Arsenal accelerating into the final straight

While Arsenal usually start strongly and finish the season in a confused, stumbling daze, it appears that the reverse is panning out this season. After a false start that this guy would be proud of, they’ve gotten their season on track after a brief false dawn. Monday night’s victory over Newcastle was the fourth win having been behind in a row; a new Premier League record. The Gunners, with important players coming back left, right and centre, finally seem to be at their best.

The creativity, intensity and confidence had previously been very low in the season, but now the team seems to be finding the consistency in results and performances that they’ll need to overtake their deadly rivals; the enemy, as Bacary Sagna called them, Tottenham Hotspur in 3rd.

This can be put down mainly to the gelling of the team – after panicked deadline day deals, Arsenal were more a group of individuals as opposed to a unit, which seems to be what they are now. Skipper Robin van Persie has helped the players to bond, and they now seem a cohesive side, able to overcome any obstacle.

That unflappable quality was demonstrated perfectly against Newcastle, when Hatem Ben Arfa rifled in a goal for Newcastle against the run of play. Instead of retreating into their shells, Arsenal showed character and resilience by going up the other end and levelling the scores instantly. Going behind only seemed to motivate Arsenal further – like angering a wasp by swatting it. Arsene Wenger’s side didn’t seem fazed whatsoever by going behind, and even the fans were singing straight after the goal went in, highlighting the belief at the club right now.

The players  have done a good job of getting the fans back on-side (the speculation about Lukas Podolski has helped too; more on him later this week), and having restored their broken image and pride against Tottenham, Milan and Liverpool, they now believe that third place is a realistic target and something that they might just end up achieving. They now believe that they’re a good team, and are ready to stand up to any team who threatens to damage the new aura around the club nowadays.

On the actual football, Arsenal were most dangerous when attacking down the right hand side, like against Milan. Theo Walcott and Bacary Sagna both had excellent games, with the former picking up the man of the match award, while Tomas Rosicky combined well with them both, particularly for the equaliser. Newcastle struggled to cope with Arsenal’s intensity and incisiveness, and Walcott was a large part of that.

He put some excellent balls into the box, making those who criticised his final ball tuck into some humble pie. What some don’t understand is that it takes two to make a good ball; the pass itself, and the run to get on the end of it. Analysing Walcott’s crosses yesterday, he got everything spot on – and not by luck as well, because the techniques were spot on for each of his balls in. Both of the goals were assisted by him, and credit rightly went his way. He now looks more confident, which is a vital part of his game, as he needs to be ready to take players on and whip the ball into the box.

Rosicky was the recipient of a new contract at the Emirates just before the game, and instead of settling with his future sorted out, continued his fine form, linking up excellently with Mikel Arteta, and supplying the pass for Walcott to set up van Persie’s goal.

The equaliser from the Dutchman was expertly taken – the delicate, cushioning first touch, the second to place it in his path and away from the flailing Mike Williamson, and finally the punishing, accurate finish past Tim Krul. It was van Persie’s first touch, and showed his clinical finishing touch.

Someone else who showed an eye for goal was Gervinho, although the Sky cameras didn’t pick it up. While Howard Webb was booking Jonas Gutierrez, van Persie took a quick free-kick, giving it to Bacary Sagna, who whipped it in for Gervinho. The Ivorian, in one swift movement, leapt up into the air and flicked the ball into the far corner of the net. It was a shame the cameras missed it, as I have no proof of it. But trust me, it happened.

As for the negatives – somebody has to I suppose – defensively the first goal was a poor one to concede for Arsenal. When Vermaelen gave the ball away, the midfield were labouring and didn’t get back, leaving a large gap between themselves and the defenders. Kieran Gibbs allowed the tricky Ben Arfa onto his left foot, and the Frenchman punished him.

Arsenal can ill-afford to sell any more big players – every summer for a while now they’ve sold at least two key players, which has disrupted their long-term momentum and put paid to any hopes of real season-to-season progress. If Arsenal can get some seasonal continuity in their line-up, they may begin to become more consistent and competitive. Not only that, but it would send out the completely wrong message – especially if it was van Persie that was sold – as it was surely be an admission that they are no longer a big club; instead a club whose ambition has faded away.

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