Laurent Koscielny’s slammed finish Manchester City not only confirmed the Gunners would walk away from the Etihad with a well deserved point but arguably, confirmed that Arsene Wenger’s team would be genuine contenders for the league title this season.
This was to be the proverbial acid test. Arsenal had had a good start to the season but Sunderland and Stoke barely got out of their halves, Liverpool are clearly not the force they once were and Southampton were....Southampton.
The trip to the reigning league champions would be throw up interesting tests for Arsenal players all over the pitch. Could Vito Mannone really cement himself as number one against City’s aerial power? Could Carl Jenkinson handle himself against the likes of David Silva? Could Per Mertesacker deal with the pace of Sergio Aguero? Could Mikel Arteta effectively play the sitting role against Yaya Toure? Could Santi Cazorla still find pockets of space and probe amidst the strength of City’s midfield? How would Gervinho do as the striker, where he excelled so well against Southampton, but this time against Vincent Kompany?
In truth, the answers to those questions were not completely in Arsenal’s favour. Mannone may have saved well at times but was partially culpable for Lescott’s goal, while Gervinho, though possessing good movement lacked both his touch and finishing prowess in the forward position. However, elsewhere, it must be said that Arsenal were hugely impressive. At the back, the defense of Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Kieran Gibbs were on the whole, superb. Jenkinson and Mertesacker in particular really seemed to come of age and appear to now have confidence in themselves as first team Arsenal regulars.
Additionally, in Gibbs, the Gunners have one of the best left backs in the country at the moment and would be knocking on the door of the England squad were it not for the form of Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines. So good were the Gunners’ backline that the absence of flu-ridden captain Thomas Vermaelen was barely noticeable. It was simply unrecognisable from the ramshackle defence of last season, where at the times it looked as if the opposition could score every time they came at Arsenal. Arsene Wenger may not enjoy it, but full credit has to be given to Steve Bould for the way he has re-organised this defence.
The Arsenal defence is getting all the headlines at the moment but are the midfield being slightly overshadowed? Against the likes of Southampton, the midfield of Arteta, Abou Diaby and Cazorla are expected to excel and control the match but to do so against Manchester City’s midfield power and guile is clearly a better indication of Arsenal’s progress. Diaby’s authority is there for all to see although he did not hit the heights of Anfield a couple of weeks ago but Mikel Arteta’s adaptation and understanding of his new, deeper, defensive role was quite outstanding. Many people praised Alex Song’s ability to begin attacks from a deep position but the reality was Song would be anything but deep; often he would be Arsenal’s furthest midfielder despite his nominal position as their deepest, leaving Arsenal’s defence and midfield exposed to opposition midfield runners or “between the lines” players such as City’s Silva.
However, Arteta’s intelligence and passing quality allows him to sufficiently play the deep-lying playmaker role as it should be done, from deep, giving Arsenal defensive shape and solidity in midfield against breaking attackers. Silva barely got a sniff all game for City while Toure’s marauding runs were noticeably absent and that is in no small part down to Arteta. And then we come to Cazorla. Santi Cazorla. Without a doubt, the signing of the Premier League so far this season. There have been many articles written about Cazorla in recent days and weeks so simply this: Cazorla is a match-winner, one that can produces moments of genius out of nothing. A perfect case in point was on Sunday, with City 1-0 up and Arsenal seemingly running out of ideas, the Spanish maestro collects the ball, runs with it and unleashes a shot that forces a good save from Joe Hart. From the resulting corner (which he takes), the Gunners equalise. Simply, Arsenal’s midfield ranks as one of the best and most well balanced in the country and when you consider that this does not mention Aaron Ramsey, who impressed in a wider role on Sunday or the soon to be returning Jack Wilshere, Arsenal’s increasing title chances are there for all to see.
However, that is not to say that Arsenal’s path to the Premier League title is clear. An issue clearly remains up front. Lukas Podolski is an efficient finisher and has made a good start to life at the Emirates but seems to rely somewhat on service and can drift in and out of games while Olivier Giroud has failed to score since his arrival and appears to be lacking in confidence with each game. Gervinho may have performed well against Southampton but his performance at the Etihad highlighted the problems in the Ivorian’s game. Elsewhere, Theo Walcott’s isolation at the club is becoming more apparent with each muted appearance from the substitutes bench. Fundamentally, for all of Arsenal’s superb midfield work, Arsenal appear to lack of a striker in the mould of dare we say it....Robin Van Persie to take their chances. Had they had the Dutchman on board, then the Gunners would probably have come away from the Etihad with a victory. No team can mount a successful title challenge with a faltering strike force so if the travails of Giroud in particular remain, perhaps Wenger should consider a move into the January transfer market.
Saturday’s crunch clash at home to league leaders Chelsea presents another acid test for the Gunners. Arsenal have improved their record over the Blues of late and shorn of the physicality of the likes of Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, the Gunners should find Chelsea’s artistry rather easier to their tastes. With victory in front of their own fans over a local title rival, the Gunners would send out a serious message to the rest of the Premier League and importantly, to the Gunners’ own fanbase, that this time, this Gunners team of defensive solidity, midfield invention and above all experience, could just be ready to rumble the big boys.