Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Is this Arsenal's best midfield under Arsène Wenger?

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil (second left) has added a new dimension to Arsenal’s midfield
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil (second left) has added a new dimension to Arsenal’s midfield

Narratives change quickly in modern football but Arsenal have managed to go from their lowest ebb in recent years to their very highest in just seven weeks.

From losing at home to Aston Villa on the opening day – their season threatening to finish before it even started – into this remarkable recent run of 10 straight wins – including one on penalties – each seemingly better than the last.

Given the last two – Swansea away and Napoli at home – it is safe to say that Arsenal are playing the best football in the country, with the best options in midfield. When was that last true? During their long trophy drought there have been two seasons – 2007-08 and 2010-11 – when they came close enough to challenging before letting it slip.

But Arsène Wenger said last week that this was their best chance at the Premier League title since 2004-05, given that they now have more of the "quality and experience" that decide title races. After watching them on Tuesday night, as they tore Napoli apart without even Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere or Theo Walcott, Wenger's claim seemed obviously true.

Mikel Arteta is only in his third season at Arsenal, but said afterwards the first half was the best performance he had ever played in. "Because we faced a team who know what they're doing, and that's why we deserve credit. Some people were writing us off, saying we hadn't played a really big, big game yet. Now we've done it, we've proved we're ready for it."

Arteta was at the heart of it alongside Mathieu Flamini, forming a resilient midfield foundation of precisely the sort that Arsenal have lacked recently. Arteta – who completed 75 of 76 attempted passes, Flamini making 66 of 73 – praised his new partner. "I think he is a very intelligent player, and he knows what he is doing and he works hard for everyone as well. So I think we will have a very good understanding."

The real damage was done in front of those two, where Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey played either side of Mesut Özil, about whom Arteta was thrilled. "It gives you a step forward quality-wise, to have someone else on the pitch that can decide the game by himself," he said. "The more players you have like that, the better chance you have."

Özil, Ramsey and Rosicky were switching positions, giving Arsenal more fluidity and imagination than they have had in years. Certainly, since the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri in 2011, but probably far longer than that.

Last time Arsenal challenged for the league, in 2007-08, they had Fabregas and Flamini in central midfield with Rosicky, Walcott and Alexander Hleb in wide positions, and Gilberto Silva, Alex Song and Abou Diaby in reserve. A good combination, certainly, but even with Fabregas probably less incisive than the Özil-Ramsey-Cazorla-Wilshere range they have now.

Arsenal Dream Team - greatest Gunners ever

Arsenal 1977-84, 327 appearances After thirteen years and 591 games with Spurs, Keith Burkinshaw believed the 32-year-old Pat Jennings was coming to the end of his career. It proved to be a miscalculation on a par with Pope Innocent III's prediction that the Second Coming would happen and it would happen in AD1284. Almost eight centuries after that gaffe he's still waiting to be proved right but Burkinshaw only had to wait eight games to realise he had made an awful mistake. Terry Neill poached the 119-cap Northern Irishman from N17 to N5 in 1977 and it wasn't until eight years later that Jennings played the last of his 327 games for Arsenal. Jennings made the game look easy but unlike his Highbury goalkeeping descendant, David Seaman, he didn't need a horse-tail and 'tache to prove that the cameras didn't matter. In an age more accustomed to 'keepers who punch, flap and beat away the ball like demented volleyball triallists, Jennings is an exemplar for the philosophy that a goalkeeper's hands is the only safe place for the ball. His performances for Northern Ireland in the 1986 World Cup, including a fitting finale against the Brazilians, came a year after he had retired from first team football and are a testament to Arsenal's finest 'keeper.
PAT RICE Right-back Arsenal 1967-80, 528 appearances, 13 goals
Belfast-born but London-bred, Pat Rice came up through Arsenal's youth and reserve system. He established himself as first-choice right-back at the age of 21 after three seasons of playing understudy to Peter Storey. His first full season at right-back culminated in Arsenal winning the 'Double' and nine seasons later he could still be found sweating blood for the cause, as well as captaining the side to an agonising penalty shoot-out defeat against Valencia in the 1980 European Cup Winners' Cup final. It was out of Rice's cloth that Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn were cut and, 42 years after making his debut, he continues to play a significant but understated role in the present and future of the club. Rice wasn't deemed good enough to play for Islington Schools but his work ethic, concentration and consistency saw him go on to make 528 appearances for Arsenal and condemned one North London pub to suffer some ol' punter's echoing refrain: "When I was a lad, that Pat Rice had nothing on me. Islington Schools first choice right-back I was, first choice right-back..."
DENNIS BERGKAMP Forward Arsenal 1995-2006, 423 appearances, 120 goals
Dennis Bergkamp becomes the third Ajax player to date - joining Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten - to be selected for a second dream team, a testament to Ajax's famed youth system as well as Bergkamp's singular ability. With Alex James already in the side, Bergkamp's inclusion may look like a luxury but by adopting the same totaalvoetbal system employed by the great Ajax side of the seventies - a system evolved from Herbert Chapman's own W-M revolution - David O'Leary could play as a libero and permit such indulgences. Like James before him, Bergkamp made the game look easy and his team-mates look better. If Ian Wright and Thierry Henry were penalty-box pickpockets of the first degree, Bergkamp was the footballing equivalent of a master art thief - cultured, adaptable and concerned principally with the value placed on artistic merit. Along with Gianfranco Zola he elevated the standard of English football that the last few years has struggled to match and by the time he retired in 2006 he had three league titles to match his three FA Cup winners' medals.

The last time Arsenal had a midfield which was unambiguously better than this one was 2003-04, the famous Invincibles season. Then, Patrick Vieira and Gilberto anchored in the middle with Fredrik Ljungberg and Robert Pires on the wings while, of course, Dennis Bergkamp dropped in between midfield and attack.

Asked whether the current stable of midfielders was quite that good, Arteta demurred, but he did say the fight for places was good for everyone. "I don't think we are at that level yet. Competition makes everyone work harder. So it is a great thing, it raises the level of training, and that will raise the level of games." So no Arsenal midfielder can afford to rest or let his level of performance slip if he wants to stay in the team. "I think it's not possible. If you don't perform for one or two games, you get dropped.

"And we have a few to get back, like Santi, like Abou, a few others. So it's going to be really tough but that's what we wanted. When it's tough, everyone is 100 per cent every game, and that is a big difference."

Arteta was particularly keen for Arsenal to sign big in the summer, and is now delighted that they did. "It was a great message from the club, and he [Özil] lifted everyone. Not only us, but also the crowd at the Emirates. You can see the people are excited again to come and watch us."

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