The penny finally drops for Arsenal?
It’s a phrase that’s rarely been uttered this season. But boy did Arsenal play superbly on Sunday. For 45 minutes they once again resembled a team capable of winning a Premier League title. No one could have predicted the red tide that gobbled Tottenham up and spat them back out in what proved to be an absorbing North London derby that will live long in the memory. It evoked words that haven’t been associated with the Gunners in a long time. Exhilarating, dynamic, unshakable, anchored, clinical. A lot has been said over the past 48-hours as to how the manner of their victory over Spurs could be a turning point in what has turned out to be a miserable season. Would it be too presumptuous to buy into that belief? This isn’t the team of 10-years ago that conquered all before them. Is this merely a triumph that papers over the cracks?
Lest we forget the first half at the Emirates Stadium was an all Tottenham affair. From the moment Louis Saha’s deflected fourth minute opener looped over the head of Wojciech Szczęsny and into the net it looked as if Arsene Wenger was going to have another crisis to contend with. Spurs have been in the ascendancy over Arsenal all season and looked likely to cement that when ex-Gunner Emmanuel Adebayor scored from the penalty spot 10 minutes before half time.
The concession of two cheap goals bore the hallmarks of Arsenal’s campaign and the fragility of their already pummeled confidence. Defeats to AC Milan in the Champions League and Sunderland in the FA Cup in the space of a few days had knocked the wind out of their already battered sails. Again they stared down the barrel of another morale demolishing loss at the hands of their greatest rivals. This would be the blow that would kill Arsenal off once and for all and end a season they can’t wait to escape from.
However quite the opposite occurred. If ever there was a performance that typified the Jekyll and Hyde saying – this was it. At ten past two on Sunday afternoon Arsenal looked dead and buried. By quarter past they were alive and kicking once again. Two goals in quick succession breathed new life into the ailing Gunners and sent a rapid burst of energy searing around the Emirates crowd. Wenger’s team talk was already written for him. The team that emerged for the second half was the same one that was was thumped in Milan and humbled on Wearside. Except this time the mentality amongst the players was different. It was as if the penny had finally dropped and they finally realised that wallowing in self-pity was getting them nowhere fast.
A different Arsenal came to the fore in that second half. Cast aside was the usual methodological approach that involved sitting back, soaking up pressure and waiting to pounce once the opponent had committed an error. Frankly that hadn’t done them much good this season. On Sunday they became the controllers of their own destiny. Every time a Tottenham player took possession he was devoured in the red tide. Time on the ball became an occasional commodity for the men clad in white shirts as the Gunners snapped at their heels whenever the opportunity presented itself. They worked as a unit and delivered a committed performance of maximum intensity. Frequent scapegoats Thomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott strolled off the field to rapturous applause. So often the subject of derision from the stands, the pair ran themselves into the ground and weighed in with vital goals.
The question is can they replicate that in the next 12 games and secure the coveted final place in the top four? Arsenal have blown hot and cold all season without ever looking capable of nailing down that last Champions League spot. Whilst the second half performance at Tottenham was one of the highest quality they were truly awful in the first period. As always the back four was flimsy and toothless for the first 45 minutes. How they managed to stem the Spurs tide is unbeknownst to me. Whilst it could prove to be the catalyst for the Gunners to push on as the season enters its final furlong their confidence continues to teeter on a knife-edge.
We all know they have a squad containing players capable of playing for some of the worlds best clubs. It’s the brittle self-esteem that is their biggest enemy. One crushing defeat can send their belief plummeting right back into the abyss. The Spurs triumph certainly gave the Premier League a reminder of just what Arsenal are capable of. However gauging their possible renaissance on it would be irresponsible. Saturday’s game against Carling Cup winners Liverpool will be the biggest indicator as to whether they have turned a corner. Kenny Dalglish’s men will be riding the crest of a considerably large wave following their trophy triumph at Wembley. Taking maximum points away from Anfield will be the real acid test for the Gunners.