The weekend’s walk-over of the West London gazzilionaires has helped restore the faith, and the logic of recent decisions is now clear, but is this just another false dawn?
In a surprisingly timely fashion, my column last week was primarily focused on Arsene Wenger’s emergent tactical blue-print. Given that the last week has seen the understudies trounce Nottingham Forest as a prelude to the main men putting Chelsea back in their box, it seems my scribblings were prescient for once.
Of course, excitement needs to be tempered by the fact that Nottingham Forest aren’t very good (not helped by an extraordinary level of player turnover) and that Chelsea’s backline is still (after all these years) a mess when John Terry is unavailable.
The result of Saturday’s game, the manner in which it was achieved and the opponents created a perfect narrative for the is it/isn’t it 20th anniversary (but officially not) fixture, particularly given how the 500th and 1000th games went against the same opponents. The ever eloquent Barney Ronay in the Guardian summed up the anniversary award feel of the game.
Its significance was not just sentimental though. Although deficiencies in team balance have been exposed against Liverpool and PSG, what we are seeing at the moment is an intelligent evolution of previous tactical experiments, facilitated by fitness and form.
Long-term bugbears of anyone remotely interested in Arsenal’s on-pitch set up have been a lack of mobility up front, a lack of creativity out wide and a lack of balance in central midfield.
Previous iterations have had one or two elements and experiments with Theo up front and Cazorla out wide have tried to address some of this before but with only sporadic success.
A very significant element of change has been the emergence of the previously unheralded Alex Iwobi, who has brought a much needed further creative spark to the final third.
Our official Man of the Match on Saturday has brought guile and subtlety that was missing with a wing combination of two from Alexis, Theo, The Ox and Joel Campbell. He may not have the directness and raw pace of any of the aforementioned, but as long as that is provided from the other flank and up front, he brings a vital element of balance and control to our front three. His two-footedness, willingness to drift into areas of opposition weakness and capacity to link effectively with Alexis, Theo and Ozil has added some much needed glue and unpredictability to our attacking play.
Accordingly the balance of out front four is now the best since the days of Theo Van Nasrigas, with the added bonus that Iwobi is very hard to dislike, unlike his last true creative wideman predecessor, the universally unpopular Samir Nasri. It also helps that it has manoeuvred Giroud to his rightful position of alternating between the bench and the starting eleven, rather than being flogged like a dead horse while we bounce long balls off him for six months at a time.
Sure, Iwobi’s defensive focus and competence need work, but we forgave Bobby Pires’s lackadaisical relationship with such things, and he seems a keen student of the game.
With Alexis’s false nine instincts having him come deep more often than not, it’s been vital that Ozil has been looking to make that extra man in the box with late supportive runs, a task that he appears to be warming to. The renaissance of Walcott with currently consistently impressive levels of work rate is a really big deal as well, particularly with his likely alternative, Oxlade-Chsmberlain still carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Hopefully the midweek goal against Forest can help the latter kick-start things.
Looking elsewhere, the 2016 vintage of Coq-zorla, with the Frenchman in a more box-to-box role, has shown encouraging signs as he learns how to use that energy and enthusiasm judiciously, but it’s likely that we’ll be without his services for some time as the latest iteration of an Arsenal midfield injury crisis kicks in. Crucially though, we now have Xhaka and Elneny to slot in rather than Flamini and a one-legged Arteta, both of whom seem to have a reasonably well developed tactical intelligence.
Crucially, both can fulfil elements of the box-to-box role and the deeper distributing role, which hopefully will allow Cazorla to get the odd rest when Ramsey returns to fitness. The Welshman remains a fine player and one of my favourites, but is in danger of finding himself as understudy for several roles unless he can re-develop the all action positional balance he displayed in 2013-14.
A crucial difference to the aforementioned 2010-2012 era of balance in the front four that extends beyond central midfield is the backline. While perhaps Mustafi and Koscielny as a partnership lacks the ideal diversity of traits one would want (and yes I am dreading Andy Carroll and Man Utd’s collection of giants already), our first choice back five (and indeed some of their replacements) have a feel of competence that has not been a constant in recent years. Apart from one moment when both wanted to clatter Costa simultaneously and got in each other’s way, our new centre-half pairing seem to understand each other’s games, which bodes well.
Things change quickly in football, particularly at a club like Arsenal, where the next discovered synergy, confidence crisis, emerging kid or recurrent injury-fest is always on the horizon, but it’s important to note how different things look and feel today compared to six weeks ago. That’s not to put any predictions on the season, for as we all know, the last decade has been an annual rollercoaster, but at least we can see what the plan is now.
At this stage it’s impossible to confidently predict the outcome of upcoming bun-fights with Spurs and United et al, with all of the contending sides showing frailty and strength in equal measure. Well, apart from Pep and the oil barons, who hopefully won’t still be sporting a perfect record by the time we aim to puncture their unbeaten run. But challenging for honours looks realistic again, and we’ve started scoring goals again, so for the moment, I’ll take that.