Arsenal's Tougher Edge Has Got Them Back on Track in the EPL Title Race

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistDecember 30, 2013

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29:  Olivier Giroud of Arsenal challenges Vurnon Anita of Newcastle United during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal at St James' Park on December 29, 2013 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
Jan Kruger/Getty Images

After losing top spot just days before Christmas, Arsenal have rediscovered their tougher edge to get back on track in the English Premier League title race.

There is something a little bit different about this Arsenal team. On the surface, they are still a squad built very much in the image of manager Arsene Wenger.

The 2013/14 version of the Gunners reflect Wenger's fondness for a legion of diminutive, technically gifted midfield schemers. They can produce the brand of artistry and flair that represents the very best of Wenger's philosophy.

But those aesthetic qualities are usually scoffed at by those who chide many of Wenger's teams for possessing a soft underbelly. But that is where his current group is different.

Simply put, this Arsenal squad can be downright nasty when the mood strikes. Its collective mean streak was obvious in recent away wins over West Ham United and Newcastle United.

Both results shattered some of the myths about Wenger's version of football and the toughness of his players. The way Arsenal stood up to the physicality often endorsed by West Ham boss Sam Allardyce proved this is a group of players not about to be intimidated by rough-house tactics.

Allardyce is one of a few managers who have virtually forged reputations on the ability to "rough up" Wenger's so-called "soft touches."

But there is no roughing up the likes of Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini or Olivier Giroud. No member of this quartet is going to be bullied by overly physical opponents or awed by reputation. They let Arsenal dish out as many lumps as they receive.

Players like Mathieu Flamini don't allow Arsenal to be bullied.
Players like Mathieu Flamini don't allow Arsenal to be bullied.Jan Kruger/Getty Images

While Mertesacker and Giroud mix it at both ends of the pitch, Flamini is the terrier in the middle, ready and able to answer a kick with a kick. If Flamini isn't available to harass and bruise the opposition, Arteta isn't above letting his natural air of defiance simmer over into moments of aggression.

These players help establish that Arsenal won't be kicked off the pitch. That lets Wenger's insistence on quick and imaginative passing take over.

Against West Ham, this combination produced some fine attacking football en route to a 3-1 win. Had it not been for another abysmal showing in front of goal from Giroud, the Gunners would have scored twice as many.

But while Giroud falters as a finisher, he remains vital to the Arsenal cause for the way he leads from the front. That was never more evident than at Newcastle.

Giroud spent the entire match bracketed by Mike Williams and Fabricio Coloccini, two rugged and combative centre-backs. Yet Giroud never lost the tussle, because he gave as good as he got.

He carried the fight to a Newcastle team more than willing to try and bully Arsenal out of the game. Giroud threw his ample frame into aerial duels and, not for the first time this season, was prepared to leave his mark on an opponent.

Olivier Giroud certainly got stuck in at Newcastle.
Olivier Giroud certainly got stuck in at Newcastle.Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Giroud is a baffling combination of contradictions. He is a clever link player, who lacks similar guile as a finisher. He is towering target man who often displays more finesse than brute force.

He is also seemingly a gentle giant, who in fact possesses a legitimate nasty edge to his game.

He displayed that when he thundered into the knee of Magpies midfield enforce Cheick Tiote, receiving a booking in the process. The blatant and rather vicious foul was Giroud's message to both the referee and Newcastle's players that any rough treatment he received was not about to go unpunished.

It was reminiscent of the brutal hit he put on Manchester United defender Jonny Evans at Old Trafford back in November. Giroud may act sheepish at times, but he is more than up for the fight.

He wasn't the only one who sailed close to the wind at Newcastle. Flamini, Arteta and Tomas Rosicky all gave some back to the United midfield.

Like it or not, this is something that is needed, particularly away from home against players with the power of Tiote and Moussa Sissoko.

Magpies' boss Alan Pardew also hasn't been above drawing Arsenal into a scrap before. He has used arch antagonists Kevin Nolan, who was given the run around by Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil at Upton Park, and Joey Barton to do just that.

But such malevolent tactics don't work against this Arsenal team. Not only because it has a mean streak to rival any other squad but also because its resistance is tough to break.

Mikel Arteta exemplifies the new toughness, both mentally and physically, at Arsenal.
Mikel Arteta exemplifies the new toughness, both mentally and physically, at Arsenal.Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

This Arsenal are a determined bunch. Sometimes that is needed above even flair and invention.

It has become an unfortunate by-product of the modern game that fans and pundits try to explain everything purely in analytical terms.

If a player has a poor performance, it is solely down to the tactics of the opposition or the skill of a particular marker. These things are too readily used to excuse mediocre results and exempt players, managers and teams from criticism.

Yes, sometimes opposition managers set up stifling tactics, and sometimes players cancel each other out. But ultimately, so what?

The difference between teams that win trophies and those that don't is finding a way to overcome such obstacles. Arsenal haven't always done that this season.

They couldn't do enough to break down Manchester United or Chelsea and were swept aside by Manchester City. But they found a way to win at Newcastle, no small feat considering the Magpies' previously stunning form.

And how did Arsenal do it? It certainly wasn't via a dazzling display of forward-thinking and creative intricacy, despite an opening 10 minutes filled with quality passing.

No, Arsenal left the North East of England victorious because players like Giroud refused to relent to stubborn opposition. Instead, the striker and his teammates stuck to their task.

Arsenal's resilience has brought rewards over the festive period.
Arsenal's resilience has brought rewards over the festive period.Michael Regan/Getty Images

They stayed at least on equal footing in the physical battles. That resilience eventually allowed a moment of quality to make the difference.

That moment was Theo Walcott's devilishly lofted free-kick and Giroud's faint but crucial touch after a rare smart run across the box.

That meant Arsenal earned a 1-0 win that put them back on top of the EPL pile and back on track in the title race after their brief stumble.

The goal was a fitting reward for the way Giroud approached the game. The result was ample proof, if it was still needed, that there is room in Wenger's purist philosophy for the dark arts of the game.

In truth, his best teams have always combined a stomach for the fight with graceful skill and attacking majesty. This current squad certainly does, and it could yet be enough to land them some silverware.