Will Arsene's returning stars fire the Gunners to Europe?
For Arsenal fans, the 2014/2015 season has been somewhat of a mixed bag. The Gunners suffered an indifferent start to the season, their early form dotted by several draws and a handful of losses, the low point coming in late November after a loss at home to Manchester United left Arsene Wenger’s men stuck in eighth position in the Premier League table. However, these results were affected heavily by injuries to key players, including Mesut Özil, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott; a trio of players who, back in contention for the Gunners in recent weeks, have helped turn the season around. Additionally, the likes of Laurent Koscielny, Francis Coquelin and David Ospina have all made a difference to Arsenal from a defensive standpoint, making the Gunners a much tougher opponent in the process.
Arsenal have won nine of thirteen matches in the Premier League since they hit their lowest ebb in that loss to Manchester United, and have enjoyed a relatively painless run to the FA Cup Quarter Finals with wins over Hull, Brighton and Middlesbrough since the turn of the year. Furthermore, the Gunners’ good recent form puts them fourth in the form table, marginally above some of their direct rivals in the race for Champions League football during 2015/2016, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. Their other rivals in the European race, it seems, are Southampton and Liverpool, who are both – according to the form table – in excellent form. However, question remarks perhaps remain over both Southampton’s attack and Liverpool’s defence, while Arsenal seem to be getting continually better thanks to the return of their key attackers.
Equally, Arsenal have a relatively kind run-in; of the remaining thirteen games, they play two direct rivals, Liverpool (at home) and United (away), as well as league leaders Chelsea, but the further ten games are all fixtures which one would realistically expect Arsenal to be winning. Spurs, meanwhile, face a gruelling Europa League campaign – assuming they can beat Fiorentina – which could feasibly force a down-turn in results, while Manchester United have to play the majority of the top half between now and May. Interestingly, the re-match of the game which provided Arsenal with this season’s current low-point – with the Red Devils – could ultimately decide a lot in the race for Europe.
However, this is all pure conjecture about football teams and their respective formbooks; as we all know, that is subject to a great deal of change, and it’d be churlish not to expect a raft of surprises between now and the end of the season. It is much more productive to look at the reasons for Arsenal’s upturn in form in recent weeks, and how this could continue.
Firstly, dropping Wojciech Szczesny has proven an incredibly productive step by manager Arsene Wenger, with Colombian custodian David Ospina providing a more than capable replacement; looking far more steady than the at-times hapless Pole in goal. Having played each of Arsenal’s last five games in the Premier League, Ospina has conceded a miserly three goals, keeping three clean sheets in the process. Szczesny started against Middlesbrough in the cup at the weekend, and Wenger maintains he’s “not yet chosen a number one”, but it’s quite obvious as to who the jersey should belong to. Ospina has missed much of the season due to injury, and it’s unclear whether he’d have played if fit during his spell on the sidelines, but should the Colombian stay fit between now and May, and barring a series of terrible mistakes, Arsenal fans should probably feel safer with Ospina in goal.
Arsenal’s recent strength in defence has also been helped by the re-emergence of the Koscielny/Mertesacker partnership which was so lauded last season. Mertesacker hadn’t quite looked himself without the French defender, but the pairing have finally managed to get a run of games together and, as a result, Arsenal’s defence has sharpened, only conceding five in the league in 2015 thus far.
Also useful has been the emergence of Francis Coquelin as a useful defensive midfielder. Given Flamini’s erratic performances since his return to the Emirates last summer, Arsenal have been short of a player to break up the play, and Coquelin has finally provided someone to play this role. Much like Lucas at Liverpool, Coquelin isn’t a particularly brilliant player – people who saw any of his loan spell at Freiburg last year should attest to this – and while Arsenal have vastly better players, the Frenchman can, it seems play his role better than anyone else. His excellent performance against Manchester City at the Etihad in January showed a player whose presence alone can help Arsenal in the big games; it will be interesting to see how Coquelin’s position in the team develops over the run-in.
On a similar note, Arsenal’s attack has been bolstered since the Christmas period by the return of the aforementioned trio of Özil, Walcott and Giroud. The trio have managed just 31 games between them this season, but have provided vital goals and assists since their comebacks. Giroud’s goals have proven crucial at times since his return, scoring seven since the Manchester United game (including his goal that day). His petulant sending off against QPR proved costly when the Gunners played Southampton and lacked any bite up front, but it has perhaps been Giroud’s absence which has shown just how important he is in Arsenal’s all round play – as well as, obviously, being Arsenal’s main goal threat. Giroud was, at points of last season, perhaps taken for granted – even then, arguably rightfully so, given his poor runs of form at points – but has proven the difference in a few games since coming back into contention, and with goals against United, City and Liverpool, among others, the French striker has proven himself as a big game player, which could become useful for the Gunners during the run in.
Özil has been something of a revelation in recent weeks and, despite his return from injury still being at an early stage, having only played three full Premier League fixtures, appears to be in the best form of his still-relatively-embryonic Arsenal career. The German has two goals and three assists in the last three league games, and arguably pulled the strings for Arsenal against Leicester, creating both goals. A player of his calibre, finally in the form which earned him a move to the Emirates in the first place, will prove incredibly important come the end of the season. Walcott, too, has impressed – often in tandem with Özil – but the England winger is yet to complete ninety minutes following the rupturing of his cruciate ligament. As his return from injury continues, expect him to continue the lethal form he was in prior to his injury in the FA Cup third round last year – even while returning to full fitness, he’s managed a return of three goals.
Everything, it seems, points towards a positive few months for Arsenal; if they can keep their key players fit for a few weeks, they’ll be in a brilliant position with regards to qualifying for the Champions League, something which, a few months ago, seemed to be a tough ask. This, too, is without even mentioning the excellent seasons of Cazorla, Sanchez or Rosicky; Arsenal are arguably still in with a shout in the European race because of that particular trio. Everything depends heavily on their head-to-head matches with rivals in the race for Europe, it must be said, but crucially, Arsenal’s form is on an upward curve, and this can only be good for Arsene Wenger, his squad, and the club’s fans.
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