Column: Arsenal, the real deal without Van Persie
Sshhh! Don’t say this too loudly, but early signs this season
point to Arsenal being a genuine Premier League title
Gervinho, the forward so mediocre in his 2011-2012 debut for the
Gunners, is scoring goals.
Santi Cazorla, the midfielder hired from Malaga in August, was
surely one of the best summer buys by any Premier League team.
And the spongy, leaky Arsenal back four has, in perhaps the
biggest surprise so far this season, been transformed into a
defense finally worthy of that name.
Which, when the trophy is handed out next May, all might still
amount to nothing, yet again.
A trip to Manchester City, the defending English champion, looms
next Sunday. Arsenal then hosts Chelsea, the European champion, the
weekend after that. Losing to both those sides could knock much of
the stuffing out of Arsenal before its season has begun to build
any meaningful momentum – just as its 8-2 surrender to Manchester
United did early last season.
This time 12 months ago, ”we were already out of the title
race,” manager Arsene Wenger acknowledged this past weekend.
So to shout any firm predictions now about Arsenal’s title
prospects is foolish. They can only be whispered, at best. But
equally foolish were the premonitions of doom and gloom for Arsenal
when it sold Robin van Persie to Manchester United in August.
Although Van Persie scored 30 of Arsenal’s 74 league goals last
season, his departure could actually be a blessing. Arsenal was
over-reliant on him and his leadership as captain. Without him,
Wenger can field a more balanced team that isn’t so focused on one
man and can tell his remaining players they all must now shoulder
more responsibility and do more heavy lifting.
Gervinho, for example, seemed at times last season to have all
but given up belief that he could score himself. Too often, the
winger went for a pass instead of the goal. He was energetic and
keen but dithered and couldn’t finish. Four goals and five assists
in 28 league appearances were nowhere near enough. Nor, for that
matter, was Arsenal’s goal total of 74 – 19 fewer than City’s and
15 shy of runner-up United. Van Persie’s eye-popping season as the
league’s top scorer simply helped to mask that not enough of his
Arsenal teammates competed at his level.
But playing more in the center of attack against Southampton on
Saturday, Gervinho was like a new man, dangerous and effective. For
the first of his two goals, he invited a sublime chipped pass from
Mikel Arteta by sprinting into space behind Southampton’s defense.
He then coolly sized up goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, shooting between
his left post and outstretched left hand. It was incisive and
convincing – everything Gervinho wasn’t last season.
It also was against a team that played in English football’s
second tier last season and, promoted this season, has the most
porous defense in the Premier League, conceding 14 goals in losing
its first four matches. Two of Arsenal’s six goals on Saturday were
scored inadvertently by Southampton players. In short, one
shouldn’t read too much about Arsenal’s fortunes from the tea
leaves of this one, admittedly impressive, performance.
Still, shifting Gervinho off the wing is an interesting
experiment from Wenger. He is tearing a leaf out of his own book,
because he did similar with Thierry Henry, who became Arsenal’s
record scorer, and Van Persie. Gervinho is dozens of goals short
from being even half the strikers they turned out to be. Still,
watch this space. Olivier Giroud, hired to replace Van Persie, will
need to start scoring, too, if Arsenal is to have sustained success
this season. But until that happens, as it will, Gervinho looks
like a useful stopgap and perhaps more.
”We transform all wingers into central strikers and all the
strikers into wingers!” Wenger joked. ”He is such a great mover
and he is so quick. So when he is central, once he gets ahead of
the central defender, it is difficult to catch him.”
Even more remarkable is that Arsenal’s defenders haven’t
conceded. Arsenal’s only goal-against in four games was a gift from
`keeper Wojciech Szczesny. He dropped a Southampton cross into the
feet of Daniel Fox, making his goal a formality. That blip aside,
Wenger seems to have absorbed the lesson that a team which is
confused and erratic in defense can’t succeed, no matter how
exciting it is to watch when going forward. This season, there is
more purpose, discipline and concentration in Arsenal’s
As to be expected of seasoned players, Cazorla and forward Lukas
Podolski look like they have been playing with Arsenal for years,
not weeks. By hiring the Spain and German internationals, and
Arteta and defender Per Mertesacker in 2011, Wenger sent reassuring
signals that he recognizes the value of experience, even though he
also prides himself on identifying and nurturing young players, in
part to keep down transfer costs. Because of Cazorla’s cleverness
and passing from midfield, the departures of Cesc Fabregas and then
Alex Song to Barcelona no longer seem like such damaging losses to
In short, the vibes from Arsenal so far look good.
Or, as Wenger put it, they are ”interesting.”
City and Chelsea will tell us if they’re more than that.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The
Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow
him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester