Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spreading the Burden

Arsenal has been on quite a run of late, winning their last seven Premier League games and vaulting into third place, currently three points above rivals Tottenham. With third place comes an automatic Champions League spot for the 2012-2013 season (fourth place must play in a home/away playoff, though English clubs are usually favored in such ties) and, of only slightly less importance, peace of mind and important marketing potential going into the offseason. The best players in the world want to play for clubs who can compete in Europe, so the Champions League spot is incredibly valuable, but so is the image of a team who can actually challenge for the title. Arsenal has looked like many things this year, but this is the first time that they have been able to make the claim that they might be contenders and it couldn't be coming at a better time. This is free advertising directed at all the players in the world who'd like to step up a level, for all the budding (or current) superstars who dream of winning trophies. While the most important step will be locking up the team's leading scorer Robin Van Persie for the foreseeable future, Arsenal seems to finally be learning to win without him being at his world beating best, an important indicator for anyone who was worried this was a one man show.

To be clear, this is not in any way meant to downplay Van Persie's contribution to the team this year or suggest that he is no longer valuable. Far, far from it. The Dutchman's 26 goals still lead the Premiership by five and he has been the man holding things together when without him, everything would have unraveled in a hurry. He is still scoring goals, including his brace against Liverpool and the game-tying tally against Newcastle, but he is starting to look human for the first time. I by no means am suggesting that he is returning to the frustrating "talent without a killer instinct" striker that I labeled him as at the beginning of the season (a thousand apologies for that, oh Great One), but he is no longer putting everything in sight in the back of the net, which should honestly be expected. He has had shots blocked, he has put good shots just wide, he's gotten closed down by goalkeepers, and all of these things are perfectly natural. Unless your name is Lionel Messi, you simply can't maintain the streak that Van Persie was on. But no other player, not even Messi, can claim to be as valuable a goal scorer for his team as the Arsenal captain simply because for a long while, there didn't look to be anyone else that could score for the Gunners. But now, finally, there is some faith that other players can pick up the slack and do their part.

Arsenal's current seven game winning streak has come because of a massive outpouring of goals, 22 in total. This number is inflated by a 7-1 defeat of Blackburn and a 5-2 come from behind win over Spurs, but there is no doubting the scoring form the Gunners are in. Van Persie has put in 7 of those goals and nearly one-third is no number to scoff at, but it is not the 50% clip he was scoring at for most of the year. More recently, he has had only one of Arsenal's six goals over the last three wins, wins that have come without Van Persie being the dominant force on the field. True the goal against Newcastle was a masterpiece of "anything you can do, I can do better," coming just 53 seconds after Newcastle's opening goal and sparking the familiar chant of "He Scores When He Wants," but other times he has been taken out of the game by defenses or been uncharacteristically untidy in front of net. When this has happened, however, different players have stepped up to get Arsenal moving forward. Because of this, the mood has changed for fans when watching the Gunners. Before, everyone "knew" that Van Persie was going to have to rescue the team. Now there is a belief that the goals are going to come whether of not they're off the foot of the captain and that trust in the rest of the squad is what has fans feeling so confident now.

In my mind, this started in one of the most unlikely of places: the boot of Tomas Rosicky. The rebirth of the Czech attacking middie (recently rewarded with a new two-year contract) changed two major things in the minds of fans. One, the level of belief in the topmost midfielder in Arsenal's 4-5-1 formation, something that was especially necessary after a disappointing season from Aaron Ramsey who often looked lost in front of goal. Two, the emergence of Rosicky was so drastic due to how poor he had looked the rest of the season that it brought out that "hey wait a minute, we actually do have players" feeling from the fans. In a way, Rosicky turning things around was emblematic of the team's ability to do so because this belief was coming from such an unexpected, but now potent, source.

From here on out, Arsenal will be looking to its other attacking players to continue contributing so that the Gunners don't live and die on the touch of Van Persie. While it is fantastic to have tallies from Thomas Vermaelen and Kieran Gibbs, fullbacks cannot be relied on to provide the finishing in the offensive end. Players like Theo Walcott, now second on the team with six goals, will have to continue their good form and act as viable threats, both in order to produce scores and take some attention off of their fearless leader. Of course the occasional goal from Mikel Arteta is nice (whose free kick strike against Aston Villa was as strong as you'll see this season), but the real pressure will be on Rosicky to continue his solid level of play and wingers Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho to get into the mix. Oxlade-Chamberlain has been impressive all season long, but he's still young and may not be able to go all out week after week. Gervinho has been unimpressive since returning from the African Cup of Nations and needs to get more involved in the attack so that his speed can put the defense under pressure. I doubt that Van Persie will completely lose his scoring ability any time soon, but with other players keen to contribute and the existing belief that they actually can make a difference, Arsenal looks able to compete both now and in the years to come.

Game Notes

-This match against Aston Villa was one of those "taking care of business" matches that fans absolutely adore. There was no drama, no white knuckles, just two goals inside of the first half an hour and Arsenal always looking like the team that would net the third. Good teams do this, of course. Good teams leave no doubt in anyone's mind who is going to win; not the players, not the fans, and certainly not the opposing team. Villa is a team that is in serious trouble this year, near the relegation region for most of the season, so this shouldn't be taken as a sign that Arsenal will roll through the rest of the league. Still, there is something to be said for these matches being as easy as they look on paper.

-Alex Song is an oft... maligned is a bad word, but there is something to the intent. Perhaps "scapegoated" is more accurate. He is a player whose mistakes are instantly jumped upon (often because of how glaring they are, to be fair) and whose accomplishments are often swept under the rug. He does have an annoying habit of getting too cute on the ball which, as a defensive midfielder, can lead to major errors. And he does try a little too much to make that perfect pass rather than just the one which will keep play moving. But several times this year he has made that extraordinary pass to perfection (including once in this match to Theo Walcott to set up the Gunners' second goal) and with eight assists in the Premier League this season, it about time he gets some love. Bravo to you Alex Song. There are times when I wish you were all steel instead of a mix of steel, fancy, and stupidity, but I love you for what you do.

-While I'm in the mood for giving credit, I'll begrudgingly give some to Kieran Gibbs. Not necessarily for the goal because it's one that Shay Given really should have stopped, but because he seems to pass for competent coming forward these days. I know I've said some pretty negative things about Gibbs in the past and I still don't believe that he should be the first choice left back. However, he is starting to learn how to jump into the attack and give support to his winger, something that his opposite number Bacary Sagna already does so incredibly well. Again this comes with the caveat of playing against Villa, who don't have much in the way of wingers to challenge his position, but it's nice to see him coming around a bit. Besides, he's still young (only 22 at the time of this writing) so perhaps there will be more to him than I would have thought. There are times when I'm happy to be wrong. As Always, Go Gunners.

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