Have Arsenal actually improved?

Have Arsenal actually improved?

 

Written by @RJConway92

 

Arsenal have done many Arsenal like things yet again this season: they crashed out of the Champions League at the last 16 stage again, only this time it was more damaging than ever with them expected to crush Monaco. They went in front against Tottenham in the North London derby only to lose it in heartbreaking fashion, dominated Manchester United in the Premier League for 60 minutes before losing and still Arsene Wenger could not get a win over his rival Jose Mourinho (yet).

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However, although the season has had smatterings of disappointments and typical shooting themselves in the foot approach Wenger’s mean have actually put together a rather impressive campaign. Since New Year’s Day no team has accumulated more points than the Gunners and they are arguably playing the best football in Europe. They now find themselves in a battle for the title, even if that battle is one they will most likely lose with Chelsea firmly in control at the summit. Arsenal however, look to get back to Wembley to defend their F.A. Cup crown and seem to be looking up at the title rather than down to see who is on their tails for the fourth spot which they have made their own, for better or for worse, in recent years.

 

Rewind to the start of last season and a 3-1 spanking at home to Aston Villa teamed with their inactivity in the transfer market led to a chorus of boos and the #WengerOut movement. Wenger’s response was to splash out £42.5m on Mesut Ozil – seen at the time as a move to simply appease some of the fans. However, the move proved just to be the start and the Gunner’s board as well as Wenger have to take a lot of credit for building on the Ozil capture bringing in: Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, David Ospina, Calum Chambers and Mathieu Debuchy last summer as well as bringing in Gabriel Paulista in January.

 

The deals represent both quality as well as quantity. The summer window didn’t just seen Arsenal settle for once, they captured a young English player from Southampton which are all the rage these days, a top class forward from a world class team with competition for his signature as well as replacing Bacary Sagna with a player of a similar ilk thus not upsetting some of the balance – although injuries have meant Hector Bellerin has stepped up to the plate very successfully.

 

Arsenal are now spending to improve the squad, for the first time in ten years, instead of spending to replace key players they have had to sell to title rivals and big teams on the continent. This shift in the transfer policy has given Wenger the flexibility to compete with the other big clubs for Europe’s best players. It’s worth noting that Alexis Sanchez turned down a Liverpool team that finished second last season to join Arsenal – in the recent past it could be seen as a full gone conclusion that Liverpool would have captured the former Barcelona forward and the Wenger would be left routing around the bargain bin once more and insisting that it was always the move he wanted to make. With the current squad the losses of Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Alex Song, Bacary Sagna and Samir Nasri to name a few don’t seem as crushing when it’s looked at from a wider perspective.

 

In 2011 Wenger went for quantity over quality signing: Gervinho, Andre Santos, Park Chu-Young and Mikel Arteta to plaster over the loss of Nasri to Manchester City and Fabregas to Barcelona. This has been the process of the transfer business at the Emirates for the last three or four years. In 2012 Arsenal lost van Persie and Song  – two of their key players the previous season with van Persie leading the goal scoring charts and Song having 12 assists for that season. Most of them being delightful over the top balls for the Dutchman to volley in emphatically. And yet again Wenger responded by bringing in Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski – two out of the three mentioned have gone on to become key cogs in the current Arsenal team but their early days suggested that they would flicker for a while before disappointing in spades.

 

One thing Wenger has consistently been criticised for, and rightly so, has been his tactical stubbornness and inability to adapt to his opponent. It almost seemed like Wenger was stuck in the early Naughties whereby Arsenal was so good that plan A would blow every team out of the water as, at the time, Wenger was well ahead of his time tactically. Last season Wenger looked inept against the other top sides in the Premier League being hammered 6-0 by Chelsea, 6-3 by Manchester City and 5-1 by Liverpool. All in all Arsenal took just five points from six games against the other top three. Arsenal played all of those games very open and showed no tactical plan in how to win the game. Their opposition, much more prepared, would pinpoint the weaknesses of the Gunners and pick them apart with tremendous success.

 

In the three hidings Arsenal took last season at the hands of the other title contenders within 15 minutes City, Chelsea and Liverpool had scored. In fact Chelsea and Liverpool was already three nil up by the 20 minute mark.

