Arsene Wenger is one of the most fiercely stubborn men in football, and, to a degree, I admire him for that.
Over the past seven—and soon to be eight—years without a major trophy to put in the dusty trophy case at the Emirates Stadium, the Frenchman has stuck to his principles of slick, attacking football at the expense of defensive solidity and valuable consistency.
Since the end of the Patrick Vieira Era, Arsenal have, perhaps not coincidentally, been labeled as the softies of the Premier League; in a country that values both toughness and grit, the Gunners have played more like a team that is competing for the title in Spain.
We've seen Wenger's men, whomever they may be in a given year, whither under fierce pressure more than once. Down the stretch of a title race or during a hotly contested cup final, it has always appeared that, as the competition toughened up, Arsenal retreated into their shell.
In attack, much of this toothlessness has been the result of an overdependence on one player for either the creativity, goals or both.
Two seasons ago, for example, it was painfully obvious how much Cesc Fabregas meant to the team. The side seemed to lack belief when the Spanish talisman was not playing, and Arsenal appeared to have all the creativity of a mid-table team when he was injured or rested.
Last season, as we all know, Robin van Persie carried his team past the finish line with some truly amazing play throughout the season, and Arsenal's top-3 finish was wholly due to the miracle of the Dutchman finally staying fit for a full season.
As bad as this sounds, though, Arsenal have always put more emphasis on attack than defence, and going forward never seemed to be their problem.
Indeed, fans have trembled for years at the thought of the opposition attacking while the pressure is on because, time and time again, the back four have shown themselves to be inexplicably porous when they most need to be alert and effective.
Forget the disastrous signings of Sebastien Squillaci or Mikael Silvestre; the entire defensive mentality of the side had not been in the right place for years, and Arsene Wenger's refusal to do much about it has, if you heed popular opinion, cost Arsenal much potential success.
This past summer, however, there was a cleansing of sorts at the club—while painful, and not immediately understandable, many elements of the disappointing clubs of seasons past were necessarily expunged, and fresh faces brought in.
First, Pat Rice left. While we were all sad to see the great servant to Arsenal leave after several decades at the club, some felt that it was perhaps time for a new voice on the training ground to make up for some of Rice's faults, such as they were.
I don't think that Steve Bould, deacon of defence, has disappointed in this regard. Whereas a few months ago we saw a defence organized with bubblegum and masking tape, Arsenal fans can now be proud of the steep trap that stands in front of the goalkeeper.
Consider this: at this point last season, Arsenal had conceded 10 goals in three games. Obviously, that is a bit skewed by the infamous 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford, but that statistic is nevertheless reflective of the woeful state of the Gunners' defence last campaign.
Now, a disciplined, organized unit has not allowed the net to bulge in three consecutive games, and has not looked at all lucky in keeping its perfect record intact.
Liverpool had their positive moments last weekend, but none of the usual terror when they came forward in numbers crept into any of the Arsenal supporters I saw when I watched the game. Contrary to what we have seen in the past, the entire team looked like its mission was to thwart the opposition and win the ball back at all costs.
Wenger has done well with his specialty areas, as well. The midfield and front three look to be rejuvenated by the arrival of new faces and the lack of dependence on one player for inspiration.
Alex Song is gone, but does anyone care that Arsenal haven't replaced him? Against Liverpool, Mikel Arteta was far better in the "Mikelele Role" than Song could hope to be, Abou Diaby did a very convincing impression of Patrick Vieira and Santi Cazorla is finally filling the place of that Fabregas guy.
Up front, Arsenal are getting more from their wingers than they did last season, and it is wonderful to see that, even when the central striker, Olivier Giroud, leaves his shooting boots at home, his teammates can pick up the slack.
To see why this Arsenal side is so much better than they were last season, simply contrast this iteration with the Liverpool side they faced on Sunday.
In years past, the Gunners looked much like Brendan Rogers' men did at Anfield: very good midfield play led to a discernible possession advantage, sustained periods of domination and some decent chances that were wasted.
But Arsenal got the better of them using tactics that they know all too well. They defended solidly, without parking the bus, and when the opportunity arose, a quick, incisive counterattack enabled them to take advantage of a defensive slip-up and score a goal.
Knowing that they had fallen victim to that trap many times before made victory all the more sweet for the Gunners, who finally got their first goals of the season.
It appears as if what fans have been crying out for has, at long last become reality: a renewed emphasis on team solidity has allowed the team's mentality to be a bit more geared toward the defensive side of the game, while not wasting the talents of Arsenal's many talented forwards.
Wenger has not radically changed his tactics and suddenly become Sam Allardyce, but he has subtly tweaked his side so that it resembles a more well-rounded team that can perform on a consistent basis.
This has always been the main stumbling block to that elusive first bit of silverware since 2005. Never has Arsenal, since that perpetual rebuilding state began in that summer and the next, had truly the look of a winner.
While it is premature to label this team a successful one before it has actually done anything of real praise and shown that it can overcome the issues it does still have, it would not be wholly irrational to say that this side has the potential to do things that we have not seen in a while.
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