Rousing performances kick off the international break in style
The Olympiakos game brought back the swagger, the Blackburn game brought back the goals. And now that the international break has kicked off, we’re left to bask in the glow of two great signs that Arsenal can go, as Wenger likes to say, from “strength to strength.”
The Olympiakos game was one of our better attacking displays of the season. And considering how many goals we’ve scored, that’s a bold statement. Although we only scored two, and they didn’t come until the final quarter of the match, we were at our flowing best. It was a game where we might have struggled and become frustrated in the past. Olympiakos parked the proverbial bus in front of their goal. (I’d like to find the head of security at the Emirates and find out why they keep letting buses park on the pitch.) In the past we might have let our struggle to score cause frustration. But it was a different story against the Greek champions.
Arsenal played with fluency despite the Greek’s determination to defend with ten men at all time. And there’s no denying that our ability to break them down and maintain composure was largely down to the performance of two key players. Arshavin and Fabregas both seemed to regain the form that has made them world-class players and such key contributors for this team. They always looked dangerous and if it weren’t for some tame finishing, we might have dished out an historic beating.
I genuinely believe the key to our performance against Olympiakos was our hard-fought victory at Craven Cottage. We battled against a well organized Fulham side that gave no quarter. They worked hard, closed down, and frustrated us for the better part of 90 minutes. A loss to Fulham would have had the critics piling on and the players concerned. But we held on bravely, got three points, and proved that we can win an ugly, physical contest. Compared to what we saw at the Cottage, Olypiakos’ defending must have appeared like Swiss cheese. And with our confidence growing, and room to maneuver, Arsenal were able to play with panache.
The Blackburn game really couldn’t have come at a better time. We had a growing number of injured players returning, Arshavin and Cesc seemingly had returned to proper form, and Thierry Henry visited the Emirates to celebrate Arsene Wenger’s reign as the longest serving Arsenal manager. It was almost unfair to the fat Walrus and his side that he had to play us on that day. I always expected that we would win the match, but no one could have predicted such a performance.
Put aside the two Blackburn goals for a moment. The opener was down to a very fortunate header and the second was helped into the net by a heavy deflection. What stood out about the Blackburn game was the threat we posed for nearly 90 minutes. I cannot remember a game where this team has looked so powerful. Blackburn could have conceeded at any moment in the match and it’s not unfair to say that we would have scored 10 goals against a ‘keeper in lesser form. Cesc hit the bar, and missed point black. Van Persie was denied from close range and Rosicky saw his blast well saved. Arshavin was denied by a clever low save and Nik had an opporunity to score from a brilliant Van Persie back heel but shot straight at Robinson.
The passing in this game was nothing short of sensational. When Cesc Fabregas is playing at that level, he is certainly the best passing midfielder in England, if not in Europe. Arshavin looked great and Van Persie seems to be coming to grips with the new formation. But for me, the most encouraging signs came from Rosicky. Tomas looked fit, happy and his creativity was fantastic. With all due respect to Cesc, Rosicky had the pass of the game. His curler from the edge of the box, with the outside of his right foot, landed perfectly to Fabregas only for Robinson to deny his downward header from flying into the net. It was a remarkable pass and showed incredible vision and skill. Rosicky can do so much for this team and his contribution the season has already been more substantial than most supporters could have hoped for.
Some fans, a group that I don’t particularly understand, prefer to gripe about our defending in the Blackburn game. But I don’t think that takes into account the extent to which we were attacking. Wenger clearly anticipated Allardyce to play his usual brand of anti-football. I think the boss was willing to leave us exposed to the occasional counter attack by sending everyone forward for 90 minutes. Clichy and Sagna played almost the entire game in Blackburn’s half, and Gallas and Vermaelen had their forays forward. (The first of which resulted in Vermaelen’s spectacular opening goal.) Criticizing the defense in this game is pointless because it ignores the tactics employed by the manager. Arsene wanted to get goals, and he was willing to take risks to get them. We always looked like we would outscore Blackburn no matter what they were able to tally.
