So another week and another win, albeit against opposition lacking in both talent and ambition, and the good ship Arsenal is still on course, if slightly becalmed.
Heavily rotated relegation fodder don’t really replicate challenges to come, but there were elements of greater significance to be taken from Saturday’s slightly stumbling stroll against Sunderland.
Looking forward, Gooners have to feel heartened at the contributions of those outside the first choice 11 who came into the starting line-up.
Gabriel again looked solid, unaffected by swapping which side of central defence he started on, and remained a threat at set-pieces despite a serious drop off in quality of delivery sans-Ozil.
Although possibly slightly culpable for his pass to Koscielny, that the Frenchman’s inability to deal with resulted in the opening goal for the visitors, Gibbs was a constant threat going forward, both on the overlap and coming inside to play one-twos, and could have easily had a goal and an assist.
In the holding role, Callum Chambers wasn’t particularly convincing when pressured in possession, but positionally was pretty sound, and offered rather more strength and mobility than some of our other options at the base of midfield. In comparison, off the bench, Arteta was his usual composed self, and managed to get his calf muscles through a gentle run out, so may yet be able to offer the reliable, controlling bench option we felt he would in August.
The Ox continued to struggle for consistency in his decision making in a central role, but his energy and dynamism were very welcome and the quality of his distribution and positional play were much improved in the last half hour. Despite a bit of a mauling from the less patient twitterati, it was good to see him centrally where he can impact on proceedings more.
Further upfield, Joel Campbell continues his remarkable evolution as the positive impact of game-time is heavily pronounced. Having previously gone from scared of failure to flashes of promise, it’s fair to say the Costa Rican has pretty much cemented himself as a plug and play member of the first team squad. His recognition that work-rate can ensure that your selection remains at least partially valuable throughout the vagaries of form is a lesson that many young players could learn, as is his demonstration that at least ensuring you are involved gives you a greater chance of the positive contribution that makes form less elusive.
Over the last month we have also started to see regularly a range of subtleties to his skillset that would have seemed unlikely beforehand, and his goal at the weekend was a fine example of someone whose confidence now matches his technical capacity.
Of greatest interest for many, however, was the full home debut of Jay-Jay’s nephew, academy boy Alex Iwobi. I suspect most of us are all too aware of the disproportionate level of enthusiasm expressed at merest hint of promise from a youth teamer, but in these days of ‘wonder kid’ obsession, the Nigerian-born Londoner has largely flown under the radar.
Not quite as lithe of limb or fleet of foot as many other eye catching contemporaries, Iwobi stood out in a way that was probably more intriguing for seasoned football fans. Rather than a bundle of individual tricks, extravagant passes or surging runs, he was remarkably economical, only using his quick feet when judicious and focusing on the movement of teammates.
In the first half particularly, he was the one looking most likely to create, moving the ball quickly and probing at what few gaps Sunderland left, while equally happy to carry the ball when a pass wasn’t on. With a ‘pre-assist’ for our equaliser, a number of dangerous surges into the box and two or three shots on target, Iwobi looks a lot closer to the first team than anyone would have predicted two years ago. From his approach to his physical frame, he just looks more like a professional than many players of his age.
Of course two starts doesn’t make a career, but he showed enough to suggest that he may be a viable option should our uncharacteristic famine in attacking midfield worsen.
The upshot of all this is that the aforementioned, along with any external additions (assuming the Home Office stop treating us completely differently to Chelsea and the Manchester clubs), Arsenal have a few more rotation options against weaker opposition than would have seemed likely even a month ago.
Obviously so much of the season still depends on the fitness of the key components of our spine, but there may be enough to get us through until the likes of Rosicky, Wilshere and Welbeck return. The potential departure of Debuchy remains a concern, as does the lack of options at number 9, but as long as any departures are matched by arrivals, this squad will suddenly seem very healthy when some of the missing many start to return.
As ever, the question about ‘top, top’ quality remains, but at least this team is functioning at a level at somewhere near the sum of its parts rather than being weakened by the character flaws of a few as was the case for so long. As ever, the pudding needs to be eaten before it is proved, but at least we aren’t so obviously a couple of chefs short of a kitchen as in other title challenges over the last decade.