After a thoroughly miserable few weeks, where another season has collapsed at speed, the last few days have brought a few rays of sunlight peeking through the clouds.
Much like late January 2015, the manager appears to have finally stumbled across a team shape that offers a rather better balance than we have seen for months, with the midfield actually functioning as some kind of unit for the first time since Cazorla was injured at Norwich.
The key to this has been the selection of two central midfielders with real defensive positional awareness AND the capacity to cover significant ground at the same time, which we haven’t seen since the halcyon days of the Invincibles.
Now obviously I’m not suggesting that Coquelin and Elneny are or ever will be in the same class as Gilberto and Vieira, but the addition of the Egyptian at least gives us the tactical option having the balance of a defensive screen and a genuine box-to-box player that analysts and fans alike have been demanding for years.
I was excited about the Elneny signing back in January for precisely this reason, and because, quite apart from any tactical considerations, the Arsenal central midfield’s greatest weakness over the last few seasons has been running power and flexibility, both of which are our winter signing’s greatest assets.
It’s hard to feel convinced that this newly found balance was part of the plan, with the manager waiting until the new boy was ready to contribute at this level, given Arsene’s penchant for overloading central areas with attacking players.
Whether intended or an accidental discovery akin to the Coquelin/Cazorla axis, the team seems to have regained some cohesion as a result. Of course, this still leaves us with the tactical issue of a lack of a game controlling distributor from deep a la Cazorla at his best, but it does stop us being quite so ridiculously imbalanced and lacking in control.
From a more general perspective, it’s also great to see a midfielder both willing and vaguely competent when it comes to shooting from range, and Elneny’s beautiful strike against Barcelona was a reward for taking personal responsibility in promising positions.
Speaking of personal responsibility, another significant bright spot of the week has been Alex Iwobi, particularly his lack of deference to his team-mates compared to most youngsters breaking into an established side.
After some impressive showings in the cup (including looking lively and hitting the post off the bench against Watford), he responded fantastically well to starting at the Nou Camp and at Goodison Park.
Thrust into a potentially no-win situation against the best team in the world, Iwobi drove the team forward, linked well and could have won a penalty in the first half (I still can’t tell if he was clipped or not), before understandably tiring late on.
Against Everton, he was not needed to demonstrate quite the same work-rate or calmness in his own half but showed remarkable assurance for some making their league debut.
Quite apart from his surprisingly well-taken goal, he showed a lot more in the first half than certain others (*cough* Walcott *cough*) have done in recent months, particularly in terms of his awareness and link up play with Danny Welbeck.
As well as the player showing himself worthy of his surprise elevation in the first team pecking order, it’s a timely boost for the manager from a PR perspective.
Every fan loves to see a kid from the youth set-up breakthrough, especially at the top level where it remains a comparative rarity, almost as much as a superstar signing. So it is hardly surprising to see a manager who focuses as much on player development as Wenger is more than happy to indulge the press in talking about Iwobi.
Accordingly this has led him to make the kind of broader announcement about the youth set-up that we haven’t heard for a little while.
‘We have a fantastic generation coming,’ Wenger explained.
‘Between 16 and 20 we have a great generation.
‘It’s very exciting for the club.’
Of course, given the history repeating aspect of the last decade, those most convinced that the manager should depart may see this as just another example of Arsene giving us just enough of a positive glimpse of the future to keep the illusion of progress.
I for one certainly don’t share the opinion that our u21s and u18s are currently significantly better than the selection available around the turn of the decade, but admittedly I don’t see them train, and am certainly among those who would not have anticipated the rapid development of Iwobi over the last two years.
The third bright spot at the moment is the form and impact of the aforementioned Danny Welbeck. Great though his late winner against Leicester City was, the knowledge that he had missed over ten months of football forced expectations to remain tempered.
The fact that he has managed to maintain that level of involvement and impact since then is a testament to both his character and the way his return to the side has been overseen by the manager.
We all know about his mobility and work-rate, and how that impacts on the side tactically, allowing quicker transitions and pulling central defenders deeper and into wider positions than with Giroud.
What has been questioned, and quite justifiably so, has been his ability to retain possession for the team, to make goalscorers’ runs and to convert the chances that come his way.
While one swallow certainly doesn’t make a summer, his finishes this season since returning, particularly against Watford and against Everton at the weekend have been very encouraging, as has the decisiveness of his movement and link play.
The jury is still very much unconvinced as to whether he represents a real long term option at centre-forward, and his lack of composure for his glaring miss late on against Watford served as a reminder that he’ll never be the dead-eyed assassin in front of goal that we crave, but one thing is clear. At this moment in time he is the best choice for that role, particularly given the loss of form of Giroud and rate of retreat of Walcott’s ability to impact at this level.
The emergence of Elneny and Iwobi and the return of Welbeck have helped breathe some life into what was starting to look like the Arsenal corpse, but sadly, all three may have joined the party too late to save the season.
The Champion’s League fantasy died with the draw for the last 16, and the FA Cup capitulation against Watford showed that further shaking up of the side was needed, but even though Wenger responded to being let down by his players again, it seems too late for the title challenge.
Mathematical possibility means it’s not the time to give up entirely on catching those ahead of us, but both Spurs and Leicester seem to be maintaining their form (at least regarding results) remarkably well, with both Kane and Mahrez being talismanic to their sides.
It feels watching it unfold as we lag behind, due to the horror at the prospect of a Tottenham title win. Although we need Leicester to slip as soon as possible to have any hope of catching them, I find myself not wanting them to drop points until Spurs do themselves.
Looking at things realistically, though, it’s hard to see us overhauling both unless each is hit by the kind of late-season injury crisis that Arsenal have patented over the last decade.
Which leaves us clutching at whatever straws and crumbs of comfort we can find.