In the 2-0 win away at Anfield almost a fortnight back, Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski scored their first goals for Arsenal. Important for them, important for us. The two goals represent our only goals post-Robin van Persie, period. In other words, we broke some ducks and flung some annoying monkeys off our backs.
So, we’ve put the dubious record of longest scoreless start to a season to bed. Now we can focus instead on the far better record–match minutes without conceding a goal. So far, three games and counting. Arsenal is the only team in the top four divisions of English soccer to have yet to concede a goal.
After the away trip to Liverpool came two weeks of international break for some World Cup qualifiers. As usual, it kind of killed the mood and players came back injured.
This time last year, we welcomed the international break. On the heels of the 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford, it came at just the right moment for licking wounds. Comparatively, this particular go-round had less to recommend it. We went into the international break having a one match “winning streak.” It was not a run. Nor did it stop a slide of calamitously bad form. It was simply what it was and mostly just got in the way. Fans had to find new, potentially worthwhile activities on Saturday and Sunday. These things happen.
To remind, then, where we left off two weeks’ back, we’ve picked up 5 points in three matches and we have an eminently winnable match at home against Southampton. At Anfield, Podolski and Cazorla notched a goal and an assist apiece (reciprocal assists to one another). Olivier Giroud came close and still looks just one small opportunity away from joining them in the Goals Scored column. It should be noted that Giroud’s movement, pulling Skrtel off Cazorla, factored largely in the first goal against Liverpool. Giroud didn’t score, but he helped it happen. He enabled Cazorla the space to deliver the ball back to Podolski for the match winner.
The defense has undergone a sea change from a year ago. New assistant coach Steve Bould seems to be having a huge effect. Perhaps the players are channeling the defensive nous of his player days. Perhaps a full year together has made everything click. Perhaps the back 4 had it in them all along. Whatever it is, it’s working. Long may it continue. Considering Sagna’s still out, Mannone filled in for Szczesny for the past two matches and Koscielny has yet to start a game this season, it’s pretty impressive.
After the match, people heaped praise on the defense, quite legitimately. The midfield also received a fair amount of plaudits, similarly legitimately. Abou Diaby had perhaps his best match in an Arsenal shirt, integral both defensively and offensively. Mikel Arteta covered whenever Diaby went forward and otherwise stifled the forward action of the Liverpool offense. The clean sheets have as much to do with Arteta’s immaculate defensive work as anyone in the back four. And Cazorla pulled off the string pulling in midfield we’ve lacked since Cesc’s last outing with us. He scored, threaded balls through the opposition and generally ran the pitch from side to side, back to front. He was fantastic. Giroud chose a good season to come to Arsenal. Cazorla will give him the chances he needs to get to scoring.
For the first time, watching Arsenal’s defense doesn’t terrify. Last season and in seasons past, one felt Arsenal could and would concede at any moment. So far this season, that feeling has retreated somewhat. Three matches is too soon to declare a defense unassailable, but for something that used to be our weakest area to now be an area of strength? This is good.
Tomorrow, Southampton at the Emirates. With a home match against a recently promoted side, one normally expects nothing less than three points. However, considering we dropped points to all the promoted teams last season, perhaps we need to rethink our approach. For several seasons we’ve sloppily dropped points against bottom table teams and eventually relegated teams, which speaks to a mental weakness against lower-rated teams that essentially equates to “show up, clock in, collect.” The team has to do something in between clock in and collect. No points are gimmes, and trite as it may sound, there are no easy matches in the Premier League.
On top of which, Southampton doesn’t seem like a pushover. They have had a hellish draw to begin the season, but they came very close to beating both Manchester clubs. In their place would we have done as well? Far from certain. Against Wigan they failed to perform, so hopefully we’ll see that team instead of the one that took the lead over both of the Manchester monsters.
Speaking of Manchester United, in the match televised directly following the Liverpool-Arsenal matchup on that day so very long ago, United looked at risk of losing to Southampton until van Persie put it into turbo and racked up a classic hat trick. RvP ‘s goals looked inevitable, with him picking up exactly where he left off last season. Antonio Valencia delivered a great across-goal cross that he slammed in. For the second, a quick-reflex poacher goal. Then the header for the hat trick.
It seemed totally natural to see him kicking ass and in fine fettle. And then the camera panned back to show the United jersey against a sea of United fans. Much less cool. And now, the Dutch return him injured, just as they did time and time again with us. I never cheer an injury to a player, and I don’t intend to do so now. I feel bad for Robin, but half the time he joins the Dutch national team, he returns carrying some new injury. He should really stop joining the national team.
As for injury news involving an actual current player, France selected Diaby on the strength of his fantastic display at Anfield and he returns to us injured, though it’s reported to be minor and short-term. (Aren’t they always, though?) One imagines this will give Francis Coquelin his first start of the season and move Arteta further forward. Wenger wouldn’t have taken it for granted that Diaby would stay fit until Jack Wilshere’s mythical return, so Saturday’s selection will reveal who he’s had in mind since the decision to sell but not replace Alex Song.
As a small subplot to the proceedings, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott face their former club. Theo missed the England versus Ukraine qualifier due to a virus, so his fitness is uncertain, but Oxlade-Chamberlain would likely get at least a substitute appearance, if not a starting berth. It’ll be interesting to see how the Southampton away support take to their former academy prodigies. The Guardian had a great article on the current Southampton academy today, incidentally.
Here’s to three points and a clean sheet tomorrow. And a goal for the front Frenchman. It can’t be fun getting likened to Chamakh all the time. Let’s let the man return back to his former club with at least one goal under his belt. (Arsenal travels to Montpellier for the Champions League on Tuesday, before a trip to the Etihad against Manchester City in the domestic league a week from Sunday. We’ve got an important stretch ahead.)