Arsene Wenger was a worried man. The Gunners were involved in their tightest race for fourth spot yet. In the following month, they would see themselves humbled in the FA Cup and taught a footballing lesson by eventual Champions League winners Bayern Munich at home. The times were dark and questions about the manager’s position were beginning to get louder.
However, after that famous night in Munich, a change was palpable in the squad. There was something different in the team. It was the collective realisation of the players that if they could beat Bayern Munich away with a clean sheet to boot, there was nothing stopping them from replicating that form in other games. Arsenal subsequently went on to build a ten game winning streak, pipping Tottenham to fourth spot yet again (It’s 1-1 at Newcastle for those of you asking from WHL) and the summer began with a statement of intent from Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis who proclaimed that the club were finally in a position to spend.
Transfer rumour mongers went berserk. Higuain, Suarez, M’Villa, David Villa were among the names thrown around as Arsenal fans got restless waiting for that big signing they were promised. The new season started with an unchanged squad and disaster struck as the Gunners fell 3-1 at home to Aston Villa and calls for the manager’s head reached a crescendo. The signing of Mathieu Flamini on a free transfer was greeted with derision and chagrin by supporters as the chant of “Spend some f****** money!” rang out at the Emirates. Things took a massive upturn when after beating Tottenham 1-0, Arsene Wenger gave a cheeky smile on the night before deadline day and said “Maybe we will have a surprise for you.” Enter, to the general disbelief of everyone in the world, from Gooners to Madrid fans and irate Tottenham fans, Mesut Ozil. The wide eyed German, only 24, the best playmaker in the world according to Jose Mourinho was a Gunner. It was unbelievable.
Back to the present, Arsenal sit on top of the premier league, have qualified from the Champions League group of death and progressed to the fourth round of the FA Cup beating Tottenham with a largely second choice XI. What could’ve sparked this complete turn in form? As we will see through the course of this article, there are multiple factors at play here.
The Winds Of Change
The Premier League has seen a change of management in three of the biggest clubs in England this season. Sir Alex Ferguson finally retired from coaching Manchester United, appointing fellow Scot David Moyes as his successor who has, to put it mildly, struggled.
Jose Mourinho has returned to Chelsea and sought to make himself familiar again with the club that made him a household name across Europe. However, crucially, this was the first time he took over a club after Porto and couldn’t bring in massive, big name signings. Consequently, we have seen his perfect home record under threat numerous times so far this season. The fact that his strikers comprise of the misfiring Torres and a Samuel Eto’o who seems well past it are not helping matters either.
Manuel Pellegrini took over a mercurial Man City side and their home form has been ominous this season, dispatching Arsenal and United convincingly while also beating the likes of Liverpool and thrashing Tottenham Hotspur.
With this sweeping change in management, Arsenal and Liverpool sought to gain the most through stability and indeed were the leaders in the initial run in for the title till January. Chelsea and Man City have since shown their impressive squad depth to make it a three horse race in the new year as Liverpool slipped to fifth.
The fact that Arsenal avoided a summer where another star player left the team also played a huge part in keeping the squad cohesive and consistent as well as strong, mentally.
Arsene Wenger has been given stick over nearly all his signings throughout his career at Arsenal at one point or another. Henry couldn’t score in his first 8 games and was written off. Cesc Fabregas was said to lack the physicality to cope with the Premier League. Thomas Vermaelen wasn’t tall enough to be an Arsenal centre back. Per Mertesacker too slow and Laurent Koscielny an unknown.
After suffering a bit more than these players at the hands of the media and his own fans too, Aaron Ramsey came out of nowhere and established himself as a serious contender for player of the season with matchwinning displays against Dortmund, Liverpool, Cardiff and Napoli. It was a mark of the manager’s faith in him that he extended Ramsey’s contract when most were calling for him to be sold off to a smaller club. Similarly after a difficult first season adjusting to the rigours of the Premier League, Per Mertesacker has become Arsenal’s rock in defense, calmly reading the game and snuffing out attacks before they even began. Laurent Koscielny has formed a centreback partnership that has seen him emerge as one of the finest defenders in the league as the Arsenal back four sit on top of the clean sheet tally with the fewest goals conceded so far. Up front, vilified for his lack of goals, Olivier Giroud has found form and established himself as the focal point of Arsenal’s attack, contributing offensively and defensively with his physicality and aerial prowess. Mathieu Flamini has brought experience and a biting, never say die attitude to this side, barking orders and intimidating opponents. The massive improvement of players backed by Wenger when in their darkest Arsenal days has played a huge part in propelling the Gunners to the top where they seek to remain.
Wide Eyed Surprise
Mesut Ozil is an enigma for the opposition. One moment, he looks as if he is uninterested in the game and seeking to catch his breath, the next moment the ball is in the back of the net after an exquisite through ball that could only have been played by one player on the pitch. He orchestrates play from the shadows, drifting quietly into positions from which he can wreak havoc, showing sublime touch and vision. Arsenal seem to have found themselves another Bergkamp level signing. His arrival at Ashburton Grove was met with general disbelief even by the players who themselves didn’t have much of an idea about the transfer until the very last moment. He seems to have provided a lift to the team that is intangible to all but the players themselves. They thought to themselves, “If the world’s best no. 10 has chosen to join us, we must be pretty good”. This self belief and confidence has seen assured, flawless performances against Liverpool and Napoli and a thrilling smash and grab at Dortmund, three games which provided a massive boost to the morale of the squad.
Mesut Ozil is the kind of world class player that can transform a good squad into a great one and the results are there for all to see. If they continue to be assured and calm in games one normally expects to win if one wants to win titles, there is no reason why Arsenal can’t go on and win the league. What an end to the trophy drought that would be!
All in all, it’s unquestionable that Arsenal are back among the big boys. A mature yet young squad, some extremely talented individuals and real maturity and team spirit mean that Arsene Wenger can look at May 2014 with hope rather than trepidation, expectation rather than worry and all at N5 will be hoping for that phone call to book the open top bus again.
– Kiran Tallapragada