Club Focus – Arsenal – Ace in the hole

Arsenal’s December has been characterised by solid team performances with one player coming forward in each game to make the difference. The 4-1 victory over Portsmouth saw them move to within four points of leaders Chelsea with a game in hand against Bolton to come. The optimism now surrounding the Gunners is in stark contrast to the negativity that engulfed them following their defeat to Chelsea at the end of November – a result which left them 11 points adrift of the Blues. December has been a particularly fruitful month for Arsenal, picking up 16 out of a possible 18 points leading to a very bright outlook at Ashburton Grove as 2010 beckons.

With Arsenal’s ongoing injury problems they have looked to their remaining senior players to guide them through a tricky schedule. In December at least, they have delivered. A prime example is Cesc Fabregas whose cameo appearance from the bench against Aston Villa gave Arsenal the crucial breakthrough on their way to a somewhat flattering scoreline. On that day Fabregas was Arsenal’s ‘ace in the hole’, their go-to-guy when things weren’t going according to plan. From his central midfield berth in the hole just behind the attacking triumvirate, this ace was able to orchestrate and raise the intensity of Arsenal’s play, and once he scored the first an Arsenal victory was always on the cards. His introduction changed the mentality of the Arsenal players, and also that of Aston Villa’s, as their high tempo pressing game, so successful up to that point, began to falter with the Spaniard’s introduction. Arsenal moved the ball far quicker with Fabregas in the middle and ultimately Villa’s pressing and chasing meant that Arsenal were able to pick them off as they began to tire in the latter stages.

With the Spaniard aggravating an injury during his match-winning intervention from the bench, Arsene Wenger turned to his next ace for the game against Portsmouth as Aaron Ramsey further staked his claim to be the Spaniard’s successor. Ramsey looked assured on the ball, encouraging flowing, passing football as he helped Arsenal to take the sting out of Pompey’s early pressure in central midfield. His neat feet set up Nasri before he showed great composure in netting what he claims to be his best Arsenal goal so far. Whilst the choice may be somewhat limited at present, it appears as though there will be plenty to choose from before too long.

Another key factor in Arsenal’s good run of form is Andrey Arshavin. Yet, his stunning strike against Liverpool aside, he has been at best solid and unspectacular throughout December, hardly what you would expect from arguably the Gunners’ standout flair player. This is due to the role he has been given; playing as a central striker – admittedly not his favourite position – he has solved a major selection headache for Wenger. Arshavin’s usual creativity has been somewhat fettered by his central berth, as he bears the responsibility of leading the line as well as initiating pressure upon the defence when not in possession. Whilst possibly not in his own best interests, it has certainly benefitted the team and helped them to gain the consistency that has brought them back into the title race. Had a fully fit Eduardo been available, Wenger may well have been tempted to play him centrally throughout the festive period and allow Arshavin more creative freedom. The former’s midweek goal and general link-up play was a welcome boost as he is beginning to show signs of returning to his predatory best.

Although the January transfer window is now open, Wenger is very unlikely to make a move until deadline day. As is his prerogative, he will not be held to ransom for a player. It is much more his style to wait until deadline day – or even beyond that, as the arrivals of Gallas and Arshavin showed – to make a move. As the rumour mill begins to whet the fans’ appetites, it is likely to be a month before there is any action, if there is any at all. Yet it would not be a surprise if the magician has a trick up his sleeve come deadline day.

Despite a well documented lack of striking options, Arsenal have kept themselves in the title race and are free-scoring at present, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the manager: “Everybody tells me to buy strikers, but when I look at the league, nobody has scored more goals than us… And that’s why with the confidence high, everyone can score goals. But we are still in the market.” The last sentence of that statement is key. Without it, the manager indicates that a January reinforcement is not imminent. However, it appears that Arsenal will dig deep to fund the purchase of a striker. Had Arsenal been well adrift of the league leaders at this stage, it is feasible that he would wait until the summer to buy players, possibly making a move for the out of contract Marouane Chamakh. But he knows that a signing of the calibre of Arshavin and having that player give the same kind of impact, could well fire Arsenal to the title.

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