It’s become a footballing cliché to do an Arsenal: to promise so much but to inexplicably throw it away. That might happen again this season but if it does, it’s sure to be a boring thud rather than a Crash, Bang, Wallop! back to the ground. And that’s because of the dealings Arsène Wenger made in the summer. They may have been atypically Wenger; late in the window, experienced and in quick succession – panic buys if you will – but by signing proven talent, Wenger knew what he was bringing in. When one of those players scored in their last match, Yossi Benayoun in the 2-1 win over Aston Villa, the joy of the players spoke more than just the importance of the goal or the improbability of it (he’s scored a crucial header against Real Madrid for Liverpool too); it symbolised their new-found spirit driving their quest for glory. “There is a new team spirit at the club,” Laurent Koscielny said. “We are all fighting for each other, we are all united.”
Robin van Persie has spoken of the support the signings have given him after a difficult start (Per Mertesacker might be considered his “consigliere”) and indeed, Wenger may have been pressed to act after he realised the enormity of the task facing his new captain. Van Persie has led by example on and off the field. He organises weekly team dinners and afternoons together and his team-mates openly appreciate the extra time spent with each other. On the field, van Persie’s goals continue to keep the side alive. Arrigo Sacchi names van Persie as the most “complete striker” and his 16 goals is nearly half the total Arsenal have amassed in the league this season and in the past year, he has hit the net 34 times. The reliance is staggering and it has led some to ask whether Arsenal are a one-man team.
That’s probably a bit harsh because all teams consist of vital cogs which make the whole system function effectively although some more important than others. Mikel Arteta has, until recently been relatively understated, giving Arsenal a control between defence and attack which they have lacked since Gilberto Silva’s departure while the defence looks infinitely more solid now. And Alex Song’s importance continues to be felt most when he’s out of the team.
Wenger admits there is a reliance on van Persie “because he scores many goals” but the statement is not frank as it may first seem. He feels his team do a lot of good approach play but at the moment, the outlet is singular – usually Robin van Persie. However, The Gunners do have someone to call on with capability to give Arsenal’s play a plurality in Yossi Benayoun; a fleet-footed schemer with an art deco finish but Wenger’s adamant his three striker tactic can be deadly and as such, Benayoun misses out. (Given the right creativity – another reason why Benayoun must play more often – and penchant to keep the ball).
On the other hand, Robin van Persie has adapted so fantastically to the striker role that it’s hard to break a working formula. His game is no longer just about scoring glorious goals but making scoring look easy. Either side of him, the two wide forwards have relinquished the spotlight to their captain, setting up 9 of his 20 goals in all competitions. “The two wingers are creating waves while Van Persie dances and plays in the splashes that they make,” says David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Footballto SI.com. If goalscoring is singular, at least Arsenal have improved on last season as creative duties are more spread; Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Gervinho and Alex Song all have four or more assists. Although, so too does van Persie himself.
Arsenal’s reliance on van Persie is nothing new. To a certain extent, all teams lean towards one or two individuals and it’s fair to say, some successful teams wouldn’t enjoy anywhere the same level of achievement without that one SPECIAL player. Even Brazil’s great sides in the late 50’s to early 70’s may have owed a lot of their success to Pele (although Garrincha proved just as deadly). It’s evident Barcelona would not be the same side without Lionel Messi although he surrounds himself with a stellar supporting cast. Yet there is a feeling, take him out, and they would be just like the Spanish national team; brilliantly gifted but the ultimate procrastinators. France’s 1982-84 team took a novel approach with one of their best individuals, shifting Michel Platini around to suit the match rather than the team. It worked to great effect as Platini scored 9 goals in the 1984 European Championships. The idea of a one-man team may have been a realistic notion in the past but in the modern game, teams are more geared to the collective and as such, harder to ascertain. Robin van Persie would be quick to point out the hard work of his team-mates and that, it seems, is the real secret to Arsenal’s turnaround this season.