The Verdict: Arsenal’s midfield armour gives them the edge on title rivals
IT is so often the case that key games between Premier League title challengers are won and lost in midfield, and in recent years Arsenal have come off overwhelmingly second-best in such battles.
It is a familiar tale of woe which has seen the Gunners labelled lightweight also-rans, lacking the stomach for the fight and the muscle to match the powerhouse forces of Chelsea and Manchester United.
On Monday night, after five successive defeats to London rivals Chelsea, the balance of power shifted – decisively and overwhelmingly.
A conclusive 3-1 win proved that Arsenal, while by no stretch of the imagination the finished article, now have the midfield punch to take on and beat their rivals at the top this season.
A glance at the goalscorers proves as much – one from Alex Song, expertly taken and his fifth of the campaign, one from skipper Cesc Fabregas, and a third from the marauding forward Theo Walcott.
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Arsenal’s middle five of Walcott, Fabregas, Jack Wilshere, Song and Samir Nasri ran the game, relegating Chelsea’s usual midfield generals Frank Lampard and Michael Essien to mere bystanders for a lethargic Chelsea.
This was Arsenal realising their full potential, perhaps for the first time this season, with the handbrake off as Arsene Wenger might put it.
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Wenger, pragmatic as ever, refused to be drawn into talk of the title, and that is a wise move. He was however, visibly elated at the bigger picture – namely, progress.
“We know to beat the big teams at home will have an important impact on this league,” said Wenger. “We are not bullied any more. That is for sure. Two years ago with the same players we were maybe battered by Chelsea.
“Last year we felt we were getting closer. This year, at United and Chelsea, we were more frustrated because we were more in the game and there was no real difference.
“It was a slow learning process that we got out of our system.
“We have to be at our best and continue to improve. I hope the victory [over Chelsea] will convince the team that we are moving in the right direction and we continue to improve.”
Progress is of course the key for Wenger, and in that respect it was little wonder he was purring on Monday night. Walcott, now playing with poise, penetration and increasingly an end product down the right wing, has improved immeasurably since his World Cup omission of last summer, and he gave Ashley Cole a torrid night.
Wilshere’s transition from exciting youngster to first-team regular accelerates by the week, alongside captain fantastic Fabregas, who appeared free of his hamstring trouble and played with his old familiar panache.
Song has added goalscoring to his improved distribution in front of the back four, while on the left wing, Samir Nasri is a player transformed this season, in many ways embodying his team’s improvement.
Then there is Andrey Arshavin, on the bench for this game but still a key figure, while Robin van Persie is the ideal foil for Arsenal’s midfield riches, capable of drifting into the middle to link up with his colleagues.
Arsenal’s superiority over one of their main rivals in the midfield department is clear, and it could yet prove a crucial factor.
None of which necessarily makes Arsenal championship material given the Gunners’ defensive frailties and inconsistency this season.
Whether this result does indeed reflect a turning point for Arsenal’s current generation of youngsters remains to be seen. That will not be decided until May, or possibly a month earlier, when Manchester United travel south to the Emirates.