When a team goes on a winning run, there are often underlying factors involved; a relatively easy run-in, a glut of matches at home, the rub of the green going the right way, or just scintillating, untouchable form. If one casts an observant eye over Arsenal’s nine wins in the last ten games, there have been two facets of their general play that have formed the bedrock of this run- work ethic off the ball and respect shown to the opposition.
The former of these two reasons is something that Arsenal teams over the past few years have been chided for not having. Pigeon-chested wood sprites who play silkily with the ball but amble about lackadaisically without it, who will revel in a nutmeg but not in a sliding tackle or battling header; these accusations have been hurtled at them from many-a newspaper. But this season’s squad have matched graft with glitter for large parts of the campaign. Players like Thomas Vermaelen, Mikel Arteta, Gervinho and Yossi Benayoun are well-known purveyors of the pressing game; forever in the faces of the opposition, junkies for the ball both when they have it and when they don’t.
Aaron Ramsey, for all the criticism he has received, is one of the most diligent runners in the Arsenal team. He forms a two-pronged axis with Robin van Persie when the Gunners don’t have the ball, often pressing the highest up the pitch while van Persie drops a tad deeper to start attacks. And lording it over these hard-working minions has been the grafter-in-chief over these past ten games- Tomas Rosicky. The nippy Czech has been all over the pitch every game; snarling and biting at enemy legs, hands and bodies until they relent and let go of the ball, going into (there’s no other word for it) picturesque sliding tackles to steal the ball like a long-haired magician.
Like a virus, team mindsets are contagious. This drop-forge technique of fighting for the ball has even translated to hitherto powder-puff players like Theo Walcott, who now tracks back dutifully to help out defensive wingman Bacary Sagna where he earlier would have stayed up front, pouting and demanding the ball. Ever since going 2-0 down against Tottenham many weeks ago, Arsenal seemed to have switched on a subliminal switch and taken the handbrake off. It’s been a hurricane of red-and-white bodies storming towards the ball rather than juice-sipping prima donnas who pose for the clickety-click of the cameras and don’t bother running.
And that brings us to the second of the aforementioned two reasons viz. applying this blueprint against all teams, be it big, small or Hull City. Another allegation often levelled at Arsene Wenger’s teams has been a physical level-drop when the match is against a relatively unglamorous team; Arsenal will be Muhammad Ali against big teams and Miss Marple against the underdogs. But that attitude has been refreshingly cast aside this season, and has been replaced by a universal desire to win and work hard irrespective of the jersey colour and table position of the opponents.
Against teams like Wolves and Aston Villa, Arsenal’s ferocity and frequency of pressing persisted; indeed, players like Ramsey and Benayoun could be seen running and pinning Wolves in their own half even after the home side had gone a man down. This same bloody-mindedness will be essential when Wigan visit the Emirates on Monday, simply because the Lancashire side follow a template that is not dissimilar to the current graft-and-respect model advocated by the Gunners.
In Wigan’s historical win over Man United in midweek, they hogged the ball like nobody’s business and hurried the reigning champions off the ball within seconds of their losing it. Martinez has their teams play possession football and kick-and-rush football in equal measure, and it will be a clash of similar ideologies where Arsenal cannot afford to be complacent. There was the merest hint of complacency against QPR and Mark Hughes’ team duly put them to task.
All signs from the Arsenal camp suggest that this mistake is unlikely to be repeated, with Tomas Rosicky spelling out the importance of maintaining focus on Monday, and throughout the remainder of the season.
“Wigan beat Manchester United on Wednesday, so that’s an indication that it will be a tough test for us,”
“We’ll have to be on top of our game to win, no doubt about it. Wigan have some very good players and a good young manager, so this will be a very tough match for us.
“People might not usually regard a match against Wigan as such a big one, but they are still battling relegation, so there is a lot at stake for both of us.
“We saw what can happen against a team fighting for its life when we played away at QPR, and we expect the same kind of performance from Wigan on Monday. We have to give 100 per cent to get the result.”
Hundred per cent and more. The words are there, and looking at Arsenal over the past two months, one expects action to follow.
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