Arsenal produced a opening 20 minute spell against Sunderland that suggested a goal glut was in the offering. They took a 2-0 lead, and, but for a bad call from the linesman, would have been 3-0 up in no time. That they let the lead slip and were pegged back by Roy Keanes enthusiastic and determined players, who brilliantly clawed themselves back to 2-2 before letting Arsenal grab the expected win with a late van Persie strike, should be marked down as a positive for Sunderland, rather than a short coming for the Gunners. Arsenal, who racked up their 10th straight victory in all competitions, and are yet to be beaten, are playing a brand of football that sets them apart from the rest – and all this without one Thierry Henry, arguably Arsenals best ever player.
The flowing, attacking, almost care free style of Arsenals football is almost reminiscent of kids on the street, kids who know that they are better then most. Yet their free scoring approach should not be misunderstood as arrogance, but rather commended as expression, as they play in a way that any team in the world hopes to, entertaining, and fruitful – they are winning. They are playing the sort of football that would probably make Roman Abramovich wish he could buy at Chelsea, yet unlike their London rivals Arsenal didn’t buy this form, but rather had to sell.
Arsenal are long removed from the boring ,boring Arsenal of George Grahams tenure, where 1-0 to the Arsenal was the desired result, and have been over the last few seasons famed for their beautiful football style of play. A style that had at his apex Thierry Henry. The Frenchman was everything good about Arsenal, flair, panache, creativity, and beautiful goals. No doubt the young Gunners Arsene Wenger was bringing through learned a lot from their leader, both in a match and on the training ground. However there was often no end result to Arsenals attractive play, and the last two seasons saw them scrapping for 4th position, and the last Champions League place, rather then fighting for the title. So when, in the close season, Thierry Henry finally packed his bag and headed off to Barcelona, many were suggesting that Arsenals struggles had just begun. How foolish they must feel now. If anything, after a decade in English football, Arsene Wenger has proved that he is no fool. While many have seen their last two seasons as a struggle, Wenger would have seen it as a necessity. While the term “transition” has been branded about to describe a team struggling, often used as an excuse for their lack of results, the term was apt in the case of Wengers Arsenal. The last few seasons, after the unbeaten season, have been a transitional period for the Gunners, a period that has seen the finest group of youngsters introduced and embedded in a team since the introduction of Giggs, Beckham, Scholes and the Nevilles at Manchester United in the 1990’s. Cesc Fabregas, Arsenals heart and soul, leading from the midfield, and no doubt future captain, is 20 years old and has already made over 113 starts for Arsenal. Without those transitional years, first under Patrick Vieria and then Henry, Fabregas would just be a promising midfielder trying to make his way in the first team. Instead he is now, at the tender age of 20, one of the best midfielders in the world. He has already managed 4 league goals in 8 games this season, compare that to 7 in the last 3 years, and the development is clearly seen. He needed to add goals to his game if he was to become the midfield boss capable of leading this young team, and he has done that.
In Robin van Persie, Arsenal have a player with all the attributes to be better than Henry, provided he can stay clear of injury. He superb finisher and striker of the ball with both feet, deadly from dead balls, quick feet, the ability to beat players at will, and to link play or be the focal point, ven Persie is the real deal, and while Fabregas has rightly been claiming all the headlines this season, it is with van Persie that Arsenals titles aspirations, both domestically and in Europe, are pinned.
Sir Alex Ferguson commented shortly after Henry left, that he felt that Arsenal were a better team without Henry, while at the same time not diminishing the achievements or role of Henry, Arsenals record goal scorer, has had over the years, but rather suggesting that this team, this young Arsenal squad, needed more responsibility, and not a dependence on Henry. Without Henry they have flown, and risen above all expectation, and surprised many. Arsene Wenger, no doubt, has not been surprised, but rather pleased that his plan has blossomed and matured into the type of team that is leading the way in attractive football, a style that only Manchester United and Barcelona can join them in, and one that both Chelsea and Liverpool have failed to emulate.
Whether or not the young Gunners can sustain this form is not for the here or now to judge, but rather for us to sit back and enjoy.