If Arsène had put together a plan of the best but most realistic outcomes from yesterday’s games, they probably happened or came close to that. He might have asked for the spoils to be shared at Stamford Bridge but it was a tall order. Perhaps that will come when they entertain Manchester City at St Mary’s next weekend. By the time Arsenal kick-off against Everton, the lead may be down to a point which highlights the ebb and flow of a season; Saturday night’s seven point gap will have all but disappeared. It’s why the moments are being enjoyed but nobody ought to be venturing into the coop to start counting yet.
Presuming there are no upsets in midweek, of course…
The attacking displays are being praised and a very healthy goal difference is only bettered by City, whose is skewed by the thirteen goals without reply they put past Norwich City and Tottenham. Those peaks are not reflected in Arsenal’s results this season, simply a consistent spread of scoring two and three goals in matches; eight wins out of ten have been by scoring those totals. The twenty-seven scored is similar to each of Wenger’s title-winning seasons.
But the defence is in line with those successes; the goals against column is healthier at this stage of the season than his first pair of triumphs and equal to The Invincibles. The midfield is working hard all over the pitch to protect the back four but that quartet are none too shabby either. Szczesny underlined how much of a barrier they are providing,
Yes I am keeping clean sheets but I have not had many saves to make.
And when he is required to make them, as with Saturday he is doing so. Only Robin van Persie has beaten the Pole since Dortmund’s victory at The Emirates. For a player who was lambasted six months ago, the turnaround in Szczesny’s stock has been incredible. It is nothing new in this blog to comment on the improvement because it is hard to remember what has been not just a return to form but an improvement beyond the original level.
The goalkeeper stressed the form that the central pair of Mertesacker and Koscielny,
If one of [Laurent or Per] is not nominated for Player of the Month I will be amazed. We have conceded one goal in November. We have been great and playing behind [all four of] them is a pleasure for me. I have been working hard myself but the defence have helped me massively. It is smashing to play behind the same back four every week. You don’t know how important that is.
That is the real bonus for Szczesny, he can anticipate what his back four will do thanks to their own consistency and self-belief. There has been a detectable change of defensive priorities over the course of 2013, one that began in the aftermath of the defensive naivety shown in the home leg against Bayern. In the second half of last season, the performances were not always convincing and form could go from good to bad and then ugly in the space of 90 minutes but they got the results and Aston Villa aside, the back four have rarely looked as ragged this season.
It is not down to one man or pressure from supporters which have brought about the change; the focus is led by the manager and the only man who influences Wenger’s train of thought is the man himself. Players have observed a change in him – Cazorla most recently but Arteta has also – and maybe some home truths have been said but the desire to win silverware has come from within. Arsène in his first decade was the marriage of a winning mentality and ruthlessness; a benevolent dictator – a fatherly outlook so long as players performed. Perhaps the failure of the ensuing years wore him down, no-one knows but the man himself.
The ruthlessness with which he relegated players out of the starting line-up or left them withering on the vine of the touchlines was surprising given the protection he afforded them and criticism he took. Certainly, there is a motivation for performance now seeing how swiftly he moved them out in the summer to make way for those he believed could improve the side. But on the training pitch, he rediscovered the balance between attack and defence. I am sure some input came from the coaching staff but if Wenger believed that attack was more important, we would still be questioning the unit.
The players too deserve credit for implementing changes, improving their concentration; as Arsène himself observed, he cannot influence a game much once players cross the white line. Ultimately, they listened to him, to the coaches, to themselves; the improvement has been startling. The manager was right at the weekend when he noted that no-one believed that the current situation would have arisen following the opening day defeat against Aston Villa. He didn’t and that being the case, why would anyone else believe different from a man who is closest to the players.
They have put it right. Now. Whether it continues we shall see. Has he recovered his mojo? Have they recovered their belief and form? Is it permanent, the beginning of a new era or transient with a return to old habits to come? Who knows, there is more than half a season of football to play. The truth will be revealed soon enough.