Most of the attention following the game was on Cesc’s outstanding performance. And that attention was well deserved. But there were so many other player’s who deserve accolades. There were so many good stories in this game. Theo returned and returned with a well taken goal. (From a Cesc assist naturally.) Nik returned from his brief absence after his car accident and scored a screamer. It was a relief to see him score after squandering an earlier chance that would’ve had the supporters questioning his finishing again. Vermaelen proved yet again that money well spent in the transfer market is much more important that simply spending a lot of money. Not only did he score a cracking goal to cancel out Blackburn’s opener, but he had a few key interventions. Most notably, he got his head to a long Blackburn shot that was enough to send it onto the post when Mannone was beaten.
But I think some extra praise should be reserved for Alex Song. His game has developed so thoroughly that it’s hard to imagine we were all so pessimistic about him just one year ago. Not only is he playing with more confidence, skill and comprehension, but his work rate has improved as well. He’s popping up all over the pitch and making the clever foul when necessary, but rarely when it puts the team at risk. Song looks stronger and harder to dispossess than at any point last season. His contribution has been critical to the success of the 4-3-3 and at some point, we all have to admit that maybe Arsene was right about signing another defensive midfielder.
Had Wenger brought in a player like Matuidi, Song might not have had the opportunity to play as much this season. We might not have seen this incredible development. And more importantly, there’s no evidence that Matuidi would have been as good as Song. Why sign a player when you have young players who are going to make a huge leap forward in their development? Denilson is another midfielder, questioned by many last season, who was looking very strong this season before he hurt his back. Denilson’s injury raises the question of depth again, but with Nasri almost ready to come back from his broken leg, it looks like we have enough.
And so the international break has begun with every Arsenal player and fan feeling confident that we can really challenge for the title this season. And for those people who said our win at Fulham wasn’t pretty enough, here’s why it was especially pretty. By winning at Fulham, and following up with the demolition of Blackburn, we were able to gain ground on every top side in the EPL over an eight day period. Arsenal made up points on Chelsea, United, Liverpool, Sp*rs, Villa, and Citeh. And it gets even better after the international break because many of those teams come back to play tough fixtures, while we have a very winnable match against newly promoted Birmingham City. (And it’s a wonderful chance to erase the demons from one of the darkest days Arsenal have seen in years. It was the match at Birmingham where Arsenal lost Eduardo and essentially lost the title as well.) All in all, the season feels well and truly back on track after the hiccup in Manchester.
One of the biggest challenges facing the Arsene Wenger after the international break might be managing playing time. When Nasri returns, which could be very soon, there’s going to be intense competition for places in the team. It’s fair to assume that Arshavin, Van Persie and Fabregas need not worry about competition for a starting place. But that leaves Rosicky, Theo, Eduardo, Vela, Diaby, Song, Nasri, Eboue and Bendtner all battling for playing time.
Eduardo will likely be the player to start when Van Persie needs a rest. Bendtner, Theo and Rosicky will all be vying for the same position, although Rosicky can come back into midfield with Cesc. Song is probably the most assured of a starting role, although Wenger was clearly looking at Nasri as a defensive midfielder last season. It’s an experiment that didn’t make much sense, but perhaps he was dreaming of a Cesc, Rosicky and Nasri midfield. Wouldn’t that be something? Eboue can always deputise at right back when Sagna needs a rest, and I have to say that I’ve been increasingly impressed with him this season. That means Diaby and Vela could be the odd men out. Wenger has shown a lot of faith in Diaby lately, but whether that faith’s been repayed with performances is debatable. Many supporters, myself included, have seen Diaby as the lone weak link in the team over the past three matches. And Vela’s unavailability early in the season when injuries made it easier to get into the side, probably hurt his chances of becoming a regular contributor to the first team.
