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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Mid-season review - a huge chance

Please keep proving me wrong
When Arsenal lost to Aston Villa on the first day of this season there was a tide of change about to sweep through the Club. Arsene Wenger had finally  been turned upon by a majority of match going fans. There was a resultant atmosphere so nasty that the vitriol spilled from the stands when Villa made it 3-1. We'd spent an entire Summer watching the Arsenal business people embarrass themselves with failed attempts to sign Gonzalo Higuain and Luis Suarez. Once Antony Taylor had ensured an abysmal performance ended in a humiliating defeat to a poor side the fans had finally seen enough (it's worth noting that we've not been subjected to Taylor since which is surely an admission from the FA that he was an utter joke that day). It was clear that the Club was going nowhere and the Manager was on his last legs. A tricky draw in the Champions League qualifiers meant things were possibly only going to get worse. What has happened since then is simply incredible.
The win at Fenerbahce was a huge result. Okay, they turned out to be not quite as good as we had feared they'd be, but nobody was writing them off before we played them. The players went out there and did the business. Aaron Ramsey served notice of things to come and the team started to look like one with a good squad spirit, perhaps forged on the hopelessly choreographed tour of Asia in July. All the while the lack of investment hung over Arsenal and continued to cast a huge shadow. We all knew that, however results went in the short term, we'd be short of anything resembling a challenge all the while the obvious flaws weren't addressed. Even the win over Tottenham (whose year this is/was supposed to be for the twentieth consecutive time) was not enough to erase the doubts. Mathieu Flamini had come in on a free, and been superb as a sub against Spurs, but a free transfer for a bloke who hadn't been good enough five years ago was not really inspiring the fans (even those of us who saw the absolute value in bringing him back as a squad utility player).
Then it happened. Arsenal spent money. Big money. On a World Class player. I don't for one minute believe that the signing of Mesut Ozil was long planned. Only a few days earlier we'd been trying to buy Yohann Cabaye. If we'd got him then we'd never have gone after Ozil. We didn't actually need a player in that role. But if you bring in the best player in the World in his position then that makes a difference. As a statement of ambition it was huge. Arsenal had spent more than £40m on one player and it felt unbelievable. Opportunist it may have been, but Arsene clearly saw the stars aligning with Bale going to Real Madrid and he snuck in to surprise us all. Yes, we still needed (and still do need) a centre-forward but the bringing in of one of the best players in World football provided an amazing buzz around Arsenal. The bounce effect has been felt right up until now, even without Ozil perhaps dominating in the way he should for a player of his ability. Back in 2007 Alexander Hleb got a last minute winner in the first game of the season at home to Fulham. The effect of that carried us all the way to Birmingham in February when Eduardo's broken leg and Mike Dean's first act of bias against Arsenal changed our season once and for all. Ozil's arrival, if added to in the very near future, could take us even further in to the campaign this year.
It's amazing to think that I'm writing this piece on New Years Eve with Arsenal at the top of the Premier League, given how low things were at the Club following that Villa game. We've seen some superb football at times, and some incredible backs to the wall displays. Jack Wilshere's goal against Norwich is quite simply the most amazing team goal I've ever seen. It is so far removed from what we expect in English football that it must, whatever individual brilliance the likes of Suarez might produce, be the goal of the season. The win at Dortmund restored faith and confidence in a squad that was starting to be labelled (and still is in fairness) as a group of players who can't beat top sides. There have also been some poor displays, most notably at Old Trafford (yet again) and at Napoli.
The player of Arsenal's season to this point is indisputably Aaron Ramsey and I hope he can go on to show that it is not just a golden three months but the shape of things to come in his career. If he does keep it up then we can only hope it's a career that is largely spent in Arsenal's midfield and not somebody else's. Another player I want to single out is Per Mertesacker who has become Captain of this Arsenal team in all but official title. The BFG organises and cajoles this Arsenal team. It is no coincidence that he wasn't there in that game at Manchester United. Yes, he lacks pace and will occasionally be caught out, but you don't get 90-odd caps in the Germany defence if you can't play a bit.
For Arsene Wenger is has been a huge turnaround thus far. The "Wenger Out" calls have been largely silenced for the moment. Even for me, who was/is very much in that camp, this can only be a good thing. If people aren't on Wenger's back then that means we're winning football matches. Ultimately that's what we all want from Arsenal. If the team is winning then we're all happy. If that means Arsene Wenger is proving wrong people like me then I'm more than happy. I take far more pleasure from being made to eat my words than I do from seeing Arsenal get beaten. I want Arsene Wenger to complete the job and force me to apologise come the end of this season. Nothing would give me greater pleasure right now.
I mentioned 2007-08 earlier and how we fell apart in February. That season we all knew what was missing from the squad, regardless of Eduardo getting his leg smashed to pieces. Arsene refused to spend in January and within two weeks it had come back to haunt us. We are in a similar position this year. As we sit top of the table we know that a signing or two might just complete the pieces of the jigsaw an take us over the line. In the Invincibles season we went and got Jose Antonio Reyes and he provided the required boost to get us there. I implore Arsene Wenger to open the cheque book again in the next week or two. I'd rather we signed someone and ended up falling short than not signing someone and wondering what difference a new face or two might have made.
As we approach the closing hours of 2013 I wish you all a Happy New Year and I hope that Arsenal give us what we want in 2014. The chance is there to end the trophy drought. Arsene Wenger must do what it takes to grasp that opportunity. See you next year.

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