Ranking Arsenal's 5 Best Players This Season

Matthew Snyder@schnides14Analyst IIIApril 11, 2012

Ranking Arsenal's 5 Best Players This Season

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    Hmm...I wonder who'll be named No. 1?

    All joking aside, a fair number of Arsenal players have every right to say that they've influenced the current season in a positive manner.

    There is one who shines above the rest, but like in any team sport, he would be helpless without his teammates.

    Many within that cast of characters have stepped up and provided crucial contributions when the going looked roughest.

    But five have emerged above the rest, cresting the wave as we head into the final games of the season.

    Those players can each be directly applauded for having helped lead Arsenal to their current third-place positioning in the league.

    They now sit two points ahead of both Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United, with a game in hand on both.

    It's a far cry from September, when Arsenal were looking at 14 teams ahead of them in the standings.

    With just six games left before fans' eyes turn toward the summer machinations that must be borne before the next season of football can begin, it seems appropriate to begin doling out praise where it is due.

    Because when it comes down to it, Arsenal have come an awfully long way this season.

    Few would have ever predicted that, during those endless days of toil and turmoil back at the start of the season that we'd be able to one day embark upon such confident displays as we saw over the weekend, when a steely-nerved side dispatched Manchester City with ruthless efficiency.

    (Well, once they'd gotten over hitting the post three times.)

    Each player on this list contributed in that most recent game, just as they have all been key influences during the current streak that has seen Arsenal emerge victorious from eight of their last nine league fixtures.

    Quite a run.

    Without further ado, and before I begin rambling in earnest, here are the five best players for Arsenal this season.

Honorable Mention: Theo Walcott

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    Perhaps no Gunner was more instrumental in sealing Champions League football for this season, Arsenal's 15th consecutive time in the competition.

    Theo Walcott scored two priceless goals during Arsenal's two-leg playoff against Udinese back in August (one in each match), helping secure a 3-1 aggregate and providing the bedrock of promised top European competition that helped lure such transfers as Mikel Arteta.

    Since he joined the club, Walcott has often cast a polarizing figure for most Arsenal fans, who are forever frustrated by his perceived inability to capitalize upon his God-given speed and mold himself into a complete footballer.

    His technique has a habit of letting him down in the final third, and his link-up play has often been a sore subject.

    Perhaps there was no better recognition of those deficiencies than Arsene Wenger refusing to grant the 23-year-old's wish of playing as a central striker this season.

    To play as the fulcrum of the 4-2-3-1 formation, you must be technically proficient, a la Robin van Persie.

    But that's neither here nor there.

    Walcott has provided some of the most crucial goals for Arsenal this season—the Udinese ones obviously spring to mind, but he sent in a sensational screamer against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge as well.

    Before the weekend's match against City, when he would have found his name on the score sheet if not for a fantastic save from Joe Hart, he had scored in the Gunners' previous two matches—a win against Aston Villa and a loss to Queens Park Rangers.

    Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may well be considered the more promising prospect for the long term, but Walcott has shown flashes of improvement this season.

    As he heads into his prime years, that has to be a good thing.

Honorable Mention: Wojciech Szczesny

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    The young Polish keeper's technique can let him down from time to time (his clearances could use some work), but his shot-stopping prowess is very close to being considered top-class.

    A few more seasons of the type of security he's provided between the sticks for Arsenal, and Gunners fans may find themselves worry-free for years (he is nearly 22 years old) when it comes to a position that had long seemed such a weak point.

    Widely considered to be a position dominated by more experienced options (a good keeper is often referred to as being similar to a fine wine, getting better with age), Szczesny has been a revelation during his year and a half as Arsenal's No. 1.

    His shot-stopping percentage has hovered around 65 percent all season (it is currently at a 64.7 clip), which while not as good as some of his rivals (Pepe Reina of Liverpool and Petr Cech of Chelsea both boast higher numbers), are not an adequate reflection of how vital he's been to the side.

    There was little he could do, after all, during the first months of the season, when Arsenal's back four were in tatters, conceding eight goals to Manchester United (Aug. 28) and four goals to Blackburn (Sept. 17).

    His reflexes are excellent, and have been all season.

    Aside from a howler against Tottenham, which granted Kyle Walker the winning goal in a 2-1 Spurs triumph, he has been nigh impeccable.

    There's something to be said about that.

5. Tomas Rosicky

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    Before January, some Arsenal fans might have figured it was a foregone conclusion that Rosicky would be leaving the club, perhaps as early as the winter transfer window (a move back to the Bundesliga was wafting about the rumor mill with some frequency).

    But then something happened.

    What exactly triggered the Czech playmaker's rebirth is a subject for debate, but watching his revival during the past three months, it's hard not to feel your throat clutch.

    There have been portions during matches where Rosicky has been absolutely sensational.

    He has banished Aaron Ramsey to second-tier status on the Arsenal attacking midfield totem pole (although the Welshman's lackluster display against QPR last weekend didn't help his case), exerting a dynamic influence throughout the attacking third that has led to many a Gunner goal.

    As French defenders once said about Yoann Gourcuff (before he lost the plot following his move to Olympique Lyonnais), "il est toujours en train de fare des appels" (He shows for the ball constantly).

    Rosicky, like Wesley Sneijder, is at his best when he sees a lot of the possession in midfield.

    During a match, you'll see him wafting about the Gunners midfield, looking for any and all chances to get on the ball and distribute play.

    It's a credit to his confidence that he's doing it far more effectively now than was seen for a long time.

    And you could say Arsenal have been all the more potent in their attack because of it. There is just an added modicum (however slight) of quality and ability in the Czech's play than one sees with Ramsey.

