Last midweek, the footballing media was focussed on the failure of last season’s Premier League winners to qualify for the last sixteen of Europe’s top club competition, not to mention the drastic managerial changes brought in by the current holders of the Champions League as defeat in Turin left them teetering on the brink of elimination.
Relatively little column inches were left for the other English side who went into Matchday 5 with their Champions League future in doubt. Arsenal wrapped up qualification with quiet composure and confidence; easing through to the knockout rounds with a solid 2-0 victory over French champions Montpellier.
While the managerial upheaval and uncertainty that shrouded Chelsea’s collapse against Juventus was always going to dominate analytical attention, the manner in which Arsenal dispatched Montpellier at the Emirates on Wednesday showed signs that Arsene Wenger’s side have emerged from their brief down turn in form. Arsenal consolidated their win against Spurs with an assured display that will give Arsenal fans plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their forthcoming run of fixtures.
Arsene Wenger commented on the feeling of “massive satisfaction” that progressing from the group stages gave him, partly because he has, in his own words, had his “back to the wall, accused of not spending fortunes”. Wenger should be extremely satisfied that the money Arsenal did use to bring in players over the summer is looking increasingly well spent. Lukas Podolski’s goal will be the moment to stay on in the memory of those watching on Wednesday night, but it was Arsenal’s other forward Wenger signed in the summer, Olivier Giroud, that caught the eye during the Gunners’ victory. Playing against his former club, Giroud didn’t find the back of the net, but played a vital part in the creation of both goals, and demonstrated his ever increasing confidence in an Arsenal shirt.
The former Montpellier man has had an admittedly shaky start to his Arsenal career. He failed to score in his first few matches, including a few glaring misses, and soon found himself kicking his heels on the bench watching Ivorian forward Gervinho lead the line. However, the striker has been resurgent in recent weeks; scoring important goals in the Premier League and in Europe, and his statistics of seven goals and six assists from eleven starts are beginning to back up the prowess he is showing on the pitch.
For Arsenal’s first goal, the Frenchman combined his strength and power with his deftness of touch; rising highest in the penalty area to cushion a knock down header into the path of the onrushing Jack Wilshere. For Podolski’s sublime volley, Giroud sharply dropped off the covering centre back, creating space for him to loft a delightful return pass which Podolski buried with power and precision into the roof of the net. In the North London derby at the weekend, Giroud demonstrated his predatory instincts in the box, sliding home from close range. On Wednesday night Arsenal fans were treated to his versatility, as the burly striker excelled in selflessly creating the two goals that handed Arsenal victory. Arsenal continue to score frequently, but the array of scorers (Walcott 9, Giroud 7, Podolski 7, Gervinho 5, Cazorla 4), will be a welcome relief from when Arsenal qualified a year ago.
While Arsenal may be heralding their new arrivals; Giroud, Poolski, and the scintillating Santi Cazorla, the confident form of one of the club’s young heroes was also a major factor as the Gunners progressed to the last sixteen. Jack Wilshere’s last Arsenal goal came nearly two years ago against Aston Villa, but the lovely dink over Montpellier’s ‘keeper Jourdren was the sign of a player brimming with confidence and eagerness.
Any doubts that Wilshere’s return might be tentative have been firmly quashed by the determination and energy the midfielder has shown in his performances since returning to the side. Wilshere was a dominant force in the heart of the Arsenal side on Wednesday, frequently linking up the play from deep, yet equally often sliding into tackles with all the bite and vigour he possessed when he initially broke into the Arsenal first team. The unqualified joy etched on his face as he wheeled away after putting Arsenal ahead will be mirrored on the faces of the Gunners’ supporters if his form continues to rise.
Arsenal’s recent seasons have been defined by greatly varying peaks and troughs in form. This season looks no different. After Arsenal’s defeat to Norwich, the backlash against the players and manager was bitter, yet after victory in the North London derby and qualification for the knockout rounds, the mood in the red half of North London is once again buoyant. The footballing attention is fixed firmly on the managerial musical chairs in West London, and all at Arsenal will be hoping it remains there for a good while to come. The Gunners often are at their best when flying just out of the radar of the journalists searching for dramatic headlines; quietly continuing to improve and consolidate performances week by week.
With qualification assured for the latter stages of the Champions League, the focus until the New Year can be on climbing up the table. If Wenger’s side can keep hold of the calmness and composed quality that they displayed against Montpellier, the football press will have to turn the spotlight on the Emirates. For now, Arsenal will enjoy playing out of the limelight.