By Graham Gillespie
In watching his table-toppers Arsenal and their scrappy 1-0 win over Newcastle on Saturday, Arsene Wenger could be seen in rather unusual attire for him on the side-line. Instead of donning his snazzy suit or his classic trench coat/sleeping bag he wore a simple hoodie and tracksuit bottoms combination. He looked dressed like a man who was about settle by the fire at home and watch a new show on Netflix not oversee his side’s attempts to stay on top of the Premier League table. Wenger’s appearance in many ways embodied Arsenal’s display on the day, somewhat too relaxed and sloppy but, ultimately, Arsenal like Wenger’s hoodie, were clinical and effective in achieving what they needed to do in a rain rattled North London.
The obvious point would be that Arsenal’s win over Newcastle was the type of match that teams who win titles win, “playing badly and winning” as the old cliché goes. However just seven days previously Arsenal exhibited a perfect example of playing badly and losing in the same fashion with their harrowing 4-0 hammering at the hands of Southampton on St. Stephen’s day. Hence offering more proof that nothing can be safely predicted with Arsenal. In that game Laurent Koscielny had his stellar form abandon him and he looked less like a fish out of water and more a seal stuck in the middle of the Sahara. On Saturday he gained some form of redemption by poking home an Olivier Giroud knockdown following a Mesut Özil corner securing Arsenal’s victory over the Geordies. This was a moment more befitting of a player who has been rightly in the argument for best centre back in the league this season than being terrorised (and tripped) by Shane Long a week before. The game against Newcastle reiterated not only the strengths of Koscielny himself but reminded us all of the positives of his partnerships with Per Mertesacker. This centre back pairing still remains Arsenal’s best bet of stability in this position.
In the Koscielny-Mertesacker defensive axis Koscielny is nearly always the more advanced on the pitch trying to cut problems at source when without the ball and driving into the opposition’s half when in possession himself. His more aggressive defensive style is the reason why against Newcastle he was first or joint first in the number of interceptions, ball recoveries and clearances for an Arsenal player. This naturally can be a high risk strategy as seen in Arsenal’s victory over Manchester City when in the first half Koscielny failed in his effort to cut out play in midfield which left Mertesacker stranded with Kevin De Brunye charging towards goal only to pull his shot wide of Petr Cech’s goal.
Mertesacker’s role involves offering cover and sweeping behind Koscielny and essentially being a calming influence both for Koscielny himself and the entire Emirates faithful, but one of Mertesacker’s more underrated qualities is his excellent passing ability. He completed 58 out of 60 passes at the weekend and it is noticeable where these passes were directed. The most common recipient of Mertesacker’s passes was Aaron Ramsey which helps indicate Mertesacker’s ability and willingness to pass forward and initiate attacks.
The next man in line Gabriel Paulista has far more in common with Koscielny which means he is a more natural fit alongside side Mertesacker. Gabriel stepped up ably in a clean sheet 2-0 over Bournemouth and displayed his heading prowess in scoring the opening goal and causing carnage from Arsenal corners throughout the game. Despite these positive signs Gabriel is still adapting to the Premier League and has some temperament issues that inhibit him from jumping ahead of either Koscielny or Mertesacker in the pecking order. Calum Chambers has been moved out to holding midfield recently and is currently far too raw to play at centre back (he had a chastening experience there against Liverpool in August, but that game finished scoreless). So for now Mertesacker-Koscielny partnership is the most advantageous for the Gunners and for the most part is functioning alright with Arsenal having the third best defence in the league conceding just 18 goals.
Of course the addition of Petr Cech is really the game-changer in Arsenal’s defensive fortunes, time and time again he has bailed out his teammates when there has been blip in the system ahead of him. It was Cech who pulled off a string of saves when Arsenal were being outplayed by Newcastle. His saves are not as spectacular as someone like David De Gea but they do not need to be due his faultless positioning. John Terry’s prediction of Cech being worth around 12 points to Arsenal this season could be classed as an understatement now at 20 games in.
The final two members of Arsenal’s back five also deserve huge credit. Against Newcastle Hector Bellerin had contacted some of the jitters Koscielny had against Southampton and struggled misplacing several passes in the first half. However in the second half his performance was much improved echoing the way he responded to the nightmares created by Douglas Costa’s pace in the first half of Arsenal’s win over Bayern Munich. On the left hand side the omnipresent Nacho Monreal continued simply being solid, consistent and unfazed when facing Moussa Sissoko’s best efforts to bully him.
Despite having on paper a pretty excellent record Arsenal defence has been shown to have flaws, flaws that have been well noted time and time again by almost anyone with eyes and a semi-functioning brain. Perhaps the key issue with Arsenal’s defence is not actually with the back five itself and has arisen because of the absence of Francis Coquelin due to injury. Coquelin’s combativity and energy crucially offers an extra screening guard for the Arsenal defence, along with also providing another safety net for Koscielny’s endeavours to win the ball further up the field. Without Coquelin, Arsenal have been left with Mathieu Flamini who has neither the energy nor desire to sit and hold in front of the back four. A bizarre 15 minute cameo against Everton summed up the problem with Flamini. Coming on with Arsenal 2-1 up, Wenger expected Flamini to help maintain Arsenal’s lead. Instead, Flamini decided to burst into the Everton box any time Arsenal had the ball and could have scored a brace. The problem was Everton could have scored about four in the same period and Arsenal were fortunate to hold on to their lead.
As we have now reached January, Arsene and Arsenal’s chief negotiator Dick Law are being willed on by the Arsenal fan base to spend spend spend as they always are. It may be naïve to say it but this might be a January where a few signings are made as Wenger realises more than anyone the growing possibility of lifting the title in this most chaotic of seasons. Arsene has made key signings in the past at this time with the capture of Jose Antonio Reyes in 2004 spurring Arsenal on to the title in that run-in. This time round he is showing early intent with the supposedly imminent (not to tempt fate) arrival of Mohamed Elneny from Basel, although another signing of a more natural defensive midfield holder feels vital.
We could be seeing more of Arsene’s hoodie in Arsenal’s technical area this January, as he saves his suave suit for the testing transfer negotiations.