Since Arsenal last won the league in 2004 there have been questions asked about the physical and mental qualities of our players.
The general consensus has been that the squads over the past five season have lacked both the mental and physical strength to produce results both against powerful teams and in the biggest games. That the beautiful football falls to pieces at the vital moments and the players simply don’t have the ability to get the job done when the going gets tough.
While the answer to the question of whether this team has the ability to win the big games will be answered in February, the answer to the question of whether they can cope with physical opponents has been answered emphatically over the past six weeks.
Since losing with an understrength team to Chelsea in the last game of November our boys have passed increasingly physical tests against Stoke, Liverpool, Burnley, Everton and Bolton with flying colours. We may not have won every match and particularly struggled at Turf Moor and at home to a resurgent Everton, but not once since playing Chelsea have we lost a physical battle.
It gives me great pleasure to say that that trend continued against Bolton.
The home side may have a new manager who values good football in Owen Coyle but a lack of time in the job meant his influence could not be felt as the played the sort of match that only Sam Allardyce would be proud of. But our men would not be perturbed as they fought fire with fire to extinguish Bolton’s greatest strength.
When Cesc Fabregas was denied a clear penalty at 0-0 he responded with a crunching tackle on Gretar Steinsson. When Ivan Klasnic took out Abou Diaby from behind he was immediately dealt with by Tomas Rosicky. In between those moments Thomas Vermaelen was at his physical best, the midfield and attack embraced every Bolton confrontation and most importantly – Fabregas scored a beautiful opening goal.
There was not a powder puff in sight and it made Bolton realise that the only way to beat us was by playing football. They tried hard and created a number of very good opportunities but ultimately failed as the game turned into an open affair, the sort of contest that we were always likely to win. Inevitably we did just that, subsitute Fran Merida smartly converting his first league goal after another incisive run by Fabregas.
The starting team was filled with natural leaders – Fabregas, Rosicky, Arshavin, Eduardo, Almunia, Vermaelen – and it showed. The less authoritative players automatically lifted their game and apart a rocky performance by Armand Traore the result was an excellent team effort right across the board.
Our defence was not perfect, our midfield understrength with Craig Eastmond making his debut and our attack still lacking an ideal focal point, but the physical application by our players was admirable.
If our boys can beat Bolton by the same margin at home on Wednesday they will be top of the league for the first time since 2007. What an achievement that will be for a team that after five long years has developed the physical side to their game necessary to challenge for the top honours.
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