“Key for me was the all-togetherness. What I liked about that team was the unselfishness of everybody. Everybody was willing to give the ball to the guy in the better position. The generosity of that team was outstanding, and we always wanted to share with each other. And that’s something that is pretty rare.” – Theirry Henry
When Aaron Ramsey scored the goal that erased Arsenal’s long trophy drought, it was not just the cherry on top of the Welshman’s redemption, it was also a testament to the mental strength of this team, the ability to fight back, the willingness to work together and for each other. One that we haven’t seen the likes of since (in my humble opinion) the Invincibles. Now we are not for one second comparing the two sides – merely pointing out that Arsenal fans haven’t witnessed this kind of resilience and team spirit since that era. It is one that has only grown since that win at the Allianz Arena back in March 2013, with all the new recruits slotting in well and doing their bit.
In many ways this has stemmed from the repeated failures that haunted the dreams of Arsenal fans for too many seasons to count. Between Arsenal’s two most recent FA cup triumphs in 2005 and 2014, there were many seasons to forget. Not as much due to their dullness, but more because of the heartbreak and trauma they inflicted upon Arsenal fans (memories which many wish even now that they could remove). They say you learn from your mistakes and whilst it perhaps took longer than it ideally should and would have, this Arsenal side seems to have finally done this.
The title challenge has fallen short again; however the performances this season have been noticeably different from last years’ campaign and credit where it is due. This growing maturity was epitomised at the Etihad earlier in the season. Arsenal have made a nasty habit of suffering embarrassing defeats against their main rivals in the last few years (especially away) but the performance away at the former champions this season showed grit and quality that has been missing. Instead of being stubborn and continuing to play a highly attack-minded game, the team was instead very organised, defending deep in their own half but always focused on possible counter-attacking opportunities. Even when they had the ball, they didn’t lose their defensive shape. The Man City game was also the one where Francis Coquelin’s “beast mode” was truly seen and appreciated, with the young Frenchman standing firm ahead of his line of defence, breaking up play and putting in crucial tackles (11 clearances and 6 interceptions – more than anyone else on the pitch combined).
Similarly, away against Manchester United and Liverpool, Wenger set-up the team specific to each opponent – strategies that allowed Arsenal to exploit opposing weaknesses, utilize their own strengths and post very satisfying wins. In all three games, Arsenal’s play and movement off the ball was as important to their win as what they did when they won the ball back – for example, against Man City they had only 35% of possession (their lowest rate in a game since Opta records began in 2003).
Obviously there is still room for improvement. Defeats away at Tottenham and Chelsea and the boring draw at home to the new champions showed this side is still a way from reaching the peaks of years gone by but there has been definite progress. The defeat against Swansea on Monday night gave frightful flashbacks to many Arsenal performances of recent seasons, but it has to be said that it was an anomaly from what has been a fantastic Arsenal run in 2015. Up until Monday night the side seemed set to secure 2nd place for the first time since the 2004/2005 season. A top 3 finish is still within their grasp and if that can be achieved, it will represent at least a minor improvement on last year. That is of course if they also win the FA Cup.
Arsenal’s lack of depth has starkly evident over the past few seasons. There have been many reasons for this – injury demons and players (mercenaries and pantomime villains like Van Persie, Fabregas, Adebayor, Gallas, Nasri and more) leaving what they thought was a sinking ship when in fact Wenger had a plan that is finally, deservedly coming to fruition. The above players were arguably talented, fantastic personalities, but very demanding and perhaps in retrospect, hindering the team spirit. Wenger’s decision to not sign Fabregas in the summer, whilst criticised by many, was perhaps proof of how he felt the atmosphere in the side was at a level it had not been for a long time and how reintroducing someone disliked by many associated with the club was not a risk he was willing to take. Whilst the current side obviously boasts some interesting characters, it would be difficult to pinpoint the ‘main man’ and perhaps this equal feel has contributed to the togetherness and harmony emanating from the side right now.
