After the worst start to a season in their Premier League history, Arsenal have recovered remarkably well, steadily climbing up the table from a lowly 17th to 5th place and one point off the hotly contested Champions League places. Many fans point to the 5-3 victory over Chelsea as the turning point this season for the Gunners and rightly so, the team appeared to have a new-found belief and that inferiority complex that seemed to plague the team when playing against their fellow title challengers was shrugged off with aplomb.
Since that day, steady if unspectacular victories have ensured Arsenal are now talked about as potential top four finishers and even for a short while, title challengers. Injuries have taken their toll on the team however and the following months, famous for Arsenal collapses in preceding years, will be an interesting few for this new look side. Certain players have no doubt played their part and I’ll break the team up into their different roles to take a closer look at their performances so far this season.
After years of goal-keeping merry-go-round at the club, where one hapless individual was replaced by another, Wojciech Szczesny has become a revelation between the sticks. Capable of turning in excellent performances every week, the young Pole has cemented himself as first-choice and has no intention of losing it. The important aspect of a goalkeeper for Arsenal is concentration for the full 90 minutes as they may only face one or two shots on target due to Arsenal’s ability to retain possession and Szczesny has this, my favorite example being the quick-reaction save to deny Sunderland’s Lee Cattermole.
His 7 clean sheets so far surpasses that of our closest rival table-wise, Petr Cech and he is only one caught cross behind him, something that Arsenal have been calling out for in previous seasons. His organisational abilities have been evident as well, most notably at set-pieces where he can often be found screaming at defenders to get in the right place. Due to his youthfulness, however, he is prone to the odd rush of blood the head, the most recent case being his flap at a cross against Fulham allowing them to score the equaliser.
Our lack of quality back-up is a concern, Fabianski is number two and plays like one, Almunia can’t even make the bench ahead of our young academy prospect Martinez and Mannone is on loan to Hull; a level he may find himself most suited to unfortunately. If Szczesny stays fit though this is one area that Gunners need not worry about and his current presence has increased the confidence of our defence who know they can rely on him
This area of the team has also begun to show signs of improvement after last season. Early season mistakes and the ability to create an offside trap even Emile Heskey could spring meant a lot of worried faces amongst Arsenal fans as it looked a case of deja vu. The early season form looks to have been down to the embedding of Mertesacker, who has steadily improved at the mopping up function behind our more active defenders as the season progresses, and the rotation of full-backs due to injury. The loss of Sagna has led to multiple personnel being deployed at right-back, however I feel it is the loss of Santos that has hurt us the most so far this season.
Bearing in mind these are the stats of a player from his first seven games in the Premiership after playing in the Turkish League they are quite impressive. His ability to intercept means he can launch counter-attacks, much like Gael Clichy could, however unlike the departed Frenchman there is an end product to his forward forays, the goal against Chelsea summing the Brazilian up. His stabbing tackling technique makes for nervous viewing, but his success rate is only 1.4% off Ashley Cole’s, one of the best left-backs in the league.
The real stars of Arsenal’s defence, however, have been Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen. After a rather successful period of improvement last season, Koscielny has blossomed into, in my opinion, one of the best centre-backs in the league. His ability in one-on-ones is remarkable and he has added an attacking flair with 58 interceptions so far this season and a passing accuracy of 85%. His ability to burst into the middle of the park and spread the play out to Walcott and Gervinho is often overlooked. A vital attribute the defence have missed is a presence at set pieces, both defensive and attacking, and Vermaelen adds this. His organisation of the defence is often missed when he is injured and his tackling success of 90% eclipses that of even Vincent Kompany who many hold as the star centre back in the league so far this season.
What will be important in this second half of the season will be the return of some of our full-backs, or the addition of another one, as the injury crisis continues to mount in these areas, inhibiting both our defensive and attacking play.
