Arsene Wenger would want his team to sustain an assault on the Premier League title this year. Failing that he would at very least want to considerably cut the 19 point gap that separated him from last season’s contenders.
It is no easy task. Over a busy summer, he has lost two of his top players and his right wing man, doubts have arisen regarding Walcott’s future and Wilshere is no nearer to making a comeback than he was this time last year.
To top it all off, they had gone 200-odd minutes without a scoring before Podolski buried one of his team’s few chances at Anfield, as the new-look strike force is finding its rhythm. When we put it this way it all sounds a bit negative. There is no mention of the three promising signings that came in or the three matches without conceding a goal – all of which should Arsenal make fans a bit optimistic.
Robin van Persie’s replacements
Unlike their opponents this past weekend, or their North London rivals, Arsenal clearly had a plan for the summer. Chelsea and Manchester United may have made the glamour acquisitions, but if Giroud can find his feet then Wenger should be content with his transfer activity. Having learned from last year, he bought early, he knew what he wanted before the season started and he made sure there wouldn’t be too many unpleasant surprises (the revelation that van Persie was told he no longer had a place in the team speaks volumes).
Much depends yet on how his new millionaires adapt to the Premier League, but early sings are encouraging. Santi Cazorla looks every bit the marquee signing and has brought back the deft touches, quick exchanges and sexy passes that Arsenal lost with Nasri and Fabregas. In fact just about everything about the little Spaniard reeks of Arsenal and he has it in him to slice stubborn defences open when it gets a bit desperate. From then on much depends on his fellow new-comers.
About them, there isn’t much Arsenal-esque, but perhaps they mark a shift in style. Podolski – who combined well with Cazorla for both of Arsenal’s goals against Liverpool – announced himself at the 2006 World Cup with some direct runs and blistering shots. We’ve understood in the years since that ‘prodigy’ can mean more than quick footwork and cute finishes and this is why he is such a brilliant signing for Arsenal. They have lost far too many points to insipid performances on cold winter afternoons, and he is the kind of player who has not only the quality, but also the grit to keep going when Lee Cattermole seems content on flattening everyone in sight. We have seen him track back, make challenges and draw fouls; that is more than can be said about any Arsenal forward from recent years.
With Olivier Giroud the shift in style becomes more evident. He is slow, strong, and from what we hear, quite good at finishing. He’s more than a French Grant Holt, but whatever oozes from his boots, it isn’t the same magic that flows from van Persie’s. For Arsenal this could be the biggest step forward. They now have a presence up front, an aerial threat, a real target man. If they can learn how to use him the swap of some of the cute for the brute could prove to be the change that Wenger should have made seasons ago.
Back to basics
I am not sure if the swap in tactical dispositions came about because of the new signings, or whether they were bought to fit in a new style. In either case pundits have been quick to apportion praise to new assistant coach Steve Bould. For the first time in many years the Arsenal defence looks sturdy, and this is despite the absence of the majority of the first choice defensive five.
It seems as if the players are longer scared to give the ball a good old hoof – up to Giroud, for the wingers to run on to or simply into touch. I am not a fan of the old kick-and-rush. I hate it, which is why I enjoy watching Arsenal’s matches, but sometimes it is needed. If you are to win then you have to make the best choices, regardless of the footballing philosophy, and threading a pass between Gerrard and Suarez is simply dangerous.
On top of this newfound eagerness, the organization in defence, the zonal marking on set plays and the communication between the back five seems to have been well put in place. Everything looks as it should.
I maintain that September is a bit early to judge a team’s credentials, but early signs are encouraging. The cuteness is still there, and it still doesn’t always work, but now there is some strength in the team as well, and the possibility of an alternative route to goal. Whether the new signings will be enough to improve on van Persie’s contribution or not remains to be seen, but Wenger’s men seem to be in the best position to scare the Manchester duo.