After a week that exceeded even my most optimistic podcast prediction, it’s hard to not start considering this team as one of the title favourites.
For all the injuries, the lack of summer spending and exposure of squad imbalance, complacency or odd substitutions, we are (for the moment) top of the pile domestically. And still standing in continental competition, despite some quite spectacular pratfalling in earlier months.
What felt most satisfying about ‘the week that was’ was the consummate professionalism with which both results were achieved. Battered and bruised (not least by their host’s occasionally agricultural approach to ball-winning) in Pireas, and seriously low on gas in Birmingham, this team worked out what was required to win, and followed their game plans to perfection.
While Olympiakos may not be a leading light of cross-continental competition, they are a domestic juggernaut, and historically are no mugs at home. In the past we have underestimated both their quality and the potency of the cauldron-like atmosphere generated by their fans. Despite withstanding some early pressure, a fully focused Arsenal had too much flexibility and nous for the Greek champions, caught as they were between sticking and twisting. Slightly weak goalkeeping opened the door a little, and from that point on Arsenal smelt the victory and latched on.
With our ridiculously successful undefeated run at Villa Park, against a side woefully lacking in cohesion and confidence, a win was always on the cards. Against a backdrop of intense energy expenditure and emotion in midweek, not to mention late night travelling, in a way Arsenal’s greatest test was against themselves. After the great start provided by a combination of Theo Walcott’s determination, Olivier Giroud’s current confidence and the second linesman’s eagle eyes, the game plan became one of energy conservation and opportunism. Bar a couple of crosses and a shot or two from range, Villa were largely kept at arm’s length despite a spirited second half display.
The fact that in both fixtures Arsenal were largely able to dictate terms once they got into positions of strength bodes well for the physical strain of the festive period. As does the strength of key partnerships and the rotation of contributions from others.
As both Lewis and I discussed last week, the Ozil/Ramsey combination is only enhanced when the Welshman is central. Likewise his combination play with Giroud. His attacking instincts also seem to help Flamini limit his ambitions to a level more commensurate to his foot speed, despite a couple of observations from Ian Wright that our Gallic yellow card generator still occasionally finds himself drawn to the opposition penalty area.
Having these links is key given the break up of well oiled partnerships out wide (though the Campbell, Bellerin, Flamini axis with the Frenchmen covering across to allow our full back to swash his buckle is an intriguing development). Whether Ramsey and Flamini have the defensive strength and positional discipline to deal with a Man City side reunited with David Silva remains to be seen, as does our ability to subdue an inconsistent but dangerous Southampton side. Should both these hurdles be leapt, 2016 should start with Arsenal in rude health.
Of course so much is still reliant on the fitness of magical Mesut. Two ‘pre-assists’ in Greece and another EPL assist for Rambo against Villa (he now has more than twice as many as any other player in the English top flight). With excellence in every match and the seemingly unique ability to form effective partnerships with anyone and everyone, he is oiling the Arsenal machine better than Castrol GTX. This is now ‘his’ side to such a degree that it isn’t immediately obvious how we would attempt to set up in his absence. Let’s hope that bridge isn’t one we have to cross anytime soon.
Of course this being Arsenal, every silver lining has at least a faint whiff of cloud, and the feat of escapology in the eastern Mediterranean may have been rendered a little futile by a truly Monday morning of a Champions League draw. After last year’s squandered Monaco departure, it looks like Platini’s kept the balls warm even in his legally enforced absence, as we continue our Barcelona/Bayern alternation.
The reigning champions of Europe remain a little defensively vulnerable, but it will be an extraordinary achievement if Messi, Neymar, Suarez and Iniesta don’t prove a bridge too far.
That said, it is the prize of the league title that Gooner’s really have their eyes on this year, so entering the last 16 tie as massive underdogs is no bad thing. If we win, it’ll be a massive boost, and a defeat would allow us to focus on more achievable targets without being too crushing for morale. Despite our ambitions, against well oiled superclub machines like Bayern and Barca, a certain philosophical stance is required!
Looking ahead, rumours abound about the signing of the inconsistent but talented Kokorin from Dinamo Moscow, but until it’s confirmed, I’m not buying it. Unless Welbeck is looking significantly further away from a first team return then first imagined, the emergence of Joel Campbell and injuries in central midfield (not to mention the disintegration of Arteta) have made central midfield a more urgent priority. Ultimately though, any speculation at this stage will be subject to sharp change depending on the squad’s bill of health in early January.
That said, we are undeniably contenders this year, and are mostly playing with greater intelligence and determination, so if there is a player available that the manager wants, our current position of strength is definitely the right one to build from. Only Leicester City (!) can match us for consistency in 2015, and Arsenal appear to be playing with a belief and focus that makes us dare to dream, at least domestically. A little squad tweaking and a little better luck with injuries and….*crosses fingers*