Winter is coming…
There’s a bizarre feeling rippling out of its epicentre of N5 at the moment;
“We’ve got our Arsenal back!”
The above was sang in unison and gusto during the 5-1 win on the banks of the Thames last weekend. It might have upset some of the armchair followers of Arsenal who are still triggered by any hint of a critique of the napoleonic tenure of Emery’s predecessor, but it’s the reality. I haven’t been in an away crowd that was as united and the very embodiment of positivity since we enjoyed the same score line at West Ham in December 2016.
We haven’t enjoyed as strong an away result in the league since.
Back then, the swashbuckling performances of the two sole “superstars” of the team at the time dominated the post match plaudits – Mesut Ozil and the pianist (otherwise known as someone who is currently stealing a living as a footballer in Salford). I remember walking out into the crisp east London night, buoyed by the result and the stellar individual performances of Ozil.. and the other guy. The next morning Arsenal twitter was awash with a seemingly iconic and hauntingly familiar photo taken of the backs of Ozil and the Pianist, arm in arm. It symbolised a watershed moment. Within hours of the final whistle at the Olympic stadium (I refuse to call it the “London stadium” as it somehow implies a tinpot club like West Ham represent the city) a photo of Henry and Bergkamp doing almost exactly the same thing alongside the two Arsenal protagonists that night, flooded the internet and went viral.
The suggestion was clear – a bold statement was made and the Arsenal faithful went along with it.
It was enough to make you believe we might just avoid that inevitable, very Arsenal, mid-winter league collapse that season. Whilst the score line was the same last weekend in the surroundings of leafy Craven Cottage, it had an altogether different feel and tone.
Indeed, the score line is where the similarities of the two fixtures, nearly two years apart, end. Under the lights in Stratford on that early 2016 December evening the plaudits for the result were laid firmly towards the two aforementioned “superstars” of the team at the time. The heirs apparent to thrones of God and the King it seemed, such was the clamour in approval of the comparisons being made with that symbolic photo. The post-game analysis was focused on the creative exploits of Ozil and the instinctive and ruthless finishing of Sanchez… (I was hoping to get through the article without mentioning his name once). With both of them approaching the final 18 months of their contracts at the time, there was a seemingly unanimous demand from the Arsenal fan base to tie these two chaps down. Especially after such a great result and the strength of their individual performances in securing such an impressive score line away from home. There was an overriding feeling that securing their futures was of absolute paramount importance to Arsenal staying competitive and going to the next level of ending the 13 year title drought. There was pressure for Arsenal to “break the bank!”
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since. A lot. And a lot of changes which we couldn’t have even begun to envisage nearly 2 years ago, have happened. It seems the club did eventually break the bank for one of those players, who stole the headlines that night in 2016.
It was interesting that in our best away league win since, he didn’t feature. I’d like to make it clear that I don’t think we didn’t win so impressively because Ozil wasn’t present. On the contrary I recognise and appreciate the talents of the German but I’m also realistic about how great he actually is. And he’s certainly not great enough or as intrinsic to this Emery team to justify the average-value-of-a-London-property-a-week he is currently receiving. This isn’t the team of 2016/17 anymore which relied so heavily on Ozil as the overarching creative nucleus. What characterised the truly vintage win at Fulham last time out was that it wasn’t just the goalscoring and creative exploits of two star protagonists (Lacazette and Aubamayang) which exclusively dominated the plaudits – like what characterised that night at West Ham a couple of years ago and indeed the dying embers of Wenger’s tenure. If the Sanchez and Ozil were not on song, we rarely got a result.
Our two stars up front were sublime but players throughout the team showed the minerals and have been widely and rightly praised as contributing to the win. Leno was so comfortable playing it out from the back and how he dealt with any threats early doors. One thing which became apparent in the early stages from watching front row behind the goal is that where there has always been a second or so of hesitation from Cech with the ball at his feet, Leno cut a more comfortable figure. Leno’s recycling under pressure seemed natural. Torreira has been singled out as demonstrating in that game just how important a signing he is proving to be. He is arguably the most influential player in this Arsneal team right now. A strong pattern is developing not only in terms of performances and how more balanced the midfield area now is thanks to the pint-sized South American, but also impressive stats;
In 442 minutes without Torreira on the pitch, Arsenal have scored nine but conceded ten. By contrast, in the 548 minutes with the tenacious Uruguayan on the field, the Gunners have scored an incredible twenty goals and conceded just 3.
That’s a monumental material impact by one player. It has echoes of the kind of direct correlation to results the involvement Santi Cazorla used to have. These are what I call meaningful stats. Not misleading stats like “completed passes” some agenda driven advocates of players like Xhaka use to defend him. Those stats require context. However, there’s absolutely no discussion with Torreira’s impact – he is the first name on the team sheet.
Then you had the plaudits for that exquisite “Emery ball” team goal that I believe will go down as a vintage and historic Arsenal goal. Involving up to 5 players with tricks, flicks, sublime movement (with and without the ball), improvisation and finishing – it was the best team goal I had witnessed in twenty odd years supporting Arsenal. Even the much maligned Mustafi deserves credit for his powerful marshalling of the box. His younger partner in central defence, Holding continued to make the case for a permanent return of some English oak to the heart of The Arsenal defence.
Solid individual performances across the park has presented Emery with a lot to think about over the international break, especially with some more players due to return from injury. These are good questions to have that he must ask himself on who should start the more challenging run-in coming up. It’s the strength in depth at this point in the season, with winter coming, and the games coming increasingly thick and fast, that his predecessor sadly too often didn’t place enough of an emphasis on or prepare for. Now we have quality and in some cases rejuvenated options in every position and a dynamic coach introducing different systems and demanding more.
Yes, this was a struggling and very open Fulham side we dispatched of last game week. And yes Emery-ball and his stewardship still have a long way to go this season. The general newspaper and TV media remain to be convinced that we can compete at the top again, despite just being a couple of points off the challengers-elect. The fact Emery was not awarded manager of the month for September, despite winning every game, I think is a good thing and I welcome it. Let us carry on chipping away under the radar with Leicester and Palace next and allow El Maestro to prepare his side for this traditionally traumatic time of year.
However, by comparing our last 5-1 away win against an equally ranked side on the other side of London, it suggests a different Arsenal on a completely different cliff edge going into that dreaded winter period. We’ve all felt this autumnal/early winter optimism before as Arsenal fans, far too often. It’s the hope which kills you. But without hope, what’s the point in football. Once the weather starts to bite with Liverpool and that lot coming down to N5 we will be well and truly leaping off that cliff edge. As pleasant as this autumnal winning run and improving performances have been, even the most optimistic amongst us understand their context. We have been here too often at this time of year not to all be blighted by that reflex of impending doom.
Yet I believe I’ve seen enough to predict it will be a bumpy but soft landing of mattresses as opposed to falling into a familiar dark abyss. I’m expecting losses before we hear the singing birds of spring but not a collapse. This, more than anything is reason to be optimistic for the more challenging tests which lie ahead. Unai Emery’s Red Army!
North Londoner living in exile north of the border. During the week I’m a PE teacher.