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

contender.

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

defending.

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

Arsenal.

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