 

The Arsenal of last season showed no flexibility. However, this season paints a very different tale and with that almost a late evolution for Arsene Wenger. Against Man City this season at the Etihad the London team sat back and drew The Blues on before countering with break neck speed, precision and devastating efficiency. It was like watching the Arsenal of old when they went away to such contenders. Against Liverpool recently Arsenal showed the same efficiency but with much more ruthlessness and in an eight minute spell blew Liverpool out of the water – again like the Gunners of old. Ozil, Sanchez, Giroud and Cazorla have formed a formidable front four with Welbeck chipping in with a wealthy contribution.

 

Arsenal have so far this season obtained victories over Manchester City twice, Liverpool once as well as a sparkling F.A. Cup triumph over Manchester United. Not since 2008 have Arsenal had such success against the so-called bigger teams regardless of the competition. Arsenal have suffered defeats to Spurs as well as Chelsea but the feeling is that the team is starting to click. In both defeats Arsenal did not set up to be so open but failed to break down a stubborn Chelsea team and could not capitalise on going one up against Mauricio Pochettino’s men. However progress against the big teams has been remarkable nonetheless.

 

In the Champions League Arsenal faltered yet again with a humbling defeat against Monaco in the first leg in London. Wenger showing some of his tactical ineptitude again with a reluctance to attack the French outfit with an real venom hoping that Monaco would attack them with a mind to hit them on the counter. It wasn’t just against Monaco that Arsenal struggled on the European stage. They dropped a three goal lead against Belgian side Anderlecht after conceding three goals in the final half an hour of the game. Losing 2-0 against Borussia Dortmund in Germany also highlighted that away from home against other big European teams Arsenal have a tendency to freeze – yes they did have an impressive win against Bayern Munich in Germany in 2013 but the tie was dead a buried in the first leg.

 

If Arsenal are to continue their evolution and progress even further then their European stutters have to be addressed. The team have certainly progressed domestically but they have fallen a long way from the team that ran Barcelona close in the 2006 Champions League final. The Monaco defeat cannot be taken lightly of course but the blow is cushioned with their outstanding form domestically in the league and the F.A. Cup, another F.A. Cup success may be enough for the fans to forgive Wenger for another dismal showing in Europe.

 

One notable mention has to be the rise and revalation that has been French midfielder – Francis Coquelin. Arsenal brought the holding midfielder back in January after a loan spell at Charlton. In Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography the former Manchester United manager remembers back to the 8-2 drubbing his team inflicted on Arsenal: ” Arsenal played a young boy in midfield; I had hardly heard of him – Francis Coquelin – and he barely played again. He was completely out of his depth.” at the time the young midfielder was very overwhelmed and for the majority of his early appearances for Arsenal he was deployed at the right back position.  This season he has been a revelation. Arsenal have needed a midfielder with bite and steel since the days of Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva. Coquelin has provided that in abundance shielding the back four superbly and allowing Cazorla, Ozil as well as Aaron Ramsey to streak forward and give support to Giroud. His stamina, anticipation and competitiveness has brought much needed balance to Wenger’s side and he has become a key figure almost by accident as he came in to replace the injured Arteta – Arteta will be lucky to play another game for Arsenal again with the current midfield looking so complete.

 

Wenger seemed unsure what to do with Coquelin early in his career having featured as a right back, centre back and in the centre of midfield. Now it seems Wenger and his coaching staff have groomed Coquelin into the holding player Arsenal have craved for years. The Frenchman is disciplined, decisive, strong and gives Arsenal some edge to them something which previous players in that position have lacked.

 

Arteta, Andre Santos, Abou Diaby and even Song to an extent, with his talents lying more in build up play rather than breaking it up, have all occupied the holding midfielder role with varying degrees of success and inconsistencies. Arteta was seen as the answer for Wenger but his lack of pace and stamina to get around the pitch, as well as his lack of tough tackling, saw him exposed far too often.

 

Coquelin’s presence has had a knock on effect on Giroud and his goal scoring prowess. With the young Frenchman holding and giving the attacking midfilders an insurance policy Giroud is able to bring Ozil, Sanchez, Welbeck and Cazorla into play without the midfielders taking a conservative approach in case they lose the ball. Giroud has benefitted massively with 14 league goals in 20 league appearances however the goals is only the cherry on the icing on the cake. Giroud has become a deadly all round striker the kind Arsenal have not seen since the days of Dennis Bergkamp – high praise but when Giroud plays his fluid play, elegant touches and classy finishing is reminiscent of the Dutch legend.

