Disclaimer: It's been awhile since I last wrote and I apologize; life struck and is so very rarely convenient! Thanks in advance for reading!
As much as I hate to say it, the Gunners were sucker-punched by a desperate parting shot from Olympiacos Piraeus. Fighting to stay alive in the Champions League, the perennial Greek champions took Arsenal to task and came out of a match that oft resembled a brawl. I feel it is best described by a text I received from a friend:
"...are they trying to play soccer or kill each other?" (she's American, give her a break).
I couldn't rightly answer that question, but Olympiacos and 19 sides in the English Premier League (well... 17, seeing as the Manchesters are likely sulking from their UCL ousters) got the last laugh in what was a throwaway game for the Gunners. Arsenal lost two players to injury; Łukasz Fabiański suffered a gashed knee and André Santos fell to a bad ankle injury.
The loss of our number two keeper and a starter certainly place us in a bit of a bind as the injuries to the defense pile up, and I'll admit that it is no light matter, but I hardly see it as the doom of our season.
My sentiments, however, do not match those of many others as Sagna, Jenkinson, Gibbs and Santos make up our first and second choices at right and left back. I find it a bit concerning, but wow, have the critics erupted from their deep, dark holes once more.
The familiar tune of injuries suddenly rears its ugly head and the naysayers are once again decrying the imminent doom of our beloved Gunners. We had enjoyed a nice spell of about a month where the "mute" button was in full effect, as a string of victories across all competitions brought the Gunners back to the top third of the table and saw them take top spot in their Champions League group.
In 10 days, they have leapt upon a draw to Fulham and losses to Manchester City (Carling Cup) and Olympiacos (Champions League) and now the injuries. Seriously? You guys were screaming about the start of the season, and now Arsenal are in the top quarter of the table. You dished it, we took it and now look who's right?
Arsenal is back, and here's why:
Poor Barometrics From Losses.
Using the Carling Cup loss to Manchester City as a point of fact is about as safe as using the threat of being attacked by a goldfish to determine whether you should dive in chum-filled waters off of Dyer Island (greatest concentration of great white sharks in the world). It was neither a full-strength Arsenal side, nor was it a full-strength City team, but it took one of their starters to beat the mostly second-string Gunners.
By that same token, using the loss to Olympiacos is also a poor measuring stick. The Greek champions had everything to play for and Arsenal nothing. As a result, the side was also largely substitutes and reserves. It was unfortunate that a starter made it onto the pitch only to find himself injured, but that wasn't the top-rate club we've seen over the last two months.
The Fulham draw initially seems a bit of a downer, but is it really? The Cottagers are entrenched in the middle of the table, but can claim a draw against Manchester City, a thorough beat-down of QPR and a victory against Liverpool amongst their other accomplishments this season, no small feat. This is the EPL, where anything can happen.
I'll be the first to say that when Bacary Sagna went down against Spurs, I facepalmed. I then cringed as first Gibbs and then Jenksinson were lost, but Arsenal did a good job of shuffling the line.
When Fabiański and Santos went down on Tuesday, I just shook my head and thought, "what the heck!?" The resulting display of incompetence from Mannone, Djourou and Squillaci left me speechless, but when I thought about it a little harder; Arsenal has the pieces to weather the storm for a few more weeks until Gibbs and Jenkinson make it back.
Both have left something to be desired, but they also weren't playing with as solid a core as we have shown over the last month or so. Outside of Vermaelen, Santos, Mertesacker and Koscielny, however, one youngster has continued his development and has shown his quality time and again: Ignasi Miquel. With the right players (i.e. senior players like Vermaelen) to assist him, I believe that he and a lagging (but capable) Djourou will plug the hole left by Santos' injury.
Adaptation and Growth.
The Gunners weathered a tremendous storm to start this year's campaign and found what worked...and what didn't. The newcomers have largely found their niche, and have made valuable contributions while the rest of the team grows accustomed to them. It hasn't all been positive, but it's been a complete reversal of course from an 8-2 trip to the woodshed at Old Trafford.
The emergence of Mikel Arteta as a box-to-box midfielder for Arsenal has enabled Aaron Ramsey to rediscover some of his creativity. Together, this combination has provided some absolutely classic moments that remind us how devastating the Arsenal way of playing can be. Arteta has shown himself to be a midfield maestro and reduced fellow arrival Yossi Benayoun to bit-parts with his excellence.
Gervinho is terrifying (a bit of an exaggeration, but not much) teams and troubling their fullbacks, as his speed and aggressiveness to challenge them directly forces them to pay attention to him. If he can ever regain his shooting touch... well, you get the idea.
On the other wing, Theo Walcott has accepted the challenge of delightfully impressive Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and has shown his own amazing pace and shooting skills while tremendously improving his passing play. Consistency is the name of the game and if Theo can continue to impress as he has been, especially of late, he may get the nod to play some in the striker role in the future.
Alex Song, were it not for Arteta and RvP, might be this season's most valuable player, contributing on all sides of the ball and giving the Gunners an imposing presence in the middle of the pitch. His more frequent forays forward are usually well-timed, and it's rare that he cannot recover to defend as is his more typical and majority role.
Robin van Persie... I don't need to say anything about him. Nor must I add anything to how critical Vermaelen's return has been to Arsenal. With many of his performances this year, you can only imagine how the final stretch of last season might have gone with the Belgian to bolster the back line.
Of their upcoming six games, how many will Arsenal win?
My biggest surprise, however, has been Laurent Koscielny. I cannot overstate how impressed I am with his growth from last year. At times, I felt that he was the weakest link in the defense last year but he stormed into the 2011 season with a purpose and has amazed with his improved decision making, his tireless engine, loads of pace and hunger. If only Johann Djourou had continue his growth in such a manner.
Confidence and Maturity.
More than any other factor (and perhaps a bit of all of the others), the Gunners are playing with assurance once more. The free transfer of Clichy and the departures of Nasri and Fabregas late in the transfer window left the Gunners visibly shaken as they floundered to start the campaign, losing two players to suspensions on immature and stupid actions at Newcastle.
They would then lose to Liverpool, get smashed by United, struggle past newly-promoted Swansea and then finally crash and burn against Rovers. Then the Gunners did something that everyone said was impossible: they resurrected themselves.
Aside from a loss to in-form rival Tottenham, the Gunners have surged through the Premiership, netting seven victories and a draw in their eight other matches and their swagger is back.
It hasn't been all peaches, buttercups and sunshine, but the good far outweighs the bad and Arsenal find themselves in fifth place on the table and only two points behind Chelsea (to whom the Gunners dealt a terrific blow in a 5-3 victory at Stamford Bridge). Confidence is the key and right now, few teams have as much as Arsene's Red Army.
Together, these factors all lead to a promising winter spell for the Gunners and not one to be approached with trepidation.
I am never one to take any game for granted, but I feel that Arsenal has the quality, form and confidence to emerge from these next six games in 24 days with not only their hopes intact, but maybe also a game that sees them knock a certain team from Manchester down a peg (Hey, it's football and crazier things have happened!)
Gooner for life!