November 8, 2013

Over the last couple of years the consensus opinion in the football world was that Arsenal could not win because for all of the positives we could show we lacked experience, quality goalkeeping, a well-organized defense, and the ability to win big games.

Exhibit A for the defense: Last week.

Following a stretch where we lost twice in a row at home, Arsenal faced a huge test: home to Liverpool – second in the Premier League table. The 2-0 win over the Merseysiders ticked all of the boxes and answered all of the questions.

Santi Cazorla combined skill and tenacity on Arsenal's opening goal. His headed attempt went off the cross bar, but he pounced on the rebound and fired home his first goal of the season. A good lesson to all the youngsters out there: always follow your shot.

It was spectacular. And clearly the goal of the week, right?

Turns out that Aaron Ramsey had something to say about that. Picking up the ball 25 yards from goal, he had just enough space to tee the ball up and launch a rocket of a shot over Simon Mignolet and just under the cross bar. Perhaps it was his statement that he really wanted to win that third Goal of the Month award?

The final ten minutes against Liverpool featured some fantastic saves by Wojciech Szczesny – and it was clear that he was determined to keep a clean sheet. But more than just making solid, reactive saves his play was both aggressive and intelligent.

After the game, Wenger heaped praise on the defense and made a statement to the doubters out there. "Today was an important win for the team, for the club, and overall nobody would dispute that we deserved to win this game."

He later added, "They refused to lose this game and you could feel that from the start. Maybe we were a bit edgy at the start but you could see that the concentration was there to win the game."

Mikel Arteta, whose defensive play in the midfield was sublime, echoed Wenger's sentiment. "We are tested every week. People have been waiting for us to lose. But we showed today the desire that we have to stay we are. I feel this is a very good message."

Thrilled with the win, and seemingly satisfied with 25 points in 10 Premier League games – and a five point cushion at the top of the table – Wenger quickly shifted focus to the midweek game against Dortmund. As he put it, "everybody will look at that game."

Losing at home to the German side just two weeks go still stung, and the players as a whole were out to show that the loss was a fluke. Ramsey said the squad had been naïve and "switched off" in the last 10 minutes – which proved costly. The Welshman added, "we will be a bit more streetwise going over there."

Confidence. Intelligence. Maturity. All great ways to describe this squad right now. But Tomas Rosicky through one more word out there ahead of the trip to Dortmund - his old stomping grounds: Fun. And it's very true. You can just see how much everyone is playing their football right now.

Interesting side note here. If you have ever wondered what goes through the manager's head when planning for these midweek Champions League trips, Josh James wrote up a fantastic piece describing the whole process. Well worth a read.

The thing to remember about visiting Dortmund is the atmosphere at their stadium is unbelievable. It’s full of passionate fans – dubbed "the Yellow Wall". And it is loud. Really loud. If there was every a time in football that you could acknowledge the 12th man, it is here.

And for most of the first half, it looked Dortmund would give their fans what they wanted. They pressed, they created chances on goal, and they frustrated Arsenal left and right. But Arsenal hung on.

The second half was more of the same, but like in the first leg, the team that looked most like scoring would concede. Just after the hour mark, Arsenal grabbed the lead. Mesut Ozil floated a cross toward Olivier Giroud, who headed it down for Ramsey to head home from close range. It was Arsenal's first scoring opportunity of the night. Arsenal seemed to have wore down the home side, and just hung on for the three points.

The boss summed up the keys to the game as staying focused, playing smart, not making the first mistake. "We looked more stable defensively because we have experience in midfield not to lose the ball in stupid positions," he said. "Dortmund are especially dangerous when you lose the ball - to counter that, you need maturity."

The win was incredibly important. Prior to the game Arsenal were in a three-way tie at the top of Group F, and Napoli's win over Marseille did not help to clear up matters. Just consider the permutations if Arsenal cannot win out.

But all that can wait. Between now and then are two Premier League games and an international break. And the first of those games is Manchester United on the road. But as Szczesny said immediately after the win in Dortmund, "There's not a better time for us to go to Old Trafford. We're confident, we're enjoying our football, so we're looking forward to it."

David Moyes' side is also feeling confident. After an uncharacteristically poor start to the season, they are unbeaten in eight games and looking much more like the United teams that have caused us all kinds of trouble over the years – especially at Old Trafford.

Of course, the big concerns will be Wayne Rooney and that Dutch fellow. They have 13 goals between them and both love to score in this fixture. It will be interesting to see how Arsenal line-up with Mathieu Flamini expected to be available and Arteta in excellent form. On the other side, United's central defenders are big and strong, but not really known for their pace, so it may come down to how much space Giroud can create for his teammates to zip in – or fire from distance.

Wenger says that he still considers Manchester United to be "one of the benchmarks of the season where you judge how strong you are." Let's keep the fingers crossed and hope that we show that Arsenal are really, really strong.

Come on you Gunners! 

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Kevin Mooney 8 Nov 2013