 

With the Coquelin in the team he is able to track attacking midfielders such as Yaya Toure, Philippe Coutinho and Christian Eriksen and neutralise them before they have a chance to give the Arsenal back four real problems – something which has plagued Arsenal in the past. Dynamic midfielders have floated between the lines with ease in recent years and cut Arsenal to ribbons. With the former Charlton man in the side the players in the number ten role are finding it much more difficult to get at the back line of Arsenal.

 

Defensively the Gunners look much more sound and with more depth in the defensive ranks Arsenal have genuine competition for places which may contribute to their elevation in form. Chambers came in and made an instant impact looking like a ten year pro in the centre back position before injuries and the form of his fellow defenders saw his appearances reduce. Young Spanish right back, Hector Bellerin has emerged on the scene and made the position his own with brilliant attacking, energy as well as being a solid enough defender. Of course at such a tender age he is going to make mistakes but he has shown enough that he is able to defend – a trait that is becoming almost extinct amongst modern full backs. Having a mentor such as Debuchy will also help the development of Bellerin as both have similar traits. again this shows that Arsenal have a depth at each position. In previous seasons they have been stretched to the bare bones when one or two players go down with injuries. Laurent Koscielny has had his campaign marred by one or two injury concerns yet when he is on the pitch he shows why he is one of the highest rated defenders in Europe and provides the pace to keep up with quicker forwards or get back when required. A quality Gabriel or Per Metersacker don’t have.

 

One big decision that Wenger has had to make and has come up trumps has been dropping Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. After Arsenal was outclassed by Southampton 2-0 the shot stopper was found to be smoking in the changing rooms. Couple that with him being at fault for both of the Saints’ goals Wenger dropped him – perhaps to teach him a lesson at first with an aim to reinstate him a few games later. However the form of Ospina has been magnificent and he has provided a more assured presence between the sticks. Less erratic behaviour, more professionalism as well as better decision making has made the Columbian the new number one for Arsenal.

 

Wenger has to take a lot of credit for the move as he has kept faith with Szczesny since he first broke into the team 2010, it is always hard to drop a number one goalkeeper as the instability of chopping and changing between goalkeepers can often create more problems than solutions.

 

The social media battle of #WengerOut or #WengerIn is very reminiscent of the Newcastle United situation with former manager Alan Pardew. Any defeat seems to prompt the outburst on Twitter and, up until recently, any victory was greeted with mute applause from a large proportion of fans who are still in the #WengerOut camp wanting a change at the helm. Wenger has struck back in marvellous fashion however and if he can retain the F.A. Cup and keep his team 2nd then he will surely prove that he is still the man to bring success to the Arsenal fans and start to give the beautiful Emirates stadium some more silverware in its trophy cabinet. Wenger’s evolution this season has flown somewhat under the radar. Sacrificing beautiful attacking, possession based football for a more efficient, ruthless approach in the big away games. Wenger is having more of an influence from the touchline changing things when he feels the need to. Having the players at his disposal to do so is an enormous help – one hand washing the other.

 

Arsenal look more mentally tough and against Liverpool they did not wilt once three nil up as they have been known to in the past but they did a professional job of seeing the game out. The Gunners still occasionally retreat into their shell after going one or two nil up and invite pressure on them, most recently displayed in their 2-1 victory over Newcastle. But those types of performances are becoming few and far between with Arsenal looking much more professional and confident in their approach to being the favourite and taking the lead.

 

Wenger also seems to be getting tougher on his players when it comes to team selection. Often the Frenchman would select players recently returning from injury to simply help them integrate back into the squad regardless of if it had a detrimental effect on the balance of the team. This has not been the same in the current campaign. Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere have both found first team opportunities hard to come by this season. Walcott especially, since his return from injury just a couple of cameo appearances from the bench has all he’s been able to get. In recent seasons the Arsenal manager has shoehorned in players returning from injury in almost a sentimental selection rather than picking the player because his qualities would shine through against the opposition.