I’ve found this to be the most interesting aspect of the side since the loss of Fabregas and especially since the signing of Mikel Arteta. When he was signed I thought it might be to take the creative load off Ramsey who appeared to have been hit with the burden of fulfilling Cesc’s boots, a feat few midfielders could do never mind a young prospect in his first full season since a horrific leg break. Most surprisingly, the former Everton man has slotted more alongside Song in front of the back four, playing the role of metronome in setting the tempo of a game.
As you can see, only half way through the season he has almost matched his total complete passes and most interestingly, his chances created for Everton last season where he played a far more advanced role. The maturity he has added to the team cannot be overestimated and his tackling success of 89% shows the Spaniard isn’t afraid to sit back and get stuck in. In fact, as his relationship with Song has developed they’ve begun to alternate more on who joins attacks as Song’s dribbling ability and strength add a different dynamic through the midfield.
Song’s spectacular rise as one our key players has continued this season. His 8 assists so far this season gulf his previous seasons, showing his improvement in an attacking sense with excellent through balls and lobs such as the one to Van Persie against Everton. An awful lot has been said about his improvement recently in the blogging world and I think this has contributed to the overlooking of Aaron Ramsey. Thrust into the playmaker role through the loss of Fabregas and injury to Wilshere, the young Welshman has performed admirably well, culminating in one of the midfield performances of the season so far against Chelsea. Proneness to the odd way-ward pass or unnecessary glory-ball means he does have his critics, however his burst of pace over one or two yards adds something that our midfield has long desired to add a new dynamic. Tomas Rosicky has put in promising performances when deputising for Ramsey such as when he came on during Villa and turned the tide of the game and with the young starlet Jack Wilshere still to return it promises to be an exciting run-in for our midfield.
This articles getting on a bit in length and I think I’ve reached one aspect of our season so far I can gloss over. Robin Van Persie has been nothing short of sensational this season. With a goal every 101 minutes and 17 thus far I believe that says enough about our new Dutch master and will focus on the ones yet to convince.
Gervinho was our first acquisition of the summer transfer window and has been a great signing so far. Granted, his finishing needs work on, but it’s nice to see a winger get the ball to feet and immediately look to beat the nearest man and keep play going at high speed, rather than the slow methodical passing that had came to characterise our attacking play. With 5 assists and 4 goals so far he is showing great promise, however I think the majority of fans know that his finishing has been erratic at the best of times and his final ball occasionally leaves much to be desired. These are things that can be ironed out though and I think a break from the pace of the Premier League for a few weeks will do the Ivorian the world of good.
On the other wing we have the enigma that is Theo Walcott. His connection with Van Persie has become almost telepathic, but I do fear this is turning him into a completely selfless provider for the Dutchman. Hopefully the tutelage of one Thierry Henry can inject some selfishness and desire for glory into his play. His stats make for reasonable reading but there is a glaring one that most definitely needs improved. With only two league goals to his name so far, Walcott has a lot of work to do to share the burden with Van Persie. The stat doesn’t make for pretty reading for a player who has often argued he should be played down the middle, but I feel Walcott has the ability and if the addition of Henry to the squad does nothing after last night, I hope it leaves our young winger with a few ideas to ponder. If not there’s another certain young Englishman waiting in the shadows who looks more and more exciting everytime he steps onto the field
If Arsenal want to secure anything this season, Wenger almost certainly needs to add to the striking department. Over-reliance on Van Persie does look like it’s becoming a major problem and the lack of quality or form in the back-up options is a massive worry. The form of Arshavin has to have made Wenger think about his options and maybe cutting the 30 year old Russian loose wouldn’t be the worst option. Overall, I think Arsenal have a great chance of performing well this season, with the best chance for silverware no doubt the FA Cup with the league seemingly out of reach. I will leave you with one eery fact I noticed in my research though; in our double-winning 97/98 season, Arsenal were in 5th place, 12 points behind the league leaders at this stageof the season as we are now, with one newspaper describing our ‘defence (decimated for the first few games at least) which is not so secure’ and ‘the feeling that Arsenal are over-reliant at this stage on their Dutch striker’s irresistible form’. It’s going to be an interesting few months.
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