September 27, 2013

Top. Of. The. League.

There is just something about this squad.

I know it's been said countless times recently, but Arsenal seem to have found away to win those tight matches that we often couldn't finish in seasons past. Is it down to richer talent? Improved focus? More experience? Team chemistry?

Indications suggest that it's all of the above.

Consider Sunday's 3-1 win over Stoke. Mesut Ozil lived up to his billing as the pre-eminent set-up man in Europe by creating all three Arsenal goals. Not bad for a home debut.

There was also a Bizarro World quality in there as well: all three goals came off set pieces.

Aaron Ramsey was the first to take advantage of an Ozil delivery. Asmir Begovic could only parry the free kick and the Welshman beat his man, pounced on rebound and scored his seventh goal of the season.

After Stoke equalized in the 26th minute, it was Per Mertesacker's turn. The big German met his compatriot's corner kick just outside the six-yard box and headed the ball over several defenders, a leaping Laurent Koscielny, and most importantly Begovic.

Bacary Sagna sealed the win in the 72nd minute with a looper header – again from outside the six-yard box. And this is where the focus comes in. Sagna explained after the match that the goal was no accident. "I'm trying to be more decisive,” he told Arsenal Player. “Today I tried my luck and it went in. I have to try and be more decisive for my team.

Arsène Wenger relayed his surprise at scoring three set-piece goals against Stoke, but suggested that it was all about Ozil's delivery. "When you look at Ozil's numbers, the assists are not a coincidence, it's just the reality of his game. I believe that once he is completely integrated we'll see even more of him but he has shown today that he is a great player."

And the team chemistry? Kieran Gibbs put it this way: "I think the team is just gelling. We've had a strong finish to last season and people could see the players really gel. I think that's happening this season at an earlier stage."

And that's how you win four straight in the league and seven straight overall. Asked what he puts that run of form down to, the boss said "I would say mental togetherness, desire to win, motivational level and hunger, and of course on top of that, quality."

Now for the good news/bad news. On the good side, Mikel Arteta came off the bench late in the second half to make his first appearance of the season. His return is the first of what will hopefully be several more over the upcoming weeks. On the flip side, Theo Walcott was a late omission after suffering a somewhat mysterious abdominal issue during warm-ups. The eventual word was that he developed "slight damage to his posterior abdominal wall" and would require a minor procedure. He was off to Germany on Wednesday and returned to the Club on Thursday. The latest word is three to five weeks out.

Theo was replaced in the line-up by 18-year-old Serge Gnabry. After a bit of a timid first half against Stoke, Wenger was impressed by the German's second-half performance. "What I liked in his game is that he grew through the game, he became better and better… in the second half he made some good interceptions, some good passes and some good first touches that I liked."

That was enough for Gnabry to get the call for the midweek Capital One Cup game against West Brom, which was not really unexpected – even the player himself believes he is close to being a first team regular. We have all grown very used to seeing young players given a run out in the League Cup, perhaps mixed with a bit of experience and maybe a dash of players who are looking to regain some match fitness after a period of time out. Also among the starting XI were youngsters like Ryo, Thomas Eisfeld and Isaac Hayden, but also senior players like Arteta, Thomas Vermaelen and Nacho Monreal to name a few.

But the really interesting inclusion was Nicklas Bendtner. It has been more than two years since we have seen Bendtner on the pitch in an Arsenal kit, and until the transfer window closed few expected to ever see than again. But circumstances as they were, Bendtner remained in North London. Wenger hyped up Bendtner before the match saying "Nicklas can be an unstoppable striker" when he is fit and focused.

While it wasn't exactly a fairy tale return, Bendtner did rather well against West Brom. In what he called an emotional return, he set up Arsenal's only goal of the game when he slipped a pass to Eisfeld who slotted it home for the lead. After West Brom equalized, Bendtner had a chance to win it in extra time, but could not quite take advantage of a Gnabry pass. Perhaps most impressively, however, after two hours he stepped up and sent the goalkeeper the wrong to score one of Arsenal's shots from the spot as Arsenal went on to win the game on penalties.

Also impressive from the spot was 17-year-old striker Chuba Akpom who came on as a sub late in the second half. Penalties may not be technically difficult for players but they are certainly stressful. Especially for a teenager on a stage as big as this. But Akpom was brimming with confidence and later explained that he knew ahead of time how he would do it if called upon.

It may not have been the brightest performance you've ever seen from an Arsenal side, but Wenger was nonetheless a very proud manager. He praised Bendtner's desire and work rate as well as the nerves of young penalty takers Akpom and Kristoffer Olsson. He also gave an incredibly huge compliment to Eisfeld, calling him "a Pires type" of player.

Incidentally, the reward for beating West Brom was a home draw against Chelsea in teh fourth round. 

Looking ahead, it's back to Premier League business on Saturday when Arsenal make the trip to South Wales to take on Swansea. The Swans have proven to be a difficult side to play against – as evidenced by Arsenal's 1-1-1 record at the Liberty Stadium since their promotion. And Michael Laudrup has only made them more dangerous. Arsenal got to know what Michu can bring to the table quite well last season and their summer additions can only make them stronger. They are also the best passing team so far this season so you can expect some very pretty football with the ball kept mainly on the ground.

The news from the training room is pretty optimistic. Despite the fatigue and cramping that a two hour football match brings, no one looks to have picked up any new bumps, bruises or niggles from the West Brom game. Mathieu Flamini had a minor shoulder injury that kept him out on Wednesday but he seems to have recovered. Aaron Ramsey has a small question mark next to his name, but you would imagine the notion of a trip to Wales will perk him right up.

There is virtually no excuse to miss this one. Not only is it a later kick-off – 12:30 p.m. ET – it is also being aired on regular ol' NBC in the USA. It's also on Sportsnet ONE in Canada. Enjoy the extra sleep. We'll see you then.

Come on you Gunners! 

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Kevin Mooney 27 Sep 2013