Arsenal FC: What's Gone Right for the Gunners in '07-'08?
At this stage last season, Arsenal were well behind Premier League leaders Manchester United and could only look to their Cup runs for solace.
Although Arsenal came out victorious in their Premier League encounter with United in January last year, it served only to paper over some cracks which were cruelly exposed as Arsenal went out of all three cup competitions a mere month later and had only Champions League qualification left to fight for.
Fast forward one year and the Gunners are joint top of the league. And although their fate in the Cup competitions could still follow a path similar to last year's, their position in the Premiership—a trophy which Wenger considers above all—has talk of title wins reverberating around the red half of North London again.
So what's changed in one year? How have the Arsenal transformed from Champions League place-battlers to genuine Title-winning contenders?
Let's look at the players who have stepped up.
1. Emmanuel Adebayor
While one of his many strike partners, Eduardo Da Silva, has contributed heavily to Arsenal's progression in the Cup competitions, all 15 of Emmanuel Adebayor's goals this term have come in the Premier League.
Last year he was described as the most difficult attacker to defend against by no lesser defending authorities John Terry and Rio Ferdinand. However, his eight goal final tally for the season suggested he was far from the finished article.
This season he has used his greatest attributes more often and greatly to Arsenal's benefit, he can score goals from moments of individual brilliance. Like against Tottenham at White Heart Lane, for example, or at the end of a brilliant flowing move like in the reverse fixture at The Emirates. Just as importantly however, are the goals he scores with his head. These tend to come in matches where the opposition floods the centre of the park. In these games, Arsenal's full backs have started to get into good positions out wide to cross, and Adebayor's fantastic leap means he is lethal in these positions.
In turn, Arsenal have more variety in their play with Adebayor playing and a telling statistic shows how much belief his performances give to the team: In the 27 games in which Adebayor has scored, Arsenal have never lost.
2. Cesc Fabregas
Last season Thierry Henry said Cesc's decision to sign a new contract was just as important as his own. It was without doubt more important, with the mercurial Frenchman's departure to Barcelona in June. Thierry Henry's ability was matched by his personality—huge. He was Mr. Arsenal: captain, did all the press conferences, modeled the new kits and fronted the club's sponsorship deals.
When Thierry left, many have chipped in with assists and goals, that's obvious. However, the new Mr. Arsenal is Cesc Fabregas and his big personality is written all over this team, good and bad. The dislike of losing and refusal to be bullied was shown in the club's Champions League qualifier with Sparta Prague.
Thomas Repka had said in the papers he was going to 'sort out' Arsenal and looked to be doing just that going head to head with Alexander Hleb. Minutes later however, Repka had to leave the pitch, injured in a 50-50 tackle in which Fabregas left his boot in. The Spanish maestro even imitated the defender's limp off the pitch in response to some strong words from Repka. He also went on to score the first before Hleb added a vital second.
As the season continued, Fabregas scored for fun, something he certainly didn't do last season and showed a calmness and maturity in front of goal which paid dividends. Last year the skill was there for all to see but the steel was lacking. Arsenal appears to have both this season and that is in no small part due to Cesc Fabregas.
3. Alexander Hleb
Hleb showed glimpses of his capabilities in his first Arsenal season, although these performances were mainly in the club's run to the Champions League final, he formed an impressive partnership with Thierry Henry that year. 2006/2007 was set to be the year he finally exploded onto the Premiership.
However, this never materialized and he was more famed for giving the ball away, and giving away the foul that led to the goal that lead to Arsenal's elimination from the Champions League to PSV Eindhoven.
This season however, Alex has more than repaid Le Boss's faith in him. Awesome in possession, his quick feet have led to many looking past Fabregas and identifying Hleb as the main playmaker at Arsenal. Fabregas commented that he now knows when he gives Hleb the ball, he is going to get it back if he makes an advanced run. Their chemistry on the pitch is also helped by their close friendship off it.
Given the night off by Wenger on the evening of the Slavia Prague game away, Alex and Cesc traveled together to the Nou Camp to take in the Barcelona and Rangers game. It is a friendship which also includes Mathieu Flamini and the trio have formed an axis that's left a French international transferring to Portsmouth and Brazil's captain on the bench.
4. William Gallas
His elevation to club captain surprised many. After Thierry Henry departed to Spain, Gallas spoke publicly about not only wanting to fight for Champions League places but to challenge for titles as well as questioning the manager's transfer policy.
However, perhaps what many perceived as petulance, Wenger saw as a deep desire to win trophies. With two Premiership medals, Gallas has the most experience on the Arsenal team in how to win when you need to most. Gallas took to the role immediately, and he looks like he's been captain for years.
He can be seen giving instructions to players during the warm up and just before kickoff. His emotionless face in the tunnel means business and contrasts sharply with former captain Thierry Henry's laughing and joking. Much like Henry however, he leads by example, making vital blocks and goals—including a last gasp equalizer at home to Manchester United and the winner against his old club Chelsea.
And with Kolo Toure in Ghana for the African Nations cup, an interesting subplot might just be the partnership between himself and Philippe Senderos.
5. Matthieu Flamini
If not a dead certainty for Player of the Year, a shoe in for the Most Improved.
His contribution is one no one could have predicted. His energy, aggression, athleticism, and tackling won't have gone unnoticed by the statistic-mad Wenger as he covers on average 14 km a match. His passing isn't the greatest but when he is willing to chase down and win back his infrequent stray passes nobody will complain.
With Fabregas almost undroppable, Flamini form has kept Gilberto, Lassana Diarra, Denilson and Abou Diaby sitting comfortably watching from the bench as far as Premier League matches go. Arsenal fans are now desperate for the 24-year-old Frenchman to put pen to paper on a new deal as his current deal expires in the summer.
6. The Full Backs
One has been at Arsenal for close to five years, the other only five months. However, so effortless has Bacari Sanga's adjustment to the rigors of Premier League football been, it's difficult to tell which is which.
That's taking nothing away from Gael Clichy, with four assists in his last four games he is as useful going forward as he is defending. Most of the talk from Arsenal fans though has been about Bacari Sanga, and not just because of his distinctive hair. His tackling, crossing, pace, and commitment to the club that have been seen in abundance only halfway into his first season is making fans take notice.
Both full backs contributions however, have made up for the lack of genuine wide midfield players in the Arsenal team. With Tomas Rosicky and Alex Hleb both being central players, they'll always have a tendency to come infield into central positions, narrowing Arsenal's shape. Clichy and Sanga widen Arsenal by getting into good positions utilizing their pace, and putting in good balls both along the ground and in the air for Arsenal's forwards to attack.
Sangas continued progression and Clichy's consistency will no doubt be key to Arsenal's title hopes as the season progresses.
7. Manuel Almunia
Definitely worth a mention, Manuel's other extended run in the team ended after a nervy display in a 4-2 home defeat to Manchester United in the 2004/2005 season. Since then, the Spanish goalkeeper's role has been domestic cup goalkeeper and deputy to Jens Lehmann. Since becoming number one at the Emirates, his finest game is regarded as being the 1-0 home win over Chelsea.
Always a good shot-stopper, Manuel has dramatically improved his reading of the game and decision making. His natural tendency to try and hold onto the ball instead of punching or parrying gives confidence to his defenders. They can also relax knowing their goalkeeper isn't about to explode at any minute—unlike his rival, Jens Lehmann who got booked eight times last season.
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