Arsenal really do look like they are getting the gestalt. Last year, the line on them was that they lacked the reinforced steel behind Cesc Fabregas in midfield. Mathieu Flamini shortsighted decision to leave for AC Milan meant that, although a cliche for so long ,when it came to describing them, the phrase ‘a soft touch’ was condign.
Moreover, the alienation and discord surrounding the two men eventually shunted out of the club, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor, was a hindrance to team spirit.
Of course, on any given day the abundance of super talented individuals in the squad meant that they could occasionally give league winning sides such as Manchester United the run around, but the collective was in flux: how many people could predict with certainty, what Arsenals best team was last year?
The formation was not even clearly defined in the manner that it has evolved now. Ominously, the team added consistency to their game toward the latter half of the season – indeed for much of it without the injured Cesc Fabregas, but it was the early season slump and the player fallouts that really hampered their trophy push.
This year, despite the huge setbacks of losing Robin Van Persie, and an impressive early season Niklas Bendtner, the team has rallied and more importantly, gelled. Aside from the obvious brilliance of Cesc Fabregas, and the crucial signing and bedding down of Thomas Vermaelen, the emergence and maturation of Abou Diaby and Alex Song seems to have finally added the foundation for success in that Arsenal midfield.
Diaby’s career has been blighted by injury so far; likely a by product of his large rangy frame, speed and the dexterity of his footwork which may have combined to put excessive stress on his physique before he managed to put on enough muscle to withstand it.
He offered glimpses of real talent, very often on the Arsenal left wing, but i remember the opening 20 minutes of Arsenal vs Liverpool in the Champions League the season before last; the Gunners were absolutely unplayable, combining speed and intricate passing to an extent not matched by any club i had seen that year, and Diaby scored to cap a fantastic team goal, but was frustratingly inconsistent the following year.
He finally looks to have bulked up a little, and whilst many compare him to Patrick Vieira, he is not really anything like him. He is far more skillful and able to play between the lines of midfield and defence, but crucially now like Vieira (although not to the same level), seems more able to mix it in midfield, where he is now backed up by the robust Alex Song.
Song’s emergence is extremely important. Know one talks about the need for a defensive midfield player anymore, whereas before it was de rigeur. Felipe Melo chose Juventus, and Yaya Toure was never really an option. But none of that matters now. Italian teams used to play youngsters in every position on the pitch to aid in their development and Song’s education as a defender has meant he is perfectly suited to the enforcer role in midfield.
But he can play too, and is eager to get forward. Early on in the season he occasionally displayed tactical naiveity by vacating that spot in front if the back four to bomb forward, but, in recent games he seems far more disciplined. Which is very important for the manner in which the team functions.
Of course, the lack of a an established center forward will be a problem for Arsenal unless rectified, but if Nicklas Bendtner regains full fitness it will be interesting to see how he fares at the top of the Arsenal formation instead of on the right wing. He has an excellent first touch, is good in the air, but more importantly, offers a big physical presence. I wouldn’t be suprised to see Wenger move for someone like Gignac, but i’m not sure its as necessary as people claim.
In any case, the signs are promising. I always feel the only threat to Arsenal in Europe is the English teams – because anyone who tries to out finesse them will generally lose. But the way the league is looking this year, and what with Chelsea’s loss of Drogba and Essien in January, could see them with a real chance of success in either one of these two competitions.
The simple fact that the formation is settled and the midfield triumvirate of Song, Fabregas and Diaby look to have all the requisite attributes, and furthermore, that the team spirit, as evidenced by comebacks such as the FA Cup game against West Ham, has healed and moved forward from the fractious state it was in last year, bodes well for Arsenal in 2010.