Amidst the dives, stamps, elbows and tweets that garnered the attention – or, weekly hysteria – of the football world over the last weekend, much of the actual football had to settle for second billing.
One of the more telling results, though, came at Upton Park – notable not for any major incidents, but for its evasion of an expected narrative. Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat of West Ham could perhaps not quite be described as routine, but their path to three points was certainly not impeded by the sort of besetting, brutalising treatment that has often been imposed on them to good effect over the last few years, and that has come to characterise the meetings between sides managed by Arsene Wenger and Sam Allardyce.
This time, though, Allardyce and his troops largely failed to ruffle any feathers or to provoke any tantrums from the pitch or dugout, and were eventually dispatched rather efficiently. Of course, West Ham (though often pigeonholed, unfairly, as a artless long-ball side) were no soft touch, as you would expect from an Allardyce team featuring Mohamed Diame, Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll – indeed, the latter spent his afternoon competing for the joint most aerial balls in a single game this season. But it was Arsenal’s own target man who set them on their way to victory; Olivier Giroud connecting sweetly with Lukas Podolski’s driven cross to level the scores.
It was a significant moment: these two summer signings could well prove fundamental to any turnaround in fortunes that Arsenal might encounter, not just through their most obvious function of accounting for Robin Van Persie’s now-absent rampant goal-getting, but, more fundamentally, by enforcing a change of mentality; by steadfastly refusing to be bullied. Perhaps even by becoming the bullies.
Witness Podolski elbowing his way out of a clustered midfield zone to create a goal against Southampton, or the way the brawny Giroud readily engaged James Collins in various edge-of-the-box tussles on Saturday. These are two players who’ll not only refuse to bow to an aggressive opponent, but will relish the opportunity to exert a bit of their own physicality.
But, while such an attitude could well prove to be infectious, it is not only these two who hint at the team’s imminent shift away from their longstanding fragility. The emergence of Per Mertesacker as a centre back of genuine dominance this season has been a welcome addition to Arsenal’s back line. When on form, the towering German is a player who exudes an air of natural authority in a way that Thomas Vermaelen, for all his shaven-headedness and his savagely-smashed free kicks, cannot seem to do without it all appearing a bit forced.
Carl Jenkinson, too, has undergone the quite radical recent transformation from forlorn-eyebrowed no-hoper to a marauding, muscular outlet on the right, more than justifying his position as Bacary Sagna’s stand-in, while on the opposite flank Kieran Gibbs has responded to an extended spell in the side with one dogged foray down the left after another.
Just ahead of the defence, Mikel Arteta has continued his upward trajectory from last season, having reinvented himself from the roving, creative attacker that roamed the touchlines of Goodison Park into one of the division’s most complete holding midfielders. The understated class of his passing, touch and vision remains, but Arteta now operates from a more disciplined position, and has injected a streak of well-channelled aggression into his game.
Some things never change, of course; Abou Diaby is currently out injured. But even he, this season, has offered glimpses of the sort of showings that his numerous detractors had long ago consigned to the bin marked ‘unfulfilled potential’, most notably his virtuoso display at Anfield. The perennial question mark over Diaby’s fitness and durability remains, but his leggy presence in the side is another that dissuades any invitations of rough treatment*.
The return of Jack Wilshere will also be significant in this regard, given that he is yet another player who counts a healthy tenacity among his many strengths, but the is a significant danger of expecting too much, too soon from him. At the moment though, Wilshere is no longer being billed as Arsenal’s returning saviour – and that is because they don’t need one anymore. He is simply is talented player who should eventually make a good team a better one, just how it should be.
We all know the way Arsenal once were; the now-mythical teams that ruled the country from Highbury in Wenger’s early years. As well as the genius of Bergkamp and the lightning speed of Anelka and Overmars, the chest-thumping onslaught of Adams, Keown, Vieira and Petit made it absolutely clear to the world that theirs was not a team to be messed with, acting as the four horsemen of the apocalypse to any opponent who decided to engage them in a physical battle. These sides have become the stuff of legend not only because of their phenomenal success, but also due to the stark contrast with what followed them.
Too often in recent years Arsenal have allowed themselves to become picked on, with their indignant outrage at any rough-house tactics creating a toxic snowball effect: bullying-complaining-more bullying.
Now though, Arsenal finally seem to have the personnel to ward off such an approach, players who will not be easily bruised – not physically and not mentally.
The culture of fragility that has blighted Arsenal in recent years has, not accidentally, coincided with their inexcusably long spell without silverware. At least one of those now appears to be coming to an end.
*But please, for Christ’s sake, can we all now stop the utterly invalid and vaguely racist comparisons with Vieira?
Alex Hess is a freelance writer that has contributed to football365. You can find him on twitter here.