Thursday, October 3, 2013

Follow the leaders

Despite all the worries over the summer and the crisis after the opening game of the season, Arsenal are doing their best to dispel the fears with an impressive run of form. As much as Arsenal fans have to have some caution when getting excited about the current hot streak, it’s impossible not to be optimistic about the rest of the season with the way the team are playing.
This current Arsenal team aren’t just playing attractive football though. Even Arsene Wenger’s worse teams were capable of scoring from a superb passing move, but they didn’t always close games out and play beautiful football that won matches. What’s been so impressive about Arsenal’s run since the opening day defeat to Aston Villa isn’t just that the team haven’t lost for ten games in a row, they’ve won ten games in a row.
A popular criticism of Arsenal in the trophyless years has been that there are no leaders in the team. Where’s the vocal goalkeeper? Where’s the commanding centre back? Where’s the midfield general? Who does the organising? Who do they turn to when the chips are down? Who will take the game by the scruff of the neck? There were plenty of players with good technical ability, but not enough with the character to consistently get results.
While the overall spirit amongst the whole squad looks infectious and, judging by the efforts at West Brom in the League Cup, seems to be engrossing most of the players, there are some players that stand out as the turn to guys.
Wojciech Szczesny has thrived since the competition for the number one shirt was upped and seems to be concentrating for full games now. He’s been particularly impressive in the last few matches coming out to claim crosses to take the pressure off the defence.
In the back four, Arsenal have the form centre back in the Premier League. Even if he doesn’t go on the occasional buccaneering charge up field, Per Mertesacker is the closest Arsenal centre back I’ve seen to Tony Adams since Mr Arsenal retired. The BFG’s positioning to make an interception and a clearance is excellent, and at every set-piece he is the man taking charge. Whatever people think about the merits of zonal marking, the Arsenal defence are well drilled because Mertesacker has got everyone in the right position. In tense situations, he’s has a calming influence on the team. With an inexperienced team in front of him at West Brom, Mertesacker was colossal and helped guide them through the game.
With Arsenal looking so comfortable against Napoli on Tuesday night, I spent a lot of the second half just watching Mathieu Flamini when the Italians had the ball. He didn’t shut up. Once. And that’s exactly what this Arsenal team have needed. Players daren’t not get back into position defensively when an attack breaks down because he’ll be barking in their ear.
Anyone who doubted the re-signing of Flamini only needed to watch his return against Tottenham to see that the Frenchman was ready to be a leader. In a superb moment in the second half, he made one tackle on the left, charged across the pitch as the play moved to the right and pushed Aaron Ramsey out the way just to launch into a crunching challenge on Danny Rose. He got booked, but it was a statement. Flamini didn’t need time to settle, he was ready to lead the charge and take responsibility within the team.
Even further up the pitch, Olivier Giroud is challenging for everything and leading from the front. He’s chasing defenders, winning headers, taking players on and generally annoying the hell out of opposing defenders.
All those that have regularly played this season could have a section in this article dedicated to them, such is encouraging way that the team have stepped up. Sagna, Koscielny, Gibbs, Ramsey, Wilshere, Arteta, Rosicky, the list goes on. Even the players that have been injured have been involved. On Tuesday night, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla were in the dressing room before and after the game to just be around the squad. Even though he hasn’t played much this season, I get the impression that Thomas Vermaelen still commands a lot of respect as the club captain.
That is what strikes me about the Arsenal team that Arsene Wenger is developing at the moment. Obviously with the likes of Mesut Ozil in the team, the technical quality is higher, but that is backed up by players with character who will take responsibility. It’s backed up by leaders.
This Arsenal team have grown up in the last year and built a team spirit. Last season, there wasn’t a Cesc Fabregas or Robin van Persie to give the ball to and let them do the rest. Others had to step up and it was just about enough to make it back into the Champions League. The core of the squad has been kept together, so now the players aren’t just trying to win for themselves, they’re out there with their mates. As a player, you’re more likely to put in the extra effort to win if it’s helping a friend. The heralded ‘British core’ that Arsene Wenger has built is reaping some rewards earlier than even he could have predicted.
With such a massive price tag on his head compared to any of the other Arsenal players in the squad, some teams might have been more circumspect about welcoming Mesut Ozil into the squad. However as soon as his transfer was announced, there were plenty of players on twitter welcoming him and using the phrase ‘Arsenal family’. The reaction of other players when Ozil scored his first goal was also great. They all looked genuinely chuffed for him. His integration into the squad has also undoubtedly been helped by having Per Mertesacker there to help with anything.
Whilst they’re clearly all friends, no-one is safe from getting criticism or being told what to do by others on the pitch. There does seem to be more respect between the players though so they’re not ignoring instructions from team-mates. If Mertesacker speaks, they listen. If Flamini speaks, they can’t do anything but listen. The same goes for a lot of others in the squad.
Now, confidence is a fragile thing in football and it could only take one bad result to send this Arsenal team into a poor run. However, the signs this season are that the squad are strong enough to deal with a set-back. If Arsenal can keep together the spine of the team containing those leaders that they’ve lacked, they can continue to lead the Premier League for a bit longer to increase the enjoyably optimistic mood around the Emirates at the moment.