So it’s getting very competitive for playing time at Arsenal. But make no mistake, that’s a very good thing. It’s something that didn’t happen last season and we saw players rest on their laurels. Wenger rarely had decisions to make with his starting eleven. He merely picked whoever was fit to play. This season, players know that they have to prove themselves in practice if they want to get on the pitch when it counts. And they know that when they do get on the pitch, they have to show Wenger they deserve their playing time. If we can stay healthy, this competition for playing time will only help lift the overall level of play at the club.
And there’s even some good news regarding the international break. Although we still have plenty of players who will be playing for their country, Theo Walcott and Robin Van Persie will not be two of them. Walcott, who just returned from injury wasn’t picked by Capello. Considering that England have already qualified, I don’t think too many Arsenal fans will be disappointed that Walcott will have another two weeks to get healthy for his club. And since Ms. RVP is about the give birth to a little RVP, Mr. RVP and his not-so-chocolate leg will not be playing for Holland. (At least over the weekend.) That’s two key players that we won’t have to worry about.
And while they’re resting, Nasri will be getting closer and closer to returning to the squad. Rumor has it that he’s going to make his first appearance for the club in our Carling Cup tie with Liverpool on Oct. 28. But I have a feeling we’ll see him before that. It might just be a cameo at the end of a game, but I think we’ll see him sooner. He was a huge part of last season’s team and gives the midfield a new dimension when he’s fit. Against weaker opposition he can play in place of Song with Cesc and Rosicky, or he can play with Cesc and Song in place of Diaby or Denilson (who’s now obviously unavailable for a while). He has a better work rate and defensive flair than Diaby but more creativity and goal-scoring prowess than Denilson. He could really flourish in the new system.
Most importantly, Nasri adds more experience and quality to the side. Even though we got off to a good start this season, we were lacking depth. Early in the season our bench included players like Ramsey, Wilshere, and Merida. They’re all good players who might be very big contributors to this team down the road. But if we’re going to win something this season, they will probably have to settle for Carling Cup duty. By November, our subs bench will be stocked with the likes of Walcott, Eduardo, Diaby, Eboue, Vela, etc. All players who can come into the game and add a something explosive.
That’s really all there is to say at the moment. As you can probably tell, I’m feeling very bullish about our season. And it’s not just because we’ve had a few good performances. It’s because the rest of the league looks like they’ve taken a step backwards. Liverpool will really have to fight for their place in the top 4 this season. They’re one injury to Torres or Gerrard away from falling apart. United are clearly not the team they were for the past three seasons and even Chelsea has a defensive frailty about them that’s encouraging. The way Apoel had them on the back foot in midweek was remarkable. And despite all the hype surrounding Citeh, they still have a lot to prove before their challenge can be taken seriously. So my optimism about Arsenal is largely because of our form, but equally buyoed by what I see around us.
It was wonderful to see Thierry at the Emirates. He epitomises everything that makes Arsenal special, particularly during the Wenger years. There’s no hiding his love for the club and the feeling is certainly mutual. I’m sure the players who idolized him while he was at the club, were happy they had the chance to show him a quintessential Arsenal performance. And I’m sure he loved what he saw.
As far as Arsene Wenger goes, the song says it all: “there’s only one Arsene Wenger.” And that’s a sad thing, because it means that some day we’ll have to live without him. Hopefully that day isn’t coming any time soon. Watching the Blackburn game served as the perfect reminder of why we love the man. He’s brought us more than winning football, he’s brought us beautiful football that’s the envy of England. It’s a pleasure to watch, and it certainly makes me appreciate him that much more. Who else could have taken these players, had faith in their development, and produced a team capable of such scintillating football. No one else. That’s who. As we always sing: “there’s only one Arsene Wenger.”
I hope you’re enjoying these moments. Football fans have a way of raining on their own parade. But the team looks good. We’re in great form. We’re moving up the table and sitting pretty in Europe. Now we two weeks where Arsenal are guaranteed not to lose a match. Try to enjoy it.
Until next time.