Arsene Wenger's Total Football Delivers Top Spot Despite Defensive Frailty
It is easy to admire the philosophy of Arsene Wenger; the Frenchman believes in a style which many coaches aspire to, but few are able to pull off. His team have grown in stature again this season and lead the standings earlier than they did last year, thanks to the inconsistent form of their immediate rivals.
Arsenal have, of course, been terribly inconsistent themselves, though at times the play the team has produced has brought the dreams of the Arsenal fans to life again, and hinted that maybe the club can finally get hold of some silverware again after a drought that has gone on for a few seasons now.
Several players have emerged in the past two seasons as the new generation finally starts to take a coherent shape, and some in particular have really caught the eye as Wenger persists with his ambition to play football the way he sees fit.
Francesc Fabregas has certainly been the star of the side, as his form has reached new levels of brilliance culminating in moments like his spectacular cameo against Aston Villa last season, when he was subbed on for 27 minutes scoring two goals, before coming off again with 10 minutes left thanks to injury and of course his assist for Iniesta's goal in the World Cup final.
The shadow of his ambition to play for the club where he learned his trade still looms though, Barcelona making no secret of the fact they would love to have the player they let go, back in the fold. The worry for Arsenal is that if they lose the young Spaniard, they may lose the cutting edge they need to really become serious title challengers again.
That cutting edge has come from another blade in several instances this season though, as a player who promised great things has started to live up to the words that preceded his arrival at the club.
Samir Nasri has burst onto the main stage like an operatic understudy finally given a chance to shine under the lights. He is a player heralded as the the new Zinedine Zidane, which immediately places enormous pressure on one so young.
This was perhaps seen in the moody manner in which his brilliance came out in the last few seasons, intermittent and patchy. It now seems he has become more comfortable in his gifts though, and the comfort has brought a new confidence that has seen Nasri silence many who criticized the young Frenchman.
Only a few rounds ago when Arsenal was sent packing with a footballing lesson from their more experienced neighbors at Stamford Bridge, many singled out Nasri's lack of a contribution as a reason that Arsenal seemed so toothless.
The reality of that game was that two moments of brilliance from two different Chelsea stars were enough to give the blue side the points.
That was then though, and now the freshest two moments of brilliance that come to mind when thinking of Arsenal are certainly the two splendid finishes provided by Nasri in the victory over Fulham that took Arsenal to the top spot.
So Arsenal sit at the summit, a place that was said to be well beyond them only weeks ago, and have gotten there by continuing to play a brand of football that is as close to total football as you get in the world today, a reliance on ball skill across the park, with chances being created by players all over the pitch and goals coming form a variety of sources.
The passing and possession they play with delivers them the points more often than not. Though at times it seems that the team's injury list has certainly hampered their ability to see off certain opponents: Robin Van Persie being absent for a long time and Thomas Vermaelen and Abou Diaby missing as well, not to mention the talismanic Fabregas and his struggles with injury this season.
Add to this the unpredictability of Manuel Almunia and inexperience of Lukas Fabianski and you have the ingredients that cause teams who are not fully constructed to fail while playing total football. The unavailability of Thomas Vermaelen has really hurt, as the center back positions have been the source of much of the frailty that stops the team from really delivering on its promise.
The key to any team's success is scoring more goals than the opposition, that much is obvious to anyone. Equally as important is the ability to stop the other side scoring before you do.
Can Arsenal maintain their Challenge?
Otherwise total football and its variants, can be a complete waste of time. This was seen in the defeats to West Brom, Newcastle and Spurs, as Arsenal gave in these matches as good as they got and better some would say, but were unable to pierce the oppositions defense when it mattered.
Particularly tormenting for Wenger would have been the spineless manner in which they rolled over with their throat bared to a Spurs side that looked dead and buried at halftime.
Harry Redknapp's introduction of Defoe seeming to be a masterstroke, when a more confident and able center back pairing could certainly have given a better account than was given by the Arsenal defense in that second half showing. The losses to West Brom and Newcastle certainly had something to do with poor defensive work as well, and after the resolute way in which Arsenal have been regarded in this area in the past, it is horrifying for elements of their fans to see the team look so defensively flighty.
Somewhat surprisingly though, they have delivered top spot, something other teams will say is down to the inconsistency of the rivals, when in actuality, it is the strange consistency of Arsenal that has put them in this position.
The team has conceded less goals and produced more points on the road, than they have at home, which is certainly not the norm, but hints that the side really has a solid belief in its ability, otherwise they could not go to opposition grounds and take the points.
Couple this with the fact that the only loss they have had on the road was to Chelsea, who defended their way to the win via two scintillating moments of class from Didier Drogba and Alex and you have a side that has been excellent on their travels and then let themselves down terribly at home, possibly by thinking the points were in the bag before the referee blew the whistle to start the match.
A mindset Wenger will be doing his utmost to eliminate if the side are to push on from their current position.
The football on offer has been excellent at times and it is a surely a testament to Wenger's footballing philosophy that the team is set up to play in such a manner. Excellent positional play and tactical awareness from the players linking with moments of splendid skill and flair to create a form of the game that is really only seen from the very best sides in world football.
It is always defense that a league title rests upon though, as the platform for success is invariably built upon the ability to keep clean sheets. Arsenal failed to do this again in the win over Fulham and the return of Vermaelen is something that must be at the forefront of Wenger's thoughts.
Johan Djourou was influential at the weekend though, with two excellent goal saving tackles, though some would say his positional play clearly led to one of the chances in the first place.
The question for Arsenal is whether they can present a wall at the back like the Arsenal teams of the past, or will they merely play beautiful football and blow away in the breeze like the dandelions they sometimes appear to be.
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