Many have been of the opinion that Alexis Sanchez has been the reason Arsenal are where they are this season, and while the Chilean has certainly had a stellar debut season, the supposed “over-reliance” is not the reality. If you look at the sheer number of different goal-scorers Arsenal have had apart from Alexis (who granted has scored 22 goals already), the number is 18. It is not a statistic to be mocked at, nor is the variety of goals scored. If you look at their contemporaries – Chelsea, City and Liverpool have 16 each and even Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona surprisingly have less than Arsenal’s 19. If you take a look at this recent goal versus Middlesborough, all 11 of the Arsenal players were involved in the buildup (here) and of course who can forget that Jack Wilshere goal versus Norwich back in October 2013?
But more than just statistics, there seems to be a kind of mental strength, true loyalty and love for the club and what it stands for that is more heartening than anything else. It is something that we feel would not have been possible but for the hardships the team and club have had to endure in the seasons before with important players leaving and being forced to constantly replace rather than strengthen.
It is worth nothing that the success also has a lot to do with the type of players and the connections being formed within the side. Just the mention of a blossoming partnership between Ozil and Alexis is enough to send most Gooners into raptures. Not to mention one of the discovered gems this season in the form of Francis Coquelin. Or even the return to form (and his favourite central position) for that diminutive two-footed wizard called Santi. Whether it’s the rise of youngsters like Bellerin or the marked improvement and quiet, added assurance of players like Monreal (one of our most consistent performers this season), or Giroud finally developing into a top centre forward, we finally have a dependable and varied pool of players with more than one option for each position week in and week out.
Most significantly, a strong ‘British core’ has continued to develop. Wenger himself has admitted the exodus of his previous star players affected him personally and his belief is that a core of English or British players will more likely reward him with their loyalty. The theory remains unproven but players such as Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Callum Chambers, Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and more who have developed in the club are only proving to be beneficial.
A mix of nationalities is needed to provide the club with quality and strength as noted above. However the English core is not only providing the club with players instantly adapted to the demands of English football, but due to their desire to impress their respective national managers on a weekly basis, it ensures that high quality performances are put in consistently. Arsene’s faith in these British players is being rewarded as the likes of Callum Chambers and Aaron Ramsey in particular have come on leaps and bounds during their times at Arsenal. Don’t be surprised if this core is enhanced during the next few transfer windows.
Arsenal players playing together for the club and their nationals sides on a regular basis can only be beneficial and whilst it would be unfair to accuse the foreign players of not understanding the importance of cup competitions it is an unlikely coincidence that Arsenal’s recent success in the cup is linked with this emerging British core.
All of this shows that this team spirit and understanding has been a work in progress and still is. The only difference this season is the tactical adaptability to different opponents as well as the various options at Wenger’s disposal for the same. Arsenal finally seem to have the right depth in personnel to pull off this fluidity in tactics actually on the field where the midfield and attack especially are unpredictable and can change their game from smooth, quick one-touch football to a more direct counter-attacking one depending on the situation.
Arsene Wenger is naturally cautious about the opinion that the mood in the camp has been the best for a while all season –
“We have to be very cautious with the mood in our job because the swings are very quick so the best way you can deal with that is… it helps to get the next result. You need a good balance between an optimistic mood and urgency as well. We are in a job where of course you want the level of concentration very high and that is what we want to achieve now. We go into a period in the next four months that will decide our season. We have to be conscious that our commitment has to be 100 per cent.”
And it is not just the manager with the quiet belief in himself, his players and the ability of the club to prove their doubters wrong. It is only fitting that we end this piece with the guy who fittingly scored that third goal back in May 2014,
“We believe in ourselves, we have a great team spirit and we are not too concerned with what is being said about us. We know all about what we are capable of doing. It is just some fine tuning.” – Aaron Ramsey
Arsenal have been a club of extremes over the past few seasons but of late they seem to be slowly progressing to a place where all that will change, where they can consistently compete for top honours and be a true force to reckon with. It’s still early days but the future looks promising. As fans there is a need to keep up support to our boys and the beloved club, but also of fellow Gooners, much like the team is looking out for each other. Not for nothing does our crest say Victoria Concordia Crescit (Victory through Harmony). Up the Arsenal!