For a long time now, it’s been a generally an acknowledged fact in the English Premier League that Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal has been, by and large, the most attractive team in terms of its style of play.
Despite failing to clinch a title since the Invincibles of 2003-04 did the unthinkable in winning a league title without registering a defeat, Wenger ‘s sides have combined being aesthetically pleasing with a failure to turn that flair and panache into trophies.
Up until last May, Wenger’s side have played perennial bridesmaids to the likes of Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson whilst the likes of Carlo Ancelloti, Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini have all come and achieved title success leaving Wenger to fall back on his whimsical riposte that “4th place is equivalent to winning a trophy”, which has left a chuckle on the throats of their rivals, not to mention the bemusement evident in their own fans.
However when Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey struck in extra time in May in the FA Cup final against Hull City to complete a remarkable comeback and end an almost decade-long trophy drought, the perennial wave of optimism at The Emirates has taken on a new dimension.
When you factor in the Gunners’ routine-like victory over opponents who have recently been a large thorn in their flesh in the FA Community Shield on Sunday (3-0 against Manchester City), then the increased wave of optimism among the Gunners fans is not without basis.
The Community Shield is a poor method of looking into the crystal ball; only seven teams have gone on to win the title since 1992, shortly before the new Premier league was founded, a stat that the Citizens fans will have enjoyed reminding Arsenal fans. In addition, City missed no less than 5 of their stalwarts in Sergio Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany, Alvaro Negredo and Fernandinho while the pedestrian nature of their play clearly revealed a team gradually working its way to full fitness and content more for the run-out than the result.
But a win is a win and Wenger will be more interested in the positives coming out of the game than any excuses City fans will throw at him.
For a start, the new signings seem to be bedding in fine with Mathieu Debuchy and Alexis Sanchez getting useful and promising debuts at Wembley.
Attack May Well be the Best form Of Defence
Starting up-top, Wenger possesses a wealth of attacking talent that will be hard to stop with Sanchez and Theo Walcott (when he returns from injury) a frightening prospect for even the speediest of defenders.
Alongside Olivier Giroud, these three are set to play the most upfield role with Yaya Sanogo and Joel Campbell expected to provide further proof of their development. One of Wenger’s strong points in the team has been the attacking linkmen who are crucial to Arsenal’s often intricate and exciting movement.
In Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain and Lucas Podolski, the Gunners are spoilt for choice while the brilliant Aaron Ramsey can stake a claim for the soon-to-be-departing Frank Lampard for the title of the Premiership’s most prolific midfielder of the last decade.
With such an attack-minded crew in midfield, defensive linkmen seem to be in the side as a matter of convenience rather than desire and it appears Wenger is more content to outplay and outscore opponents in the final third than worry about captain Mikel Arteta’s poor turn of pace, so evident against a lethargic Manchester City.
Aside from the Spaniard, Mathieu Flamini and the returning Abou Diaby are expected to supply defensive roles in a side whose Achilles heel is all too apparent. Against sides who can break with pace in the middle and also on the flanks, Arsenal ‘s defence will be sorely tested and though Debuchy is no slouch, he is not necessarily the quickest defender around and quite how the central defensive pair of Mertesacker and Koscielny react to such breaks will be critical.
Calum Chambers looks like developing in time to Three Lions standard but the absence of experienced cover caused by the departure of Thomas Vermaeen, it may well require a dip into the transfer market to reassure not only doubters but even Wenger’s own players as well.
Experienced Cover between the Sticks
The signing of David Ospina from Colombia has solved a nagging doubt on the suitability of goalkeeping cover, though one suspects Wojciech Szczesny may well have developed enough to be now the undisputed number one by now. The latter did generally well in the last season and to simply hand the Colombian the first choice berth may well seem cruel.
But cruel may well be the required trait at the Emirates. Arsenal have been too soft on their title rivals, with Spurs being an obvious exception. They only managed to register one win from games against City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool and for a team that spent the most days atop the league last season, it is a damning statistic. Even the much maligned David Moyes recorded his most notable league win against the Gunners, whilst the crushing defeats to the other afore-mentioned three deserves space on another column.
Cruel is what their slick but often profligate attack needs to be if they are to celebrate come May. Giroud falls into that unwanted category in strikers – that of a forward who scores more (but numerically less) difficult chances but converts much less (yet easier) chances that form the bulk of a key striker’s opportunities. He will need to reverse this to turn the long-awaited optimism that is now the Gunners’ middle name to successful realism.
Cruel is what the Gunners will need to be particularly in the late winter to early autumn period where they traditionally collapse. This is often precipitated by exits from the UEFA Champions league, and Wenger will do well to keep his team’s motor running well in this competition to ensure crucial momentum is not lost, otherwise it may well be a case of de-javu.
Arsenal will run their rivals closer and may well reach the last 8 in Europe, but that defensive shield is inadequate to protect the goals that will flow at the other end.
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