Wenger rediscovers right blend to get Arsenal back in mix after faltering start

 

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The Independent Online

Words are all very well, but it is actions that speak loudest in football. On Thursday, at Arsenal's fractious shareholders meeting, Arsène Wenger talked the talk; yesterday his players walked the walk and in doing so made a statement which will have been heard in Manchester and beyond.

"I believe we can be a positive surprise," Wenger told the club's AGM. They certainly surprised Chelsea. It is some years since the Gunners went to Stamford Bridge with such little optimism among their fans, which made their five-goal salvo all the more rewarding for the away support. Despite the sense that Arsenal was a club in crisis this was their eighth win in nine matches, but until now those wins had been sketchy. Home victories over Olympiakos, Stoke and Sunderland were nervy and fortunate. The win in Marseille was stolen in the final minute of a stalemate. The shadow of the drubbing at Old Trafford, and defeat in the north London derby, still hung over the club.

Nevertheless, winning breeds confidence and Arsenal, because of the one-touch passing football their game is based upon, need that elixir more than most. Yesterday was the day all that winning began to have an effect. Suddenly the team looked fluid rather than laboured. Heads, which a few weeks ago might have dropped when early misses by Gervinho and Robin van Persie were followed by Chelsea's opening goal, stayed up. If the first equaliser showed unselfishness – not many forwards would have squared the ball as Gervinho did – the second confirmed the team's renewed belief. Alex Song switched play and released Andre Santos in one seamless turn, while the latter, who hithertohad looked an imposter rather than a Brazilian left-back in the tradition of Roberto Carlos, attacked with adventure and finished with aplomb.

In this context one of the most significant aspects of this match is the further boost it should provide to Arsenal's confidence. "It's a big, big win for us," said Van Persie.

His manager concurred. "We needed to win with style and class, and we did that against a big team. I hope the team strengthens their belief after a performance like that." Wenger added: "The way we came out in the second half showed great spirit after being 2-1 down just before half-time."

Wenger did not disagree when it was put to him that Arsenal would have been unlikely to produce such a result, and performance, a month ago, but he explained. "We got half the team in on August 31, then we had to play a Champions' League qualifier. We had to rebuild the unity of the team to play the football we want to play."

Wenger added that though the defensive mistakes the team made in the opening period could be eradicated, what pleased him was the attacking football, which is harder to develop. Yet strange to say in such a game, several of their best performers were defensive ones.

While Van Persie was excellent, Aaron Ramsey showed great maturity and Theo Walcott, probably for the first time, got the better of Ashley Cole. Song and Laurent Koscielny were as good as any of them. Koscielny, outstanding in Marseille, delivered another performance of polish and grit with one late block to deny Juan Mata straight out of the Tony Adams textbook.

It increasingly looks that when Thomas Vermaelen returns it will be Per Mertesacker, the much-capped German international, who gives way, not Koscielny. In front of the back four Song was excellent, breaking up attacks and starting ripostes with equal facility. Even Santos shone, having his best game in an Arsenal shirt by some distance.

This was the latest in a series of high-scoring matches between leading teams, a feature of the season Wenger was unable to explain. He said: "Is it because there are so many good offensive players in the League? Is it because teams are more intent on scoring goals? Is it that the top teams are more fragile defensively? It is a difficult question to answer, we will not know until later in the season."

Whatever the reason a Premier League in which matches are more open plays to Arsenal's strengths. It is still hard to imagine them catching the Manchester clubs, but suddenly a Champions' League place looks much more likely.

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