Arsenal’s progression from a one-dimensional, fancy-but-not-always-effective team began last season, when Arsene Wenger found that he had to dig deep to get his team over the line, even if it meant temporarily abandoning his principles.
The club have often been deemed to be too soft, too focused on the flash and stylistic approach rather than adapting their game depending on the opposition. It’s ironic and a little interesting then that Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Stoke on Sunday came via three set piece goals – typically un-Arsenal; typically English.
It’s the Plan B that many teams may need to have in their locker. Barcelona are an exception, of course. For too long onlookers have called out for the Catalans to also disregard their ideals momentarily to win a game; get the ball in the box, use the club’s power in the transfer market to bring in a target man, such as Fernando Llorente, and become even more imperious than they already are. The thing is, not everyone is Barcelona, not everyone can have Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas and Xavi as fixtures in a starting XI. Barcelona’s Plan A is so good that they really don’t need a Plan B.
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But Arsenal don’t have the luxury of those players. Sure, Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla could play for Barcelona and be regulars in their team, but they’re largely the exception in the Arsenal squad: a couple of world-class players supplementing a very good group, rather than the other way around.
So when the game becomes frustrating, when teams use two banks of four and park the bus, the incisive passing won’t always work. Arsenal have shown that they are capable of looking for other means to goal. They have a giant of a centre-back in Per Mertesacker, as well as a right-back in Bacary Sagna who, despite being notably smaller in frame, is even better in the air than the German. Combine that with Olivier Giroud, a striker who fits the target man profile but also has the technique that forces a reminder of that Peter Crouch description, this Arsenal team are showing they have far more weapons in their locker than they have done in previous years.
Wenger is never going to forget the footballing philosophy he brought to the club, and through the signing of Ozil this past summer, he has not just signed a random star name who happened to be available, but one who will continue to uphold the football traditions on the club. The football this season is looking quicker, slicker and far more appropriate for the setting of one of England and Europe’s leading football houses. But there is variation now, building on the not so subtle hints that came to the fore at the tail end of last season.
It’s quite clear that Arsenal are looking far more assured at the back, despite still letting in one or two preventable goals. But there is also resoluteness about the whole team, a confidence to their game that won’t be shaken by the rougher styles of the Premier League.
Is Arsenal finally adapting to the varying styles of the Premier League?
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