Arsenal played Napoli yesterday in a vital Champions League match. It was important because they were drawn into the group of death in the most prestigious club tournament in the world, so of course any points they could pick up at home against last year's Italian runners-up would help them advance to the knockout round. But the match outcome also had a very real domestic implication.
The Premier League doesn't deal in chaos. It doesn't deal in miracles or fairy tales. It doesn't deal in parity. England's top league is an exhibition of the power of money, of what happens when the haves take on the have-nots. And yet six weeks into the season, the standings look to be nothing more than junk and rot.
In their first season after the departure of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson, reigning champions Manchester United have lost three of six, and now sit three points clear of the relegation zone. Top flight sophomores Southampton have scored just five goals in six matches and yet are level on points with fifth-place Chelsea, who were everyone's pick to hoist the trophy at season's end when they brought genius manager José Mourinho in for a second run at Stamford Bridge. Just behind the Saints are Manchester City, who lost to Aston Villa last weekend after smashing United 4-1 last week, and losing 3-2 to newly-promoted Cardiff City earlier this year. Liverpool are in second. Everton haven't lost.
And above it all, two points clear, are Arsenal. The Gunners finished fourth by a single point last year over rivals Tottenham, and were expected to parlay their hard-fought Champions League qualification and newfound riches into a slew of expensive, world-class players. Going into the first match of the season, though, they'd signed... a 20-year-old project forward with a nasty injury history. And in that first match, they got blown up by a wholly inferior Aston Villa side.
They looked fucked. They were fucked, right? Definitely fucked. Fans called for manager Arsène Wenger's job, for the board members' heads. The squad had seemingly regressed, when everyone around them had worked all summer to improve. Marred by injury, one of the richest clubs in the world were reduced to filling out their brittle bench with children.
But the Gunners recovered to beat Fulham in the Premier League, and Turkish side Fenerbahçe over two legs to make the Champions League group stage. To celebrate, they signed ex-Arsenal defensive midfielder Mathieu Flamini on a free transfer. Two days after signing Flamini, Arsenal slipped by Tottenham, 1-0. The next day, with hours left to spare in the transfer window, the Gunners bought Mesut Özil, arguably the best attacking midfielder in the world.
With their new superstar pulling the strings, they won, again and again and again and again and again. As their streak grew, the calls to sack Wenger quieted. (They were all but silenced when Özil said it was Wenger alone who convinced him to sign.) Headed into yesterday's match, Arsenal had won nine straight in all competitions since the debacle on opening day. They currently look like one of the best clubs in the world, which is why Arsenal's faithful and doubters both wanted to see how they would do against a Napoli side unbeaten since selling their best player, Edinson Cavani, to Paris Saint-Germain over the summer.
Because even with the great start, there were caveats. The main one? Arsenal hadn't played anyone yet. Spurs sit second in the league, but when the two played, the legion of players Tottenham bought with the Gareth Bale money were still coming together. Arsenal so far have dodged United, City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Everton, and mighty Southampton.
Napoli were the first real test of Arsenal's ability. There was something poetic about the matchup against the Italians. Though the two have little actual shared history, they were seen as qualitative equals. Napoli were also the main benefactors of Arsenal's failures for most of the transfer window. When they missed out on star Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuaín, Napoli swooped in and bought him to replace Cavani. And in Arsenal's preseason tournament, the Emirates Cup, Napoli wiped the floor with the London side before both teams swapped out their starters and the Gunners salvaged a late draw. In all, the match looked like a good chance to see whether Arsenal were actually all that good, or merely the same sad posers they've been for the better part of the decade. And, well... the Gunners fucked them up.
After 15 minutes, Arsenal were cruising 2-0 following goals from Özil and striker Olivier Giroud. Napoli were never close. Everyone who'd asked if Arsenal were contenders for trophies suddenly had their answer—an answer so emphatic, so unbelievable, that the question, "Can they keep this up?" wasn't even asked.
The thing of it is, the Gunners might actually be the shit. There's Özil, of course, who many called Real Madrid's best player behind cheatcode Cristiano Ronaldo, and who might be the best player in England right now. There's also Flamini, who finally returned to Arsenal as cover, but is giving them the tenacious defensive organizer they've lacked in the middle of the park. What's most shocking about Arsenal, though, is that on paper, they still have the holes fans were screaming for them to fill just weeks ago. What no one counted on was the dramatic improvement of returning players, which when combined with the addition of Özil and Flamini changed the very way Arsenal play.
