It took them some time to get used to but the media are finally coming round to the idea that this Arsenal team are really quite good. The deserved point at Eastlands – you have to smile when you read Manchester City fans say that Arsenal were no great shakes and it was impossible to see them winning – could have been more but is no less than the players were expecting.
Mikel Arteta is pivotal to the improvement season on season, quietly assuming a deeper-lying role and seemingly enjoying himself. The Spaniard has taken to the role like a duck to water and although he might have needed convincing initially, the manager did so. Crucially, he was willing to subsume his own ambitions into that of the team, willing to accept that whatever was needed to take the team to the next level was more important than any desire to be the creative spearhead.
As fulcrum between the defence and attack, Arteta gives Cazorla the freedom to express himself and prompt further up the field. But it is key to all of this that the players understand that defending begins at the front and Sunday was an object lesson in the forwards starting the defensive process. Helped as they were by City’s decision in the first half to sit deep, the policy exemplifies the difference between this season and last.
Of course being unbeaten has helped the players confidence. Perhaps the biggest test of the new-found improvement will come when the team loses and their reaction to it in the next game. It seems that they are mature enough to handle it, equalising late in the match indicates a sense of purpose which was missing at a similar stage in last season. As Arteta noted before Sunday’s match, the team is tighter mentally,
We had periods against Montpellier when we were hanging in and suffering, but when you go through stages like that and you still manage to get the result and win, it gives you a lift because you can’t always play nice football and win easy. Sometimes when you play ugly and win that will give you six, nine, 10 points at the end of the season and that will make a big difference.
We can only hope that this is the case. Last summer saw an entirely different reaction to key personnel departing. This time around, with additions already made, the transition has so far, been seamless on the pitch and to some extent, off it as well (if you ignore the anger at the conniving manner of his departure). The manager for once, was able to complete his business first, the transfer equivalent of Danny Blanchflower’s equalising before the the other team score.
That can only have helped the players confidence as well. Instead of looking at each other and wondering who was going to step forward, they saw Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud (who presumably is banging them in during training for fun), believing that they have not just compensated for departures but strengthened the squad. More than anything, surely everyone is bouyed at Colney with injured players returning and bar Szczesny, no major injuries so far. I say so far because you know they are coming; it isn’t a case of tempting fate, we know it is coming and this will be something that the squad has to deal with.
However, the lack of goals from the leading striker and wayward finishing does offer a concern at the moment. The former can be put down to a settling in period, the latter, well let’s just say that I hope Gervinho and Podolski stay behind for some extra training this week to try and rediscover their shooting boots. That offers a tantalising glimpse, a flash of hope for Theo Walcott. I know some were impressed that he came off the bench on Sunday and got to the game straight away; I was not convinced but in fairness, the situation was tough when he was introduced with the team flagging. Indeed the substitutions offered a resurgence of the impetus which had quietly seeped away for the preceding ten minutes or so.
Where Walcott was good on Sunday was the signal that we can take good players off and replace them with, well, good players. No callow youth as is the stereotype, the two who came on were an established England international and a French international. In itself, that offers a reassurance especially when another England international was left as an unused substitute. There is a depth to the squad which the additional season’s experience brings.
It was interesting that Walcott was hugely disappointed at being on the bench. Yes, I have no doubt that he could have left in the summer and to be honest whilst I understand that the money is not the entire blocking point, I certainly do not believe that it is a minor side issue either. As much as Theo may like to play it down, the summer has left all footballers stained by van Persie’s spurious arguments. Balanced against that I guess, was Arteta once more – he’s going to need a cape at this rate – who earned a new contract through performances on the pitch with negotiations being conducted secretively by football standards. Simple, no fuss, minimum of media contact.
Walcott has oft-stated aspirations to be a central striker and you have to wonder why they have not been realised before now. Surely the manager has worked on this on the training pitch? Surely they know by now whether or not he is going to make it as a lead striker and if not, presumably they have told him why. Whether that truth is unpalatable or not depends on Walcott but there is no way that he can learn his central striking trade in the Premier or Champions League. If the club are taking this dream seriously, Theo will have to be played there in the League and FA Cups.
Personally I hope Walcott does make it happen at Arsenal. For all of the detraction, he is a talented footballer who has temporarily lost his way. The indecision over his future is detrimental to his career, albeit in the short-term. Taking six months to sort out a contract is not going to be acceptable, Team Walcott walked away from negotiations last year so these delays are of his own making and undermine his claims that he is only focussed on staying at Arsenal.