There’s a feeling of great potential around Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium and, for the first time in many years, it might actually be an earned one.
I was fortunate enough to be at the Emirates last Saturday for Arsenal’s 4–1 demolishing of Liverpool, one of a handful of times per season I’m able to make the trip up there for a match. Aside from being just a fantastic spectacle of the best kind of razzle-dazzle football, it left me with a surprising amount to consider regarding Arsenal’s future prospects.
In case you’d somehow missed it that now makes it 7 wins in a row in the league. Arsenal are sitting very comfortably atop the form table, and don’t appear to be in any danger of letting it slip any time soon. One cant quite help but think that they would also be leading the actual league table had the first half of their season been less frustratingly inconsistent. But that is well-trodden ground. As we dig into the customary ‘business end’ of the fixture list, the priority must be to take what lessons have been learned and look onwards and upwards.
Now, this is where longtime Arsenal fans will begin to twitch and their cynicism glands will start to violently swell. Kicking on has been the perennial hope of everyone associated with the Gunners, yet the club has never managed to quite do it. You only have to look back to the opening passage of this current season to see an example of this.
They’d just won the FA Cup, their first major silverware in quite some time. Smart work had been done in the transfer market, clearing out some proverbial deadwood and bringing in a genuine world-class player in Alexis Sanchez, as well as some other canny buys. And then all these pieces seemed to be jelling together promisingly when the season began with a resounding 3–0 win over champions Manchester City in the Community Shield. Everything was set for Arsenal to shake off the demons that plagued their almost-but-not-quite title challenge of the 2013/2014 season. They were genuine, stone-cold contenders. Obviously though, it was “not quite” all over again.
As we head into this summer though, there’s a similar air of potential around North London, yet with a few significant differences. Recently, Arsène Wenger has spent a great deal of time talking about a sense that something is happening around the training ground. A “something” that is evident when you look at the squad and the way it has evolved.
First off you have the development of the familiar faces in the team. Striker Olivier Giroud has thrown off the criticisms that have long hung around him. He is now on 14 goals in the league despite having missed a significant chunk of the season due to injury. He has forced his way into the conversation on the best strikers in the league by just bossing it all the bloody time to the point where it is unthinkable to leave him out.
Santi Cazorla, despite always being a solid player, has taken it up a whole other gear as of late. Playing the most beautiful kind of visionary passes and employing the fanciest of footwork to hypnotize his opponents. Moreover, he’s added real daring and backbone to his game too. Being unafraid to get stuck into challenges and harry opposition players in way they mightn’t expect. He was instrumental in the 0–2 win at the Etihad for this very reason.
And Mesut Özil, oh my word that man. I wont go into too much detail as James over at Gunnerblog has written a fantastic piece for Rabonamag on why he is Arsenal’s “gentle genius” that you should check out. Needless to say though he has been a real force in 2015, and it is ridiculous that his critics are still so vehemently stubborn to accept what he brings to the side. I’m looking at you Michael Owen you bizarre monotone pundit-bot.
On top of all the improved longer serving players there’s also the slew of newer names that have all helped usher in a time of absolutely absurd squad depth. The columbian David Ospina overtaking Szczesny as Arsenal’s first-choice goalkeeper, new centre-back signing Gabriel and the incredible development of young right-back Hector Bellerin have been invaluable in defence, and what more can I say about Sanchez that hasn’t already been said?
Even Danny Welbeck, despite his lacklustre form in front of goal, has acted as an incredibly speedy nuisance to opposition defences, stretching the play and creating opportunities for those around him. Not to mention that his very presence has been a great motivator for Giroud to up his game.
The real story of the season though has been Francis Coquelin. He has shot from being an out-on-loan drifter that most had forgotten about to one of the first names down on the team sheet. Injuries forced Arsene’s hand to give him a chance, and the Coq has taken that chance with astonishing aplomb. He was sensational on Saturday, and every new performance convinces me even further that he is more than just a stop-gap option in that DM role. He could be Arsenal’s lynchpin there for a long time to come.
Stories like his represent the main difference between the hopes conjured by this season and the innumerable false hopes that have come before. We are no longer just dealing in vapid talk of increased mental fortitude and stale platitudes of positivity. There are actual tangible takeaways to be observed, with the statistics to back them up, and one by one the shortfalls that have typically affected Arsenal are beginning to fall away.
Furthermore, this season’s too-late superficial threat to inevitable champions Chelsea may have an unexpected silver lining to it. Last time out Arsenal’s purple patch came in the first half of the season, meaning they went into that final stretch dejected and bemoaning what might have been. This time they’re ending strong, with the potential of both retaining the FA Cup and their highest league finish in years very much within their own hands. The momentum is on their side.
Wenger’s current contract as manager ends in just a scant few years and, given his age in addition to where he’s at in his career, it’s hard for one to imagine him extending it yet again. Naturally, it’s getting close to crunch time. He has already firmly written his name into the canon of Arsenal greats, so all that remains is to go out with the bang we all know he wants. The way this squad is shaping up it’s his best chance of doing so he’s had in close to a decade. Lets all hope the fantastic Frenchman gets what he deserves.