It seems like years ago now, but just under four months ago Arsenal fans were abusing Arsene Wenger at a train station after their 3-2 defeat at the Britannia. Now Arsenal are second in the league, are on their longest winning streak in the league since the Invincibles, and are going back to Wembley for an FA Cup semi final this weekend. How times change.
Lots of things have changed since that horrible loss to Stoke. Prior to the Liverpool game two weeks ago, Arsenal had their entire squad fit for the first time since 2005 and, since returning from their respective injuries, both Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil are in the best form of their Arsenal careers. One other big change is the integration of Francis Coquelin. For all that has happened since that trip to Stoke, recalling the Frenchman from his loan at Charlton may have been the most important change. He was recalled from the Championship side on Friday December 12th. Since then Arsenal have won 19 of their 23 matches in all competitions.
No one could have predicted the performance of Francis Coquelin, not even Arsene Wenger. I doubt when he made the decision to bring the young defensive midfielder back Wenger thought he would play himself into the first team and a new long term contract, but that’s exactly what he’s done. The 24 year old made his first appearance the day after his recall coming on for the last five minutes of Arsenal’s 4-1 win over Newcastle. He came on for the last 15 minutes of the game against Liverpool and the last five of the game against QPR. His first start was on December 28th and he has started every game since then, bar two FA Cup games against Brighton and Middlesbrough where he was rested. “Le Coq’s” presence has stiffened up the Arsenal midfield. This has made breaking down Arsenal a much tougher, longer task for their opponents. People had been calling out for a defensive midfielder at Arsenal for years now and Arsene Wenger seems to have finally found one. The police officer, as Thierry Henry calls him, has patrolled the midfield superbly since coming back and has statistically been one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League over the last four months. With Coq coming into Arsene Wenger’s side, they’re a much more balanced team.
While Coquelin has been a big change, he isn’t the only change that has led to this Arsenal revival. Another big part is Arsenal are finally getting their players healthy again. Whether this is the work of their new head fitness coach, Shad Forsythe, or just an incredible amount of luck, Arsene Wenger is finally getting his players back fit. Olivier Giroud has come back from injury and made a huge difference. He has scored 18 goals in 27 games in all competitions and 14 goals in 20 league games. That gives him one of the best minutes per goal rates in the Premier League, better than that of Diego Costa, Harry Kane, and Sergio Aguero. Along with the return of the Frenchman, Mesut Ozil has come back and has turned into, well, Mesut Ozil. The German looks like the player we saw in his time at Real Madrid and has started to dominate games again. His 2.58 key passes per 90 minutes puts him just about level with the likes of Eden Hazard (2.59 per 90 minutes) and ahead of the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Christen Eriksen, Coutinho, and Angel Di Maria.
The final thing they’ve shown in this run is much more flexibility in terms if both tactics and personnel. This partially comes back to having players fit again, but it is also down to this new flexibility Arsene Wenger has shown. There was a lot made of Arsenal’s win at the Etihad in January showing Arsenal’s flexibility, but that isn’t the only time in this run we’ve seen Arsenal change their tactics based on their opponent. It may have been in a defeat, but they showed their willingness to cede possession against Tottenham as well against West Ham away, and Liverpool. They also showed the other end of the spectrum against Liverpool at home where they pressed the Reds into submission in their 4-1 victory. In terms of flexibility of personnel, we saw Arsene Wenger draft Danny Welbeck in up front and score the winner against Manchester United, he’s played Gabriel in games where he has wanted to play a high line like away to Newcastle, and, although he hasn’t been playing recently, the goal scoring ability of Theo Walcott was utilized for a time scoring goals against Brighton, Leicester, and Aston Villa. Arsenal have become more flexible which has allowed them to win bigger games, like away to both Manchester clubs and at home to Liverpool, while still beating the clubs they should beat.
In only four moths, the fortunes of Arsenal have changed so much. They have a chance to finish second, their highest league finish since 2005, and retain the FA Cup. After all the doom and gloom, this could still be a successful season. Obviously, for all the good that has come in this run there is still that ugly pimple that was the Monaco game. That is still fresh in some people’s minds, but, with everything else they’ve done since the calendar flipped, there are reasons to say that was an anomaly and there are reasons to feel the future is bright at the Emirates. This weekend they have a great chance to get to another FA Cup final when they play Reading at the weekend and continue this phenomenal run of theirs.