A noticeable feature of Arsenal’s recent resurgence has been their willingness to do away with the tiki-taka light that had become both their identity and their greatest downfall in recent years. Often derided for having possession for possession’s sake, the summer departures of Fabregas and Nasri, while initially appearing to hinder them, to an extent, now look to have liberated them. Arsenal are still not quite the force they once were, they are still very much a work in progress and they’ve still got a long way to go before they can be assured of an automatic return to the promised land of the Champions League, but their recent upturn in fortunes has been highlighted in a willingness to be more direct.
Arsenal are without a trophy in six years – sorry to keep harping on about it, but it’s the big white elephant in the room. They built their side around the talents of the fantastic Cesc Fabregas, a switch that look to be flawed from day one. While obviously delivering mouth-watering football for the terraces, they lacked a killer instinct and the idea of building a style of play around a player that was always destined to leave seems foolhardy to say the least.
Many sighted the fact that Arsene Wenger became lost amid a stubborn refusal to compromise his so-called ‘footballing principles’. Arsenal were not always the possession hoarders that we’ve become accustomed to seeing these days. Wenger’s first great side was built around physical force with finesse – they were a solid, counter-attacking marvel.
His second great side, the much-vaunted ‘Invincibles’ were quite possibly the best side ever to grace the Premier League, combining the passing style Wenger became somewhat obsessed with over the intervening years withlayers willing to put their heads in where most people wouldn’t put their boots.
Wenger began the season under enormous pressure, which was subsequently increased tenfold by the quite frankly embarrassing 8-2 defeat away at Old Trafford to Man Utd. A freak result to begin what is fast becoming a season of freak results. There were strong calls from pundits, club favourites and on the terraces for a change in management – a move as remarkably short-sighted as it was incorrect.
I argued back in April (https://www.footballfancast.com/2011/04/football-blogs/just-a-case-of-right-man-wrong-philosophy-at-arsenal) that it was merely a case of ‘right man, wrong philosophy’ at Arsenal. In all honesty, what manager could do a better job with Arsenal, a club shaped in his own image, than Arsene Wenger right now?
The transformation is far from complete, though. They’re still way down in 7th place, with four defeats from their opening 11 league fixtures, just four short on the whole of last season. Problems at the back persist and were conveniently glossed over by many amid the furore of the shock 5-3 victory against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last month. However, the first seeds of a brighter future are being sown.
It began with a change in tack of the club’s transfer policy. Mikel Arteta, Andre Santos, Yossi Benayoun, Per Mertesacker and Park Chu-Young all arrived around transfer deadline day. All five of the new recruits are aged between 26 and 31 and they boast a wealth of experience at the highest level, with 233 international caps between them. The first part of the plan – adding experienced, wiser heads to a small and young squad went well.
While it’s debatable whether any of Wenger’s deadline day acquisitions is assured of a starting berth when the whole squad is fully fit (and this is Arsenal we are talking about, who are we kidding?) they’ve added depth to a squad that was in danger of becoming as shallow as a paddling pool.
Now to the adjustment in the team’s style of play. Two players have begun to step up big for the team and whose contributions are worth noting as Arsenal begin to transition themselves to a side that’s as comfortable playing on the counter as they are in possession. Aaron Ramsey and Gervinho.
Gervinho has quietly been a revelation. With Walcott on one flank and him on the other, it’s no wonder why Robin Van Persie has been in such a rich vein of form. He’s already set up five goals in his first eight league games. If it wasn’t for his silly suspension for lashing out on Joey Barton on the opening day of the season, with the effect he’s had so far, Arsenal may have found themselves a place or two higher up the league.
Ramsey’s performance against Chelsea was a breakthrough in terms of sustained quality. Much like Jack Wilshere’s was at home to Barcelona last season, the way Ramsey controlled the midfield and dictated the tempo, should serve the side well in years to come. Starting Ramsey at the head of a midfield trio alongside Song and the often underrated Arteta has been a masterstroke, giving him the platform to affect play further up the pitch.
It is far from doom and gloom at the Emirates these days. Barring the Chelsea game, they’ve had favourable run of fixtures that has allowed them the freedom to get into the groove of winning.
Their change in style, while not complete, is a step in the right direction. Evolution rather than revolution has been the key. This current Arsenal side are no longer afraid to have a crack on goal from distance. They no longer over-elaborate. They are still a side whose roots are firmly placed in possession-based football, but it appears now, with a subtle difference and willingness to be more direct, they are starting to truly find their feet.
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