Arsenal are still thin, and early injuries to Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxelade-Chamberlain left the Gunners bereft of a left winger in their favored 4-3-3 formation. So Wenger did without one. For all their deficiencies, Arsenal do not have a shortage of creative midfielders, and for much of the season, the manager has played central midfielder Jack Wilshere on the left, while leaving speedy winger Theo Walcott on the right to stretch the defense in a lopsided 4-2-3-1. He's more prone to track players up and down the flank, which helps shore up the defense, but when Arsenal have the ball, Wilshere slides toward the middle. When left back Kieran Gibbs pushes up the flank, Arsenal almost resembles a 3-6-1, with players swarming and choking the midfield. They simply outnumber teams, and have enough quality in their side to play the tight, intricate style they were known for over a decade ago. Then, however, Arsenal had Ashley Cole to schlep up and down the sideline. He was—is—one of the best left backs of his generation, and had the pace, wherewithal, and talent to serve as an option in the attack and solidify the left side in defense. Arsenal have searched for a left back the last three seasons who could fill this role. Turns out, he was in the side all along. Gibbs looks almost unbeatable defensively, and also gets forward when he can.
Next is the emergence of Giroud. After a decent first season with the club last year, many thought him no better than a high-end reserve for a squad of Arsenal's ambition. Wenger searched for a superstar signing this summer—Wayne Rooney, Luis Suárez, Higuaín—a genius who could spearhead the frontline, score and create at will. But none came. So the Gunners rolled with the big Frenchman.
There are much better, more complete strikers to be had, like Liverpool's Suárez, who create chances for themselves and others. But with Özil playing in behind, that's almost redundant. A poacher who can hold up play would be just as effective. That's what Giroud is. What's underrated about him is that he has the willingness and ability to drop off or float wide, to play and combine with supporting players. It increases the fluidity in the attacking third, which makes it difficult to track players. His presence is one of the reasons why Özil is such a devastating player going forward. Outside of his ridiculous technical ability, Özil's main strength is his movement without the ball. He's a genius. Özil often drifts to either wing to receive the ball, which pulls players and creates holes through the midfield. Often, Wilshere will switch inside, where he's more comfortable. When Özil drifts to the right, Walcott, when healthy, pushes higher up the pitch and inside, closer to Giroud. It's difficult to track these players switching positions, creating channels with their movement. And it also leaves more room for Aaron Ramsey.
Ramsey is the reason for much of the Gunners success, and also the reason it still feels a little surreal. Ramsey was tipped to be Arsenal's next great central midfielder until two and a half years ago, when a defender broke his lower leg in half. He didn't looked recovered until the latter half of last season. This summer, we heard rumblings from Asia that Ramsey supposedly looked like the Gunners' best player. But no one expected him to perform as well any other midfielder in Europe.
Ramsey is the glue. He does everything, fills all the gaps. He lines up behind Özil along with Flamini, but plays from box to box. He's made more tackles than anyone in the Premier League, which helps Arsenal dominate possession, and affords Özil the latitude to chill a little bit. He's second in the league in scoring, behind Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge. He's completed more passes than all but two players in the Premier League. Theo Walcott is out injured, and so yesterday, Wenger played Ramsey out on the right against Napoli. The Welshman took just eight minutes to affect the game, getting behind the defense to assist Özil's first goal as a Gunner. Overall, yesterday was probably his best performance of a season already filled with ridiculous performances, which is why everyone is asking if he can sustain his current form throughout the season. It doesn't seem possible; but he doesn't have to.
With players like Özil, Gibbs, Ramsey, Flamini, and Giroud performing at their current level, Arsenal are a threat to win any competition they're in. Of course, with the ease with which they dispatched Napoli, pragmatists are looking to the next test of their ability. That starts October 22, when Arsenal will play Chelsea, Liverpool, United, Southampton, Marseille and Borussia Dortmund (twice) during a disgusting eight-match, monthlong span. That's likely when we'll see Arsenal struggle for the first time, and that's when we'll have a clearer picture of who they are.
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