There comes a time in every relationship where you have to wonder, “where is this going?”. That’s where I am with Arsenal right now. My love for the club is strong, but they’re so up and down I wonder how well I really know them.
I think I’ll end the relationship metaphor there, as I’m obviously not going to break up with Arsenal. But what does the future hold for this team? What’s really going on in front of our eyes at the moment?
Four league wins in a row against tough opposition; coming from behind in each game and setting a new record in the process; three stoppage time winners in this run. All of this has seen us somewhat miraculously claw Tottenham back to just a point, when just a few games ago they seemed out of sight. Looking at the fixtures, we arguably have an easier run-in than both Chelsea and Spurs and could be favourites to finish in 3rd place. Going on how we started this season, that would be an incredible achievement. It might not be a trophy, as Arsene Wenger has sometimes suggested, but it would be the most impressive of recoveries with what must be Wenger’s worst side in his time at the club.
Still, going on the ups and downs of this season it would be crazy to get excited just yet. Going on recent games, you’d have to say this team has the mental strength that it has sometimes lacked in the past, but if you go a little further back, you can see our truly awful spell around the Christmas period. Between the 10th of December and the 1st of February we were struggling for goals and lost three league games in a row. This all came after a good run, basically out of nowhere, and there’s always the worry it could happen again.
Punching above our weight?
While last season’s team was more talented but lacked character, this team reminds me more of the 2009/10 team, ie limited talent but bags of fighting determination. The team of two seasons ago was largely unfortunate to be ravaged by injuries, but gave Man Utd and Chelsea a decent chase for the league title as Spurs, Man City and Liverpool weren’t providing much in the way of competition. In the end they could not keep up their run of late winners and had a terrible final few games in which they were simply exhausted. I hope a similar fate does not await this team. The one key difference with that team and this is the injuries – we, for once, are getting key players back and have been lucky not to lose the normally injury-prone van Persie and Walcott for any lengthy period.
How will this team be remembered in comparison to the last two seasons’? If they finish 3rd or 4th they will be seen as a technically limited team with great spirit; if they finish 5th or 6th they will be seen as a team with neither, which I think is unfair.
The fighting spirit we saw last night was brilliant, not just in terms of the result, but in how much it clearly meant to our captain, who taunted the Newcastle goalkeeper for his time-wasting. Sure, some will say it’s unproffessional behaviour, but it’s the kind of passion fans like to see; a sign that we are not going to be pushed around anymore. Too long now we’ve been seen as a talented team but ultimately a bit too nice, and I have longed for the days of the likes of Vieira and Keown, when we hated our opposition more and that gave us that little bit extra to go and win games. You can’t help but love the sight of Keown taunting van Nistelrooy after THAT penalty miss in 2003, and it was the same with van Persie last night, a man who is truly growing into his role as captain.
If this team does fail to finish in the top four, it will be down to a lack of ability more than spirit. You could argue that, as thrilling as last night’s win was, we should have had a more comfortable game against a team like Newcastle. No disrespect to our opposition, but on their last two trips to London they conceded five, first to Fulham and then to Spurs.
Not enough goalscorers?
That’s not to say the win was scrappy as such, as I think we clearly dominated the play, with more possession and more chances created, especially in the second half. The problem, as usual, was that we missed a lot of good opportunities. Captain Vantastic himself could’ve done better on a couple of occasions, and Gervinho and Rosicky missed a couple of real sitters. This was looking much like our home game with Wolves, when we absolutely battered them but had nothing to show for it; we didn’t lay down and die that day, but we rely too much on this fantastic striker of ours. When he has an off-day, there isn’t another reliable source of goals. RvP has 33 this season, while no one else in the side has even hit double figures, our next highest scorer being Walcott with 8.
I certainly expected better from Gervinho, one of our bigger-name signings of last summer. He has done well attacking fullbacks and providing assists, but his finishing is terrible. It’s only his first season so I’m willing to give him time, but it’s worrying that Vermaelen, a centre-back, looks a better finisher than him. There’s always a chance he will do an Henry and improve dramatically in that area, but not everyone can do that. Perhaps more likely is that he’ll be another Chamakh. It certainly makes me hope this Podolski talk comes to something.
I don’t doubt that this team will put in the effort and fight til the end, but I worry that there will be times when we fail to put games to bed. If we need to be attacking relentlessly until stoppage time in every game we are going to tire quite badly eventually.
The tricky fixtures continue…
Next up for us is a trip to an opponent on a great little run themselves: Everton. In their last three home games they have beaten Man City, Chelsea and Spurs without conceding a goal. Goodison Park is certainly one of the last grounds I’d want us to be visiting at the moment, but our record is good there and hopefully they won’t quite manage to keep this incredible recent run going.
On paper, we probably have a weaker team than Spurs, Chelsea and maybe even Liverpool, but this team is all about defying the odds. Even 4-0 down against AC Milan we made the impossible look possible, and we are continuing to do that in the league. We just need to do it for ten more games.
For more thoughts on this crazy season, follow me on Twitter @markbrus