In the aftermath of Arsenal's 1-1 draw with Fulham on Saturday, I experienced a fairly unusual conflict of emotions. While on the one hand I was pleased that I pretty much nailed my prediction for the game, the overwhelming sensation was one of frustration and disappointment at two points dropped against a comparatively weak opponent.
But then, as the dust settled and I reflected on Arsenal's performance, my smile returned. As a team, we may have been fairly listless for the first 70 minutes. But, in spite of that, there was plenty shown by the group collectively, and by certain players individually, that fills me with hope for the remainder of the season.
Those who have read any of my earlier writings will know that I am a massive Wojciech Szczesny fan. Although he was barely tested by a defensive Fulham side, and made only one save of note in the entire game, it was that save which highlights just why he is so special.
Off a Moussa Dembele strike, Wojciech made a very smart save at his near post. It wasn't spectacular, but it was a save that the Almunias and Fabianskis of this world might not have made, having been largely idle for 40 minutes. That's what separates a good keeper from a great one. The great ones sit around doing nothing for 89 minutes but remain alert, focused and agile for that one moment in the game when they are called into action.
Wojciech Szczesny remains the real deal.
The Return of the Verminator
Yes, Thomas Vermaelen scored a somewhat inexplicable and avoidable own goal.
Other than that, however, he barely put a foot wrong, demonstrating just what Arsenal have been missing over the past season and a half. It's not as if our other defenders aren't up to the mark. Far from it. They're all current or former internationals.
It's just that the Verminator has that little bit extra. The drive and the determination to reach every ball first. The intelligence to be in the right place at the right time. The physical prowess to out-jump a taller opponent. The courage to stick his head where it may hurt. The ambition to make a 60-yard run even though there's only a five percent chance that it may be worth it.
He received the headlines for his goals but, for me, his presence in the red and white gives me a sense of calm confidence.
Make no mistake—the Verminator is back.
The Turnaround in the Last Twenty
First of all, let's get one thing straight. I've read a number of quotes in the past two days from both players and experts saying that, in a similar scenario last season, Arsenal wouldn't have been able to come back from being a goal down.
That's a load of rubbish.
I can think of a few games off the top of my head where we did exactly that. Liverpool away, along with Birmingham and Leeds United at home, to name just three. Games where we were down, but were able to lift our intensity and draw or win.
That being said, what did impress me against Fulham was not just that we were able to up the ante by several notches, but the fact that we appeared to have a "Plan B." This is something that Arsenal have not displayed in a long time. When teams parked the bus, we were unable to get at them.
On Saturday, though, it was different. Passing our way into the box will always be a strength of any Arsene Wenger team at Arsenal. However, against Fulham, we displayed at least two other modes of attack. First was via the wizardry of Gervinho, who is always able to dribble his way into an extra yard of space in and around the box. The second mode of attack was aerially, especially with taller men like Chamakh, Diaby and Vermaelen on the pitch.
In fact, if Arsenal run into Barcelona in the Champions League, it is this latter weapon that we must exploit. Do unto Barcelona what Stoke did unto Arsenal. Hit them with something they're not used to handling and not equipped to deal with.
Andre Santos Comes of Age
I've looked at a few "man of the match" reports after the Fulham game, and I am quite astounded that Andre Santos hasn't got the recognition that his performance deserves.
He received only six percent of the votes in the poll on arsenal.com. The results of such polls must be taken with a grain of salt, but sometimes they leave me gobsmacked. For example, Andrey Arshavin received three percent of the votes. That's more than both Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta. Are you kidding me? Be biased if you like, but that's just daft.
Anyway, rant over. Back to Santos, who had his best game in an Arsenal shirt. I mentioned a few weeks ago that the Santos solution was not to move him to midfield but to teach him to defend, and it seems like Pat Rice was listening.
The Brazilian was quite superb, in my opinion. Offensively he is always a threat, but he was fantastic at the business end of the pitch, too. Not only was he rarely caught out of position, but he was strong and sure in the tackle and, somewhat like Vermaelen, seemed driven to reach the ball before his opponent. I was filled with hope watching his performance, and my smile widened with every touch he made.
In the second half particularly, when Arsenal were on the front foot, he found the balance between defense and attack quite superbly, and I can't remember a single moment when he was found badly wanting.
Kieran Gibbs is going to struggle to get back into the team based on this display by Santos.
Three points would have been the icing on the cake. That said, there's a long way to go until the medals are handed out, and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if this Arsenal team strikes gold.