    Call it added creativity or guile, but Rosicky, after almost six years spent with Arsenal (he joined in '06) finally looks to have found his calling in Wenger's midfield. It took him longer than most fans would have hoped, but he got where he needed to get.

    He has to be attributed with helping Arsenal enjoy the revival seen since that horrid week in mid-February, where the team dropped out (basically) of the Champions League and FA Cup competitions.

4. Laurent Koscielny

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    His yellow card against Manchester City, which brought him to 10 on the season and resulted in a subsequent two-match league ban (had he managed to not get booked, his slate would have been wiped clean following the City match—the EPL erases yellow cards accumulated up to that point in the season on the second Sunday in April), is the only real blemish once can associate with the French central defender of late.

    Put simply, Koscielny has been sensational for Arsenal this season.

    It's certainly a far cry from his competitive debut for the club back in August 2010, when Koscielny was sent off for two bookings against Liverpool on the first day of the season. He's come a long, long way since that display.

    Many wondered then if he would have the requisite tenacity needed to thrive given the physical nature of the Premier League.

    At most points last season, he looked more at home in the free-flowing atmosphere of the Champions League.

    But in 2011-12 Koscielny has been a rock at the back for Arsenal when they've needed it most.

    In a campaign where seemingly every other first-choice defender has missed considerable amounts of time due to injury (Bacary Sagna's ankle, Thomas Vermalen's ankle, Kieran Gibb's general brittleness), Koscielny has been a source of calm amidst that storm.

    His positioning has improved, and he now couples his God-given pace with a ruthless ability to launch into tackles.

    While he still has a ways to go before he can be considered among the Premier League's elite, he has taken a considerable step forward this season.

3. Mikel Arteta

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    The man once compared favorably to Everton great Alex Young while with the Toffees, Mikel Arteta wasted little time in adapting to the style of play at Arsenal when he was brought in at the tail end of the last summer transfer window.

    The man often called "the Spanish Prince" had the technical ability needed to integrate Arsenal's fluid passing system of play, but the fact that he never looked out of place—especially considering he was playing in the role Jack Wilshere had been sensational in during 2010-11—was a statement and a credit to Arteta's footballing capabilities.

    He has only grown in stature as the season has wound on, and his goals against Aston Villa and Manchester City in recent weeks both merit contention on the list of Arsenal's best this campaign.

    Not just a pretty passer, Arteta has also displayed the pluck that made Wilshere such a hit in the holding midfield position.

    He's never one to shy away from a tackle, and his experience makes him a crucial commodity in an Arsenal side that is still on its way to developing a steely demeanor.

    Given his recent form, he might make a case for one of the best transfers of the EPL season.

2. Alex Song

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    With the way things are going, Alex Song and Robin van Persie might be well on their way to becoming the most fearsome two-man combination in world football.

    Song has provided a number crucial assists to the Dutchman this season (his peaches against Everton at the Emirates and against Liverpool at Anfield immediately come to mind).

    And these aren't simple cut-backs. Song has developed a remarkable ability to loft inch-perfect long balls in behind the defense.

    Xabi Alonso, often considered the best long-ball passer in world football, should be taking notes.

    The Cameroonian midfielder is no one-trick pony, though. It was his slide-rule pass, deftly delivered to Thierry Henry against Leeds United in the FA Cup back in January, that allowed the Frenchman to notch the winner and send the Gunners through to the next round of the competition.

    Remember, this is a defensive midfielder.

    But to lock Song into that designation as a tough-tackling golem is to do him a disservice.

    He has become one of the most well-rounded midfielders in English football, as capable of launching into tough tackles as he is sending in wonderful passes for attackers to run onto. And he may have the best haircut in the game.

    His eight league assists (10 in all competitions) speak to that effect. (Well, not the haircut part.)

    When tasked with finding the most valuable Arsenal performer this season, it is a testament to Song's incredible production that he ever merits contention alongside Van Persie, who may be having the best individual season seen by a Gunner since Thierry Henry in 2003-04 when the Frenchman bagged 39 goals in all competitions.

1. Robin van Persie

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    The definition of a late bloomer, Robin van Persie is now enjoying some of the finest football seen from any player in recent memory at the ripe age of 28.

    He has continued to grow as an attacking force during his time at Arsenal, with the last 15 months the enthralling crescendo to his magnum opus.

    Since January 2011, he simply has not stopped scoring.

    In a season where Arsenal so often looked bereft of ideas when it came to getting goals, Van Persie has made himself perhaps the most irreplaceable player on any team in world football. In France, they'd call him (and probably do) an incontournable.

    There were the months of September, October and November, when Van Persie provided the decisive goals against Bolton Wanderers (3-0, Sept. 24), Sunderland (2-1 on Oct. 16), Stoke City (3-1 on Oct. 23), Chelsea (5-3 on Oct. 29), Norwich City (2-1 on Nov. 19), Everton (1-0 on Dec. 10) and QPR (1-0 on Dec. 31).

    So many times in those games Arsenal looked as if they would slump to troubling defeats or draws.

    And so many times, Robin van Persie saved them.

    Many are arguing that Wayne Rooney should be named PFA Player of the Year, but in actuality there's nobody in the league this season who's held a candle to him.

    His 26 league(-leading) goals are top-notch production, and his nine assists (tying him for fifth place in that category) should be testament enough to his proficiency. (Wayne Rooney is not even on the top assists list.)

    He has not scored in Arsenal's last four fixtures. It's hard to remember the last time he endured such a cold stretch.

    But knowing the Dutchman, he will be back bagging goals before long.

    After all, it's what he's done all season.

    And Arsenal have their current third-place positioning because of it.