 

Another upturn in fortunes for Arsenal’s progress has been the consistent performance of the attacking talent. Alexis Sanchez started his Arsenal career superbly and has registered 20 goals so far this season. Sanchez terrorised opposing defences with his direct style of play and his willingness to track back and hassle opponents for the ball. Sanchez’s directness has given Wenger’s team a new and fresh dynamic with an attacking midfielder no longer wanting to cut inside but take on full backs and get in behind. When his form dipped at the turn of the year the returning Ozil picked up his slack and has been in sparkling form since his return floating between the lines and picking apart defences.

 

All of this has culminated with Giroud scoring goals freely and looking confident. With the addition of Welbeck it has meant that Giroud has not suffered from burnout the way he did last season. Welbeck, although a particularly ‘sexy’ player has provided Arsenal with a hard working forward and meant that with him and Sanchez Arsenal can press from the front successfully and get the ball back much quicker as was on display against Liverpool (although Welbeck did not start that game).

 

Arsenal now possess many different types of attacking players when in the past they have been accused of having many players of similar DNA. Welbeck offers something different to Giroud with his pace and hard working nature. Sanchez offers a genuine wide threat getting chalk on his boots and able to take on his defender at lightning speed. Ozil is the type of player Arsenal have had in the past but with the added caveat of him being a world class number ten. If he can return to the consistent form he showed at Real Madrid then he will justify his hefty price tag. Ramsey and Cazorla both have attacking quality arriving late in the box after being heavily involved with the build up deeper in the midfield.

 

With this variety in attack opposition managers now have a task on their hands accounting for which attacking formation Wenger sets his team up in. No longer are Arsenal predictable in attack which has made them as deadly as ever and producing the best football in the country.

 

Consistent goals from midfield have also helped the Gunners. The entire midfield has chipped in with thirty goals so far this season. All title winning teams have had a midfield packed with goals. Manchester City had it last season and Chelsea have it this term. The Arsenal sides of old also had it in the shape of Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and even Gilberto Silva had ten league goals in Arsenal’s 2003-04 unbeaten league season. This season Ramsey and Cazorla have contributed eight goals apiece, Ozil has five and the other nine goals have been spread across the rest of midfield. This large contribution of goals from the midfield has helped take the pressure off the forwards when robust defences are making it difficult for them. In recent years Arsenal have been so heavily reliant on Giroud and before him van Persie with Walcott carrying the load for the Gunners in the 2012-13 campaign with 14 league goals and 12 assists. The midfield has been much more reliable in all aspects not just goal scoring but tracking back and working as a unit to regain possession of the ball. Players such as Ozil have been criticised for not carrying out his defensive duties when he is dispossessed thus labelled ‘luxury players’. Now with Arsenal pressing from the front with Sanchez, Giroud and Welbeck the midfield follows suit and is making life very hard for the opposition as the space gets squeezed.

 

Arsenal have shown signs of very slow progression in the last two seasons but this campaign has revealed that they have progressed significantly against the other teams competing for the title and Champions League. Wenger and the board have built on the cup success of last season and to many they are (still) just a world class defender short of overthrowing Chelsea and Manchester City as domestic superpowers. If Wenger can guide his side to another Wembley triumph as well as a runner up spot in the league then it will be indisputable evidence that he is getting Arsenal back to the glory days of his early years at the club. The attacking line up looks set, Coquelin has provided bite and balance. The back line has more depth to it and with Ospina between the sticks they have a much more confident goalkeeping situation (whether Ospina is the number one next season, with links between Arsenal and Petr Cech being made, remains to be seen). However the squad is now looking deep at all positions and deep with quality, their bench looks dangerous on a consistent basis now meaning that Wenger has the tools to change a game when things are not going well on the pitch for his team.

 

The summer window is vital for Wenger, long gone are the days of chasing big players such as Gonzalo Higuain and being unable to get over the hurdle and secure his signature. Banished are the days of being raided by Manchester City or Barcelona for their in-form players. Wenger now has the deep pockets to spend big and compete and is now on the brink of completing his construction of a team that will once again rise to the top of the Premier League mountain, Arsenal have progressed significantly since Aaron Ramsey’s Wembley heroics last May.

 

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