Mesut Özil: Phwoar
The best player on the pitch by a considerable distance. What more can one say?
Özil’s dramatic arrival and immediate effectiveness have transformed the club on and off the pitch and after yet another decisive individual performance, the sports pages are full of columns hailing the playmaker’s Bergkamp effect. If he continues to play like this, lifting his teammates’ performance levels to unprecedented heights, then who knows what this Arsenal team can achieve.
Last night was the first time I’ve seen Özil play, having spent three years umming and aahing about going to Madrid specifically to do so. He did not disappoint. The sportsman I was most reminded of was Roger Federer: technically perfect, irresistibly elegant and utterly ruthless. There’s a banner hanging from the third tier at the Emirates that says ‘You Can’t Buy Class’. Özil is proof that you most definitely can.
Mathieu Flamini Is The New Mathieu Flamini
The less-heralded of Arsenal’s late August arrivals, Flamini was as instrumental in ensuring that Arsenal’s victory last night as his iconic German teammate. His total of six defensive actions – three tackles and three interceptions – was higher than that of any other home player. Even more encouraging than the solidity he brings to midfield, however, is his leadership quality.
Since coming back, Flamini has acted as the on-pitch general Arsenal have missed since he left. If anything, he has improved. Regularly seen encouraging his teammates and ensuring their concentration levels remained absolute, he appears to have returned from his Milanese sojourn with greater maturity and a sheepish awareness that the grass was never greener for him than in North London.
Pride in the shirt has not always been a quality associated with recent Arsenal sides, but watching Flamini’s reaction to the final whistle last night it became clear that he has it in abundance. His dedication is infectious.
Olivier Giroud: The Man For His Time And Place
When the previews for 2013-14 came out, Giroud was seen by the majority of publications as a player that would eventually need replacing if Arsenal were to again rise to a position of eminence in both English and European football. Last night served as more proof that the French forward has all the qualities to lead the line for years to come.
Having played important parts in both goals away to Swansea on Saturday, last night’s opener was created by one of Giroud’s signature flicks, this time sending Aaron Ramsey scampering down the touchline to tee up Özil for the opener. The second goal, which Giroud scored, came about after his precise pass allowed Özil to exploit Napoli’s openness on the right flank.
It may well be that the striker’s high-risk/low-completion style proves Arsenal’s Achilles heel later in this year’s Champions League, particularly if they come up against Barcelona again, but all the signs are there to suggest that a huge improvement is being made game-by-game. In this kind of form there are not many number nines in the world capable of filling Giroud’s boots.
Reaping The Benefits Of A Settled Back Four
The first time I was at a game in which Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny started in the centre of Arsenal’s defence was last season’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City at the Etihad. Before the match, when news broke that Thomas Vermaelen was ill and would be unavailable, the mood was bleak, to say the least.
Travelling to Manchester to face the champions – who boasted four strikers costing upwards of £30m – without the side’s best defender seemed an exercise in futility. There followed a defensive masterclass from the pairing that has since become Arsène Wenger’s first choice.
Since Vermaelen’s positional ineptitude cost Arsenal the North London Derby in March, Mertesacker and Koscielny have been used whenever possible, with Bacary Sagna on the right and Kieran Gibbs on the left. The back four, shielded ably by Flamini and Mikel Arteta, looked solid as a rock last night. Gonzalo Higuaín missed out, of course, but even if he had played there was little chance of him getting any change out of a settled unit that gets better with each game.
Has The Emirates Atmosphere Ever Been This Good?
As a neutral, I only visit the Emirates once or twice a season and only ever for Champions League games. A friend who is a silver member sorts out the tickets and I more or less come along for (and provide, in a vehicular sense) the ride. Over the last couple of seasons I’ve accrued more experience of Arsenal’s travelling support than of the regular Emirates faithful. Therefore, my experience of the atmosphere at home games is limited, and so this might be wide of the mark, but never before have I heard an Arsenal home crowd in such good voice.
I’m used to hearing the Gunners booed off at half-time; to knowing within five or ten minutes who the current scapegoat is and roughly how long it will be before Arsène Wenger has to withdraw him for his own good; to hearing as many shouts instructing Wenger to leave the ground and never return as chants in his favour.
What a revelation, then, to hear ninety minutes of supportive chanting, encouragement rather than admonishment whenever a pass went astray and unequivocal support for the manager. It’s obviously easier to support a team when they’re playing as well as Arsenal are right now. Let’s hope that the Emirates stays this way when the going gets tough again.