This has been the strangest Arsenal season for as long as I can remember, for a number of reasons.
First came all the changes in the off-season. Fabregas, Nasri, Eboue, Bendtner, Clichy, Denilson, Traore out (have I missed anyone?); Gervinho, Jenkinson, Arteta, Mertesacker, Santos, Benayoun, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Park in.
The revolving doors were spinning like never before at the Arsenal and all the chopping and changing hurt us badly at the start of the season. What was our worst start in 20 years became our worst in 30, 40 and then 50 years as we languished as low as 17th, recording a negative goal-difference for the first time in our history in the Premier League.
A woeful run of results was topped off with the poison cherry that was our 8-2 defeat to Manchester United, a farce of performance that was sandwiched between Fabregas and Nasri’s exits and the arrival of our super quintet of new superstars.
Our new players took time to settle and consistency was hard to find, a 4-3 defeat to Blackburn summed up our struggle to recover, and a fourth place finish looked, for some time, an impossibility.
On a personal level Arsenal’s rollercoaster start to the season was given an extra loop-the-loop by my move back from Berlin to Australia and a level of work commitment that has meant I’ve missed my fair share of games this season — around five or six — something that my year-ago self would have deemed as unlikely and perhaps even unacceptable.
I may not have written much but nevertheless I have seen enough to be positively thrilled with the way Arsené Wenger and his new-look team has turned things around.
It is no secret that Wenger has adopted a new style of play this season, based more around lighting-pace up front then tippy-tappy possession football. Nasri has been replaced by the pacey and unpredictable Gervinho, a player that causes his fair share of trouble even on a bad day, while Theo Walcott’s continued improvement has seen him emerge as an effective player down the right.
The pair have worked delightfully with the incomparable Robin van Persie, their cohesion helping to push the Dutchman into the record books with a string of goal-scoring performances. He has been absolutely superb, our new captain, but without the support from his two wingers the goals would not be flowing as freely as they are.
Any fears that Gervinho’s absence during the African Cup of Nations could prove decisive have been alleviated by the emergence of the brave, cock-sure Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Wenger has set The Ox free in fits and starts this season but the intent is surely there to have him prepared to play a starring role when Gervinho is unvailable.
In midfield Wilshere’s unfortunate injury added stress to Cesc’s unfortunate exit, but Alex Song, Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey have formed an excellent midfield triangle that has improved with each performance.
Song’s development into a midfield beast is almost complete — I wouldn’t trade him for any other defensive-midfielder in the country — while Arteta’s terrific technique has allowed him to become the unspectacular cog that has freed up Aaron Ramsay. The Welsh captain, who has recovered delightfully from his broken leg, has taken on the role of our most creative midfielder, combining excellent passing with a happy knack for pushing into the opposition box at the right time.
The biggest changes have come at the back though, where the arrivals of Per Mertesacker, Andre Santos and Carl Jenkinson have been mixed with the return of Thomas Vermaelen and shaken and stirred with injuries to Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna. It has meant oodles of different back-four combinations but nevertheless the result have been clear: a solid and steady improvement in function, cohesion and above all, goals conceded as the season has moved forward.
Vermaelen’s return has lifted the heart of every Arsenal supporter — he is a player that nobody, not even opponents, could possibly dislike — lion-hearted, brave and committed. He is a leader and the impact of his presence at the back cannot be understated.
But the supporting cast have chipped in ably too. Koscielny has developed into a superb tackling defender, combining excellent anticipation with a new-found sense of positioning while Mertesacker, who has been criticised for being too slow and reactionary, has actually been rather good. The German is a calm, organised presence at the back and his influence on the back four as a unit has outweighed his occasional lapses in one-on-one situations.
An injury to Andre Santos picked up mid-week in Greece will provide a new challenge four our versatile defenders. Vermaelen will likely slip into left back, Koscielny and Mertesacker will play through the middle and Johan Djourou, who has been understandingly unpredictable in his fractured appearances, will slot in on the right.
For the next couple of games it seems we will playing with four centre-backs across the back four, an amazing situation. But I daresay no Arsenal fans will be too concerned: this group of players have come a long way and, for the first time since the arrival of our transfer deadline day quintet, look and play like a real unit.
It has undoubtedly helped to have a goalkeeper with the quality and temperament of that man Wojciech Szczesny behind them. It is hard to believe that this time last season he was only the fourth-choice goalkeeper at Arsenal. Now he is our undisputed Number One, as important a player to us as van Persie and Vermaelen with the way that he commands his penalty area, takes the pressure of his defenders and bounces back immediately from mistakes.
I believe this group of players, and in particular our wonderful manager, deserve huge congratulations for the way they have recovered from the poor start, banded together, and produced such an excellent run of results. From hovering above the relegation places to fifth place, just two points off Chelsea in fourth, is an astonishing turnaround from the shenanigans that plagued the opening month of the season.
Not to mention our qualification as group leaders in the Champions League, a competition that may yet open up kindly for us with the exits of Manchester United and City (heh).
So I encourage you to pause for a moment, appreciate what our team has done, and enjoy what is yet to come.
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