta still adapting to his new team. While he has a knack of popping up at the right place at the right time with his surging runs into the box, Ramsey has only showed glimpses of his pre-injury form. Then again, you have to remember that it was a broken leg that cruelly cut short his campaign at Stoke, and the young Welshman has done good to get to where he is so far.

Arteta has shown signs of adapting to the Gunners’ style of play though, after netting his first goal for Arsenal against West Bromwich Albion. The Spaniard’s range of passing has helped to soften the blow of compatriot Fabregas’s departure, and together with loanee Yossi Benayoun offers vital experience as compared to his younger teammates.

The revelation in the middle of the park however, has been none other then Alex Song. While his place might have been under threat at the start of the season following the emergence of Emmanuel Frimpong and Francis Coquelin, the Cameroon international has more than made the defensive slot his own with a series of imperious performances. Strong in the tackle and also capable of lung busting goal charges, he showed yet another side of his repertoire against Borussia Dortmund in midweek.

Collecting the ball on the left wing and with not much room to manoeuvre, Song executed a deft dribble from out of this planet, beating four markers and possibly nutmegging one or two of them in the process, before standing up a delightful cross to the far post. Robin van Persie (who else?) rose highest, seemingly hanging in the air for an eternity before sending his towering header crashing into the near corner for the opener.

But it was a creative masterpiece from Alex Song to create the goal from nothing, an outrageous piece of skill a’la the departed Samir Nasri. We never knew he had it in him. While all eyes were on Arsenal target Mario Gotze, our defensive midfielder simply stole the show with his attacking display.

More performances like that and Arsenal’s opponents might just find themselves not knowing where to look when defending. Who do you mark when every single midfielder has the capability to unlock your defence in a myriad of ways? Throw in Jack Wilshere’s dinked balls over the top, and Thomas Vermaelen’s cannonball shots and the Gunners might just become one of the more irresistible attacking sides in the land once again.

But for now, we shall wait and see. Dare I say, bring on the blue half of Manchester!

Your Opinion: Do we really need to strengthen come January? And in which areas? Given that players like Lukasz Fabianski, Seb Squillaci, Tomas Rosicky and Park Chu-Young are struggling to get any significant game time at the moment, do we really need reinforcements?

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