The greatest narratives are those of redemption. The greatest heroes are those who have suffered setbacks, had their faith tested, looked deep into their souls and decided to remain true to their principles; they are those who have been questioned at every turn but have driven on through disappointment and criticism to reach the golden uplands. These are early days very early days but for Arsenal there is, at last, hope that Arsene Wenger was right all along and that a glorious tomorrow might actually arrive.
Wenger described Tuesday’s 2-0 victory over Napoli as the best performance since his side beat Barcelona two years ago. Given the nature of the opposition Napoli, though it lies second in Serie A and had beaten Dortmund two weeks earlier, is not Guardiola’s Barcelona perhaps the comparison was understandable, but that game had felt like a smash and grab, of Arsenal enduring protracted pressure then nicking a couple of goals on the break. On Tuesday, in that breath-taking opening 20 minutes in particular, it took the initiative, playing football that was both joyful and ruthless.
Almost as significant was what followed. In the second half of the first half, Arsenal became almost carried away by its own excellence. There was over-elaboration; the complicated was attempted when the simple would have done. Aaron Ramsey, whose form has been so stunning this season, especially, seemed to believe he could do anything, score form anywhere, to the justifiable irritation of Olivier Giroud. Being hyper-critical, Ramsey probably drifted in too much from that right flank into the central areas he clearly prefers are where he has played so well for the past two months.
Past Arsenal teams might have allowed a frustration to creep in. When Napoli had a couple of chances from corners, there might have been doubts. But this side, after half-time, returned to basics. It accepted that no side can make a purple patch such is it had enjoyed in the first quarter of the game extend for 90 minutes and it effectively held Napoli at arm’s length. It might have been, to use Wenger’s expression, “handbrake-ish”, but it ensured there was no way back for Napoli. It was clinical a word that hasn’t been used about Arsenal for years. As such it evoked memories less of the win over Barcelona two years ago than of the two quarter-final ties against Real Madrid in 2006.
The arrival of Mesut Ozil, clearly, has made a huge difference. “There was individual skill, team play, finishing and final ball,” Wenger said of his performance on Tuesday. “Just sit there and enjoy it.” He knits together the front line, his movement and appreciation of football’s geometry making better players of those he plays with. But he has also brought something less easy to define.
It is hard even now to think how toxic the mood was at the Emirates when Arsenal lost 3-1 to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season. There were boos, chants demanding that Arsenal should “spend some money” and printed sheets urging Wenger to “spend, spend, spend”. Even Wenger loyalists began to wonder why, with cash reserves of over £150m, having promised a summer spree, the only front-line player to have been brought it was Mathieu Flamini, back at the club on a free transfer.
Six weeks later, that defeat is the only one Arsenal has suffered in its last 21 games. It stands top of the table, top of its Champions League group and it does, at last, have a mega-signing to call its own, Ozil arriving for three times the club’s previous record deal. His signing brought a euphoria that seems to have built momentum. “When it’s about winning those big games or losing, he [Özil] makes a big difference,” Mikel Arteta said. “It gives you a step forward quality-wise. I think it was a great message from the club because everyone was expecting a top, top player, probably a striker rather than a No 10. We got an amazing player and I think he lifted everyone. Not only us but also the crowd.”
The oddity is that, as Arteta acknowledged, in terms of the type of player he is, Ozil was the last thing Arsenal needed. It had already accumulated a phalanx of technically gifted attacking midfielders, and when Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain return to fitness, there will be some jockeying for first-team places. Jack Wilshere has already found himself having to operate on the left and Ramsey on the right.
Newly-signed midfielder Mesut Ozil has given Arsenal more firepower in attack this season (Image: Eddie Keogh/Action Images – Reuters).
In that sense, the signing of Flamini has been almost as significant as that of Ozil. From the moment he arrived from the bench against Tottenham, he has restored a snap and a bite, a sense of purpose that Arsenal has lacked since he left for AC Milan in 2007. He directs the packs that were so effective in regaining possession against Napoli most notably winning possession in the build-up to the second goal. As Wenger said, he adds “balance”: Flamini snarls and Arteta guides, providing a platform for a trio of attacking midfielders and the bulk of Giroud to create the skeins of passing that have been Arsenal¹s trademark since Wenger arrived 17 years ago.
The squad is not ideally balanced, and there must be concerns about what will happen of Giroud or Flamini suffer injuries, but for now Arsenal is playing football as quick, confident and attractive as at any point in the last six or seven years. It needs to sustain that form to be meaningful, but at the moment Wenger can glimpse vindication.