Arsenal: “You can see the difference this year”

By in Niall Quinn's Route One

Before the man from the FBI points it out for no apparent reason I am coming out with my hands up. My emails and other records, which I don’t know how to delete, will reveal the following:

When Arsenal conceded four home goals to a happy clappy looking Liverpool team on the opening day of the season I tut tutted loudly in capital letters.

When Arsenal drew away to Leicester on their next outing I shook my head sadly, rolled my eyes and asked where was the response, the backlash, the bit of pride. My texts reflected disappointment more than anger.

When Arsene Wenger showed no sign of taking my advice and signing Messi, Neymar and Suarez before transfer deadline day, yes, I may have said or at least thought that there is no fool like an old fool and there is no old fool like an old French fool who achieved everything years ago.

On Saturday at Sunderland I began my penance. It hurt to be in the Stadium of Light watching Arsenal dismantle the local heroes. It’s easier to speak about what I saw in Arsenal’s performance than what I learned about Sunderland.

Since that strange opening game versus Liverpool and all the fun of the fiesta as we beat Wenger like a lanky piñata, Arsenal have drawn three games and won eleven. Against all odds, it has to be said. Jack Wilshere the smoking hot young messiah has left the Arsenal physio room to play actual football at Bournemouth. Aaron Ramsey has hardly played at all. Olivier Giroud has been injured without being snowed under with get well cards.

I may yet be impeached for doubting Arsene but my defence will be that everybody was at it. And with good reason.

So far this has been an odd year at Arsenal and I wonder if their campaign might have received a boost from the fact that the big top atmosphere of English football has been ramped up with Pep and Jose in Manchester, Jurgen Klopp in Liverpool and Big Sam in purgatory. There just hasn’t been any time to seriously study what is happening at Arsenal or for pundits to lay down big predictions about just when Arsenal will crack and why.

Watching Arsenal against Sunderland on Saturday I think it was possible to see a difference between this year’s team and those Fancy Dans who have settled for an acceptable level of failure for so many seasons in the past.

Theo Walcott was missing. In the season so far he has given his best impression yet of a goalscorer. He scored against Liverpool and he has scored seven more times since. He looks as though he has added some composure to the Usain Bolt pace. Granit Xhaka the newly imported steel of the midfield, was suspended and out. Cazorla was absent too. Ramsey and Giroud were on the bench. Most Arsenal fans have forgotten
what my old friend Danny Welbeck even looks like.

Arsenal had drawn pretty tamely against Boro a week ago and on Saturday when they went a goal up after an excellent Sanchez goal, which was like an exclamation mark after twenty two passes, you had to wonder if they would try to play the game out just looking pleased with themselves. Arsenal have spent too much time these past few seasons either feeling too pleased about themselves or feeling sorry for themselves.

By the time Sunderland equalised through a penalty from Defoe (who else) Arsenal suddenly had reason to switch to self pity mode. Sanchez had been denied a good penalty call just a little earlier. Before that decision had turned into a sulk, Sunderland had equalised.

I wondered would Arsenal tell themselves it was all very unfair and decide that an away draw would be acceptable under the circumstances. Would Arsene solemnly tell a press conference later that he hadn’t seen the incidents but that in time he would forgive those involved.

Instead Arsenal showed the sort of bloody mindedness that will have pleased the Arsenal faithful more than any string of passes their team put together. The reprisals they made on Sunderland were merciless. Sunderland themselves hadn’t look too excited at having scored. It’s as if they had a sense of what they had drawn on themselves.

Giroud materialised from the bench and scored twice with his first couple of touches. Few players have been questioned as often and as harshly as Giroud at club or country level but as Wenger said afterwards, he always gives the right answers.

Wenger will have been pleased that one of his favourite sons did well but he will have noticed too that in the time that Sanchez spent playing as a straight centre forward he looked like the real deal. Wenger had hinted beforehand that Sanchez might have to move out wide when Giroud returned but now he has the option to choose from Giroud, Sanchez and Walcott (with Lucas Perez and Welbeck in the repair shop) Who said he needed to buy a big name striker or perish?

There were other bonuses. The defence hadn’t much to bother it but Mustafi seems to have a calming effect on all those around him. Whatever it was that people thought was wrong with Ozil doesn’t seem to be wrong anymore. Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain on Saturday looked like a man who is tired of being an extra and he delivered his lines wth vigour. Iwobi out on the left is a young man but his skills are subtle and Wenger obviously likes him. He has praised Iwobi’s intelligence and ability to connect with other players. He knows how to weigh up a situation and pick the right option. There will be plenty of competition for the wide spots at the Emirates this year but Iwobi looks as if he can nail down plenty of game time.

A central midfield of Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny sounded like something we would only see in the privacy of League Cup games this season but having been flat and tentative against Boro a week ago they were bright and aggressive on Saturday.  Elneny surprised me by how quickly he moved the ball on and how high up the field he went looking to put in tackles.

In previous years too many big names at Arsenal have looked as if they knew that there was nobody snapping at their ankles if their form dropped.

That is no longer the case. Arsenal have a drive and determination about them  this year which tells you that as a group they are tired of having sand kicked in their face and that as individuals the battles in training are like something from Sparta.

You can tell a lot about a team by how dogged they are away from home. Although there was a lot of smirking when Arsenal fell over the line into runners up spot at the end of last season their away record was overlooked. In this calendar year they have only been beaten once away form home in the league. So far this season they have won four of their five away games.

The last time they lost away from home was at Old Trafford last March. They go back to Old Trafford on the 19th of November. They host Spurs next week. They play City in Manchester in December.

When we see how those three games unfold we will know a lot more. Until then the case against the Arsenal heretics in the media should be adjourned. But if the Gunners do kick on I’ll probably make a deal with the prosecution and post an early guilty plea, asking that several similar offences against Arsene over the years be taken into account.